Editorial: The Syria debate and a case for humility and civility

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Civil war in Syria has produced more than its share of imponderable developments, shocking scenarios and geopolitical conundrums.

Even though we’ve seen such behavior before, we still struggle to imagine how a national leader can mete out brutality as Bashar al-Assad has visited upon the Syrian people. Satellite television delivers horror to our homes 24/7, but we are not so inured to sorrow our hearts did not break when family members scavenged through corpses in search of loved ones. And who would have dreamed Russia’s Vladimir Putin would, for whatever reason, aspire to become an international peace broker?

knox newEditor Marv KnoxAlongside all these ideas and images and issues, one of the most fascinating facets of the Syrian crisis has been Americans’ discussion about whether we should intervene. It’s sounded sincere and open—like we want to do the right thing.

Only partly partisan

To be sure, much talk has divided along political lines. But not all of it. Perhaps that’s because President Obama initially staked out an unpopular position. After 22 years of interventions—two in Iraq, another in Afghanistan, and don’t forget Serbia-Croatia—Americans are leery of wars to straighten out other countries. So, many Democrats sided with Republicans. But don’t forget the Republicans who said the president got it right.

And then we witnessed a sight of historically minimal proportions. The president said he thought we should intervene, but rather than issue an executive order, he would put it to a vote of Congress. (Of course, he caught flak from both directions, and the pundits said he dithered. But isn’t it ironic that when Washington follows the scenario we learned in civics class—honoring the separation of powers between the branches of government—folks don’t know what to do?)

No easy answers

But what has impressed—maybe even inspired—me beyond all this has been the way Americans have talked about what we should do. I’ve heard the radio, read the news sites and papers, watched television and listened to regular people talk in public places. Over and over again, we have acknowledged this is a hard issue, with no easy answers. After so many years of kneejerk partisanship, that’s refreshing.

Suppose you were in a mall, and you saw an adult beating a child. Would you intercede to protect the child? Most healthy adults would say yes. And, at its root, this is the argument for intervention in Syria.

But suppose you interceded, causing a major fight with the person beating the child. The fight critically injures, and perhaps even kills, several other children. Some of your friends get involved, but so do the beater’s friends. The fight causes significant damage to the mall, and you’re charged for the expenses. In the fight, you’re injured grievously, a couple of your friends die and others are crippled. And then, when the fight is over and everybody goes home, the adult who started the whole incident keeps on beating the child. In simple terms, this is the argument for staying out of other countries’ conflicts.

We instinctively know this is a hard issue, without easy answers. Reasonable people can build a case for intervention and nonintervention. And so, to a degree I’ve not noticed in quite a while, Americans have been expressing our feelings, even as we acknowledge our ambivalence. We’ve talked civilly with others who take another position. We’ve agreed to disagree, and we’ve respected each other.

Is a rebirth of civility possible?

A great gift of the Syrian debate could be a rebirth of civil and humble discussion. What if we could disagree and express our positions in respectful, calm terms? What if we could disagree and realize that does not mean we must hate each other? What if we were humble enough to realize we might not always be right?

I don’t think this is so difficult. Many friends and I disagree on significant issues of politics and public policy. We talk over meals, occasionally in church, sometimes in cars. Often, we express our opinions passionately. But we never vilify or denigrate each other. And we always know the bonds of our friendship are far stronger—and more important—than the disagreements of our ideology. We disagree, but we part as friends.

What if America were like that? What if we learned to talk civilly? What if we agreed to argue the issues but not attack each other? What if we opened our minds as well as our hearts, relinquishing a tight grip on our arguments in order to learn from each other? We might not agree, but we could appreciate and respect one another.

This sounds idealistic, but it is possible. Christians should lead the way.

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