If the past two weeks are any indication, this is going to be quite a year for the United States and its faith communities.
We have begun the first year of a new decade at the brink of war because of actions taken by President Donald Trump, particularly ordering the assassination of the top general of a sovereign nation. His actions are disturbingly consistent with the diagnosis three years ago by writer and author Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution that then-candidate Trump demonstrated a “profound ignorance” in terms of understanding the American presidency. (Hess’ analysis was shared by many other experts in American history, government and politics, but that consensus, obviously, did not keep Trump from being elected.)
Trump’s profound ignorance, combined with his impulsivity, led him to pull the trigger on a move that a bi-partisan collection of U.S. presidents had declined to do for the past 20 years.
That unilateral action could have easily ignited a war, one that would have quickly ensnared the region and potentially much of the world. I told my church members that we needed to pray fervently for the troops that were now in harm’s way, but also to pray that the Lord would prevail upon Trump with a spirit of wisdom. The latter has been my prayer for the 45th president for some time now, because he has consistently demonstrated a brazen folly on matters domestic and international.
“God help us, lest we destroy ourselves before Easter even comes.”
The Lord clearly works in mysterious ways. As was expected, Iran quickly struck back, but with astonishing restraint, targeting Iraqi bases housing American troops with old missiles that could be easily detected (which they were) and thereby affording military personnel the opportunity to make their escape. To date, not a single casualty has been reported from this attack, and the damage done to the physical facility of the base was far from massive or total.
It looks like the Iranians made peace, or at least an avoidance of war, possible – at least for now.
I have heard some racist commentary to suggest that Iran’s attack was their effort to save face, supposedly a trait that is particular to “Persian culture.” What? Meanwhile, Trump showed up at the White House Wednesday morning flanked by military brass and cabinet officers in a display that news reporters called “unprecedented.” His remarks that followed were full of tough talk about increasing sanctions, trashing the old Iran nuclear weapons deal and refusing to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons now that no agreement is in place.
To me, this all looked and sounded like someone trying to save face. I guess “Persian culture” is not unique in that trait. And, oh yeah, we will not be having any funerals for one of our top generals.
Now we wait anxiously to see if this detente will last. We wait to see if Trump will stick by his scripted remarks or if his impulsiveness will compel him to start tweeting what he would have said if there had not been a teleprompter in front of him. We wait to see if the largely pro forma counterattack by Iran will be the only one that they launch, or if covert operations are next.
It’s astonishing to consider that only a few weeks ago we celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace – the Son of the same God who President Trump and I, and every other self-identifying Christian claim to believe in and follow. There are absolutely no words to express the contradiction between the meaning of Christmas and the practice of warmongering. Jesus came into the world so that we might have life and that much more abundantly; he came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He came to usher in a new reality: a Kin-dom of Heaven that would flip the script on the inequitable, unjust and violent ways of humanity in all of its brokenness.
“We are too often obtuse in our moral simplicity, and that tendency is in sharp relief right now.”
The very circumstances of Jesus’ birth reflected the other reality that the Kin-dom of Heaven stood against. The only reason why he was born in a manger is because his parents had to travel nearly a hundred miles on foot to participate in a census that was used to tax the poor and send those men off to fight in imperial wars of conquest and control. We have always sent poor people off to risk their lives in rich man’s wars that have no benefit to them!
These two realities cannot be reconciled; so the apologists for Trump’s actions, including the usual lineup of conservative evangelical leaders, focus on how bad a guy Soleimani was and how much he “deserved it” for the role he played in activities that had previously led to the death of Americans. I have also heard multiple elected officials – Democrat and Republican – suggest that “no mourning” is warranted for this man. I wonder what Soleimani’s family thinks of that notion.
We are too often obtuse in our moral simplicity, and that tendency is in sharp relief right now.
It is impossible at this point to overstate how important the November elections will be not only to the future of this nation, but to the stability of the world and the cause of international peace. That same Jesus whose birth we recently celebrated would later grow into a man who would declare “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” So, what should we make of the warmongers? What of those who dismantle the apparatus of diplomacy that is so central to effective peacemaking and peacekeeping? What of the leaders who instigate anyone and everyone to engage in verbal fisticuffs, the sort of rhetoric that runs the risk of leading to more-than-words hostilities?
God help us, lest we destroy ourselves before Easter even comes.
But I refuse to linger in my lament. I am still fiercely holding onto the promise of Proverbs 23:18 that “there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.” I am still choosing to have faith that God answers prayers, even if in mysterious and unexpected ways that only affirm the truth about the limits of our current leaders. I am still willing to believe that the government will one day “rest on his shoulders.” What I know is that the struggle to get there will be mighty, the journey will be long, and our faith will continue to be tested.
This is going to be quite a year.