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American Civilization, Christian Faith, and Cultural Clashes

How’s that for a broad title? 🙂

I’m going to annoy quite a few people with this post, but I have noticed for a number of years that Christians in America often conflate Christianity and American patriotism. This goes to extremes with certain Christian reconstructionists who actually believe that America is the new chosen nation, destined to accomplish God’s will in the world. This manifests itself in a determination to make America a home of “Christian” values, meaning their particular brand of Christianity, and not anything actually having to do with Jesus. Further, it manifests itself as we identify America’s interests with Christianity’s interests.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this was those American Christians who regarded the invasion of Iraq as advancing God’s kingdom, because the American and UK troops paved the way for Christian missionaries. Christians who move in on the heals of invading forces should give serious consideration to the damage done to God’s kingdom when it is attached to the sword of a state. Christianity has spread best when it was carried by persecuted missionaries, and it has deteriorated quickly when backed by the sword (or gun, or tank).

I grew up as the child of missionary parents. About half of my childhood and youth was spent overseas. I grew up watching cricket, and not baseball, and knowing soccer as football, and not American football. In fact, when I first watched American football I couldn’t comprehend why it was called “football” as they only thing people seemed to use their feet for was to run. The rare occasions on which someone actually kicked the ball produced less points than running.

Now many Americans look at me immediately with pity, regarding my childhood as deprived. No baseball? No football? You poor thing, missing the essentials of childhood! Well, I disagree. I recall as a teenager riding around town in Georgetown, Guyana, and arguing with a very good Guyanese friend about the recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the proper holder of the Chinese seat on the security council, and not the Republic of China on Taiwan. “You Americans don’t understand how the world thinks,” he told me. And he was right.

On the other hand I learned a great deal by growing up that way. I was the only white kid in my youth group, and I have never since been able to look at being a minority in quite the same way. I now love baseball, mostly because my two stepsons, one of whom is a professional pitcher, dragged me into it. But I can truly understand how the subtleties of the game drive a newcomer wild. I also understand how non-American Christians can look at us and wonder how we can regard some of our attitudes as “Christian” when to them they appear purely American and somewhat unChristian.

Early during the war on Iraq I was on a mission trip in the transcarpathian region of the Ukraine, and I found that there were young ethnic Hungarians being pressured to sign up as “volunteers” to be sent to Iraq. Their perspective and that of their families on the internationalization of that war was quite different. Now I’m not trying to blame any particular person(s) for the plight of those Hungarian young men, but it was wrong, and they had a very different perspective from most Americans at that time.

This morning I read a post by Peter Kirk at Speaker of Truth. Peter and I have generally agreed on the war up to now, but I can see from this post that his opposition to the war is even deeper seated than mine. I don’t intend to debate those points, but rather I’d like to ask American Christians to go and read the words of a dedicated British Christian in opposition to our war on terror and the way it is being conducted. I noted also in my mornings blog feeds this agreeement from another Christian across the pond.

I think it is important and fair for me to point out, however, that this was a response to another blogger from across the pond Adrian Warnock, with whom I have frequently disagreed. His post was a response to a human interest story from Chuck Colson. To his credit, Colson does admit that there are moderate Muslims and that the cultural clash he describes is with “radicals.”

All of this brought back to me the issue of just who is a terrorist. I have no problem at all regarding those who flew aircraft into the twin towers as terrorists. They were evil people and they committed an evil act. I do believe there are evil people, you see. Those who train their young people to go out as suicide bombers qualify, in my view, as evil.

But there is a state of desperation that makes people vulnerable to becoming victims of such evil people. Now here’s where people are going to say that I’m making excuses for terrorists, and blaming American victims for the evil deeds of terrorists. But let me use the analogy of rape. If a woman I love were raped in a bad section of town, I would not blame her as the victim. The person who committed rape committed an evil deed. Rape is not the fault of the victim.

But at the same time I can do several things that might prevent such an event. I can get training for those I love in how to keep from being a victim of crime. I can advocate improved law enforcement in the community where this action happened. I can advocate better education and better opportunities in that neighborhood to improve their lives, increase their realistic hopes, and reduce the likelihood that they will turn to crime. (Since someone is sure to point this out, let me add that I don’t believe rape is some kind of manifestation of low income level. What would make the community safer would be a population that was willing to help prevent crime and keep their own neighborhood safe. On the other hand, I believe robbery is often the result of an absence of hope.)

Now taking action to prevent an attack does not mean that I blame the victims. It means I want to make it less likely for the victims to be victimized. This applies as much or more to terrorism. Noting that there are causes of terrorism does not blame the victims. It might just point the way to improving our chances in the war on terror.

Somehow many of us in America have gotten the idea that if you just kill enough terrorists, terrorism will end. People often point me to Israel as a specific case. “We need to respond to terrorism like the Israelis do,” they tell me. But the Israelis are still living under constant threat of terrorist attack. Now I don’t want the Israelis to give up and go away. I think they have every right to defend themselves. I don’t blame them for going after terrorists on their home ground or taking security measures. But it’s important to notice that those measures alone have not brought an end to terrorism.

I am not one of those who believes that we don’t have to fight a war on terror. But I think that as a duty to ourselves we need to be very careful how we fight such a war, and precisely who gets injured and killed. Families in Iraq and Afghanistan are not generally going to distinguish carefully whether their loved ones were killed by an act of terror, or by an act of war by a legitimate government. They’re going to be angry. I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to conduct a war without errors, and that someone is going to get killed who is not supposed to. But doesn’t that make it even more critical to be very careful where and when you go to war or take any violent action and make sure that the violence is intelligently aimed at a good end?

If this is a cultural war, we aren’t winning it, except in our own minds. I think it’s funny that some pro-war folks here in the United States accuse me of not realizing we’re in a cultural clash, while at the same time acting as though we’re in a purely physical clash. Do you believe you will win a cultural war solely through physical violence? Do you think that we’ll win a cultural war by randomly attacking various countries?

There are Muslim radicals based in many other countries of the Middle East. If we have a cultural clash, we should include Saudi Arabia on the other side. Surely their treatment of their own people qualifies as just plain wrong. Yet they are our allies. Bluntly, we aren’t behaving at all as if it’s a cultural clash. People in a cultural clash use ideas, and when they do use violence, they use it very carefully.

One last point–if this is a cultural clash, we need cultural allies. We need physical allies as well. I have been told repeatedly by supporters of the war on Iraq that if those wimps in other countries, especially Europe, who don’t want to stand up to terrorism don’t want to support us, #*%$ them! We can take care of it ourselves. But that view is simply idiotic. Look at what’s going on now. Our reserve and guard troops are exhausted. Yes, they’ll keep going and going like the energizer bunny, but it will be harder and harder to recruit and eventually we’ll be past the point where even a substantial draft will take care of it. Beyond that, there are still other military powers in the world. We’re not up to being a world empire, either physically or morally.

If we think this is a cultural clash, we need to arm ourselves to act in the cultural arena. Right now we’re failing. A good start on that would be to listen to some folks in the rest of the world. They don’t see us as we see ourselves.

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  1. Thank you, Henry. Nor am I “one of those who believes that we don’t have to fight a war on terror“, at least if “war” is understood metaphorically, to mean more like “struggle”. But, as you seem to agree, the way in which this war has been fought has been thoroughly counter-productive. In fact it has been fought with the wrong enemy, as before the war Iraq was not involved with terrorism. But in fact the destabilisation and radicalisation of Iraq has completely played into the terrorists’ hands, to the extent that they are the only beneficiaries of this war. This could have been predicted, indeed was by some analysts before the war, but no one seemed to consider that. The only logic I can see behind attacking Iraq is that some people assume that every Muslim is a terrorist and so the best way to fight terror is to kill as many Muslims as possible – or, a little more charitably, that Bush was not concerned with really fighting terrorism but only with being seen to do something.

  2. Thanks for this post, Henry. For most of my life my country, the United Kingdom, has been in the middle of a very real struggle against terrorism. This struggle did not emanate from the Middle East, but from Ireland (and it is worth while remembering that much of the funding for the Irish terrorist groups came from US citizens). The war on terror is nothing new to us over here.

    However, over the last few years this struggle has slowed down and now may well be over. How did the victory come? By killing terrorists? By flattening villages? No, by getting round a table and talking. I find it hard to forgive Mr Blair for his role in the Iraq War, but in Northern Ireland he did the right thing. It isn’t nice to sit down and talk peace with some unsavoury characters – but it is the only way forward. There have been too many widows and fatherless kids in both communities in Northern Ireland – these lives are worth far more than the pride of our political leaders. The lessons are their to be learned – but I fear that even Mr Blair will not learn from his own experience, much less your president.

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