Bombs Bursting in Air

Week of Monday, October 15, 2001

This week American and British bombs began raining down upon Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has declared the skies are now clear for us to bomb 24 hours a day, although some jets now return to aircraft carriers with missiles intact due to a paucity of targets. No doubt the President's ratings will spike in the polls.

As a Christian who worships the Lord who loves all peoples and nations, this fills me with deep sadness. Terrorized by the Taliban, devastated by its war with the Soviet Union (1 million deaths, 4 million refugees), Afghanistan, like many places in the world today,1 is hardly a nation in the normal political sense of the term. What it is is an unqualified humanitarian catastrophe.

I am greatly inspired by the pacifist possibilities proposed by King and Ghandi, but it seems like non-violence as a national policy would allow evil to rule unchecked. So, I believe that some sort of military intervention is called for on our part, just as it was in the second world war or, more recently, in Yugoslavia. In both of those cases wholesale genocide was taking place and military intervention helped to stop it. There is an argument to made, too, that if we had intervened sooner and more forcibly in Europe and the former Yugoslavia, we might have saved even more lives, just as we might have in the Rwandan genocide where we did nothing at all.

Given the apparent necessity of a military response, I nevertheless have tried to identify in my own mind just what it is that disturbs me as a Christian about our war against terrorism. Three matters come to mind: the ambiguous consequences of violence; the inflated sense of national cause to make it almost contiguous with God's cause; and the restricted sense of justice to exclude our opponents' moral claims.

First, violence often begets more violence. I wonder whether the bombings will prevent future terrorist acts (which the Taliban have already promised) or actually provoke even more of them by radicalizing and inflaming the militant fringe, and drawing in even moderate Muslims. Only time will tell.

Further, although I recognize our military response as somehow necessary, I feel very uneasy about calling it morally good. To me the bombings are necessary, regrettable and morally ambiguous. What disturbs me the most is the rhetoric of religious nationalism that is invoked to narrate our cause, namely, the idea that God is on our side in a uniquely special way, that our cause is His cause. Senator John McCain put it this way: “They hate us because we are good and they are evil.” Defining the kingdom of God in nationalistic terms, or one's national interests in divine terms, is nothing new. Compare these four examples.

Adolf Hitler stated his case this way. “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator...By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” His rival General Eisenhower used the language of jihad: “This war was a holy war; more than any other in history this war has been an array of the forces of evil against those of righteousness.”2 Now fast forward to the present crisis.

On October 7, 2001, after the United States and Britain launched its attacks on Afghanistan, the Arab television news network al Jazeera broadcast a speech by Osama bin Laden. We don't know exactly when this tape was made, and I have made some slight paraphrases to improve the awkward translation of bin Laden's speech.

America has now tasted only a small portion of the humility we have experienced for 80 years. In Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and the like, no one complains when innocent children and civilians are killed. No guilt is attached to this. No one thinks of these as war crimes...I say that these events have split the whole world into two camps: the camp of the believer and the camp of the infidel...God has given America back what they deserve...This is America, God has sent one of the attacks by God and has attacked one of its best buildings. And this is America filled with fear from the north to the south, and east to west, thank God.
Here, America is the great Satan.

George Bush likewise invoked divine sanction for our country's actions. In his September 20 speech to the joint session of Congress (viewed by 82 million people, according to Nielsen) he remarked:

Every nation, in every region, now has a decision. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists...I will not forget this wound to our country, or those who inflicted it. I will not yield. I will not rest... I will not relent in waging this struggle for the freedom and security of the American people...The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them...Fellow citizens, we will meet violence with patient justice assured of the rightness of our cause.
In this instance it is the militant Muslims who constitute an evil empire.

Let me be clear. To me there is no moral comparison between Hitler and the allies, or between terrorist values that turn jets into bombs and western liberal political values enshrined in the likes of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). But all four people above invoke God for their cause and divide the world neatly into the evil infidel and the righteous believer. That makes me nervous. Flying the flag in a church or a mosque, as if to signify either figuratively or literally that the interests of the kingdom of God coincide with the interests of one's country, is a more benign example of the same phenomenon.

Thirdly, sometimes our sense of justice is truncated, tailored to serve our own narrow cause while myopically ignoring our enemy's moral claims. Having traveled in numerous countries of the two-thirds world, I must say that I get frustrated when Americans fail to appreciate why many people around the world “hate us.”

I resonate with some of what bin Laden says about the political humiliation, economic exploitation, military domination, and overall “cultural colonialism” that nations like his feel. What about the the moral filth we export around the world for a handsome profit, from movies by Madonna and Schwarzenegger to MTV (which, as the world's largest television network, can now be viewed in 342 million households in 140 countries).3 Does our sense of justice weep as much for the 100,000 Iraqis killed in the Gulf War (1991) as for the 148 allied casualties,4 as much for the one million deaths in the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88) as for our 44 Americans slain in Mogadishu (1992)? Bin Laden's terrorist response is tragically flawed and will do his cause harm; but his analysis has at least some merit. From the vantage point of the world's disenfranchised, western triumphalism is not a pretty picture.

Bombs are not a quick fix and may, in fact, cause not only collateral damage but unintended consequences. The kingdom of God is something far different than a national cause. And a consistent sense of moral justice does not know any national boundaries. May God have mercy on our country; and on Afghanistan too.

  1. See Robert Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth (New York: Random, 1996).
  2. Cited by James Carroll, Constantine's Sword (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), pp. 256–257.
  3. Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World (New York: Ballantine, 1995). See also Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree : Understanding Globalization (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000).
  4. These are the US government estimates; some human rights groups put the figures much higher.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.