Most of the public discourse is about surface isssues: who did what, what do we know, which laws have been broken? Beneath them lie deeper questions which we rarely ask.
Donald Trump, referring to last Saturday’s chemical weapons attack reported to have killed over 70 people, declared:
These are not actions of a man, they are crimes of a monster instead.”
So how many will his military actions kill, and what sort of non-man does that make him?
UK Prime Minister Theresa May declares:
We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson adds:
Let these united actions send a clear message to the regime – the use of chemical weapons is categorically unacceptable and you will be held to account.
- Who are ‘we’?
- Who appointed those people, whoever they are, to decide what is or is not allowed?
- On what criteria are ‘we’ doing the deciding?
- Unacceptable to whom?
- Who has authority to hold them to account?
We only have to ask the questions, and immediately we can see how utterly outrageous the claims of our leading politicians are.
They are assuming that they are in charge of the world. Or, rather, that the USA is in charge of the world. All successful bullies attract acolytes who side with them. Britain and France have decided accordingly.
From this perspective, ‘we’ are trying to keep the peace. That is, the kind of peace that suits ‘us’. The conflict is caused by our enemies, because they don’t accept the settlement ‘we’ know is best.
So ‘we’ lay down the law about what kinds of war are acceptable. ‘We’ create the rules. Chemical weapons are forbidden but ‘our’ bombs are legitimate.
Politically, it works.
Most of us adore war heroes. We forget the people who successfully kept the peace, but we idolise military victors. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan are remembered and have fans. Most of their peace-keeping contemporaries have been forgotten.
That spat with Russia over the Salisbury poisoning suited both Putin, up for re-election, and May. I don’t suppose May’s decision to support this air strike was taken in order to do well at the forthcoming local elections, but it would have been impossible to keep it right out of the back of her mind. She knows it will help the Conservative Party’s chances.
So the blame doesn’t lie with just a handful of politicians. It’s shared by all the people who love a bit of military action. Especially military action a long way from home.
Why are we like this? The person who helps me understand it is David Attenborough. In species after species, he shows us films of females standing around watching while the males fight, and then mating with the winners. It’s in our DNA.
Can we do better?
If it’s in our DNA, does that mean we have no choice? Will we carry on bombing each other until we wipe ourselves out? Is it inevitable?
I think not. We can do better. Here I draw on my Christian perspective.
The way we have evolved tells us not only why we are the way we are, but also that we can change.
The second century bishop Irenaeus believed that we have been created by a good god with potential to become good ourselves. Critics asked: if the first humans had been created by a perfect god, why were they not perfect themselves? He replied that humanity was then in its infancy and, like babies, needed to learn. Eventually, he thought, we could reach the point where we would choose to be holy.
Within western Christianity, this belief got drowned out by the much more negative attitudes of Augustinians, but over the last couple of centuries it has been revived – largely because it fits evolution theory much better.
I think it’s right. There is nothing inevitable about the biggest bully presuming to dictate to everyone else. There is nothing inevitable about others deciding it’s in their interests to cling to the coat-tails of the big bully and support the bullying.
We have been created with freedom to choose between right and wrong. But also with freedom to deceive ourselves, freedom to convince ourselves that wrong is right when it suits us.
Contrary to the beliefs of many Americans, God has not appointed the USA to run the world. Others resent it. In order to protect their own lifestyles they often commit crimes they would not have committed if they had been left to themselves.
If the western powers were really motivated by Christian principles, they would not presume the right to impose their will on others, let alone use violence to that end.
Christianity, like Islam, Judaism and many faith traditions, believes there is one god who created everyone in the world, and loves them. At our best, we act as though we loved them too.