Institutes & Initiatives

Institutes & Initiatives


Below please find a letter written by President Serene Jones and Dr. James Forbes on September 9, 2013. 

We invite you to submit your comments and reflections at the bottom of the page. 

Dear Members of the Union Community and Friends of the Seminary,

We write to invite you, friends and neighbors in faith communities across our nation, to join us this week in holding Congress in our prayers as they contemplate their response to our President’s proposed military strike against Syria. We recognize the seriousness of the issue before them. The use of chemical weapons by Assad on August 21st shocked and revolted communities of conscience around the world, and as people of faith, we join many in condemning these actions as crimes against humanity.

As we now ponder the course of action we should take in response, we recognize that the leaders and citizens of the United States are deeply divided in their convictions about military intervention. According to our best calculations, dire consequences will follow from either action or inaction and neither, it seems, promises to achieve clear, good outcomes. Indeed, a “good outcome” is impossible in a situation as violent and vexed as this one.

In a moment like this, it is tempting to retreat to partisan camps and thereby avoid serious moral debate. As people of faith, we urge otherwise. We urge that depth of conscience and humble conviction guide us as we wrestle with this question, together, as one people.

Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr spoke to Presidents and congressional leaders often on such matters – always urging them to not shy away from the hard work of moral reflection and to do so with open eyes and humble but decisive minds and wills. We do not always have the luxury, he reminded us, of solving problems that have clear answers. More often than not, we must wander through moral fog where no path will lead us to daylight clarity. And yet, we must decide what we believe to be the right course of action. We must.

In the words of a simple prayer, he captured the complexity of the kind of faithful moral reflection, when he asked God...

Give us courage to change the things
which should be changed,

the grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

These strong, wise words can give us guidance in this moment if we dare to take them seriously. Whether we are hawks or doves, interventionists or isolationists, ready to take unilateral action or inclined to await UN consent, one things is certain – we know that the President and Congress desperately need grace, courage, and, most especially, wisdom as they cast their votes this week. They need, as well, the prayers of faith communities across our land who recognize the magnitude of the decision before them and the inevitably vexed nature of their response.

History may well show that our decision, whatever it may be, was the wrong one – perhaps with untold, horrific consequences. If so, then our only solace as a nation will be the knowledge that we wrestled honestly and humbly with our options, and we made our decision guided by a sense of moral seriousness and not because of partisan pressure or party politics. The stakes are too high for that. This is not a democratic or republican issue; it is a human issue of the highest and most serious magnitude.

It is anticipated Congress will vote on the President’s proposal this coming week. This week we will celebrate Patriot Day and Commemorate September 11th, the National Day of Service and Remembrance. Let us also lift our hearts and minds in prayers and thoughts for Congress and our President as they decide on the weighty matters before them. Dr. Jones will lead the Union community in prayer at its 177th Convocation this Wednesday evening. You may watch Union's 177th Convocation on line at The livestream will be available on September 11, 2013 at 6:00 p.m.


Rev. Dr. Serene Jones

President and Johnston Family Professor for Religion and DemocracyUnion Theological Seminary 

Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr.
James Forbes
Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor, Union Theological Seminary and Senior Minister Emeritus of the Riverside Church

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Tom F. Driver, The Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus

Dear Serene and Jim:

Conscience requires me to express my disappointment in your letter concerning the Syrian Crisis.  I can do so by referring to the thoughts of Niebuhr that are included in your letter:

Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr spoke to Presidents and congressional leaders often ... always urging them to not shy away from the hard work of moral reflection and to do so with open eyes and humble but decisive minds and wills.

Permit me to say that your letter does shy away from the hard word of moral reflection. It is humble but not decisive. If offers no moral guidance when that is what we most sorely need right now.

I believe that the least a Christian individual or body can do concerning war is to affirm that a military strike must never be a nation's first or preferred response to any situation.  This was seen clearly by the Faculty of Union Seminary in the wake of the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001.  The Faculty put forth a prophetic letter, warning against a violent response to violence, at a time when the land was full of justified indignation, and the President of the United States was beginning to beat the drums of war. 

Today we are in such a moment again, although this time no attack has been made on our own people.  We are being told, although without clear evidence, that the government of Syria has committed a war crime and that the proper response is military.  The President has by no means exhausted the avenues of response that are open to him in the United Nations, in the international courts, and in regional diplomacy.  At such a time, it is morally inadequate to pretend that militarism and diplomatic pursuits have equal moral weight.  Union Seminary should have more courage than that.

 I regret having to write this letter to two persons and colleagues for whom I have such abiding respect, but I feel that this is a moment when silence is betrayal. 

Respectfully and sincerely yours,



Tom F. Driver
The Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture Emeritus
Union Theological Seminary in New York


Dear Tom, 

Thank you for your honest and forthright response to our letter.  I cannot speak for Jim, but for me, the principle point of the note was to argue against allowing the debate to become a partisan debate.  In terms of my position, I agree with you completely.  I can foresee no good outcome following from military intervention, and I am quite willing to take this position publicly and forcefully.  We should not intervene with military strikes. 

 That said, I am deeply concerned about the lack of serious political conversation in our country about these moral issues.  More often than not, lines are drawn and communication breaks down between sides. Its abominable. And as long as we avoid serious moral debate about matters of grave importance, we keep our politics at the level of shouting and name calling.  If only everyone was as thoughtful about the matters are you.

We are trying to stimulate more conversation at Union about these matters – and to do so on our webpage.  Would you mind if we publicly posted your note?  Karenna Gore, our new Director of the Union Forum, will be curating the conversation and can be in further touch with you, if you are willing to be posted. 

Hope to hear more from you!

 Take care, Serene 




Rev. Ken Sehested, Union 1978

Dear Dr. Jones and Dr. Forbes,

With all respect, your 9 September 2013 letter to members of the Union Community and Friends of the Seminary is a surprisingly tepid statement of discernment regarding the impending decision on a US military strike against Syria. 

I say this, well aware that there is great division in the land over whether our President should attack Syria, though public opinion polls shows a very strong majority opposed to such an attack. (Though I’m willing to admit that some significant percentage of those who oppose do so for truly isolationist, self-centered reasons.)

I’m well aware that no choice can be made that will bring near-term relief to the people of Syria and that this is indeed a vexing problem which lacks clear answers. It pushes our problem-solving boasts to the breaking point.

But to say that we are left only with moral fog—and counsel for humble conviction—seems itself to be a kind of isolationist choice (for “moral reflection” and “wrestling honestly”).

What I most object to in your letter is that you appear to assume that the only options for response are to shoot or not to shoot: “Whether we are hawks or doves, interventionists or isolationists, ready to take unilateral action . . . or await UN consent. . . .”

Might it not be possible that a wormwood is at work in the core when the question is limited to “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?” (as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked last week)? As if the only option to escalating the violence is to sit on our hands. As if raining yet more deadly force upon an already lethal conflict is the only alternative to “whimpering and backing down” (again quoting Kristof).

The most convincing voices (including the President’s) arguing for a military option do so largely from the motive of maintaining our nation’s moral credibility. We said we were going to do if Assad crossed the line. Now we have to back it up.

Isn’t it chilling to think that willingness to project lethal power now equals moral authority?

In my opinion we need two things: Firstly, people of faith and conscience clarifying the wider context of this decision. If we attack Syria, it will be the seventh Muslim country attacked by the US in the past decade. We need voices reminding our political leaders and the larger public of the long entanglement by the West in general, and the US in particular, in the Middle East. As it now stands, we’ve got amnesiacs behind the gun sights.

Secondly, we need to lift to the front practical but bold and imaginative political alternatives for robust interventionist strategies which cannot be delivered through the barrel of a gun. And we must be willing to pay at least as high a price as for military solutions.

I’m fully aware that such alternatives may not work. I’m even aware that more Syrians may die, in the immediate future, because we chose not to intervene militarily. But if we, who hold to another Promised future, cannot persevere in the struggle to open up political imagination, to create space for alternatives to bloodletting, who will do this?

(I’ve hinted at some of those alternative strategies in the attached sermon I gave yesterday in our congregation; and a host of other specific recommendation are easily available on the web.)

Former UN General-Secretary Dag Hammarsjköld once wrote, “even a small dent may lead to a rift, and a rift may lead to an opening,” and through that opening “you may break through the wall.”

Are we not ready—at least some of us—to boldly commit to finding the dents, for reasons of (long term) efficacy, to be sure, but not only that, but because that’s the likeness into which we are being made? And can we not say this, resolutely, without chauvinism, because the font of our testimony is that we ourselves are not the Protagonist in this drama?

Let me hasten to thank you both for your untiring labor for the promises and presence we both hold dear, even beyond our disagreements. 

Rev. Ken Sehested (UTS MDiv ’78, and proudly so)
Co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation
Asheville, NC

Sermon by Rev. Ken Sehested, U.T.S. '78.  Noli Timere-Do Not Be Afraid (on the impending US attack against Syria):

Dear Ken, 

Thank you for this note and for your words about "dents." I believe in dents – its what Union is all about.  Your sermon is remarkable.  Will you publish it somewhere?   

I agree with almost all of your points – and am very clear, myself, that military intervention is not the way to move forward. I have said this publicly and will continue to do so, for all the reasons you list.  In the letter, Jim and I were most concerned that the debate not devolve into partisan politics. 

Would you be willing for us to post your response to us on the Union webpage?  We are trying to stimulate more conversation like this at Union – and your letter is a model of the kind of discussion we hope to foster. 

Peace, Serene 


Kim Wells, Union 1986

I am wondering why President Jones chose to refer to the use of chemical weapons by Assad. Yes, chemical weapons were used, but there is no consensus in this country or in the international community that they were used by Assad. There is a strong case that has been made, by many sources, that the chemical weapons were used by a faction of the rebels, not by the Assad regime. Yes, we should pray for congress and for our leaders, as well as for Syria and its people. But perpetuating inaccurate information only inflames the problems and does not assist in resolving them.

It is also interesting that President Jones refers to the prayer of Reinhold Neibuhr which is also disputed in origin.

I pray for President Jones and the Seminary.

Kim Wells, Union 1985

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