Between anarchy and atrocity.

Long ago I read with my heart a book by John Stott, “Between Two Worlds.” I hope it continues to be read, by many people in many places. The image is arresting: that we are holding two realities together, an ancient one grounded in an authoritative text, and a very contemporary one immersed in the most conflicted, complex issues of the day. He saw that as the task of preaching, which is true, but it is also the task of living.

I thought of that this morning, with a slant. Reading the news on both sides of the Atlantic about Syria, whether outside intervention will and should happen, with the House of Commons saying “no” last night, and our president wrestling with the most weighty of all decisions, viz. shall we go to war?

How do we understand the call of “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God,” at a moment like this? What policy and political implications are there? It is hard not to think of other moments in the last century. Of Europe in the 1940s. Of Viet Nam a generation later. Of Rwanda a generation later. Of Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. Every decision was complex, and every decision was costly.

Today’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times wrestles with this, and reflects on the stark choice “between anarchy and atrocity.” Only fools imagine the way forward as uncomplicated and undemanding.

“As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far. The radical groups are the most effective fighters and control the tempo of events. The Syrian opposition groups are themselves split violently along sectarian lines so that the country seems to face a choice between anarchy and atrocity.

“Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading.”

I thought too of my reading of Tom Wolfe’s new novel, “Back to Blood,” over the last month. Set in Miami, not Damascus, he argues that America is on its way to increasing sectarianism. We don’t have war in the streets, but anyone paying attention to life in the public square sees that on issue after issue we cannot find common ground, and as the days pass we are only more divided.

Wolfe’s point is that our deeply different traditions, our “bloods,” reflect a deepening fragmentation, socially and politically, and rather than finding our way into a truer e pluribus unum, we are more divided than ever. In Miami it is the Cubans against the African-Americans, the WASP’s against the Russians, the Haitians against…. Well, the “against” goes on and on. It’s a novel, of course, and not the way it really is. And yet.

The strife appears to be spreading.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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