My head and heart ached last week
Maybe the existential threat Donald Trump posed to the United States and the most vulnerable people around the world fooled me into thinking his successor would be a revolutionary, but any hope in that came crumbling down after a week of observing U.S. foreign policy as usual. It was incredibly discouraging that the U.S. offered no knowable consequence to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a MBS) after it was confirmed that he gave the final approval for the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Kashoggi. Saudi Arabia is hostile, dangerous, and repressive. And killing an American journalist seems unconscionable to me. I didn’t understand how the Biden administration couldn’t stand against the leader of the murder of this American (even if it did place sanctions and restrictions on others). How can this sort of violence go unaccounted for? This is akin to punishing the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, but not convicting the one who sent them there.
I talked to some friends about it and learned some things. Saudi Arabia, despite being a wicked place, is a global power that serves the interests of America (though it is technically not an ally), particularly when it comes to the U.S.’s relationship with Israel and Iran. Furthermore, no heads of state, and MBS is essentially one, have been banned from entry into the United States. Evidently, punishing MBS would be both largely unprecedented, and would worsen relations in the Middle East for the U.S. I’m not alone in thinking that MBS should have been punished, because for most people the death of an American, or any person, is a knowable evil, in a way that the complexities of Middle Eastern politics aren’t.
I suffer the same cognitive dissonance when I consider Egypt and a repressive authoritarian that happens to be the best of the bad options in the Middle East. I don’t know how the U.S. can turn a blind eye to his human rights violations in favor of its own geopolitical interests.
It only got worse when Biden made his first military action. He bombed a specific site in Syria ten days after a rocket strike killed a Filipino contractor working with the American military and wounded six others. Evidently, Biden selected a “middle option” in terms of aggression, and avoided one that could have resulted in civilian casualties. Biden is hoping that this strike helps set the table for talks with Iran (who was behind the first strike) about a new nuclear proliferation pact.
My commitment to peace and peacemaking doesn’t preclude me from understanding the geopolitics (and I admit, I am particularly interested in U.S. foreign policy, in general). So while I understand both circumstances from a geopolitical perspective, I have a prophetic and principled opposition to these sort of dealings.
The practicalities and prophecies of peacemaking
These two situations confirm to me the great lie about American foreign policy. Human rights are not why the United States intervenes. (And it was a lie when George W. Bush said as much in his ill-advised war in Iraq.) It intervenes for what it believes to be national and international interests. And I understand that. And in fact, my understanding of that has made my relationships with military personnel and veterans more tenable. (Apparently calling them baby killers and hyperbolizing the evil of the American military isn’t great for building relationships.)
My approach and thoughts have changed over the years. If you had asked me what I thought of this even ten years ago, I would have had a hardline opposition for the terror the United States permits and perpetuates as the greatest military power. As I look at my young self, I don’t judge the passion and intensity that I had. The retributive and punitive aspects of the War in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the human rights violations the U.S. engaged in both in terms of torture and Abu Ghraib prison abuse, more than justified outrage and protest.
But I admit the hyperbole and ethnocentric vilification of the U.S. as the history’s worst and most dangerous empire just doesn’t feel satisfying to me as a response to American military action. Moreover, the violence itself is evil enough, we don’t need conspiracy theories about military contracts and the U.S.’s pursuit of oil (both of which I am guilty of) to make our point. Looking back, I understand the extremism that often comes with “new conversion.” But what I am going for now is not dialing back that intensity, but putting it in its right place.
My former approach was both isolating and not very convincing. It’s a fool’s errand to rely on drama to compel someone to move from the complexities of foreign policy. You may deepen the trenches of the worst war hawks, but most people aren’t given to extreme positions. (Honestly, most people don’t care that much about MBS or the strike in Syria, if we’re being honest.)
But even as I understand the rationality behind the U.S.’s military decisions, and even though there is debate about what is best, the chess game that Biden and company are playing is an ethical nightmare. The evil of violence is so manifest, that we need elaborate defenses of it. MBS’ crime is so reprehensible, you need to have quite an imagination to understand why it is better to let him go unpunished. Sending a bomb to a sovereign nation is evidently wrong, but in our complex geopolitical world it’s not just a binary between right and wrong. The truth is, though, when it comes to geopolitics and issues of security, someone has to make the best decision given the circumstances. And I believe we need good people making those inevitable choices. But such decisions can be soul-crushing.
And that soul-crushing aspect is why prophetic peacemakers must be at the table, but must also make their voice known. So even while I understand and appreciate the geopolitical complexities, I join my family across the world in prophetically casting a vision for a world without violence, for an imagination for new possibilities that aren’t constrained by present circumstances.
Peacemaking is about obedience and allegiance
If we simply force our prophetic position into the present circumstances, we end up being doctrinaire or ideological. What becomes more important is the “coherence of our beliefs” instead of the common good. This is hard place to be in because we are anxious about our beliefs being coherent. We’re under the impression that our motives must be pure because if they aren’t, we might not be. We need to be ideologically consistent, or else we’re a hypocrite. But that’s not fertile soil for faith and faith is essential for prophecy. If we must be ideologically pure, we’ll abandon our convictions when they seem to not fit the nuance of the world. And so my peace position, so to speak, is strengthened when I see the nuance.
The reason I maintain a commitment to peace and a conviction against war is not because it is practical, nor because it make sense as an option in the present circumstances. Christian pacifists like myself didn’t come to their conclusions about peace because it is good foreign policy or it “makes sense” geopolitically. Our commitment to peace is an eschatological and prophetic witness. Our principle comes out of allegiance and obedience to Jesus. And I believe every Christian must have peace as an end goal. These forever wars need to stop, and that is a goal for the most prophetic and most practical. Together, we need to keep imagining a new way to bring heaven to earth in our present context. And we can strive for and aspire to this eschatological hope in our present times. And we can do so, while understanding our present complexities, knowing that how the table is set now is not a matter of prophecy. Prophets aren’t even at the table. Christian peacemakers must fill that vacancy.