Opinion | The Dangerous Politics of ‘We Will Not Forgive’
President Biden, in the somber tone and muted dress indicative of responding to tragedy, addressed the nation late last month. The Kabul airport attack had just claimed the lives of 13 American troops and over 60 Afghan civilians. He spoke movingly of the ultimate sacrifice made by our servicemen and -women. Then he turned his attention to our enemies. He said, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Mr. Biden’s response echoed the sentiments of George W. Bush 20 years ago in the wake of Sept. 11. For most of my life, I have listened to American presidents, Democratic and Republican, promise death to our enemies. The logic behind this is basic enough. Acts of evil demand justice. No one can watch caskets draped in the American flag return home to weeping family members and final salutes from fellow troops and not be stirred.
My family knows this fear. My grandfather served this country as a part of the U.S. Army. My wife has done so for over 15 years of active and reserve service in the Navy. I have pastored in churches near military bases. I understand the unease that surrounds combat deployments. It is precisely these experiences that give me pause about Mr. Biden’s promise to “not forgive.”
We have seen what anger and the desire for revenge can do. It metastasizes within and among us. Our desire for justice can quickly turn into hatred, coldness and even vengeance against entire peoples. The innocent in Afghanistan and elsewhere become no different from our true enemies. Our picture of foreigners becomes distorted, and we see them as threats instead of gifts to the republic. This anger has been turned toward different ethnic, racial and religious groups depending on the season. It has floundered this way and that, never finding rest or satiation.
We have seen the fruits of a politics of revenge, but the politics of forgiveness and restraint remain largely untested.
What if we stopped feeding the beast? What if a president stood before the country and chose a different path? We have the strongest military in the world. It is fair to consider what is necessary to protect our country, but power can be also revealed in restraint.
The cost of revenge is often too high in the risks to our troops, to our national psyche and to civilians abroad who have done us no wrong. It is well and good to speak of justice, but in an international context the scope of said justice is rarely limited to the guilty. The pain spills out to innocent people and the already fragile infrastructures of impoverished countries.
Here is a radical and seemingly untenable proposal: We meet hatred with forgiveness and even sometimes love.
Could not American grief lead to displays of grace? What if, in response to tragedy, we declared war on the human despair that is a breeding ground of terrorism and steered far more aid money and efforts to helping the poor and refugees? We could display, in the very places where terrorists recruit, that we care about the disinherited. We could show that America is a friend and not an enemy to the hurting people of the world.
This may appear to be a naïvely pietistic view of the realities of global politics, too rooted in a Christian view of the transformative power of love to gain a hearing in our secular age. The world respects strength, not mealy-mouthed pastoral reflections on love.
Things are not that simple.
Presidential declarations of death to our enemies have been cloaked in the rhetoric of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. If presidents have invoked Christianity’s sacred texts, we can look for the ethic of the cross in their moral reasoning.
Mr. Biden quoted Isaiah 6:8 in his remarks after the airport attack. In this verse, God asks the prophet, “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?” Mr. Biden used this text to speak about the willingness of U.S. troops to answer the call to serve. But that passage is not about service members agreeing to fight for America. It is about God commissioning a prophet to speak in his name.
The Book of Isaiah goes on to speak about a king who ends wars. The arrival of that king, called the Prince of Peace, leads to lions lying down beside lambs. For the Christian, this king is Jesus, who, rather than kill his enemies, says while dying, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I have never heard this passage quoted in our responses to modern evil.
There is a long and storied history of Christian reflection on just war, the circumstances under which war becomes a sad necessity. There is an equally extensive tradition of Christian pacifism that forswears all violence. It’s not my goal to engage those arguments here. I’m pressing a more basic claim about our national instinct toward violence rather than forgiveness.
We should pick up arms with heavy hearts, if at all. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking of his resistance to war, said, “The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
He was not unaware of the difficulties of his position. “I am no pacifist doctrinaire,” he said. “But I believe that the church cannot dodge taking a stand on the war issue by first finding for itself its own distinctive dimension.”
That distinctive dimension, I think, is Christianity’s instinct toward peace and forgiveness.
This desire to forgive ought to seep into the thinking of our leaders in ways that go beyond waving Bibles in front of churches or quoting Scriptures in the aftermath of attacks. It ought to have love of enemies and foreigners at the forefront of its political imagination. It ought to embrace the basic teaching that God’s love is not bounded by national borders.
When there have been atrocities committed against Black and brown people in this country, there is an almost immediate call for restraint and forgiveness. We are urged to protest, but not destructively. I have wholeheartedly agreed. I do not believe that we should respond to domestic injustice by spreading the pain to others. I extend the same logic to the rest of the world. But I wonder: Why isn’t the same restraint called for in the context of international incidents?
It may be that Americans believe that love and forgiveness are tools only of the disenfranchised. This is a missed opportunity. Our political and military strength means that we do not have to forgive our enemies — but it’s all the more powerful if we do. The idea that love and forgiveness are strategies only of the weak misunderstands the revolutionary aspect of Christian response to evil: our belief that God, who had power, opted for weakness, vulnerability and love as a means of transforming the world. If our leaders are going to continue to invoke this God, they need to take that claim seriously. It is an antidote to the rhetoric that may feel good in the moment but does not free us to find a better way.
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