Money, might and munitions

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It’s “easier to start a war than to end one”, observed Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. He could have been referring to the Afghan war. As the war weary and financially fragile nations that make up the coalition forces eye a withdrawal strategy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Afghanistan they leave will be almost as susceptible to gross human rights violations as when they arrived.

After 11 years of war, during which up to 100,000 US and coalition troops were engaged in the Afghan effort; after the US spent over $500 billion on the Afghan war, and with Australia expecting to spend in the range of $6 billion by the time our commitment ends; after nations as diverse as New Zealand, Estonia and Jordan sacrificed towards the effort; after all of this, many analysts believe Afghanistan would revert to Taliban control if the coalition left tomorrow. 

History is full of examples of dreamers and tyrants who expected to fundamentally alter a society’s values over a short period of time.

When it is considered that the current intervention is the second major foreign effort that has attempted to fundamentally re-engineer Afghan society in recent times—the first being the nine-year long Soviet misadventure—it may be surprising that some foresee a rapid return to the past when coalition forces leave. It shouldn’t be.

Even if it does not revert to Taliban control, the Afghanistan of today is hardly a beacon for enlightenment. Human Rights Watch reports that Afghan police today continue to arrest women for the “moral crime” of fleeing domestic abuse, for example. And the US Commission on International Religious Freedom reports that “religious freedom conditions today are exceedingly poor” in Afghanistan, and cite as one example the arrest of Christians for the crime of “apostasy”. The new Afghanistan, it turns out, is not entirely dissimilar to the old one. 

Apparently it takes more than huge quantities of money, might and munitions to fundamentally alter the values of a culture within a generation. 

Some have suggested that the only way to transform the values of any culture within a generation is to take the path of Stalin or Mao: Pervasive cultural change requires a cold, comprehensive ruthlessness combined with total control of every societal institution, information and education, they argue. But how can respect for human rights be established by a process that systematically represses those very rights? And does repression really lead to reform?

There are no easy answers.

And maybe this helps to explain the perplexing approach God took with the brutalised group of freed slaves we know as the Israelites. 

It’s hard to imagine how degrading and dehumanising generations of slavery in the harshest of pagan cultures must have been for the Israelites. And it was not just the generations spent being treated as the lowest forms of human life within a debased and debauched society. Once free from Egypt, they settled in lands surrounded by societies engaged in the most barbaric acts. We’re told, for example, that King Ahaz of Judah emulated surrounding cultures by sacrificing his own children to pagan gods (2 Kings 16:2, 3). And he was hardly alone.

The Taliban are wicked, no doubt about that, but even they have stopped short of ritual human sacrifice.

Faced with the freed Israelites slaves, it appears the Lord had two choices. The first was to establish a regimen similar to that of Stalin in order to re-engineer society—a regimen so total and so cruel that it would live in infamy; a totalitarian repression that would establish as many evil practices as it sought to eliminate. The second was to institute a series of half-steps tailored to the reality of the challenge that nudged the Israelites forward, step by step, towards His ways—transforming the culture gradually. 

It appears the Lord chose the latter route. We often speak of “new light” within our community, and for good reason. The Bible is a series of revelations toward the light—with the light growing brighter as the time passes by, and culminating in the perfect life of Christ. And yet, even after Christ’s death, Paul wrote that we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). God’s revelation is progressive, even in this day.

When we read the laws in the Old Testament that regulate slavery or the treatment of women, we should not see these as the ultimate end of God’s revelation, but rather steps toward those ends. Slaves under Mosaic Law were treated better, women were treated better, children were treated better, men were treated better, than in the societies that populated the ancient world. But the Old Testament law is far from an end point of God’s will for human society.

This has been well understood by Christians throughout our history. It’s no coincidence that Christians were the undisputed leaders of the abolition of slavery movement, led the world in educating women, and led the US civil rights movements—they took the principles of the Bible and marched towards the light. 

Today, it is sometimes argued by leaders skeptical of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the ideas contained in the document are “western”. They are half right. The ideas are, in truth, largely the product of 2000 years of Christian thought. Human rights are, at their core, a concept built on the status of humans that is found in our creation by, and relationship to, God. It’s no coincidence that the US Declaration of Independence—the starting point for American rights—cites people’s rights as being “endowed by their Creator . . .”

When we read the Old Testament civil laws, we may at times shake our heads. We may ask, for example, how could slavery be permitted at all? The answer appears to be that a total ban would have been ignored totally. Rather than instituting an ideal that He knew would be ignored, the Lord took the practical, if unpalatable, step of providing guidelines that had a chance of being complied with. Even then, the Old Testament could be described as a series of stories of humans ignoring God’s modest laws. 

History is full of examples of dreamers and tyrants who expected to fundamentally alter a society’s values over a short period of time. But it turns out, human society doesn’t work that way. Mao would weep if he could see the triumph of capitalism, with all of its income inequality, thriving in modern China; Stalin would rage if he could see the Orthodox Church powerfully asserting itself in Russia today. All that blood, all that effort, and at the end, coerced cultures return to their prerevolutionary roots as soon as the pressure is off. The only way to change a culture permanently, it turns out, is to authentically change individual values. And, when working with an entire society, that is a time-consuming, incremental process. 

So, who is right? Those who look at the half-steps in the Old Testament and see a God willing to legitimise human rights violations? Or those who see the working of a God of infinite wisdom who used gradual steps to lead individuals and cultures toward His ways as they were ready for it? That today we live in societies that have evolved under the pervasive influence of Christianity to the point where human rights are so ingrained in our values we have forgotten where they came from, eloquently answers the question.

James Standish is communication director for the South Pacific Division.