The Syria Series//From My War to Theirs//Jelena Pjevic

Jelena Pjević is a senior majoring in Justice & Society and English with a specialization in Creative Writing. She is a Formation Group Leader for the 2013-2014 Cortina Community. This is where she stands with regard to the possibility of the United States’ intervention in Syria.

“Think well about this, dear brothers and sisters, and you will see that we should have been in a state of terrible chaos, in a fratricidal war, in a country which would no longer be Yugoslavia, but be only a group of petty little states fighting among themselves and destroying each other. But our people do not want that to happen.” – Josip Broz Tito

Whenever I hear or read about any current war, I can’t help but think of the civil war that destroyed my homeland, the former Yugoslavia, and resulted in the tragic numbers of death or displacement among the general population. I can’t help but compare my war to their war. I can’t help but compare my experience to their experience. I have, however, come to realize that there isn’t really a distinct me or a distinct them, no matter whether the current suffering and marginalized are Iraqis, Afghanis, or Syrians. Essentially, what matters is that people like us don’t matter to people like them: Assad, Obama, or Putin.

Now, I know that some, or maybe even most, of the people reading this blog post may think I’m judging politicians too harshly, that I’m not taking into account the positive acts that they carry out, or how difficult it must be to perform well as a leader on the world stage. If you’re thinking that, you’re correct. I definitely am biased, as we all are, but I’m not ashamed of saying that I know my opinion is worth damn more than the totality of these politicians’ games and lies. My own experience and my parents’ experiences with war and the consequences of it, however, have shown me that what we believed in and what we thought never really mattered in the eyes of the elites. In my grandma’s words, “They declared war and sent my son [my own uncle] to the frontlines to be slaughtered, while they hid behind their high walls, toasting each other in private, and fueling hatred among us in public with their words.” All in all, the politicians never fear, lose, nor die. The people do. We all do.

What both infuriates and depresses me the most is the fact that whenever war is discussed, it’s all about sides. Who’s right or wrong? Evil or good? Americans or terrorists? Capitalists or communists? The Syrian government or the rebels? If you haven’t already guessed my answer: the world isn’t so black and white. So, I can’t tell you if the United States should intervene in Syria. But, I can tell you this:

Because of War:

Because of the Yugoslav Wars, I was forced to leave my homeland as a refugee, along with my parents, and come to live in a new country without my entire extended family. My uncle was killed. My grandparents now live alone. My mama couldn’t have another child for years after the war, because she fell into such a deep depression and lost so much weight. I almost lost the ability to communicate in my native tongue. I disrespected my parents’ cultural values. I was constantly made to feel inferior and like an outsider by my American peers during my entire childhood. I lack an understanding of self-identity and I can never truly call one single place home. Please understand that I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone else, not even the politicians who are responsible for my nafaka (fate, destiny, or draw of luck).

At the end of the day, I know that neither Assad, nor Obama, nor Putin, can understand my pain or the pain of the people that are continuously cast aside as mere pawns in their political schemes. There is no need for us to debate so much about what should be done, because we aren’t being asked for our opinions. There is no need, because we are the people, not the politicians. What we can do, however, is pray for the Syrian people and actively show love and respect the dignity of every life, especially those of the many immigrants and refugees that live with us in the United States of America. Listen to their stories, question your own beliefs, and don’t let Big Brother convince you that everything will be fine.

The Syria Series//Intervening to Lay Groundwork//Dr. Jay Carney//

I should start off by advising you to read Tony Homsy’s prayer/blog below rather than mine…it’s perhaps the most eloquent and theologically honest response to the Syrian crisis that I’ve come across. And he speaks from out of Syria’s experience, which counts for far more than my outsider view…

Given my extensive studies on Rwanda, I can’t help but see Syria through the prism of Rwanda, Burundi and the Great Lakes region of Africa (the ethnic/political/colonial similarities themselves are striking). Perhaps this is why I find myself hesitating in a full-throated call for U.S. non-intervention (which seems to be the dominant voice in this conversation). This puts me in an odd position, as I opposed the Iraq War, had serious reservations about the Afghanistan War, and am generally skeptical about U.S. foreign intervention. And deep in my heart I think faithful followers of Jesus Christ should take the Sermon on the Mount more and not less seriously, which means engaging the pacifist vision that emerges from that narrative (and all of Jesus’s life and death for that matter). But I also think about April 1994, and the fact that a rapid international military intervention could have made a tangible difference in halting the genocide…and no one did anything. And I wonder…if our country would have had a “full debate” in April 1994 on intervention in Rwanda, would people be saying the same things as they do now…about the failure of U.S. Intervention in Somalia in 1993, about Vietnam, about how war never stops war, about the atrocities on both sides (the genocide closely followed a civil war), about equating peace with a decision that Congress makes? I find myself frustrated with this rhetoric, perhaps because so few of us have experienced the brutality of war on the ground in places like Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Eastern DRC, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. So it all seems like pious wordsmithing to me. That’s why Tony’s blog had such an impact on me…it seems real. He speaks from the complicated and real violence that has left over 100,000 people dead in a country that registered little in American popular consciousness until Obama threatened to launch missiles 2 weeks ago…

On one hand, war ultimately doesn’t resolve war, and violence doesn’t ultimately resolve violence…but do military interventions never help lay the groundwork for longer term peacebuilding? Without delving into the overused WWII examples, I will note that late 1990s British intervention in Sierra Leone made a tangible (not exclusive) contribution to ending a brutal war in that country, as did French intervention in Mali last year (the jury is admittedly still out, but Mali is in a much better place than a year ago). I’m not sure the Kosovo intervention was wholly without merit. The ongoing U.N. Intervention in Eastern Congo is not without deep problems, but most of the local Congolese leaders I met in January lamented first and foremost the Congolese army’s failure to protect their people…through force of arms as necessary. The worst phase of the Rwanda genocide itself ended in July 1994 when the rebel RPF militia took over the capital and sacked the genocidal government. As much as I would like to think that nonviolence can stop violence, I’m not sure that’s true, esp. in the face of brutal and massive human rights violations perpetrated by the state. Perhaps we’re still called to faithfully follow nonviolently, but in the words of one of my mentors Stanley Hauerwas (himself a pacifist), “people will die for the sake of your convictions.” This is hard.

I agree that war is not ultimately the answer, but would a Congressional vote to oppose Obama’s military strikes be the answer? Will peace come any sooner to Syria’s long-suffering people? Does the outside world have a role to play in this, or do we just sit back and allow nation-state identity to be the sole determinant of our ethical obligations? I fear that if Congress votes “no” this week and Obama holds off, there will be celebrations in churches (and libertarian political gatherings) across the country…and Syrians will continue to die by the thousands as Americans go back to their NFL games. Regardless of what the U.S. decides this week, peace will not immediately break out in Syria. And so the question that I am grappling with…and to which I don’t have a good answer…is how do we hasten peace? How does the bloodshed slow down? How are leaders held accountable for using chemical weapons on their own people? The Syrian war didn’t need to happen if Assad had heeded the largely non-violent calls for change in 2011…instead he brutally cracked down on protesters and inflamed the previously non-violent opposition. The rebels have been guilty of atrocities, but this is Assad’s war. And it is awful.

 

The Syria Series//We Haven’t Even Tried//Westin Miller//

Westin Miller is a Cortina Alumn and a former Cortina RA. He currently works as a Leadership Consultant for Beta Theta Pi.  This is where he stands with regard to the possibility of the United States’ intervention in Syria.

I am not a pacifist.

I follow the teaching of Christ, who was no doubt a peacemaker, but I fail to see an example from His life that definitively calls for pacifism in our conversation about Syria. The Bible never gives an account of Jesus responding to violence being perpetrated against an innocent, unarmed person (other than himself).

“But Westin, remember the most obvious example ever? The woman who was going to be stoned?”

You are right. This story teaches us a beautiful lesson that we have an ABSOLUTE OBLIGATION to preemptively intervene peacefully to prevent violence. Whenever possible, we should be challenging those with violent intentions to seek other alternatives. Our challenge should, of course, be peaceful.

In this particular example, the question I always struggle with is “What if the stones had been thrown?”

If your mind takes you to an answer even remotely related to the idea of stepping in front of them, that is our cue to move specifically to Syria. Because you can’t step in front of a missile loaded with Sarin.

The Bible never gives an account of Jesus responding to violence being perpetrated against an innocent, unarmed person.

The Bible certainly never gives an account of Jesus instructing a nation about how to respond to another nation murdering its innocent civilians. In fact, Jesus never addresses foreign policy at all.

If children are being burned alive in Syria, the international community is obligated to attempt nonviolent intervention.

If nonviolent intervention doesn’t work, I think it is possible to justly engage in violence.

The United States has not attempted nonviolent intervention.

We have not exhausted, or even attempted diplomacy. Our international efforts have been to persuade others to join us in violence and to train and arm the combatants, not to dissuade Assad.

Until we exhaust diplomacy, we cannot justly engage in violence.

We haven’t even tried.

The Syria Series//A Prayer for Syria//Tony Homsy, SJ//

Tony Homsy is a Syrian Jesuit. He is currently a student at Creighton University in Omaha where he studies Digital Journalism and Computer Sciences. He wrote this prayer which was read today during a Prayer Vigil for Peace in Syria at St. John’s Church. The text has been copied from The Jesuit Post

Jesus, my friend, I don’t ask you these things often, but,
what if you were a Syrian in your thirties?

I ask you this naïve question – but it’s really not a question. I ask so I can tell you how the past two and a half years have brought Syria – my country! – to a new turning point, from which we can’t go back. I know Syria is not strange for you, because you spent most of your life so close by. I know you know the color of our land, that you met Paul near our capital, Damascus.

I do not bring this up because I am afraid of the future, or the consequences of war – anything external. I say these things to you because I want to be a Christian inside, not a part of a group that must survive. I want to live a Christian life, as one baptized to be priest, prophet and king – like you. I ask you these questions because I am lost and I cannot find answers that give me peace. Usually I want to be like you, but today – just today – I want to reverse this.

How would you react if you were in my place? Today I want you to be like me, my Lord, while still being my Lord. I want it so you can guide me. So I will know how to live as a good Christian.

It’s not that we are so dissimilar. What you experienced two thousands years ago, it was very similar to what I am living right now. I too was born under a dictatorship. Like so many Syrians, I too have dreamed about the day of freedom.

Do you still remember when you were born under Herod? And the terror? Let me see this current situation as you saw yours. Grant me the gift to see in it not only tyranny, but also a call – like yours, like the one you felt – that encourages me to change this world.

And your family, I am sure it faced problems when the blind bureaucracy demanded of Joseph and Mary a trip to Bethlehem to be registered. I know, too, what it is to face such a bureaucracy each day. All I want for my country is progress. Which is why today, as people around the world pray for peace in my land, I ask you to grant me – give us all – your gifts. So I will be patient and understand that everything takes time. But still, my Lord, can peace come sooner? And progress?

I know you do not need an Internet connection to see the atrocities the world sees, the massacre of children and women. Surely it must be similar to what you heard – the stories of massacres in Jerusalem, like the one committed just after you, an incapable infant, had been born. I wonder if you felt trapped as you lay swaddled in the manger while the killing of innocents happened. I too feel trapped, like a constrained child who cannot yet talk. Today, I ask you to grant me your gift of freedom, the freedom to not respond to such violence with more violence. So I will be meek and not act in violence.

Do you still remember the day, driven by the Holy Spirit, you left home for the wilderness? Didn’t Mary wish that you would stay? It seems impossible a good mother could want her son to leave – but Syrian mothers do these days, they prefer missing their sons and husbands. Better to see them safe, away from home, than in coffins. Today, I ask you to grant consolation to every bereaved mother, and to every mother far from her children. Give solace to each widow and all lovers.

I am one of these far away sons, my Lord. I am far from home and so I feel the waiting in fear and the edgy panic of these days through my family and friends. Do the hiss and whine and the explosion of the missiles launched from one neighborhood to another sound like the thunder you knew? Do you know that the fear your disciples felt while you slept in the boat is only a shadow of the fear my friends and family feel at the sound of the bombs? Today, I ask you to grant us the gift of courage. So we will never feel insecure again – because we feel you beside us.

Do you know, Jesus, that I have never carried any kind of weapon? I don’t even know how to use one. Which is why it is so strange that part of me wishes for someone, someone with powerful weapons, to intervene and deliver us from our misery. It was your Pope’s call for peace that brought a sliver of the desire for peace into my heart. And then I remembered that you refused to carry a weapon as well, even a stone to throw at a supposed sinner. Today, I ask you to grant me your gift of a peaceful heart. So I will call for peace, compromise, instead of the use of power.

How quickly the chemical weapons killed so many children, innocents. The blink of an eye. My degree in chemistry won’t help me to describe for you what the poison gas smells like, or what a human feels when they are dying of it. But you know what it is to suffer and choke as you die. Today, I ask you to grant us the gift of compassion. So we can share the suffering and passion of those innocents.

So many of my friends have left Syria, some before, some after this crisis. Why did you come back to Jerusalem? Hadn’t you noticed the success you’d had in Galilee and the Decapolis? Hadn’t you felt the happiness of sitting and eating with friends and strangers? Why did you leave that to go to Jerusalem when you knew what lay before you? Was it because you too learned to love Jerusalem only after you left? Today, I ask you to grant us your gift of fidelity. So that we too may wish to return home, to love Syria, again.

I will tell you a secret today, Jesus, that I have never told to anybody before. Usually, you know, it isn’t proper for me to speak too much about the trespasses of your Church – but you never stayed mute about undesirable attitudes. And today the same cancer is still spreading. So with apologies I tell you that sometimes I am embarrassed by all the speeches about the suffering of Christians while the misery of our Muslim sisters and brothers is ignored. I am almost crazy with it sometimes. Today, I ask you to grant me your gift of merciful compassion. So I will love your Church in its trespasses – and remember that I too am a part of this Church and need forgiveness.

I have one more question, Jesus: how did you forgive them as they crucified you? It’s what haunts me the most, the difficulty of forgiving those who have hurt me. I can’t find it; I have no logical explanation for how you could forgive them as they did it. When I look for one all I can remember is your call to follow you, and buried within that call is the instruction: forgive those who hurt you. So today, my Lord, I ask you for forgiveness. Forgive me and let me forgive my enemies.

I am walking a thin line between hope and desperation, Jesus. I think it is the same feeling that was inside your disciples after your death. Like them I want my dream to come true, I want freedom, and for the blood of the 100,000 to not have been shed for nothing.

I believe in your resurrection. So when I – when we – feel tempted to give up, when we want to stay buried in the tomb of slavery, come and rise in us then. Come rise in us so that we can cross Golgotha to the glory of resurrection. And trusting in your Father we Syrians, and those who pray with us today, can say: God, into your hands we commend our country. Oh my Jesus, bring your resurrection to Syria today.

The Syria Series//A Twisted Calculus//Tim Nendick//

Tim Nendick is a wanderer and ponderer of the world. When he was a student at Creighton, he was a Cortina Student and then a 2-year Cortina RA. This is where he stands with regard to the possibility of the United States’ intervention in Syria.

Violent intervention gives rise to a twisted calculus: these lives, those dollars, this many bombs.  As our country prepares to attack another, it’s a calculus we must learn to speak.  As critically conscious people, we must learn to rewrite its axioms.

The rationale for strikes in Syria is alleged use of sarin gas, a human rights violation.  I fully support my government peacefully acting in my name when such violations exist, in order to make the world a more just place.  The use of chemical weapons is a grave offense, as are the concentration camps of North Korea, the domestic spying programs of the United States, the massacre of demonstrators in Egypt.  Around the world, we needn’t look far to see our brothers and sisters dehumanized by the societies we create, attacked by a culture of violence.

Ending injustice with tools ultimately designed to destroy and kill precludes justice. Responding in kind to violence in hopes of peace is a fruitless enterprise.  As students, we must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.  As people of faith, we must collectively labor for the Kingdom of God.  As citizens of history’s most powerful empire, we must creatively challenge our leaders.

The financial cost of this intervention is not yet known — quoting a White House Staffer, “Who the f— knows how much it will cost? It depends entirely upon what happens.” We have finite scientific thinkers, natural resources, laborers.  How we chose to invest those things in the betterment of humankind is the ultimate question of justice. Investing them in war-making, destruction is to fundamentally deny our call to be co-creators alongside God.

With each B2 bomber, let us see 16000 full scholarships to Creighton. With each tomahawk missile fired from proud boats, let us see a teacher’s lifetime salary flashing through the air on its way to maim another person. With each speech to the American people, let us hear our leaders justifying killing our fellow humans in the name of peace.

Let us hear, see these things and be confused.  Let us cry out, together, no más, no more! Nonviolently, creatively, let’s speak with the violence of Love, the certainty of hope, the promise of peace.

For reflection, I offer a video I made during my own Cortina year of Kurt Vonnegut reading a favorite passage from his Slaughterhouse Five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTsj3oISJlI

The Syria Series//Creativity in the Face of Destruction//Br. Ken Homan, SJ//

Ken Homan is a Jesuit Brother. When he was a student at Creighton, he was a Cortina Student. This is where he stands with regard to the possibility of the United States’ intervention in Syria.

I have not been following the Syrian conflict as closely as I should.  I blame myself because I have recently focused on other issues (such as the 8.29 Fast Food Strike).  I (we) can no longer ignore the situation in Syria.  It demands our attention.  Why?  Because just like the prophets in the Old Testament, a cry goes up to heaven.  Apathy is the worst of sins, closely followed by inaction.

We can respond with more violence and more bloodshed, but it would not be our own.  From ships out to sea and unmanned drones, we would drop explosives on a country already full of explosions.  And yes, I mean we, as in you and I would be active material participants in this crime.  We cannot excuse it as “our government,” but we are those who fund and participate in this war.  By Catholic Social Teaching, just war and the use of force is a very final resort.  I believe our acknowledging it as any resort, however, moves it to the foreground of our conscience.  It leaves us with a sense of it possibly working.  With onslaught of chemical weapons, we might jump immediately to thoughts of the Holocaust.  Wasn’t that a just war scenario?  I would argue no—evil flourished thereafter and delved deeper into our hearts.  We must be creative.

As both Pope Francis and Fr. General Nicolás have noted, violence will beget more violence.  This violence is not necessarily the violence of men shooting each other, stabbing each other, burning each other’s lungs with chemical weapons.  But this violence includes the horrendous violence of poverty, homelessness, and unjust death.  These are the terrible things we will reap if we send shrapnel flying around another country already distraught by fear.  We will further entrench a Christ-people into death and despair.

We have only one option—love.  Evil leaves us with lackluster ideas and inability to generate new ideas.  Hopelessness.  But the creative power of love overcomes all evil and darkness.  Our only hope here is to act with a creative Christ-love for these Christ-people.  We can no longer kill people for their sins.  But we must engage the fullest mystery of Christ.  WE must die for their sins.  Rather than marching in with guns and cannons firing, I ask you to take this question as seriously as possible: What if I and millions of others simply marched into Syria with gifts of food, water, and shelter, accepting the bullets and blades that may kill us?  What if I die for someone else’s sins?

For more thoughts on the challenges the Syrian conflict gives us and our response, check out this great piece by Sam Sawyer, SJ.  http://thejesuitpost.org/site/2013/09/on-syria-praying-because-we-dont-know-what-to-hope-for/

The Syria Series//Critical Perspectives

Today begins a series on the Cortina blog. Throughout the next few weeks, students, activists, & thinkers will be contributing their critical positions on the looming Syrian intervention. While some of these viewpoints may diverge or offer opposing insights, we hope that the variety of perspectives will help us be better informed and formed in our opinions and actions moving forward as citizens and inhabitants of a powerful nation.

If you are interested in contributing, please email annedimond@creighton.edu.