My 12-year-old son posed this question to me over the long weekend after hearing public radio accounts of Assad’s iron grip in Syria, Israeli-Palestinian intractability, and ISIS reaching their tendrils across the Middle East.
His solution: just kill the bad guys.
This was, I explained, the response of a good contingent of Americans. In fact, there’s an entire political party that embraces this as an international philosophy. The NRA’s solution to bad guys with guns is more good guys with guns. So his “fix” is good company.
But it’s not mine.
“Who are the bad guys?” I asked.
“You know,” he said, “the ones who kill people.”
“But if we kill them, why aren’t we bad guys?”
I could see his wheels turning.
“They think we’re the bad guys, buddy.”
“What?” he was incredulous. “But we haven’t done anything.”
“Oh, we’ve done our share,” I said. “It’s all really complicated. But here’s the thing. We’ve gone in and kicked out rulers we thought were bad, like in Iraq. But then the Shi'ites and Sunnis don’t have anyone to keep them from fighting. And some people don’t think it’s our job to make them stop. Those wars between them have been around so much longer than we’ve even been a country.”
“So why are we even there?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s hard to stand around and do nothing when a leader is killing people and taking away their rights to live their own lives. But we go in and kill the bad leader and other problems come up. Another dictator takes over, or tribal wars flare up. Either way, people still keep fighting and dying.”
“That’s really sad,” he said, looking at his feet.
“Yeah,” I sighed, “it’s really sad.”
There are glimmers of hope — like when Muslims and Jews develop schools where children of both faiths learn and grow up together. It's a shift that, if it has any chance, likely will require generations to take root. And there are so many factors along the way that could derail the good work that has been done.
And yet the very act of trying is, itself, a sign of hope.
Sometimes hope is all we have to help us move forward. Sometimes it’s the only context in which the current brokenness and spilled blood seems surmountable. It’s why the Lord’s Prayer is so much more than the words themselves — we have to consider the despair of the reality in which Jesus offered such words to really begin to understand their potency.
It’s not here, not now. But maybe...
For the first week of Advent, my wife Amy preached about hope. She pointed out that having hope doesn’t mean necessarily that we see a way out of suffering. It does, however, give us a reason to try to keep working through it. We have to believe there’s another side to it. Another possibility. The potential for a new reality.
And that reality will never, ever be realized by responding to violence with more violence. It may make us feel better in the moment. It may seem to offer short-term relief. But ultimately, it makes everyone that participates become a little bit of what they hate. And the cycle continues.
Which story will we choose to try to live into?