By Drew Christiansen,
With no end in sight for Syria’s dreadful civil war, Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace on Saturday, September 7. With the fecklessness of the international community, and with no prospect that limited military intervention will bring relief to the victims of war, we should be driven to our knees. It is a moment for the church to pray for God to grant peace where men have failed to dampen the fires of war and see no prospect of doing so soon.
The turn to prayer at a juncture like this is not just a Catholic thing. It is a profound human need which others can share, because humanity is face to face with its own powerlessness to prevent the cruelest evils from being done. For that reason, the pope has made his request “a universal invitation” to all men and women “of peace.” In doing so, he is giving voice to humanity’s desire for peace. He is also inviting us to come to grips with our inability to bring about peace and to voice our exasperation at the intransigence of so many now blocking the way to peace.
Prayer and fasting may be especially important exercises for us can-do Americans. The debate over whether to briefly intervene in the Syrian conflict offers an occasion to reflect on the human and national limitations that most times we are so ready to ignore or deny. After a wrong-headed war in Iraq and that country’s ongoing travails, after the very limited and probably temporary successes in Afghanistan, after so many veterans wounded in mind and heart, with the continuing chaos and repression in Egypt, we Americans have many reasons to reflect on our human limitations and particularly on the evident incapacity of military power and governmental influence to bring about the good we desire.
For all Christians, including Catholics, Saturday will also be a time to lament the impending threat of the disappearance of Middle Eastern Christianity. Syria was the last great refuge of Christians in the region. Its secular Baathist regimes allowed a religious pluralism that respected the numerous, ancient Christian churches that found their home in Syria. In addition, successive waves of Palestinian and Iraqi Christians took refuge in Syria. The Syrian sanctuary is no more, and with the Copts under tremendous pressures in Egypt, Middle Eastern Christianity is in dire peril.
For American Christians, and Americans generally, Saturday should be an occasion to search our consciences as to whether we have done enough to show solidarity with Middle East Christians. For whether in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria, time after time American foreign policy has been a disaster for the region’s Christians. If we were truly interested in international religious liberty, we would have long ago adopted a policy more attuned to the realities of the region. We would have worked to preserve the fragile accommodations that allowed religious diversity to flourish there. Now we can mostly look to a sad future for Middle East Christians as refugees and asylum-seekers. We should be sorely pained as well because granting asylum is something our nation has been loath to do, admitting only small numbers of refugees from the Middle East in the last ten years.
Fasting is another cross-cultural practice that can be embraced both by Catholics and people of good will in times of crisis. Fasting helps us better attune ourselves to the depths of our existence. It is a suitable expression of the emptiness we experience when we cannot make things right, and a way to express solidarity with the injured and impoverished victims of this war. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even Congress and presidents called for national days of fasting. The Second Continental Congress and George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army called for days of days of ”humiliation, fasting and prayer.” So did President John Adams in 1798.
In the midst of our own Civil War, President Lincoln declared “a national day of prayer and humiliation” for March 30, 1863 “to the needful end of our reformation as a whole people.” He explained the need of spiritual purification. “Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace to pray to the God who made us!” Mr. Lincoln understood there was a place for fasting in civic life too.
It is no surprise that these proclamations were issued in times of war. For war puts us in extremis, but it also clouds the mind and puts the heart in turmoil corrupting our ability to perform truly human acts. Our American forebears understood that fasting cleanses the mind for sober deliberation and purifies the heart for disinterested and generous action. For these reasons, fasting is just the kind of thing we need to do as we approach a national debate on a limited intervention in Syria. The gods of military force, political rationality and human organization have failed us. Fasting has the power to free us from passions of politics and open us up to fresh visions of peace.
But we can achieve that clarity of mind and purity of heart only if we have first consciously experienced the insufficiency of political reason to resolve our problems, the inability of military power to produce a positive outcome and the incapacity of the world community to agree on a solution to so evident a problem. The essence of the day of prayer and fasting, as the American founders understood, is “humility and humiliation.” We must acknowledge our finitude and that of our institutions, and welcome our exhaustion and exasperation as preludes to renewal. Only then can we find sure hope for God’s promise of peace.
Father Christiansen, a longtime adviser to the U.S. bishops on Mideast affairs and the former editor of America, the Jesuit weekly, is a visiting scholar this year at Boston College.