By the time you read this, our congressional leaders may have already endorsed the president’s plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. I have been trying to understand the reasoning behind this decision. Is it to save face after the president drew “a red line” that must not be crossed? Is it to send a violent message to any who would use chemical weapons because we feel helpless to stop them and simply don’t know what else to do? Is it because our foreign policy has devolved into a knee-jerk response to shoot first and ask questions later?
Perhaps it’s a bit of all the above. At a deeper level, I think it reveals a blind spot in the American psyche. We seem to view ourselves as morally, spiritually, and politically superior to the rest of the world. As such, we can rationalize virtually any action in the name of our principles, even when our actions violate those principles.This has been the case since the founding of our nation when our sense of manifest destiny justified genocide of the people native to this continent. A self-appointed savior can always justify demonic behavior.
Of course, this is not unique to us. Violent jihadists, for example, mar the name of Islam in the supposed defense of Islam. But let’s keep the focus on our own house. It’s neither our place nor within our power to be the world’s sheriff/savior. Have you ever tried to fix someone? How did that go? What makes us think it works any better on a global scale?
Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Decades of covert CIA operations to overthrow governments and assassinate leaders. Our intention to make things right often goes terribly wrong. Our bombs seem to create enemies faster than we can eliminate them. We say we are making the world safe for democracy. As our surgical strikes kill children and spouses (“collateral damage”), grieving souls must wonder who will keep them safe from democracy.
It’s easier to fire missiles (real or metaphorical) and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, than it is to build consensus, fumble through ineffective action until effective action becomes clear, and admit that we are just as clueless and vulnerable as the rest of the world. It’s called humility, but it doesn’t sell well on Election Day or jibe with our American “can do” spirit.
What does sell is distraction. Being savior of another person or of the world is often a distraction from neglected inner work. How many times have I helped someone, not out of kindness, but to mask my own sense of unworthiness? How many times has our nation lashed out in righteous anger while ignoring our own unrighteousness? Where’s our indignation about an economic recovery comprised of cellar-paying McJobs as corporate honchos rake in record profits? Where’s the moral outrage about our eroding civil liberties? Where’s the call to arms to fix a dysfunctional social services system that is failing the most vulnerable in our midst?
Yes, America has done much good in the world. And, yes, violence is necessary…on very rare occasions…when there truly is no other option..as our reluctant, humble and sober choice.
So as the drumbeat quickens for more violence in the name of peace and compassion, I’m reminded of a Biblical self-righteous, self-appointed savior who was marching on Syria to make the world safe for God and God’s followers. His name was Saul, later renamed Paul. Here’s how he tells the story of his aborted crusade:
“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’” (Acts 22)
Saul saw the light. When will we?