Much of the modern religious Left was born amid the 1960’s excitement of opposing a liberal Democratic president’s war in Southeast Asia. Will the evangelical Left, so worshipful of President Obama, similarly turn against him over continued U.S. war in Afghanistan?
The times today are not as dramatic as 40 years ago, and the shift away from Obama may be more subtle than the betrayed fury against Lyndon Johnson. But there are early signs of impending disenchantment. Brian McLaren, who chairs Sojourners board and helped found the left-leaning “Red Letter Christians,” is the leading guru of the rising “Emergent Church” movement for liberal, postmodern evangelicals. Like most of the evangelical and religious Left, he is a functional pacifist but reluctant explicitly to confess it often, lest his critique of America’s military actions be prematurely dismissed.
Like other left-wing pacifists, McLaren typically articulates his opposition to U.S. military actions more indirectly. “I am a loyal supporter of your presidency,” he assured Obama in his open letter. “I worked hard in the campaign and have never been as proud of my country as I was when we elected you. I’m writing to ask you to find another way ahead in Afghanistan.” McLaren told Obama he had written a “similar” letter to President Bush before the Iraq War, but that letter was 4 times lengthier. Perhaps McLaren thinks Obama needs less persuading. “I believe now, as you and I both did then [with Iraq], that war is not the answer,” he told Obama.
McLaren preached to Obama that “violence breeds violence,” and, quoting St. Paul, insisted that “evil must be overcome with good, which means that violence and hate must be overcome with justice and love, not more of the same.” Naturally McLaren preferred not to quote the Apostle in his Letter to the Romans, where he described God as having ordained the state to “wield the sword” against evil doers. Traditionally, Christians have believed The Church’s purpose is to extend God’s grace, while the state’s is forcefully to restrain evil. But the Evangelical Left, so often based on transient sentiment rather than historic teaching, casually sometimes conflates The Church with the state, expecting militaries to turn the other cheek, and government treasuries to cancel all debts.
Citing faith in a “loving, non-violent God,” and pointing to “Jesus the peacemaker,” McLaren told Obama that “escalation” in Afghanistan is “not a change we can believe in.” Wanting to be constructive, McLaren instead urged the President to reroute the $65 billion designated for impending military operations towards an “aid and development fund.” He oddly suggested the fund could be further enlarged by adding to it the value of the “cost of American lives that would be lost there,” while admitting he’s uncertain how to create such an “inestimable” calculation. Such riches could “serve as start-up capital for a lot of new businesses and it could pave a lot of roads,” while training police officers and enhancing “social infrastructure.” The fund would give “hope to a lot of women and girls” and “provide a lot of constructive outlets for men and boys.” Is McLaren urging midnight basketball for young Afghan males? As to hope for Afghan women, could any amount of largesse compensate for the Taliban’s potential restoration?
The Emergent Church guru suggested other countries might like to make friendly donations to the fund, which he hopes a subsidiary to the United Nations would administer, no doubt with all the efficiency of the notorious Oil for Food program in Iraq under Saddam. Like a trust fund for a wayward adolescent, the fund would disburse ever greater amounts as Afghanistan reached “benchmarks.” This way, Afghan public opinion would be mobilized towards “peace and justice,” and demand “nonviolent” collaboration for the “common good.” Afghans would have to choose between “violence” or “peace,” rather than side between the current “two groups of leaders who both depend on violence to achieve their aims.”
McLaren helpfully suggested that conservatives would like this Afghan trust fund approach because it emphasizes “personal choice.” And “progressives” will like it because it “changes the role of the U.S. in the global neighborhood – from reactive bully or intentional dominator to responsible neighbor and partner for the common good.” Presumably, McLaren, as a “progressive,” shares the U.S. as “bully” perspective. He implored Obama to consider this switch away from “bombs, guns, and bullets” towards “creativity, of justice, of collaboration.” How can Obama say no to such a generous suggestion from a man who sweepingly wrote a book called Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide?
In his pre-Iraq War missive to President Bush, McLaren carefully pronounced: “Someday, pacifism will be right for everyone, even if it isn’t now, and we should prepare our hearts for that day and long for it to come.” Actually, most churches tend to believe that world peace arrives only at the end of time, when God Himself rules the earth. Until such time, there are wars and rumors of war. But the largely pacifist Evangelical Left prefers not to wait. Instead, it hypothesizes that all the world’s trouble spots are similar to an academic debate, church controversy, or coffee house dispute. Good will and reasoned arguments, oiled by checks from the government, can appease all acrimony.
Traditional faith teaches that fallen humanity is not always so easily mollified. In times of conflict, whole peoples are often irrational, unreasonable, spiteful, and prone to self-destruction. The state “wields the sword” against looming evil when it will not otherwise recede. Brian McLaren and the evangelical Left are bound to be disappointed in any head of state, including even Obama, who confronts reality rather than self-generated illusions.