Where’s the Line?

I preached this Sunday.  OK, I hadn’t written a word until Saturday evening so I didn’t lose anything by writing about Obama’s decision on Syria.

15th Sunday after the Pentecost
September 1, 2013
Pittsfield, MA

Scripture:  Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.   “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host;   and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

            The hinge in this parable is, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (v. 11)  It separates the first half in which Jesus addressed guests at a banquet and the second half in which Jesus addressed hosts of a banquet.

            He used this parable to remind the listener that no one should be so prideful to choose to sit in the place of honor and that honored guests include the outcasts and those who have little or no social standing the community:  the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

            When I started to think about this pericope early in the week, I had a completely different intention for it than I have now.  My thinking is still a fuzzy on this because it’s based on yesterday’s Rose Garden announcement that President Obama will seek authorization from Congress to use military force to hold Assad accountable for using chemical weapons against the Syrian people.  I kept thinking that this hinge seems applicable.

            Before I unpack this, I’m not going to use this sermon to say that we should take military action against Assad or that we should refrain from its use.  That’s another sermon, maybe better as a discussion, on Just War theory.  Rather, I’m going to walk a fine, thin line because yesterday’s announcement exposed a long overdue acknowledgement of who we are as a nation.

            A couple of things, though. Chemical weapons were used in World War I which resulted in 94,000 deaths and a million casualties.  The horrible death toll and casualties made the use of chemical weapons generally abhorrent and resulted in the 1925 Geneva Convention banning their use on the battlefield.  Despite the convention, they have been used in warfare.  Iraq used chemical weapons in the 1980s in his war against Iran as well as against the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988.

            Chemical weapons are distinctly objectionable from other weapons because they are indiscriminate in that once they are set off, the chemical cloud cannot be contained and strikes soldiers and civilians alike.  They inflict terrible pain and suffering upon all who breathe the chemical. Furthermore, the chemical is not always noticeable, either by color or smell.  Using them violates the ethical premises of just war.

Turning to the civil war … This has been going on for more than two years.  It has caused the deaths of over 100,000 on both sides, including 8,000 women and children.  Almost 2.0 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, and by the end of the year the United Nations expects the number of refugees to increase to 3.5 million people.  The growing refugee situation threatens to destabilize the region.  About 4.25 million people are displaced within Syria itself.  More than one-third of the hospitals in Syria have closed and about two-thirds of the health care workers have fled.  They Syrian economy has collapsed, and food is scarce.  About 4.0 million children, an entire generation, are at risk for growing up traumatized.  The United Nations has declared this the worst humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan civil war in 1994.

            When this conflict began, the news reports from Syria were grim and have continued unabated.  Although billions of dollars in humanitarian aid have already come from the international community, including the United States, the same community has watched impotently from the sideline.  President Obama demanded that Assad step down in August 2011.  A year ago he warned that should the Syrian government use biological or chemical weapons against its people it would cross a red line, which could trigger a military response.  Furthermore, many people in this country at that time expressed some desire to take action to stop the Assad regime.

            The chilling scenes from a week ago indicate that a chemical attack was launched.  As I speak, weapons inspectors are dividing soil samples and blood samples from victims to ascertain definitively the perpetrator of these attacks.  Meanwhile the British Parliament on Thursday chose not to join the United States in a military intervention. 

There are no good options.  Doing nothing does not end this human tragedy.  Deposing Assad risks Syria becoming embroiled in ethnic violence.  An attack risks drawing other nations into the fray and possibly attacking Israel. Presently, the only nations willing to join the United States are Turkey and France.

            Here’s the line in the form of a question:  “Has this dilemma come about because we thought of ourselves too highly as a nation?”  Or paraphrasing Luke, “Have we exalted ourselves?”  We still believe we are a superpower and by traditional measures we still are.  We have the world’s largest economy.  We have the world’s largest military.  And despite our current political impasse, we have a very stable government.  We see ourselves as the world’s policeman and believe that by virtue of that status we have an obligation to ensure order in the world.  Those who violate that order will suffer the consequences under our leadership with our military power.

            If not us, then who?  When Secretary of State Kerry met with Syrian refugees last week, many implored him to push this nation towards action against Assad.  Who will hold parties accountable when they violate humanitarian norms, such as using chemical weapons against its own people?  Shouldn’t we use our power, especially if no other nation has the capability, to bring an end to these violations?  Doesn’t the humanitarian crisis brewing in the Middle East due to this civil war warrant some response, especially from the most powerful nation in the world?

Except that since Vietnam, we have come to see that our superpower status is not as powerful as we might believe.  We went into Vietnam against the communist north only to evacuate Saigon as it fell to the communists.  We could not intervene in Rwanda to stop the genocide.  Most recently, we went to war in Iraq and left with mixed success and are still fighting a war in Afghanistan.  We are somewhat impotent.

Was yesterday’s announcement our humbling moment?  Have we come face to face with our own exalted status to realize we’re not as exalted as we thought?

I honestly don’t know.  Furthermore, the debate which will take place over the next week or so will be whether we should take some sort of military action against Syria.  But we need to have a discussion of our role in the world in our national discourse because resolving this could change our nation’s perspective on the world, our own priorities as a nation, and the international community’s perspective on the United States as global policeman.

Maybe we finally will acknowledge that we truly are a nation perched at the top of a global empire, and thus, we become honest with our fiscal priorities.  Or maybe we won’t think of ourselves as always having (really, practically owning) the seat of honor. 

Maybe we might realize that with all our wealth, we can be more generous to the world.  We can be more generous with foreign aid and assistance.  We could be less exploitive in our economic and trade policies towards the third world.  Maybe we will forgive their debt.  We can be more generous in opening our borders to refugees displaced by human conflict.

Just maybe a little humility on our part will be good for us.  It might make us see the world and our place in it a little more realistically.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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