Monday, 7 February 2011

Collateral Damage

The idea for this post comes from a brief conversation I had recently with a friend at work.


Somehow we got onto The Book of Eli in which the main character, Eli (played by Denzel Washington), violently kills numerous bad guys in post apocalyptic America in defence of - as it turns out - a copy of the King James Bible. One of the premises of the film is that Eli has near-supernatural fighting and survival skills, because he is being protected by God for the sake of the book he carries.

I enjoyed the film and I liked the way the Bible was presented - both as a valuable resource which changes lives for the better, and also as something which can be manipulated by the powerful as a tool of oppression and control.

The main thing that grated on my Christian sensibilities however (although I took it with a pinch of salt as it's so typically Hollywood!) was the central role of gratuitous - and apparently God-sponsored! - violence.  This led to my friend's use of the phrase, "collateral damage" - a kind of tongue in cheek suggestion that I should be expected to justify this behaviour, since it was all for the "greater good"!

This got me thinking about this phrase. The main place it's come up recently has been in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the American government in particular have used it to justify the accidental killing of innocent civilians - the logic being that some amount of "collateral damage" is unavoidable in a war situation. I have my opinions on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts but they're not very well thought through and I don't intend to discuss them here. Thinking about this made me wonder though, whether "collateral damage" was something God could ever be accused of.

One of the first things that sprung to mind was the Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew's gospel. In this story, Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus but all he knows is that He is in Nazareth somewhere. Jesus' father, Joseph, is warned by God in a dream and they escape to Egypt, but Herod, not knowing this, orders all male children in the vicinity under the age of two to be killed! So Jesus is saved, but there is immense "collateral damage" to many other nearby families!

I also thought though, in a wider sense, about the presence of sin and evil in the world (of which this story is just one small example). Every day, thousands of people are murdered, raped, otherwise mis-treated, or die of poverty and disease, all because God decided it would be a good idea to give people free will to make their own choices, and to allow them - and others - to take the consequences. I believe God has a plan and that it will all be worth it in the end. According to the Bible - perhaps surprisingly - it's all about love! In the meantime though, an awful lot of people are suffering - often because of the behaviour of others and through little or no fault of their own. For this reality, the phrase, "collateral damage" seems quite appropriate.

I've often been a victim of this kind of "collateral damage" - I've often been mistreated by others through no fault of my own. Those who've mistreated me have often done so, whether or not they realised it, at least partly because of the way they themselves have been mistreated. I'm ashamed to say that I've also inflicted undeserved damage on people. Sometimes because of my own greed and selfishness, but also as a result of the damage done to me.

The natural reaction to all of this is to say, "it's not fair"! It's not fair that innocents in Iraq should be killed or have to suffer because of the actions of a few extremists (whichever side of the conflict they happen to be fighting on!). It's not fair that innocent babies in Bethlehem should be murdered by a cruel king while one baby survives! It's not fair that thousands of people should be left to die in poverty because their countries have been - and still are being - exploited to the brink of political and economic collapse. None of these things are fair. The world is not a fair place to live. This is the reality of "collateral damage".

Matthew's gospel also records these words though, spoken by Jesus:

"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish." - Matthew 18 verses 12-14

Here Jesus seems to be teaching that God is more concerned about each individual than He is about "the greater good" - but how can these extremes be reconciled?

Perhaps because, according to the gospel, the kind of "collateral damage" I've been discussing isn't just something that is inflicted on others. By way of comparison, let's imagine for a moment that the Americans were completely correct in believing that what they were doing truly was for the benefit of the Iraqis. Would American pilots still fire missiles in a conflict zone if their own families and children were living among the at-risk Iraqi civilians?

This is effectively what happened in the gospel story. God sent His own Son - Jesus, who He loved - right into the heart of the conflict zone, not only putting Him at risk, but actually guaranteeing that Jesus - and through Him, God Himself - would suffer the full destructive force of evil when He was tortured and killed on the cross. By suffering in this way, Jesus showed the depth of God's commitment to this process and the extent to which He identifies with those who suffer. But by His subsequent resurrection from the grave, Jesus showed that this state of affairs is only temporary - death and suffering do not have the last word - and it really will all be worth it in the end!

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