09/24/2013 07:53 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

The 'And Yet' of Syria, War and Peace

We have to do something about Syria's chemical weapons. And yet...

No person of compassion can ever sanction war. And yet...

There is a great deal of power in that tiny phrase. And yet stops us dead in our tracks. It confronts us with an entirely different aspect of an issue that we think we know. In the process, it nudges us to consider that we could be wrong -- and points us toward listening to the "other side" to hear its wisdom.

To wit: "Tea Partiers are uneducated and shallow of thought" ... and yet their percentage of college graduates is half again above the national average. "Same-sex marriage is not good for children" ... and yet a longitudinal study suggests that the children of lesbian parents are doing better than their counterparts in other family structures. Practice and yet enough, and you eventually approach everything from this mindset, ready not only to hear but actually to seek out the other side.

That doesn't make and yet easy. Rarely is it more difficult than when we wrestle with issues of war and peace.

In the abstract, there is no question in my mind where the moral high ground lives. St. Paul named peace as a fruit of God's Spirit. Jesus called the peacemakers blessed. The Quaker commitment to nonviolence is compelling in its simplicity and purity. The most radical, absolute practitioners of nonviolence in the past century -- the Dr. Kings and Gandhis among us -- are almost universally admired.

If peacemaking is an attribute of God, then I want to wage peace. I would like our world to try the radical approach to nonviolence for an extended period -- and then weigh the impact. With all my heart I would like, as John Dear has written on his page, to say no to war.

And yet...

The same Christian faith that proclaims peace as a divine imperative also recognizes the vast brokenness of our world. The same faith that challenges us to love even our enemies makes clear the all-too-real presence of evil. That evil, as we have seen time and time again -- in Hitler, in Stalin, in Pol Pot and others -- can wreak tremendous damage that will not stop unless it is checked.

I can only see violence as an extreme last resort. The question is whether it should even be that.

As if this weren't complex enough, we do have historical evidence that the path of nonviolence can work on a large scale. Gandhi in India. Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. Nelson Mandela (mostly) in South Africa. What we don't know is whether it can work on a broader scale or even in all times at all places. Or, for that matter, in Syria right now.

With all my heart, I want to give it a try. With all my head, I know what might happen if good people "do nothing" -- the nothing in this case being military action.

In the U.S., we are currently exploring and yet in our grand public square. The risks and imperatives of intervention in Syria are being well and truly pondered. If there is one hopeful sign, it is that many of us have learned extreme caution from the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

And yet is not an excuse for permanent indecision. It is a reason to decide and act with humility: realizing that we could be horribly wrong, yet moving forward with what, after careful reflection and dialogue, we think is closest to right.

When it comes to Syria, I am still unsure what "closest to right" is. What about you? What do you hear when you think of this quandary in light of and yet?