Syria and the Challenge to the Church: Dealing with Exceptionalism, Past and Present

As we look across the different issues discussed in this series of articles in Unbound on the Doctrine of Discovery and how it relates to the Middle East today, one common theme emerges.  Those of us who are white, American, and Christian have historically seen ourselves as special, as exceptional, and with particular  privileges.  This exceptionalist vantage point has normalized our bad treatment of “others” in ways that have raised our own priorities above those of all others while justifying actions that have run rough-shod over the rights and welfare of those who are not “one of us”. 

In our study of the conflict in Syria, (See Syria: the Burden of Memory and The Hope of the Gospel) we have expressed this theme in humility, based on a confession of our complicity in the events that created and fueled the crucible that is Syria today and which has also engulfed the entire region.  From the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 to the agreements of the Western Allies after World War II to the blatantly false claim of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, power has been in the hands of white colonists who have used it for their own ends.

But the Psalmist cries out, “Do not put your trust in princes…” [Psalm 146]  and Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:15), “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all”. And The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) respects human rights principles as a reflection of all humankind being made in God’s image and being part of God’s beloved creation, without exception.  In our study guide, we list our denomination’s policies on Syria  and also quote our Book of Confessions. Through the Confessions of 1967 and Belhar and the Barmen Declarations, we reject ideologies of injustice and stand with voices of justice.

As the American church seeks to come to terms with the many dimensions of a history built on exceptionalism that protects U.S. interests abroad and profits from the U.S. government’s dominance in Middle Eastern countries, a first requirement is that we acknowledge our country’s complicity in the injustices that flow from such a position.  We must also confess our church’s complicity of silence, implying an endorsement and  even involving active support of such policies.  That acknowledgement must lead us to ask for forgiveness for the ways in which our actions have harmed the welfare of others. 

Such an acknowledgement must also include a recognition of the ways in which our past actions have prevented other nations from choosing their own path.  Our history is replete with other peoples being forced to follow paths based on our exceptionalist visions, using approaches in which we gave ourselves permission to impose our own priorities on them.  Following a period of lamentation, in order to reach reconciliation, we must include work to eliminate exceptionalist and unjust policies which are still in force today.   Finally, as we work to amend our country’s policies to avoid making such errors in the future, we must provide help and support for those who have been harmed by our policies in the past.

Perhaps we can learn from the work of Reconstructionist, non-Zionist Rabbi Brant Rosen, who has been teaching and writing about how the Jewish community can and should overcome exceptionalism in its own theology. He writes:

While some in the Jewish community refer to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” I believe this term is profoundly problematic.  Generally speaking, national liberation movements are independence struggles waged by indigenous peoples against imperial, colonizing powers. For its part, Political Zionism was a movement in which European Jews traveled to Palestine to build colonies, with the intention of eventually creating an ethnically Jewish nation state – against the will of  the non-Jewish Arabs who were already living there.

Rabbi Rosen points out the parallels to our own American exceptionalism and history:

There is a term for this phenomenon : “settler colonialism.”  Unlike traditional colonialism, in which a world power colonizes a particular land in order to exploit its resources and strengthen its own geopolitical dominance, settler colonialism refers to movements that colonize a land in order to create a new society made up of one  particular group of people. In the case of traditional colonialism, native populations are subjugated by the dominant power as a form of essential labor. In the case of settler colonialism, native inhabitants are considered to be demographic threats to the dominant group – whose very existence on the land is viewed as a problem.

As a good teacher, Rabbi Rosen provides some thoughts on how to take steps towards a more just society. He writes about the Jewish experience in America, but we would do well to apply these steps to our understanding of Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.  He writes,

• The first step, it seems to me, is to do the inner work to decolonize our minds. We must challenge the assumptions ingrained within us by our colonial culture… Jews of European ancestry must reckon with the fact that we are settlers, no matter how our ancestors may have arrived at these shores.

• Our communities must center the experience of Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. As part of this centering work, we must stand down the narrative that the American Jewish experience is only about  immigration and opportunity.

• American Jewish communities must learn about the history of the lands upon which they make their homes and the indigenous peoples who are historically connected to the lands. We must take care not to appropriate their cultures and sacred traditions. We must learn about them as living, breathing peoples and cultures and not as idealized objects or stereotypes. We must prioritize the creation of accountable relationships to       the native peoples and groups who are our neighbors.

In the Syria Lebanon Partnership Network (SLPN), we have focused our advocacy on current policies relating to the relaxing of our government’s sanctions on Syria and its neighboring countries, and the provision of generous aid to those displaced by the conflict.  We have urged that all such work in the future be done in a context which shifts authority for such work from foreign into Syrian hands. 

Surrounding these calls for changes in particular policies, we remind the people in our churches of the need to build personal relationships with the people of Syria, built through organizations such as the Syria Lebanon Partnership Network and sustained through regular visits given and received. Finally, a point listed first among the actions called for in our study guide – we remind our readers of the importance of prayer.  At its very center, we know that future reconciliation among the peoples engulfed in conflict must be built on a change of heart, turning people who had been seen as bitter enemies into neighbors who may differ in many beliefs but who recognize each other as fellow human beings.  Prayer is an integral part of that transformation, and it must be a key part of the hard work of promoting an enabling environment of peace.  The Hope of the Gospel rests on such changes.  May it be so.

Pauline M. Coffman, Ed.D. is Professor and Director (retired) of the School of Adult Learning of North Park University in Chicago and an author/editor of Steadfast Hope; The Palestinian Quest for a Just Peace (2009), Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide (2014), and Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism (2018). Her interest in the Middle East came as a Junior Year Abroad student at Beirut College for Women (now Lebanese American University). She has led traveling seminars for the Middle East Task Force of Chicago Presbytery to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. She is co-chair of the Seraj Library Project which establishes children’s libraries in villages in Palestine ( She was part of the initial group that launched Kairos USA, and has been in the leadership of the Israel Palestine Mission Network and the Syria Lebanon Partnership Network of the PC(USA). She was recently elected co-moderator of IPMN.

Donald Mead, Ph.D. was introduced to the Middle East when he did two years of alternative service (1957-58) as a conscientious objector, working with the Near East  Christian Council Committee for Refugee Work, as social worker working with Palestinian refugees in their office in Cairo.  Returning from there to complete a Ph.D. in economics, he spent the next 35 years in academia (teaching, doing research, advising) focusing on economic development in Egypt and several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Since retiring in 1998 as Professor of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University, he has done volunteer mission work for the PC(USA), both overseas and in Louisville, and has been active in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the Syria Lebanon Partnership Network, and the Israel Palestine Mission Network. During that time, he has made eight trips to Palestine and Israel and one to Syria and Lebanon.

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