“… The flowers and the candles are stronger than the guns.”
~ A father in Paris to his son at one of the memorial sites after the November 13th attacks
A week later, I’m unsure which I find more sickening: the attacks themselves or the nasty reactions by people here in the United States … friends and family members, political leaders and wannabes … many of whom profess themselves to be Christian. Yes, our current efforts against the terroristic, vicious movement known as “ISIL” need to change. But not in the ways the strident voices in our midst are insisting.
Our current strategies (such as they are) and efforts clearly are not working. How do those calling for more of the same, only harder and more forceful, think for one moment that this will produce a different result? It won’t. The mess that exists today is the outgrowth of our military adventuring in the name of nation building for the past few decades.
We say we want to promote democracy – but democracy, by its very definition, can only come from the will of the people. It cannot be forced at gunpoint or bombed into existence. To think that we can reshape these countries to suit our preferences is the same misguided policy that for the past century has produced problem after problem … sometimes by deliberate intention and with “malice aforethought.” After nearly a hundred years, it’s high time we all learned a few things and stopped this madness.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, the colonial powers of Europe created countries that had never before existed. The boundaries were drawn in such ways as to make them inherently unstable. The Kurds were divided among several of the new nations rather than allowed to remain a single entity. Populations of Sunnis and Shi’ites – who have a long history of mutual animosity – were lumped together within the same boundaries despite any lack of shared interest in living together in harmony. These were not accidental blunders. This design was intended to create nations that would be inherently unstable because that suited the purposes of the Western (colonial) powers.
Given so much internal strife within these ahistorical nations, a strong armed dictatorial leader would be required to enforce order. Such a leader would be dependent on the Western powers for the means necessary for maintaining control, making him a vassal for the Western powers, beholden to them so that he would act according to their interests in order to continue to have access to the support he needed to stay in power. And so it was.
This set the stage for the on-going manipulation by both the Soviet Union and the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Leaders were raised up and manipulated like pawns in the greater chess game of the cold war as each side sought to improve its own access to the one resource neither could continue without: Middle East oil. The inherent conflict between Iran and Iraq was exploited by both sides of the cold war as support shifted back and forth. First we supported the Shah of Iran (our strong arm vassal). But when he was deposed, our support shifted to Iraq and Saddam Hussein was our new best friend in the area. Then, of course, that shifted again. The Soviet Union had similar issues with Afghanistan.
Given all this manipulation – and the behind-the-scenes currying of favors that accompanies manipulation, should we be surprised to find widespread corruption in the governmental entities of these puppet-states? Yet, when we in the United States decided that democracy would be preferable to dictators for governing countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we seemed shocked that there would be so much wide-spread corruption among the government that emerged from our military campaigns.
“Why do they hate so much?” we lamented in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The thought that our national actions in the Middle East might have made us less than loveable never entered the conversation or public thought process around these issues. Al Qaeda has its roots as counteraction to past US military activity in the region just as the Taliban rose up as a reaction against military interventions in Afghanistan. They cite western influences as corrupting. If we tried, even for a few moments, to manage something like a neutral, observational perspective on this situation that has devolved over the decades, could we say they were entirely wrong? Our motives have never been guided by the best interests of the people living in the Middle East. How could our actions be perceived as entirely benevolent?
The rest of the mess is recent history … going into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and deal with Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of September 11th … then finding reasons to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. Despite efforts to promote and establish democracy, functional government remains elusive in both places. Meanwhile, the atrocities inherent in warfare have left deep scars among the people. Long-standing internal tensions erupt in violent actions again and again. We can send more troops surging in to quell the morass, but once we pull back … it starts all over again … and we can’t seem to figure out why.
The answer has been in plain sight all along, but it’s rarely mentioned. These nations were set up a century ago with an intentional design to be inherently unstable. Unless we are willing to commit to be a permanent, occupying presence to enforce an unnatural stability in the region, stability will not happen.
Those arguing for more military activity in the area should put their bodies and the bodies of their loved ones where their mouths are. If they are of age to serve, they should enlist. Otherwise, they should be taking their young adult children or grandchildren down to the recruiters’ offices and sign them up for the Army or the Marines, committing them to being among the boots on the ground that they are demanding as the only possible solution. If they are unwilling to do that, then they need to shut up now!
What we’ve been trying to do is enforce a civil order and structure that few – if any – in the region truly want.
What we have in the Middle East is a wide-ranging civil war produced by long history and outside interference. If we truly support democracy, governance through the will of the people who are being governed, as we say we do, then it is the people of these countries who must who direct the way forward and we have to let them. That means we have to back off, stand down, cease and desist our military efforts to sustain an arbitrary order that unwanted by the people who must live under it.
I know it’s never been done this way before. But the only way I can see out of the mess is to create some non-violent process by which the people of the Middle East can draw their own national boundaries. Yes, there will have to be some negotiations around where the lines will go, who gets what territory. Yes, in some places, people may have to be uprooted and relocated. But that’s already happening now … and it has a longer history in the region than the arbitrarily drawn boundaries of the past century.
The multitudes of refugees streaming into Europe are seeking nothing more that someplace to live in safety and in peace. If they could have that in their homelands, they would stay. And if we were living under the conditions they are fleeing, we would do exactly the same thing! How dare we fault them and blame them and insult them for doing this?
Most troubling of all is that those who are doing the most calling for more military action, more bombs, more boots … those clamoring loudest to refuse the refugees from these areas we have torn apart through military violence … are Christian voices, proudly hailing America as a Christian nation!
This is no more Christian than terrorist activity is Islam. Both are betrayals of the very faith the perpetrators profess.
For Christian Churches whose communal life is shaped by the annual liturgical cycle, this past Sunday was the Sunday of Christ the King, also known as the Reign of Christ. It’s a good time to ponder the ways of Christ’s rule and the calling of Christ’s followers to live out the ways of that rule. In fact, this observance was introduced to liturgical practice almost a century ago as a protest against dictators, as a way to say our allegiance is to Christ and Christ alone.
To say that we are followers of Christ, that we live under the Reign of Christ, is to say that we live by a different way than that by which the world “has always done it.” It means to reject the ways of power over others and oppression because it was such systems that executed Jesus on that cross. And it was over such ways that Jesus triumphed in the resurrection – proving that love is stronger than hate and fear, that life is stronger than death, that the will of God for all the world and all its peoples is love and life in its fullness. We are called to live out this vision and to participate in God’s on-going work to bring this promised future to life in our world.
The season of Advent is almost upon us. Although popular understanding of these weeks prior to Christmas has devolved into getting ready for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Advent is far more than that. We look to Christ’s first coming, the birth of Jesus among us, in order to remember that God has indeed broken into our world so that we can look forward to God’s in-breaking in our world today. What God did then points toward what God will yet do and is doing even now. We remember then in order to prepare for the future so that we can live toward that future now.
This story we tell of Jesus, from his birth to his ministry to his death and resurrection, is our story as Christians. The gift of faith is to shape our understanding of God’s ways and God’s work in the world. This story is to shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our perspectives, our language, our words and our deeds are to be shaped by this story. It is not for us to pick and choose bits and pieces of the good news just to suit our preconceived expectations, our political preferences, our self-justifications. As Christians, we are supposed to be different from the usual way of things in this world and right now, the world desperately needs us to be heralds of that different better way.
For the love of Christ, those of us who would call ourselves Christians, who profess to be followers of Jesus the crucified and risen one, must reject the ways of fear and hatred and violence. We are called to be voices of the new creation, heralds of God’s dream for all the world. Our words must speak of love and hope and peace – not hatred and fear and violence. To do the latter is a rejection of Christ and the ways of God and a denial of the faith we claim to have.
The world desperate needs our voices to call out against the hate and the fear and the violence … to tell the truth we know – that love is stronger than hate and fear, that life is stronger than death … to explain that the ways of God are the ways that make for peace and healing, that call life out of death … to offer the bold assurance that the candles and the flowers in what they represent really are stronger than the guns.