A Syrian Rashomon
Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, “Rashomon,” pioneered a style of cinematic narrative in which the viewer learns the story from the point of view of several participants. It would take an artist of Mr. Kurosawa’s skill to tell the many-sided story of Syrian Christians in their country’s civil war. There are so many actors that one expert, after listing six hierarchs from five Eastern churches and the Latin-rite bishop—all in Aleppo alone—asked, “So, who’s speaking for the Christians in Aleppo?”
George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council and a Christian, claims there are Christians, who comprise 10 percent of Syria’s population, at every level of the resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In contrast, Sister Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a spokeswoman for the media center of the Melkite Archdiocese of Homs, claims the resistance “is not fighting for freedom,” but for “fundamentalist” (that is, Muslim) values. She also accused opposition fighters of targeting religious minorities and Sunni moderates. The outspoken Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio, exiled from Syria in June after more than 30 years there, accused the sister of taking the government’s side. The Melkite patriarch, Gregory III Laham, while affirming the freedom the church has enjoyed from the Baathist regime, has protested accusations that the hierarchy has colluded with the Assad regime.
A significant number of Christian leaders are advocating musalaha, a strategy that embraces nonviolence, reconciliation and peace. On the ground, this has led to Christians and Muslims providing mutual aid to one another and protection from assaults by both sides. This strategy may prove a costly form of Gospel witness, but it may also prepare the ground for post-conflict peacemaking on the model of Blessed John Paul II’s maxim, “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.”
Since the tabloid culture trivialized public virtue by the indiscriminate use of the term hero, it is refreshing when a publication gives an overused term like greatest a sharper definition. Nation Books has published The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, by Peter Dreier, a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. Greatness, for Mr. Dreier, describes those who make the United States “a more just, equal and democratic society.” His choices are activists, intellectuals, artists and politicians. For this reason Mr. Dreier leaves out famous personalities like Ernest Hemingway, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh and names no philanthropists.
The only presidents included are Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson; Albert Einstein is one of the few scientists; and the only philosopher is John Dewey. Members of the clergy include Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson, who applied Gandhi’s tactics to the civil rights movement. Catholics, by baptism and heritage, include William J. Brennan, Cesar Chavez, Tom Hayden, Michael Harrington and Dorothy Day.
Theodore Roosevelt makes it in spite of his imperialism; Lyndon Johnson in spite of Vietnam. No one listed, says Mr. Dreier, is a saint. However the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain thought otherwise, once suggesting that the tough Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, who is included, was one.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York deftly dodged political controversy by finessing an invitation to both party conventions this year, joining a distinguished list of U.S. Catholic leaders who had historic, if sometimes regrettable, occasion to comingle with U.S. partisan politics. The entry of church figures into that sometimes unsavory world comes with tremendous risks. That is particularly true at this time, when cultural polarization threatens to widen cultural and spiritual gulfs within the church itself.
While Cardinal Dolan’s office stated that he “was coming solely as a pastor, only to pray, not to endorse any party, platform, or candidate,” both parties will no doubt scramble to spin his visitations to their advantage. Likewise, Simone Campbell, S.S.S., of Network, runs the risk of politicizing Catholic teaching through her appearance at the Democratic convention. It is not unreasonable to caution any church figure against appearing too closely aligned with a particular political party, but is it desirable for the church to remain angelically above the fray as the nation confronts an inevitable mixture of social, political and moral challenges? No. The church is not a sect in retreat from the world but a force of hope and change in optimistic and loving encounter with the world. It cannot retreat from any stage, certainly not the political, where its message of mercy and justice could do some good. All the same, church leaders must remain alert to the dangers that accompany a too-close association with the messages and messengers of the times.