In Defense of Obama (on this one); Or, Mistaking Symptoms for the Disease

U.S. President Obama speaks about Iraq and also the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri on Martha's Vineyard (a year or so late)

Upon returning to the US, we were inundated with the myriad cable-news networks that we didn’t have on Scottish Freeview TV. The other evening we were watching Fox News, only to see show after show, pundit after pundit lambasting the Commander-in-Chief for what neither the guests nor hosts could definitively discern to be either legitimately his ‘strategy’ or a colossal albeit spectacular blunder. “Do we want to Manage Isis or Destroy them?” The implication, of course, being that the two options are mutually exclusive and that to do the one is to not do the other. It is certainly true that the concepts have differing connotations, and it’s those connotations that the Fox News Pundits were feeding off. To manage  a particular situation is in some sense to tolerate and patiently accept the imperfection of the status quo and carry on unaffected. To destroy the antagonists implies finality and resolution to the current dissonance of human experience. With this rhetoric the solution is clear; you’d be an idiot to settle for Duck Taping the front end onto your car rather than getting a proper mechanic to rebuild it!

Now before I go any further let me first just make it abundantly clear that I am not an administration cheerleader. Anyone who knows me knows how critical I am/have been of many of the policies of this administration. So this isn’t ‘Stop picking on Barry!’ defense. To some, Obama can do no wrong; to others, he can do no right. I hope I’m critical enough to not fall into either of those categories. And in this case, I think Conservative Evangelical Christians ought to be more in agreement with him than it seems many are.Thus, this will be a Theological defense of Obama’s “Manage Isis” comment. He has since come out and intensified his rhetoric amid the criticisms. Although I think the original comment was much more Theologically correct and the modification was done to save face politically more than actually substantively alter strategy.

Moving on, the concept of ‘managing Isis’ is rooted in a Theological and ethical perspective called Christian Realism. Christian Realism at its heart is a rejection of both naïve optimism and cynical pessimism. As such, it rejects simple solutions to complex problems. In the book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, the theologian most closely associated with Christian Realism, Reinhold Niebuhr (Obama’s favorite “philosopher”) argues that human nature is not simple. Humans have a capacity for great creativity all the while we are inclined to use our capabilities to destroy rather than create. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[1]

The problem with Isis and before with Al Qaeda is not these organizations themselves or even the brutality of their tactics. Those are merely symptoms of a much deeper problem–human nature. Thus, the highest realistic ideal we can hope for is management, that is contained-chaos. Human nature is so corrupted it cannot be adequately addressed through our capabilities.

The outworking of this corrupt nature is the “lust for domination” that we call sin. It is not enough for each of us to be our own gods, we must acquire the praise and devotion of each other, and when the level of praise and devotion we desire is not forthcoming we seek to impose and coerce that devotion out of others, violently or covertly. This claim isn’t anything radical or novel. Almost no one objects to the axiomatic statement, “we’re all selfish to some extent.” That is what this selfishness is, us trying to construct the world as we think it should be, with our needs and desires at the center, fulfilled.

Isis seeks the world in which there are no infidels, we’ve either been converted or killed. They control every aspect of life: politically, economically, culturally, religiously, and so on. The disease is the same as that which each of us is afflicted, but the symptoms are much stronger. Most of us are not willing to behead someone to make our point or to get the world we envision, but all of us are willing to sacrifice the desires, hopes, and dreams of someone else to get where we want to go.

It is natural for each of us, as a result of hearing someone wants the world without me, to seek a world without them. We are thus naturally no better. Our means maybe less barbaric, but the goal is nonetheless the same. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing that because we are naturally  in the same moral boat that we are thereby presented with an opportunity to to improve our moral standing by taking the high road and “living and let live.” Instead, I am stating that the only means we have at combatting the violence of ISIS is violence itself, a violence of the same sort they have been using on American Journalists. As we condemn their violence we ought to lament that we have no morally pure course of action available to us and must resort to equally disgusting methods to survive. Our violence is just as reprehensible, yet, it is necessary.

We don’t live in a world where conflict is between good and evil, but between evil and evil, and the only hope for the end of the cycle must be from outside the madness. The difference between Christian Realism and Nihilism is that Christian Realism recognizes that there is hope, a promise of the return of the King of Kings who will put all things in subjection to himself, and for the first time in history, it will be morally pure coercion!

Whether Obama actually believes in the outside hope, I do not know. What is certain however is that the statement that was so out of step with the Fox pundits is actually more a hopeful and optimistic outlook (grim as it may be) than their strategies to destroy and eliminate ISIS. The ideology that is ISIS cannot be eradicated by the same means they employ. Violence and war are incapable of ridding the world of an ideology. Even racism, fascism, nazism, and communism were not eradicated by war. They have, however, been managed. Even Al Qaeda continues to exist, albeit as a shell of its former self.

Sin can only be conquered by the resurrecting and reconciling power of God. Sin is slowly conquered in the self through the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit but still remains to do battle until the last day when it will be eradicated by the renewing of creation at the Eschaton. Christ’s return will bring the end of sin, the end of death, the end of violence. Unless the Fox pundits can somehow quicken Christ’s return, their rhetoric for destroying ISIS is empty. As laudable as it is to lament the existence of those who seek to harm innocents, problems don’t get fixed  but merely managed. The means of managing are not somehow morally benign when they are cut of the same fabric as the problem itself. Violence and coercion are still antithetical to the creation mandate, that is, destruction is the opposite of construction.

The fall was such a radical event that it altered the fabric of creation. I have heard it said many times that there is no such thing as moral neutrality, you’re either ‘on God’s side or you’re against him.’ This is correct but what is often missed is that the moral position of everyone/everything after the fall is that it is Against God. It takes God himself acting in selfless sacrifice to bring about the reconciliation of creation. Reconciliation is a unilateral act of God. The only thing we contribute is the sin that makes it necessary in the first place.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944).