Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Christian Awakening on the Road to Damascus

by Dr. David Pence 

President Obama’s decision to seek a congressional resolution to authorize a national military response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a credit to his character and a tribute to our deliberative institutions. This is a time for statesmen not to poll the “people,“ but to put up a map and defend or oppose this action in terms of America’s role amidst the nations.  Such debate is why men have tongues and Americans have a Senate.


The conflict in Syria is complex but it is not bewildering. In this debate, men must talk in terms of maps, timelines, and the communal loyalties of religious groups and nation states. We must also talk in terms of our own communal loyalties as Americans. Some will insist foreign policy must be prudentially limited to a defense of “national interest.” Others will assert a national purpose within God’s Providence for mankind; and others will define our policy in terms of an ally’s needs or the “American values“ of modern ideologies.

Despite these very different visions of American identity and foreign policy, all of us benefit from a realistic assessment of the many converging actors on the Syrian battlefield. There are two particular loyalty patterns that all of us must consider in our national deliberation. The first pattern is the emerging religious bond of a generation of young Muslim men often alienated from their homelands who are forging an "extra-territorial identity" as fellow reformers in a fighting Islam. (They call to mind the 19th-century generation of emancipated Jewish men who hammered out their new communal identities in the "fighting faiths" of Zionism in Palestine, and of Marxism throughout Europe and Russia.)

These Muslim men form the worldwide religious purification movement in Sunni Islam associated with Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabi tradition, the “jihadists” and a host of variants that see the revitalization of Islamic communal forms as obedience to the will of God in the lands of Islam. Their fathers fought British colonialists, Hindu nationalists, and Soviet communists in the last century; and now the sons depict the United States and Israel as their greatest enemies outside the Muslim fold.  These Sunni purification movements often treat the very notion of a nation state as a Jewish-Crusader imposition of an illegitimate political form on the deeper Islamic communal bond of the caliphate.

For all their hatred and attacks against the “enemy without,” this purification movement is as adamant against the “enemy within."  They include the post-WWII secular nationalist leaders who from Turkey to Egypt to Iraq and Syria created modern police and military states that opposed attempts to return to Islamic patterns of law and governance. These secular governments often employed the minority Christians in high positions of bureaucratic authority.  The heroes of Arab and Turkish nationalism (Nasser and Ataturk) were enemies of the Sunni purification movement.  A Sunni enemy within today is the Hashemite King of Jordan, who sees the protection of Christian communities as an obligation of Muslims.

The other “enemy within” for the Sunni purists are the Shiite Muslims. That split in Islam between Sunni and Shiite is a thousand years old, with the Sunni comprising 85 percent of a billion worldwide Muslims, and 2/3 of Muslims in the Mideast. Almost all Muslim countries are Sunni, and most of them by overwhelming majorities.  There are Shiite majorities in Iran, Iraq, and Azerbaijan.  The Shiites of Lebanon make up about a third of the population. The Lebanese Shiites are the population bases for Hezbollah—another ally of President Assad along with Iran.  The Al Qaeda prolongation of the war in Iraq was as much about a violent multi-country Sunni opposition to the majority Shiites ruling their own country, as it was a fight against American crusaders. The conflict in Syria is set on this same religious fault line.  President Assad and his Alawite clan are identified with the Shiites ruling a nation mostly of Sunnis, as well as ten percent Christians.  If the United States degrades the forces of President Assad, we are entering the Sunni/Shiite “war within” Islam and we are entering on the side of the Sunnis.  Turkey and Saudi Arabia were two Arab countries that supported the US attacking the Assad government at the September 2013 G-20 conference in Saint Petersburg.  They are both dominant Sunni powers. Saudi Arabia is the home of 15 of 19 of the hijackers, and the birthplace of the Sunni purification movement.  No country in the world is so stringent in its denial of Christian worship. There are never burnings and Sunday pillaging of Christian worship in Saudi Arabia, because no public or private Christian services are allowed!  All serious deliberations must address this basic strategic reality. In the Sunni/Shiite “war within,” shall we side with the Sunnis?


The second loyalty pattern we must address is Christianity in the Islamic blood-lands and in post-atheist Russia. The Orthodox bishops of Syria have made it clear they oppose the US “degrading” the Syrian government’s ability to govern. For part of that governance is protecting Syrian Christians from “the people,” whose real grievances against the rule of a clan have turned them into a vicious mob against the Christian allies of that clan.  The Coptic patriarch of Egypt has taken a similar, very public, position. He formally supported the military coup in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Copts now face the daily violence of aggrieved mobs. The Egyptian military, like the Syrian military, has not established police control of the nation. Nor has either government enacted a political compromise with its own religiously-driven citizens. In both cases their incomplete ability to enforce the Law has been deadly for indigenous Christians who have no state of their own to protect them.

Russia has a deep historical tie to the Orthodox Christians of the Mideast. That protective role was a major impetus of the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. The fact that the British and French governments did not recognize a similar duty, and sided with Ottoman Turks against Christian Russia, does not diminish the religious motivations of pre-Communist Russia. Orthodox Christians have always had a robust view of the dynamic of Church and State. In some circumstances this has deeply compromised them. In many other historical circumstances it has been a more realistic and liberating approach to the world of political and military authority. In defending Christians, Russia has also become the defender of Shiite States from the Sunni purification movements. Their link to President Assad and Syria as well as Iran cannot be understood merely through the narrow economic prism of “warm water ports.”

The battle between the atheistic Soviet Union and Christian America colored every conflict of the 20th century. Mother Russia is just emerging from her atheistic Gulag, which demoralized the character of her people and submerged the nation in the imperial designs of Marxist ideology and historical materialism.  An armed America under God defeated the armed atheism that disfigured Russia. But in our victory, we have been subverted by the unarmed atheism of consumer materialism and sexual license which threaten our national soul. A reformed Christian America could still extend to Orthodox Russia a hand of brotherhood to awaken from the atheist nightmare of these bloody centuries. 

Neo-conservatives and leftists alike denounce Russia and President Putin, while Saudi Arabia and the Saud family remain our strange longstanding ally.  A Christian awakening might at least force debate on this peculiar arrangement. This debate must particularly shake Protestant America, which has never resonated with the sufferings of the more ancient forms of Christianity. The persecution of Catholics in the Philippines, Mexico, and Vietnam -- and of the Orthodox in Russia, Serbia, and the Mideast -- has never compelled the public sympathy of Christian America in our dominant Protestant phase. A single heroic Baptist missionary, John Birch, became a banner of courage and martyrdom while the Armenian national Church (a million Orthodox murdered to initiate the bloody 20th century) ranks hardly a mention. Christian unity evokes some painful memories.


It is hard for American statesmen to conduct our nation’s affairs with a realistic and humble eye toward Providence. Our newspapers no longer use such language. Our schools have lost that vocabulary. Public culture bans national prayers, and substitutes a daily trivializing of God’s Name by major media and craven teen-age girls. Instead of reviving a serious fraternity of nations with Russian patriots, Patriarchs, and their President in Petersburg, we extend a kiss of peace to homosexual activists practicing a very different form of brotherly love. There is a Christian path to peace, which baptizes the nations as the public communities of law and authority that order men as communal peacemakers. The fantasy world of atheism has always feared and undermined this spiritual martial anthropology of masculine accord.  Religious realism recognizes the Sovereignty of one God and the multiple public communal forms of brotherhood known as nations.

Religious realism in foreign policy recognizes that most nations and men act out of self-interest.  But not all men or nations define their communal lives so narrowly.  A Christian nation seeks a fraternal relationship with other nations as common sons of Adam. This is not a pacifist path nor a self-centered one.  The nation animated by moral purposes is in continual search of new patterns of agreement with the men of other nations. The moral nation is just as assuredly in continual conflict with tyrants and criminals.      

Forty years ago President Richard Nixon and National Security adviser Henry Kissinger unfolded a large map, and employed a corresponding sense of large history, to remove the Vietnam War as the principal battlefield of conflict between Communist ideology and the United States. Their move to diplomatic accord with China upset the Soviet map of eastern alliances, which was later shrunk again when Muslim men led the first successful war of national liberation from the South against the Soviets in Afghanistan.  The final disintegration came with the military resurgence of America, and the Catholic awakening on their western front in Poland. Today we need to look again at a larger map, and the deeper religious and national loyalties that move men and nations to fight for one way of life against another.  The unarmed dissipating public atheism of American life has blinded us to our most natural allies in the fight for order and authority in the service of religious liberty. Our atheism has perverted our sense of what practices we must defend and what cults we must abhor. Our conduct of foreign policy -- as if God does not exist -- is erroneously enacted in the name of realism.  For there is no realism absent Providence.  The materialist worldview is a fantasy -- a bloody ideology -- which can only be overcome by a larger, more comprehensive, view of men and nations as spiritual actors in a Divine Drama.

Two thousand years ago, a zealous avenger radically reversed his actions and goals on the road to Damascus. May our national debate be enlightened by the Light of Christ to look at the larger map, and consider more deeply the possible agreements that could restore a new fraternity among the nations.  Let us love the Lord our God and let us love our neighbors. We will fulfill those commands through mature agreements among nations and states -- much more readily than by seeking out the protesters, the adolescents, and the libertines.  Diplomacy between nation states will not bring us complete peace.  The Sunni purification movement still attacks, and Satan roams the world in many costumes.  But true strategic diplomacy, much more than a missile attack, can (if God wills it) align the proper set of peacemakers for this historical moment.


Saul of Tarsus surrendered his prudential powers of justice to his zeal for punishment. The lightning strike chastened his wrath, and his repentance restored his eyesight. Congressional deliberation is meant to discipline our zeal for justice with prudence in how to get there. It is time to heed this Biblical lesson of ordering the virtues.

Let us deliberate. Let us repent. Should we Americans disarm one of the last Shiite states capable of fighting the Sunni drive for armed purification?  Should we leave the Syrian Christians to a fate more violent than the Iraqi Christians?  Should we provoke a retaliatory war with the largest standing Shiite government: the Iranians? Should we forsake serious negotiations and a new fraternity with Orthodox Russia in order to degrade an already disintegrating Syrian state? If our goals are regional stability and religious liberty, what new alliance should we forge? What new state or old state should we foster to protect the different religious groups in the Holy Land? How shall a Christian nation from afar safeguard our Christian neighbors in the Mideast? They see our public prayers and the awakening of Christian unity among the baptized, but they beg for the protection of a Christian state wielding an effective sword. These questions are not asked by pollsters. Congressmen must debate them in long well-attended speeches.

Our Congress now properly deliberates and our President may prayerfully negotiate. On the road to Damascus, let us recall a bolt of lightning that blinded a punishing zealot, and be chastised again by the haunting words he heard:  “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”