Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Iran, Jesus' Third Way, and the Notion of a Christian Nation

Iran did exactly what they said they'd do. Notice that the US threat of strong reprisals should they do this did not deter them. And when they say that should we strike back they will feel compelled to strike again, that will not deter us. In a dynamic like this, each side from its own perspective sees each escalating act by the other as a new wrong that demands a violent response: an eye taken that demands an eye be taken, a tooth knocked out that demands the knocking out of a tooth. We never reach a point where things are "even" because each side has their own moral perspective from which the other side's act of getting even is seen as a new affront that demands that we get even. That's the engine that drives escalation to all-out war.

And the entire pattern of thinking and relating that creates this engine makes the world a far worse place than it would be if we could only cultivate a "third way" of response--an alternative both to "taking it" and to "striking back in kind."

This kind of third way was what Jesus was attempting to describe in the Sermon on the Mount. As theologian Walter Wink noted, turning the other cheek was not for Jesus a call to simply endure abuse but a call for a creative third way of response that neither strikes back in kind nor meekly submits. It matters, for understanding Jesus, that he specified that if someone strikes your right cheek you turn the left cheek to them. This matters because a blow to the right cheek was the kind of back-handed blow a master would use to strike a slave. A blow to the left cheek was a blow that one struck against a perceived equal. Turning the other cheek was thus an example of a creative way to assert one's equal dignity in the face of a demeaning attack, without striking back in kind. (Wink offers a similar analysis of walking the second mile and giving all of one's clothes to the one who demands your outer garment.)

Jesus did not here offer a specific solution to be used in every conflict but rather a way of thinking about conflict, a way of approaching conflict, distinct from the eye-for-eye approach that serves as an engine of escalation. This different approach, this third way, demands thought and planning and imagination. It cannot be carried out by rote but by bringing thoughtful people to the table who understand the enemy and how our actions will affect them. Massive symbolic gestures that startle and disarm, responses that make continuing to strike culturally costly or shameful, responses where the only face-saving move is not to escalate. Responses that aren't in the script, that leave everyone momentarily stunned.

Imagine if we as a nation devoted a fraction of what we devote to the military towards the cultivation of our capacity to launch such creative third-way responses. Imagine if we were as committed to developing and implementing such responses as we are to developing and implementing effective military ones. To imagine such a thing is to imagine a nation that as a matter of national policy takes seriously Jesus' strategy for responding to violence and injustice. To imagine such a thing is, in a real sense, to imagine a Christian nation.

In this sense, the world has never seen a truly Christian nation. Perhaps we never will.