Beyond Made-for-TV Aid

It only took a few days of international criticism to transform President Bush'

It only took a few days of international criticism to transform President Bush’s tsunami aid package from a $15 million bone thrown from the back porch of the Crawford ranch to a $350 million made-for-TV model of international cooperation—complete with guest stars George H. W. and Bill Clinton.

With polls demonstrating the mutual enmity between the U.S. and the Muslim populations, perhaps administration pragmatists got religion (the good news kind) and decided that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount suggestion to "do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27) suddenly seemed applicable to the current dispensation. Aid given to civilians in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, could turn potential enemies in the war on terror into friends. Or at least swing them to neutral.

Of course, such faith-based initiatives are but filthy rags compared to the gospel according to East Timor. Among the poorest nations in the world, it pledged $50,000 in aid for Indonesia—the country that had brutally occupied East Timor for 24 years following a U.S.-aided invasion in 1975. Truly, I tell you, they have given more than those who have contributed out of their abundance (Mark 12:43-44).

But while it may be momentarily politic for the United States to love its enemies, the admonition to "beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them" (Matthew 6:1) is definitely not. Hopes are high that images of smiling U.S. soldiers helping tsunami survivors will help "amnesify" yesteryear’s images of smiling U.S. soldiers making pyramids of naked Iraqis. And while the Pentagon steadfastly refuses to count the civilians it’s killing in Iraq or Afghanistan, my guess is they’re eager to tout the lives they’re saving in South Asia.

NO ONE IS more optimistic about the reconciling potential of humanitarian adventures than the Indonesian commander of relief efforts in Aceh province, Maj. Gen. Bambang Darmono, quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "Politics is politics, and soldiers are soldiers. The cooperation of militaries bridges countries."

Coincidentally, Darmono had just replaced a general indicted for war crimes by a U.N.-backed tribunal for abetting the massacre of some 1,500 East Timorese when their province voted to secede in 1999. The "politics" to which Darmono refers are the restrictions on U.S. military sales imposed after the Timor atrocities—restrictions that have now been relaxed to allow Indonesia’s military to engage in relief efforts. But Aceh happens not only to be the province most severely damaged by the tsunami, but also the scene of a 30-year conflict between secessionist rebels and the Indonesian army whose brutality and corruption continue to draw international condemnation. After a few weeks of access to the province by aid groups, the military has again restricted internationals from entering the countryside, restricting relief activities to two main cities. Indeed, soldiers are soldiers.

But all (okay, most) cynicism aside, what if Jesus was right—that encounters with the poor and helpless are encounters with Christ (Matthew 25)? Could a major noncombat mission—no matter how politically calculated—hold a glimmer of transformation? Is it naive to suppose that if the invasion and occupation of Iraq produced an Abu Ghraib, the mission to South Asia could produce as-yet-unimagined life-giving counterparts?

Many already consider service in the armed forces as the highest form of altruism. But veterans from every war testify that in combat, such motivations are quickly overwhelmed by priorities of personal survival and killing the enemy. So imagine lives changed and vocations radically shifted by transforming encounters with "the least of these" at the end of an outstretched hand rather than the barrel of a gun.

Images of militaries engaging in rescue work may feel contrived, but they still offer a dim vision of what biblical prophets (and nonviolent activists) have long envisioned: The beating of swords into ploughshares, of spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). It offers us a glimpse of what the best technology, supported by massive budgets, could do if put to its redeemed purpose: saving instead of destroying life.

Ryan Beiler is Web editor at Sojourners.

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