07 May 2009

Evangelism and enemies

The New York Times reported today that "United States officials acknowledged Thursday for the first time that at least some of what might be 100 civilian deaths in western Afghanistan had been caused by American bombs. In Afghanistan, residents angrily protested the deaths and demanded that American forces leave the country."

A little later in the story, "The United States defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, questioned by journalists as he visited the capital, Kabul, apologized for any loss of innocent life. But he said that 'exploiting civilian casualties and often causing civilian casualties are a fundamental part' of the insurgents’ strategy."

I grieve these deaths and losses. I don't want to think about how my country's equipment rained death down on people I never knew. Among the victims, those who did not wish us harm died for the glorious reason that they inhabited our margin of error, or because their deaths were seen as a reasonable price to pay to accomplish the deaths of the "real" enemy. Our officials knew that this real enemy apparently likes to cause or provoke us to kill innocents, and by the criminally stunted morality of low-intensity warfare, we oblige.

Well, I can't help going a step further. What about that real enemy, the Taliban, or El-Qaeda--how do I know that they deserve to die at the hands of officials answerable to me and my neighbors, with bombs our taxes have purchased?

I've been following this story for the last couple of days, and at the same time I am continuing to make my plodding way through Bryan Stone's Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. (The book is an inspiring/frustrating mix of excellent content presented in jargon-laden, underedited prose--but more about that another time.) I came across these thoughts (pages 179-80):
Much of the confusion regarding Christianity and politics swirls around whether (and if so, how) the church should be involved in politics, or which options a Christian should choose within a particular society or nation. But this typically cedes far too much to a secular politics, construing it as the only game in town and failing to recognize that living together as the people of God is itself already a politics. It presumes politics as an autonomous sphere of the social order having a fixed boundary that separates it from the realm of faith, so that faith can only ever be related to politics as a subsequent application or engagement. By contrast, to speak of the politics of evangelism in the way I intend it here is to begin with the church as itself a politics and to point to the visible, bodily, and corporate way that persons are invited to be formed into that alternative polis. The church then is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected. Yet if evangelism is political or if, for that matter, this politics is no utopian ideal, nor is it a lofty set of "causes" that we are merely summoned to stand in favor of. Evangelism is a summons to take the reign of God seriously, and it is an invitation to allow our lives, commitments, and relations to be ordered within that deviant politics called the church.
Skipping to pages 193-4,
We do not start with "world" in order to understand what we mean by "church." However subversive this politics may be, it is so precisely because it embodies the good news of God's reign in a situation where hostility to that reign passes for normalcy. Nor may we absolutize the difference between church and world. For one thing, there is a good deal of "world" in all of us, including the church. But more than that, while it is true that the church's story is not the world's story, Christian evangelism operates out of an unyielding trust that it can be, the audacious confidence that it should be, and the outrageous hope that it will be.
In my sorrow about the Afghanistan slaughter, I'm trying to make a concrete application of this theology. The world's story (at least the Pentagon's story) is that (a) the Taliban are our enemies; (b) we have justifiably deployed forces within range of Taliban bullets; (c) their violence against our forces and allies is illegitimate; (d) our lethal response, including risk to civilians, is legitimate and normal.

Jesus severely complicates this neat arrangement. As Paul says, "God has given us the task of telling everyone what [God] is doing. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them." But in the "real world," hostility to that starting point, that urgent ministry of persuasion and reconciliation, passes for normalcy.

Our first step, if Bryan Stone is right, is to declare independence from both the Pentagon story and the Taliban story--not to depart from the world in which these combatants are killing each other, but to place the legitimacy of their stories under question. I don't mean a glib or sentimental claim of equivalence, declaring both sides equally loveable and blameless. On the other hand, I do mean putting sacrificial effort into finding out what each side actually knows about the other, and whether they're telling their audiences the whole truth about what they know. What in fact are U.S. forces doing that far away from home; what do they know about their opponents' grievances and motivations, and what has "our side" done to break out of this lethal embrace with the enemy?

The other side faces equally awkward questions concerning their ultimate goals--is their quarrel primarily with foreign intervention and occupation, or do they actually seek to set up a totalitarian theocracy? Have they in fact declared war against anyone who disagrees with them?

And we evangelists--what will we do to communicate the hope of reconciliation, the necessity of mercy and forgiveness, in parts of the world where the hostility is not just normal, it's deadly? We can and should assert that no government is entitled to command Christians to kill anyone. When our governments tell us who should be our enemies, we should be persistently skeptical. Even when the government has correctly identified a group that truly wants to harm me and my neighbors, we should never accept blindly the government's limited list of options for meeting the danger.

(Don't deny danger that truly exists! Raising an alarm is a legitimate purpose of government--just refuse to be manipulated into immoral responses that reinforce the powers that be , and blind us to the humanity of the "enemy," rather than meeting the danger. Remember that the world we live in--and therefore our politics--has changed decisively since we've put Jesus at the center!)

And, in the meantime, we should be organizing our prophets, evangelists, apostles, pray-ers, teachers, administrators, pastors, and everyone else to be sure that eventually the ministry of reconciliation is in every place in this "real world" where guns and missiles are aimed at each other. The stakes are high--there are children living right now in those margins of error, and our taxpayer-financed fingers are again tightening on the trigger.

For almost the whole Bush II presidency, I yearned for a respectful and assertive dialogue between our leaders and those who seem to hate us the most, particularly among Muslims--not a pandering apology but a straightforward engagement with our enemies' assertions, both right and wrong. Obama has made a new and hopeful start, but the agonies of innocent victims, shredded in full public view by our forces, is drowning him out.

Here are some links I liked this week: Do our convictions and exhortations lead to behavioral changes? ~~ Cherice asks some related questions here. ~~ Seth Godin on "ten years of Permission Marketing." ~~ Plans afoot to make a movie of Blue Like Jazz. ~~ Abu Ghraib crucifixion (my reflection: where is the enemy here?) ~~ The curious case of men like Michael Steele. ~~ Christopher Buckley on losing parents, and on the fear of death. ~~ Rick Warren vs Rick Warren.

Blues from Finland: Erja Lyytinen, again--"Rolling and Tumbling."


Bill Samuel said...

I've had some chance to think about this issue. I've always been involved in the political stuff. As a Quaker, I was involved in a religious group which did a lot of it.

When I joined Cedar Ridge Community Church, I wasn't entirely happy with it being a place where it didn't generally do the political stuff as a congregation. But I've come very much to appreciate its approach.

If you read the Cedar Ridge vision statement, you'll see it very much points to what Stone is saying, and the Church is very serious about that. Isn't this really much deeper and more likely in the long run to bring about real change than making political statements all the time?

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, I think that there is also room for political statements. For one thing, a well-conceived political statement is a form of evangelism; for another, silence can be misinterpreted; and for another, some Christians are gifted to communicate that way, even as others are clearly NOT.

Still, as a community, we should not overestimate the importance of political statements. If that's all we do, we are in danger of implying, as Stone says, that secular politics are the only game in town, and that if we scratch the political itch, we've somehow done enough.

Bill Samuel said...

Yes, I can agree that there is room for political statements. But I admit to some frustration in my years of Quakerism at many hours spent drafting and considering statements that probably would not be read except in the context of counting number of messages for and against.

I'm not saying that religious communities might not have genuine calls to engage this way. But often I think it is misdirected energy.

Johan Maurer said...

Yes, without a "genuine call," it is probably misdirected energy. And it's worse than that if we're deceived into thinking we've done everything that discipleship requires.

On the positive side, Reedwood Friends Church has gained much from responding to the issue of families separated by immigration-related arrests of parents here in the Portland (Oregon, USA) area. What might have been a dutiful exercise in political-statement-writing has become a searching experience for the whole meeting on multiple levels, uniting Bible study, prayer, public expression, a meeting yesterday with Representative Blumenauer, and--not least--consultation and advocacy among other Friends in our yearly meeting. It all began with an individual Friend's cry from the heart during a meeting for worship.

When this advocacy began, I vividly remembered a similar cry from the heart around 20 years ago at First Friends in Richmond, Indiana, leading to that meeting's undertaking a ministry of support for war tax refusers, a step that would not have been predicted as "normal" for that congregation.

James said...