Strength vs. integrity: a Biblical response to the presidential debate

What I learned from last night’s final presidential debate (which was the first one I watched) is that the way you “win” mostly has to do with how long you can talk without taking a breath or how willing you are to yell “Liar, liar, pants on fire” while the other guy is in the middle of what he’s saying. The fundamental thing Romney and Obama agreed on is the importance of projecting strength in US foreign policy. “Strength” seems to be defined as not apologizing for anything the US has done in the past and making sure that other nations understand that the US knows what’s best for them. I realize we live in a secular nation-state, but I am really bothered by how thoroughly un-Biblical that way of thinking is. Whether or not it’s effective foreign policy from a realpolitik perspective, the Bible calls us to integrity, not strength.

The story of ancient Israel presented in the Bible is different than almost every other historical account of ancient peoples for one big reason: it is exceedingly self-critical. For example, the greatest sin of the greatest king in Israel’s history, David, is the focal point of his biography. Everything changes for him and his family after he sleeps with Bathsheba and kills off her husband Urriah. It is the reason that he has no moral standing when his son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, which causes David’s other son Absalom to kill Amnon and start a rebellion against his father. The battlefield victories of David once he’s in office are mostly a footnote. He wrote some great poetry which Israel kept. But the Biblical authors held nothing back in describing David’s incredible sin. How’s that for projecting strength?

And David was the best king! Almost all the other kings were utterly lousy according to the description given by the historian who wrote 1 and 2 Kings: “Nadab son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of King Asa of Judah… He did what was evil in the sight fo the Lord… Baasha son of Ahijah began to reign over all Israel… He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… Omri began to reign over Israel… Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him” (1 Kings 15, 16). What we know from other historical sources is that Omri was the strongest king that the northern kingdom of Israel ever had. They conquered the most territory and had several vassal states paying tribute to them, such as Moab. Archaeologists found stone tablets from that period that essentially refer to Israel as “Omri-land.” But the Bible completely dismisses the accomplishments of Israel’s strongest king. Why? Because of the idolatry which resulted from the politically shrewd intermarriages Omri arranged between his court and the court of Sidon (modern-day Syria) which brought Baal to Israel and set the stage for the great spiritual battle pitting Omri’s son Ahab and his Phoenician queen Jezebel against Elijah, the prophet of Israel’s God.

We have our own Baals in the US today. They aren’t physical statues that are worshiped, but they serve the same function as sacred cows to which presidential candidates have to pay homage in their debates. One of them is our relationship with the secular nation-state of Israel (which is a completely different entity than the ancient theocracy of Israel in that the prophets of ancient Israel aired its dirty laundry very publicly while modern Israel must not be criticized in any way whatsoever). Instead of holding Israel accountable for its side of the non-existent peace process with the Palestinians, what presidents must do to offer incense to this idol is to say that Israel wants peace and Palestine doesn’t; therefore Israel is free to bulldoze Palestinian houses and build settlements on top of them.

Another sacred cow when it comes to foreign policy is our military. I have had the privilege of getting to know many military families in the congregation where I serve, and I have seen how their training and discipline really do instill a sense of moral character and honor that often exceeds what we are able to attain in the civilian world. I want for every man and woman in my church who are deployed abroad to have the resources to be safe and effective in whatever they do. What I cannot say as a Christian, however, is that the peace of our world depends upon the strength of our military. That is exactly what Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus declared in his gospel of pax romana to the territories he conquered: as long as his colonial subjects obeyed the Roman soldiers and paid the taxes needed to finance them, they could lead peaceful, prosperous lives, trading with each other and worshiping their own gods within reason.

Jesus’ gospel declares a different basis for global peace than military might. Ephesians 2:14-16 offers a summary of how this occurs: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, he destroys the need for us to project strength by not apologizing for our mistakes and treating each other with patronizing condescension. Peace happens in the context of a community of people whose trust in God’s grace has made them capable of vulnerable integrity with one another, which Ephesians 4:15 calls “speaking the truth in love.”

Now here’s the big question. Does this basis for peace translate into the “real world” where not everybody shares the same religious views and accepts the same sacrificial community foundation? US Christians are very good at bracketing the gospel into the realm of our private lives while living according to a completely different value system in our public lives. But I don’t see how any president can profess Jesus as Lord and Savior while choosing strength over integrity as the basis for even the most global and formal of relationships. Integrity is our best evangelistic witness as Christians to people who don’t share our beliefs. If we believe what we say we believe, that means trusting that Jesus’ approach actually is the best response to everything from individual human psychology to cynical geopolitical calculation.

Having integrity in foreign policy would mean acknowledging the bad decisions and injustices that the US has committed. It means facing the fact that Al-Qaeda grew out of the Mujahadeen that we financed and created to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s, that our support for the Iranian Shah was part of the catalyst for the Ayatollah’s revolution, that Saddam Hussein was once our pit-bull whom we loaded up with weapons in a war against the Ayatollah in which we deliberately supplied false intelligence to both sides to maximize the casualties. It also means asking ourselves how different are drones that kill civilians from suicide bombers that kill civilians. It means being pro-life enough to value the lives of Palestinian children the same as the lives of Israeli children.

If the US is indeed the “hope of the Earth,” then shouting down anyone who questions our country’s infallibility might be appropriate. But the reason Jesus had to die for our sins is because no nation-state, no matter how noble, can create global peace. Only the truth can create peace, and Jesus’ sacrifice makes telling the truth the form of strength that can overcome every worldly power.

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