Editor's Note: This article is based on ideas from the “Surprising Our Enemies” chapter of the author’s current book The Uncommon Good.
America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.
If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to ﬁnd or completely defeat.
Prior to 9/11, we had never really fought any war like the “war on terror.” We don’t even truly know when or how it will ever end. The primary strategy in the U.S. war on terror has been wars of occupation. The recent bloodshed in Iraq again shows the ineffectiveness, unsustainability, and immorality of this strategy. We are learning that invasions don’t work, and Americans are right in feeling “war exhaustion.” We fought the war in Iraq at the enormous human cost of American and Iraqi lives, both lost and irreparably damaged, and at the cost of trillions of dollars — with almost nothing to show for it. The arguments for our destructive wars of occupation were a combination outright lies and of some of the worst judgments in the history of American decision-making. The absolute wrongness of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is morally compounded by the utter arrogance and unwillingness to reflect and, yes, admit mistakes. The archetype of arrogant wrongness is exemplified in Dick Cheney’s recent vitriolic comments. “Unrepentant” is the religious word for arrogant wrongness.
But how do we increase the use of more effective means of resolving these human conﬂicts? This is an opportunity where our religious traditions can help us instead of providing more ammunition for conﬂict, as religion at its worst is sadly doing now again in Iraq.
When Paul suggests we “heap burning coals of shame on their heads,” we’re given a fascinating image. How can that kind of talk be consistent with loving our enemies? Paul proposes that we surprise them in ways that cause our enemies to reconsider their actions. Rather than making our enemies hungrier or angrier, we should feed them. Instead of embracing policies that cause our enemies’ loved ones to die of thirst, we should give them something to drink. This is not naïve pacifism, but a shrewd way to turn the tables and change the situation.
It has been suggested by leaders of international relief and development agencies that rather than bombing our enemies, dropping food and medicine into enemy territories could have a far greater effect. Flooding those countries with what people desperately need (food, medicine, etc.) could change their attitudes toward us and their governments, which often fail to meet their needs.
When the World Trade Center towers collapsed on 9/11, the world’s last remaining superpower was vulnerable, and we all felt it. This was perhaps the first time we were like the rest of the world, where vulnerability is an accepted part of life. In those ﬁrst days following 9/11, the United States, and not the terrorists, had the high ground. The world was repulsed by the cruelty and evil of those who decided to murder innocent people, and the world identiﬁed with our suffering. Even the front cover of the French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline, “We are all Americans.”
But within a short time, the United States’ official reaction would simply be deﬁned as the war on terror. Many more innocent people have suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of America’s suffering, but very little moral reflection has been done about that. It’s now painfully evident that these long wars have neither ensured our safety nor resolved the causes of violence that led to 9/11. If anything, our wars of occupation have worsened the situation.
Thousands of hardened fighters in ISIS are now one of the best-armed and richest terrorist organizations in the world (tragically with our weapons and money). They have been called the most extreme, even by other terrorist organizations, and they already control territory the size of Jordan. ISIS is a consequence of our arrogant wrongness.
After 9/11, people throughout the world were supportive of a focused and sustained effort to bring Al Qaeda to justice. But we have ceded our high ground to years of constant war, manipulated and corrupted intelligence, policies of torture, secret armies of assassins, global violations of human rights, and drone attacks with countless civilian casualties.
Our war in Iraq was fundamentally a war of choice, and it was the wrong choice — a war fought on false pretenses and for false purposes. The invasion was sold as a “cake-walk” and that our troops would be welcomed as “liberators.” The world will forever remember a ﬂight jacket-clad George W. Bush standing under a banner that read, “Mission Accomplished!” on a U.S. aircraft carrier six weeks later. But this “cake-walk” became an occupation, with years of vicious and deadly street warfare, sectarian violence, constant terrorist bombings, and finally no real political solutions to unite the country. The Iraqi people are now bitterly divided. Huge parts of their country have been devastated, their conflicts internationalized, and a unified Iraq may never come back.
Near the end of the war, I met U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, a nine-term Republican congressman from eastern North Carolina and a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee. He now calls his decision to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq a “sin.”
Congressman Jones believes we were “misled” into war, and that, so far, nobody has been held accountable for it. There are wars that could be considered “just,” he says, but this war was not one of them.
He says , “In 2003, I started writing letters to the families and extended families of people killed in the war. All told, we’ve written well over ten thousand letters to families and extended families now. … This is my penance. … I think God wanted to humble me. … I needed to understand that the world I live in is a world of arrogance and Christ was a man of humility, and in the world of arrogance you will accomplish nothing with arrogance. You have to be humble.”
There are not many good options now in Iraq. More U.S. military action, taking sides in a sectarian and civil war, ironically with other current American enemies, could be both ineffective and counterproductive. The only real hope now resides with international decisions and interventions and solutions that might create political solutions over military ones. But when it comes to how we engage our enemies, and try to help resolve this dangerous new crisis, humility might be the lesson that we most need to learn and the place to start. The only redemption from the war in Iraq would be to learn from our horrible and costly mistakes.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided , the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.
Image: Via The U.S. Army, Flickr.com