The Pope and Peter Morales, or the UUA’s Disappointing Statement on Syria


On Friday Peter Morales, the President on my religious association, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, issued a statement on possible strikes on Syria by the United States military. This Sunday, in my home congregation, excerpts of that statement were read during the worship service. It was heartbreaking. Morales’ words echoed the Obama Administration’s line on Syria. Morales wrote, “And we assert that the U.S. government needs to exhaust all non-violent methods to bring about an end to this conflict before resorting to military intervention.” One of the chief arguments for why the U.S. military should bomb Syrian is that all non-violent options have been exhausted. U.N. Ambassador Samatha Powers made precisely this point on Friday when she said in a speech, “Some have asked, given our collective war-weariness, why we cannot use non-military tools to achieve the same end. My answer to this question is: we have exhausted the alternatives.”

Morales’s statement does nothing to counter this assertion. Nor does it challenge any of the Obama Administration’s reasons for wanting to bomb Syria. It does not question the assumption that bombing Syria will lessen the use of chemical weapons or that it will prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of “terrorists.” It does not dispute the legality or morality of the U.S. government’s long standing tradition of unilateral military action. Nor does it offer any possible non-violent or legal solutions to the crisis such as, going after the arms dealers who facilitated the manufacture of Syrian chemical weapons or pursuing the Assad regime in the International Criminal Court. Instead, Morales appears to assume that there are times when such military action can be justified. In truth, it is the weakest amongst us who suffer most when war is waged.

I can’t help but contrast Morales’s statement with Pope Francis. The Pope led a prayer vigil in Rome on Saturday, which was attended by tens of thousands of people, and has fasted for peace. He said, “violence and war are never the way to peace!” and called for “Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation.”

I am saddened that Pope Francis offers more moral clarity on the Syrian situation than the President of my own religious association, especially because some of the finest religious voices for nonviolence come from within it. Adin Ballou, a 19th century abolitionist, peace advocate and both Unitarian and Universalist minister offered words more than a 150 years ago that are worth hearing again today. He preached, “The end sanctifies the means, does it? It is right to do evil that good may come, is it?… Alas, for such short sighted wisdom—such self-thwarting expediency… With armies and navies, police guards and prisons at his command, he would be weak, after once allowing himself to be shorn of his moral strength. Because he would then be but an armed hypocrite, forcing others by brute power to abstain from crimes far less dangerous to human welfare than those which he was obliged to commit…”

I pray that Unitarian Universalists will listen to voices like Ballou’s, and his liberal religious contemporaries such as Henry David Thoreau and Julia Ward Howe, rather than the President of our religious association. They, and not he, offer us a moral compass in the current crisis.

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