International politics shows us how complicated the world is
I was deeply troubled when Trump decided to remove the U.S. troops from the Northern Syrian border about a month ago. Northern Syria is where the Kurds live and they have enemies on both sides of them: the evil brute Assad (the president of Syria), and their sworn enemies on the other side of the border, Turkey, led by the authoritarian populist Erdogan. Bad guys on both sides of a people group that simply didn’t “get” its own nation after the Ottoman Empire fell, and Europeans took the land and divided it arbitrarily. (A major element of the ethnic conflict in the Middle East is the haphazard reassembly of the region by people who didn’t know what they were doing.) Nevertheless, the U.S. presence in north Syria was fairly small, but played an important role in keeping Kurdish people safe, and Kurdish fighters safe, who are among the main groups fighting ISIS rebels. Anyway, when the cheat-in-chief decided to withdraw, I felt a pit in my stomach. I knew Erdogan would kill innocent Kurds (and of course, when Erdogan and Trump met, Erdogan showed Trump anti-Kurd propaganda on his iPad—a very boomer thing to do, by the way). For what it’s worth, “Trump later reversed course, saying he’d leave some troops in Syria, but only to ‘keep the oil.’”
I have to go on my instincts, because the whole thing seems fraught with problems. It’s hard to enter into the conversation as a Christian pacifist and as one who rarely sees U.S. intervention as a good thing, and as a rule, oppose it. What was I doing defending U.S. presence on foreign territory? Many of my comrades would tell me that U.S. removal from Syria was actually an anti-imperialist maneuver. But that felt backward to me. It seemed to me like the imperial aggressor was Turkey and Erdogan attacking the Kurds and that the true anti-imperialism move would be advocating for an independent state for the Kurds. It was clear that ideology wasn’t the tool I needed to use to sort through these matters.
Nevertheless, I felt conflicted. Similar to how I felt the other day when Evo Morales resigned, the indigenous leader of Bolivia who transformed the country. He reached for a fourth, unconstitutional term, and the people (including the military and police) rioted. People said the election wasn’t fair (still debatable, by the way). Morales said he would redo the election, the military insisted he resign, and then he did. Most people see this as a coup, plain and simple, especially people in the West of a certain ideological strain. But, from a liberal perspective, Evo’s maneuver is definitely a powergrab, and the people protesting him were a large coalition of individuals, not far-right activists. At the same time, his successor is a nationalist Christian, not unlike Bolsonaro. South America remains divided and conflicted, in large part because of the legacy of the United States’ economic presence and influence in the country. The point here, the refrain once again, is that ideology failed me again. Anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian doctrinaire ideology just doesn’t seem to intersect with real-world problems.
Radical Christianity isn’t interested in state craft
I guess we’ll have to do more than come up with the right principles if we want to relate to one another. And that is a hard thing for me to work through because I think of myself as a radical Christian, with principles aligned with Jesus’. A big one is nonviolence, but as you can see it’s almost impossible to sort through the above matters with a principle of nonviolence. But the Anabaptist, radical Christian way of thinking isn’t meant to be applied to complex, geopolitical matters. It’s hardly meant to be applied to local matters either. We hold the “ideal” in our hearts and it shapes our actions and how we build our community. But it was never a tool used for state intervention; and Anabaptists never thought of themselves or the church as state actors.
The problem is that we do think we are state actors because we live in a liberal society, where the government is made up of the people. So we are taught that we are the key to making the state work better, and we are responsible for it. Intersected with radical Christianity and we’re sure to be disappointed with our efficacy. We might actually try to make the whole world radically Christian without challenging the forms in which the world lives. Using a radical ethic to transform a secular world is not using the ethic to its appropriate end. It’s misusing the ethic for another ends.
I think we see this all over the New Testament. But mainly, it’s why Jesus wasn’t engaging Rome in a direct confrontation or why Paul told the Roman church to just let the government be. Their work was never statecraft or even state revolution. The revolution that Jesus brings is another matter altogether.
Let me put it another way: a radically Christian state isn’t possible at all because statehood is predicated upon violence; similarly, a radically Christian corporation or business isn’t possible because it is predicated on interrelating to “fallen” systems. You can see the limitations of radical Christianity, especially to those who want to be evangelists, and so the key to holding our beliefs and convictions without losing them is grace.
Principled people can become fundamentalists
Because when we apply that ideal, and turn it into a principle, we fundamentalize it, and it becomes more violent than the violence we’re trying to rid the world of. We can then use that ideology as an excuse to ignore injustice, because addressing it might make our hands dirty because we’ve violated our own fundamentalist principle. Or, we use it as a means to bludgeon those who violate our code with moral superiority.
Grace moves us from violently imposing our nonviolent ethic, to understanding that though we are guided by a Holy God, we know that we meet people where they are to introduce that God to them. And that can be messy. Because we live in a world that is mired with sin, it can be hard to come out without feeling scathed and compromised. But be gracious with yourself. If you need to be pure and sinless to be redeemed, you may have lost the point of our faith altogether.
I don’t think my job is to solve the Kurdish dilemma or the Bolivian one, for that matter. But if Christians do dabble into international affairs, I think they can work toward a more peaceful solution without being condemned for participating in a tainted system.
And to speak more personally, elemental to my own evangelism is that sort of cultural engagement. I am not afraid to get “sin” on me, so I can actually dine with sinners and relate to them. I think Jesus did the same thing and the fundamentalists accused him of being one of them. And when Paul tried his inclusion strategy, he got knocked by the fundamentalists for ruining their faith.
Don’t force transformation, or merely succumb to conformation; do something new
The key is to be gracious with ourselves, but not permissive. We might mistake ourselves as transformers of the world, so we try to shape in God’s image—and this applies to both so-called liberals and conservatives. Or we adapt to the world so much that you can’t tell the difference between our faith and other philosophies. These are misguided ethical frameworks that result in violent imposition, or complete abdication. We either force someone to follow Jesus, or we just let them take us over.
One more story. I recently wrote about David Platt who offered a benign, but not completely toothless, prayer for Trump when the President barged into his church unannounced. I wrote:
We need to be able to say it plainly. Jesus makes it plain all over the Gospels, and it is manifestly clear in the Bible. The central piece of policy and rhetoric that Trump won the election on revolves around anti-immigrant rhetoric. And the fruit of it isn’t just more hate crimes, but more deaths by the hands of his administration. He’s Ahab to Elijah, he’s Theodosius to Ambrose, he’s the Third Reich to Bonhoeffer.
If Trump came to my church, I don’t know what I would have done in the moment. There’s a reason we debrief everything after it happens. But I know what I would have liked to have done: to assertively name the evil done in his name and by him. And to ask him to repent and change.
But speaking plainly to the powers that be can quickly turn into the sort of statecraft that we are avoiding. It’s ironic that the Christian liberals told the conservatives to get involved in politics and when they did, the liberals told them “not that kind.” That’s the tricky part. Because even though Platt wasn’t too aggressive, we can see the cost of being too aggressive, like when the South Carolina priest denied Joe Biden communion for no other reason than he was pro-choice.
So, in summary, I think we can maintain our radical ethic, be gracious with ourselves as we witness to one another and the world. And even when that behavior looks to violating our ethic, let’s be careful, because our ethic isn’t a rule of law, it’s one way the Spirit guides us, acting like a teacher or a custodian, more than a master. Jesus is our master and our Lord, and we serve him by extending his Kingdom in the church today. Most of our relationship to the world has to do with blessing the world with God’s goodness and inviting others into what we are doing now. We aren’t trying to fit circles into square holes (like making a Christian state), nor are we trying to just conform to the patterns of the world. We want to be a radical alternative, that is gracious entering into the world without the fear of getting tainted. Ideology isn’t our guide, Jesus is, who entered into the world in the most radical way, unafraid of being tainted—by becoming human—to die for us, once and for all.