Should Britain go ahead with air strikes in Syria? The House of Commons is likely to vote on it soon.
What divides us is our gut feelings and value judgements. Since our society is hopelessly bad at thinking through its values, we hold proxy arguments about facts and outcomes which none of us can be sure of. This post is my attempt to express some significant Christian values.
I make two main judgements. The first is that the world has been made by a god who provides enough land and food to meet everybody’s needs, so that if we look after each other we can all live together in peace and harmony. On this account justice is distributive: everyone should have a fair share of the wealth God provides. What prevents it is that God has also given us free will, and we have evolved with selfish desires and negative passions. The moral task is to overcome them.
There is nothing distinctively Christian about this. All the world’s major faiths more or less agree. At the end of the Second World War it was the basis on which institutions like United Nations were set up, looking forward to an end to all wars.
This has now been replaced by a very different value system. The dominant values are economic growth and competitiveness. The cult of economic growth means we demand so much that the world cannot provide it for everyone. So we compete against each other for the limited resources available.
This makes wars inevitable. Each nation protects its own interests at the expense of others. Justice ceases to be about making sure everyone has enough, and instead becomes retributive: contracts are to be enforced even if they are unequal impositions by the powerful on the powerless.
Power for the powerless
My second Christian judgment is derived from the first, and expresses how Jesus responded to it. He lived in Galilee, an area mercilessly oppressed by the Roman Empire. He used his vision of the Kingdom of God to create a movement of beggars and outcasts who looked after each other and shared what food they had. After his death that movement developed into the Christian religion.
Putting the two together, God provides enough for everybody to live a happy and fulfilled life. When it doesn’t happen, God is on the side of those who are deprived.
This too has been replaced. It is a universal human failing that when people have power, they think they know best. They impose their will without consulting those most affected, and fail to notice how oppressive they are being. In this way, if I am right about Jesus, they set themselves against God.
On this matter I confess to having something in common with David Cameron and his cabinet. I too spent my youth in a public school. We soaked up the message that we were the leaders of the future. The Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton. Us against them. Don’t ask why we need to play the game at all, just throw every sinew into winning.
Applying this to the question of bombing Syria, it is pretty clear that both my principles have been long forgotten.
There is no longer any real international commitment to world peace. National governments manoevre around each other, making alliances and enemies to suit what they think is their national interest.
For the decision-makers in the USA and Russia, the conflict is about geopolitics. I doubt whether they care much for Syrians or Iraqis. Russia no longer has the international influence the USSR once had, and is trying to defend what it can, while the USA tries to move in. They may genuinely believe that what they are doing is for the best, but like all humans they are biased by self-interest.
Britain, likewise, has inherited a role in international politics, and seeks to enhance it. The alliances with France, the USA and Saudi Arabia are not at present up for debate. Nor is suspicion of Russia and China. In other words, British actions are constrained by the Government’s perception of national self-interest. Other governments are acting in a similar way. Neither United Nations nor the EU would have been created today.
Oppressors and oppressed
Almost a century ago, at the end of the First World War, the Middle East was carved up by the British and French governments with scant regard for what the local people wanted. There is a good description of this by Robert Fisk . Since then that part of the world has been governed by autocratic dictatorships, usually maintained by western powers.
From a Middle Eastern perspective, however much suffering the likes of Saddam and Assad have caused, the real oppressors pulling the strings are the western powers.
From the dominant western perspective, of course, things look very different. Most of us think our own government is genuinely trying to bring peace to that war-torn part of the world.
So are they? Democratic governments depend on the votes of their people. We the people vote according to what we think is best. What we think depends on the information available to us. The providers of the information tell us what they think will interest us.
The Paris attacks were comparatively close to home. The British, let alone the French, can imagine that they might have been at that concert, might have been one of the wounded or killed. Terrifying thought. We easily relate to it. So the media spend a lot of time picking over the details and inviting victims to broadcast their emotions.
When the bombs drop in the Middle East, none of this happens. Westerners cannot so easily imagine that they might have been at a concert in Beirut. We are less likely to follow detailed analyses on television.
As a result the Paris attacks seem, to westerners, to have come out of the blue, like the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. In both cases they only seemed to come out of the blue because of this media bias; we just haven’t been paying so much attention to the fighting elsewhere. From a Middle Eastern perspective, you wouldn’t have to be an ISIS supporter to think that those attacks were just a tiny taster of what the West are doing to them all the time.
Whether or not you think this would be a fair judgement, a western response which only takes account of western perspectives is a partisan one. Our current debate is a debate of the powerful deciding the fate of the powerless. If we had a civil war, would we want Syria to bomb us? Of course not, but we don’t expect that. Our Members of Parliament do not have nightmares about their own house being destroyed and their family killed. We shall decide whether to drop the bombs on them, confident that bombs will not drop on us.
So both the Christian principles I value have been rejected. Gone is any attempt to set western military action in the context of an international search for a peaceful world. We can bomb them, but woe betide them if they bomb us.
Gone, likewise, is any attempt to protect the powerless against the attacks of the powerful. We belong among the powerful, playing our part in an endless game against other powerful countries, most of the time failing to notice the powerless being trampled in the dust. The ends, we suppose, justify the means; our ends, other people’s sufferings.
The British people elected a government to govern Britain. Not to govern Syria. Forgive us our trespasses in other countries, as we might, if we were feeling generous, forgive those who trespass against us. But don’t bank on it.