The Prime Directive Meets Syria

In the fictional universe of “Star Trek,” there is a policy that all members of Starfleet must follow: the Prime Directive.  The policy basically states that Starfleet can’t intervene in the internal affairs of alien civilizations.  Not surprisingly, when the policy faces real life situations, there are arguments for and against  following the Prime Directive.  One memorable example is from the second season of Star Trek: the Next Generation.  Data, the android second officer on the Enterprise, establishes contact with an alien child.  Over time he learns that her planet is threatened by tectonic shifts.  Word of this contact gets to Captian Picard, who is furious that one of his officers violated the law.  In a meeting with the other officers, Picard orders Data to cut off contact immediately.  As Data does this, the little alien girl radios in.  The cries of the little girl get to Picard and the others.  Just as Data is going to permanently sever his link with the girl, Picard stops him.  He just could not ignore the cries of a little girl.

The writers are good at having people face some tough questions regarding the Prime Directive.  There have also been shows that demostrate clearly why the Prime Directive is needed.  Starfleet officers with good hearts, get involved in planetary politics and make matters worse.

The Prime Directive doesn’t allow folks to have a clean conscience.  Following or not following the order always left more questions than answers.

There was a time in my life when I was a pacifist.

I was in my early 20s and had been influenced by a lot of writing from Christian authors concerning the evils of war.  It was right after the Gulf War and I believed that we were going to war more for oil than for any good reason.

It’s funny that the longer I stayed in Mainline Protestantism, the less pacifist I became.  After seeing the problems of not getting involved in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, I started to rethink my earlier pacifism.  I was still thought violence was wrong (and I still do), but it became less of an ultimate no-no.  I came to place where I thought sometimes violence was the least bad option.

As talk of military action in Syria heats up, we are starting to hear the pros and cons of intervening in the civil war.  I tend to oppose intervention for a few reasons; 1) the presence of militant Islamists among the rebels might mean getting rid of the Assad regime means supporting folks like Al Queda; 2) Intervention might lead to a wider regional war; 3) The American public is war weary and doesn’t to get involved in yet another war in the Middle East; 4) the outcome might not be what we expect. 5) There’s too much similarity to the run up to the Iraq War.

What’s missing here is any theological issue.  I’m not saying we should never get militarily involved.  What I am saying is that we have to make sure that our actions don’t make an already bad choice a horrible one.

While I have my own hesitancy with Syria, I’ve been bothered by the certainty of those opposed to military intervention.  The answers are too pat and trite; answers that people opposed to war bring up every time the US plans to use military action.  There’s very little wrestling with the downsides of not intervening, just that war is bad, or racist or colonialist or state whatever anti-war position you can think of.  There’s too little wrestling with the issue of using or not using force.

Maybe I’m being weird and callous here, but I want those of us opposed to military intervention to squirm a little.  I want us to not be so sure of ourselves and so willing to look at the other side as cartoonish warmongers.  I want our position to rely on God’s grace, knowing that we are flawed beings that sin…even when we do the right thing.

As much as I oppose intervention, I am well aware that not getting involved means that more people will die.  More people will probably die if we did do something as well, but that doesn’t erase the fact that not getting involved has its own costs.

Most of the religious commentary on war with Syria is rather boring and/or  uncritical.  (The latest post from Progressive blogger James Wellman is a prime example.)Again, there is no wrestling with hard choices, only vague references to peace or how Jesus was nonviolent or something else.  So, in the midst of all this trecle, it is good to hear some honest debate from British Blogger Nick Brindley.  A pastor in the United Reformed Church in the UK, he shares his own views on the issue in a refreshing and thoughtful way:

Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.

Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.

What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.

The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.

This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.

We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.

Brindley hones in on “the now and the not yet,” that concept of living into the future hope of God where violence is no more and the now when we live in this imperfect world.  He also focuses on grace and mercy, reminding us that even when we do something to benefit others, we are still sinful and in so much need of that grace.

So I sit here today, not in favor of intervention.  But I do that knowing I could be wrong.  Knowing that there is a price to no matter what is chosen.

Because in the real world full of greys, you don’t get to have a clean conscience.

God help us all, indeed.



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