In which redemptive violence is a myth for Syria

Peace is not merely a distant goal

I am not an isolationist. We belong to each other, of course, we do. The people of Syria are our people. This vicious civil war has been going on since spring 2011 and Syria’s children dying horrific deaths, her activists have been murdered, more than 100,000 of her people have been killed, some of them with the neuro-toxins of chemical warfare, and there are 2 million – million! – refugees.

Who could isolate themselves from such suffering? Who would turn away from such evil?

And yet I am absolutely against any military intervention in Syria.

Bombing Syria will not solve a single thing in this conflict and it will bear repercussions for decades. Precedent has been set by other conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, that bombings are not strategic and military intervention will not fix anything, particularly over the long term.

There are many logistical, political, reasonable, legal, and just-plain-common-sense reasons for our nations to avoid bombing or military action in Syria. (Check out questions 6 & 7 in this article at the Washington Post, 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask)

But beyond the obvious and well-documented reasons and precedents to avoid military conflict in the Middle East again,  let me add this reminder:

Redemptive violence is a myth.

In the same way that I want to be a feminist in the way that I believe Jesus would be a feminist, I want to engage with world conflict in the way I believe Jesus would engage with world conflict. I believe that followers of Jesus should never be the ones calling out for war or bombings or violence of any kind. Violence is evil, and partaking in violence will never bring about real or lasting peace. Each side in this conflict believes they are in the right and it’s clear there is no “good guy” here. Violence continues and spirals and worsens and there is no redemption in sight. Why would we contribute to that evil in any way?

We sow the wind, as the prophet Hosea warned, and then we are surprised when we reap the whirlwind.

As followers of Jesus, we are meant to live the ways of our Saviour into every corner of our existence. In this instance, I support and engage with efforts advocating for immediate care of refugees, worldwide diplomatic pressure and dialogue, particularly with Syria’s neighbours and allies, and a strong commitment to the practice of non-violence. We should be the voices and hands of peace making in our world. Walter Wink calls this “the third way” – the action alternative from military intervention and isolationism.

Non-violence isn’t passive: it’s active and hard and real. It’s a discipline and it subverts violence with radical peace-making.

Disciples of Jesus are meant to live as ambassadors and signs of God’s shalom. Peace-making is not for the faint of heart and it is the prophetic call of the believer.

We must pursue the third way – not passive and yet not violent, this is the way of the peace maker.

Go on and write or call or email your government to make sure your voice is heard.

Go on and give money NGOs and ministries working to relieve suffering, particularly for refugees, and to end conflict within Syria.

Go on and become active in the refugee community of our city.

Go on and speak up in your community and take the side of peace making.

Go on and sign petitions or participate in peaceful protest.

Go on and educate yourself.

And go on and pray – with your voices, your spirits, your bodies – for peace.


  • Registered Runaway

    Really liked this Sarah, I’m in the middle of writing a piece myself.

    The only pushback I would have is that, yes, there is precedent for us causing deep damage by intervening. But… I don’t think it is necessarily a “myth of redemptive violence” or that proponents of action are suggesting “redemptive violence.” This where it get tricky. There is violent provocation and there is defense of the vulnerable and its not as clear cut as we’d like them to be.

    Last fall I lived in Kosovo. As you know, we intervened in the late 90s in the middle of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar people. We were able stop what would’ve been an entire wipe out of a nation. The stories people told me were absolutely horrifying. Serbian forces breaking into homes and doing every terrible act you can imagine to families. These people also told me about the joy they felt when news came that the US was planning to strike Serbian forces. It felt like a rescue, and for many it was.

    There still were mass graves discovered in the aftermath, but we managed to save many people. Moms, dads, and kids. Their homes, crops, livelihood.

    Granted, it’s complicated. It’s deeply consequential, and I believe congress should approve of any military action before Obama takes up the War Powers Act. And there are differences between Kosovo and Syria. We’d be going in nearly alone and the strike will be much less intense, and thus effective, than the one we did in Kosovo.

    So, I dunno, it’s hard. But I think phrasing it as a “myth of redemptive violence” might be disingenuous to those supporting action. I think there are times when we can and should intervene and not under the phrase “redemptive violence” but, perhaps, “morally hazardous action” (Rienhold Niebur said that, not me!)

    I really appreciate you diving headfirst into this, initiating conversations that we all should be having today. Thank you Sarah!

    • Monna Clare Payne

      Love your heart, Sarah. But as I was considering a thoughtful way to respond – I read Registered Runaway’s comment. She spoke my thoughts for me. Keep sharing! We need this dialogue.

      • Sarah Bessey

        Thanks, Monna – love having thoughtful believers wrestle this out and figure out how to respond as a people. Always learn from you guys – RR really got me thinking, too.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Thanks for such a thoughtful and compassionate response. I believe there are times when a response is warranted (World War 2 being an obvious example) where the “greater good” is often served but there is still always a horrible cost to violence as evidenced by the PTSD and suicide rates of the military, but I’m not convinced that Syria meets any of those criteria, let alone the criteria of a just war as understood by many Christians.

      • Tigej

        Because gassing your enemies went out with WWI, because the way of killing is cowardly, brutal, dehumanising and dismissive – it ties up hospitals, doctors, nurses, passers-by etc – it is a tactic designed only to cause as much emotional and physical disruption to the ‘enemy’ as possible. If the US joined WWII because it loved it’s neighbours enough to try and ‘save them’ from the evil of National Socialism and prevent the extermination of a population group.

        So, preventing the evil is the reason for doing greater good – why is it that you think the Jews and the French and English (like myself) were neighbours but that Syrians don’t count enough because their ethical and religious values are too different from ours? That’s not loving our neighbours, in my book. And that book is the bible.

        If you’re saying you are loving your neighbour as yourself, you’d have to be okay with being gassed and asking your country not to step in and hold accountable the people who did it – and to avoid a war-driven response, even to an act of war affecting you personally.

        Can you do that?

    • Naomi

      This resonates with me. Especially Niebur’s phrase “morally hazardous action.” I spent 4 months in Lithuania and learned how devastated the Baltics and other parts of the Soviet Union were during the Soviet occupation. No Western intervention came. Also thinking about the Rwandan genocide. No intervention came. I consider myself a pacifist, too. But when people are being massacred it gets really hairy. What is a bigger mistake? Adding violence to violence or choosing to let the violence play out? Bonhoeffer struggled with this, too. He was a pacifist involved in an assassination attempt on Hitler.

      When we do nothing to protect innocents, I think that makes us complicit. Violence isn’t always the answer and should be the last resort. But sometimes it’s the only way to rescue people. I’m still wrestling with this.

      I wrote about this over at my blog, too. Probably need to write even more. So many thoughts to process.

      Thanks Sarah, for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate this conversation.

  • Sue Peterson

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. And I appreciate Registered Runaway’s feedback as well. I feel like we lack spaces for having these discussions in any sort of thoughtful and peaceful way – the mainstream media only seems to provide the two extreme sides of a multi-faceted issue.

  • Megan Westra

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    Thank you for saying this.

  • Elizabeth

    For those interested, MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) has good information about the crisis in Syria and responses for peacemakers:

    • Sarah Bessey

      Thanks for sharing that resource, Elizabeth. I’ll share it as well.

  • Osheta Moore

    This is fantastic. I so love your heart around this issue— both to light a candle for the crisis in response to the brokenness in this world and then to write this prophetic and timely piece. You are my favorite Shalom Sistah. Truly. Thank you for putting into words what has been on my heart for days and thank you for giving us ways to seek shalom for Syria that both honors Jesus and restores dignity to the hurting.

  • Roger Haydon Mitchell

    Thanks for this Sarah, now I won’t need to write along the same lines myself but can direct people to your post. Exactly right, but now we need to do it.

  • Lana

    Syria is broken man against broken man. When there is no “right,” the idea of bombing becomes all the more absurd.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    se sa zanmi’m – ou gen yon bel ke

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  • Heather

    I can’t help feeling like posting an MLK quote for peace while acting like we have any real understanding of the situation in Syria from our comfortable and safe western world couches – is a bit arrogant. MLK could fight peacefully because he was in America. And while American citizens may set their dogs on each other…they’re never going to fire off chemical weapons. We have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a country ruled by a dictator. We have no idea what civil war in our own neighborhood would look like. We have no idea what it’s like to have no real access to information other than what the government feeds us. So while we can get the gist of the conflict in a Washington Post article (which I read earlier and is the best thing I’ve read so far on it), we don’t actually know what the people there do and don’t need.
    American history has shown that sometimes intervention helps. And sometimes intervention only makes things worse.
    The war in Syria seems lose-lose no matter what Americans do. So unless I can get access to top secret intel and news from people on the ground, I’m not calling any of my congressmen to offer any opinion on the matter. I just don’t consider myself that special. If I had watched my baby sister blown up by a chemical weapon, I’d be praying for American intervention so my baby brother wouldn’t die too. On the flip side, if I were a religious extremist, I would also be hoping the current regime gets overthrown so I could take it over and treat the population even worse.
    The most I will do is send up a prayer for my elected leaders to make the best decision possible in a time where no matter what they choose, people will die because of it. That’s a burden I’m thankful is not mine to carry.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this Heather. My husband is in northern Turkey assessing the refugee situation right now. He went with boxes of medications and supplies. He was in Syria yesterday. I haven’t heard much from him but I have to say I appreciate much your reminder that we are all armchair pundits espousing what’s best for a situation we know almost nothing about. Registered Runaway’s comment earlier, particularly this sentence “But I think phrasing it as a “myth of redemptive violence” might be disingenuous to those supporting action.”

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  • Sandy Jones Fox

    I love your heart here, Sarah, as far as it goes for the active ways we can help the victims in Syria. But honestly, no one is calling it redemptive violence. It is a complicated situation and I appreciate the remarks of those who have worked with those who have been victims of war violence. I’ve worked with refugees from Congo, Sudan, Bosnia, Myanmar, Liberia. Looking into those broken faces of those who have experienced violence at a chilling level makes me know that these types of situations call for more than words. What actions are the right ones? All the ones you listed…and maybe some kind of military force. Hopefully and prayerfully not. And if it does, it will come with consequences. But if it doesn’t, there will be horrific consesequences too.

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