How should Christians understand the events unfolding in Afghanistan? How does a biblical view of this situation give a fresh perspective compared to the analysis offered by news outlets across the political spectrum?
I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard correspondents or interviewees ask ‘what is our responsibility in Afghanistan?’
As I have listened to coverage from both left- and right-leaning news channels this past fortnight, two ways of framing the debate have struck me as ripe for a biblical overhaul.
The first is a question. I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard correspondents or interviewees ask “what is our responsibility in Afghanistan?”
Framing our role in terms of “responsibility” no doubt gestures in part towards the particular burden borne by the U.S., Australia and the other countries who have maintained a foreign military presence in Afghanistan for the past two decades. But this language also carries a risk of Phariseeism. It is an attempt to find the limit of our obligation, to know when we have done “enough”. Are we responsible for this particular group of asylum seekers? Are we obligated to respond to that particular cry for help?
Who is my Neighbour?
This desire to find the limits of our responsibility touches on something deep in the modern view of the world. The great strategic achievement of modernity, but also its Achilles heel, is its largely successful attempt to flatten complex medieval social hierarchies into two elements: the individual and the universal. This makes the question of responsibility very hard indeed to deal with: either I have a responsibility to every single person equally, or I have a responsibility only to myself, and perhaps to my own family and my own nation to the extent that my personal interest is tied up with theirs. I have seen both these attitudes reflected in coverage of events this week: we are responsible for everything in Afghanistan, or we are responsible only for “our own”.
My neighbour is not everyone equally all the time, and neither is it just my own family.
But the Bible comes at things differently. It teaches Christians, I think, to ask not “what is our responsibility to Afghanistan?” but “how can we love our Afghan neighbours?”, which is an altogether more confronting question.
Both “love” and “neighbour” burst modernity’s categories. Love does not seek to set boundaries but looks for opportunities to serve. It is creative, active, and, if its New Testament definitions are anything to go by, stubbornly and even scandalously excessive (John 15:13; 1 John 4:10). Responsibility is the logic of the “how much?” (Matthew 23:23). Love is the superabundance of the “how much more!” (Luke 11:13; Romans 5:9-10).
Similarly, the category of the neighbour deftly diagonalizes modernity’s dichotomy of the individual and the universal. My neighbour is not everyone equally all the time, and neither is it just my own family. Jesus’s rich and complex answer to the question “who is my neighbour?” (in Luke 10:25-37) suggests, among other implications, this striking conclusion: my neighbour is the one who interrupts me, just like a prostrate mugging victim interrupted the Samaritan on his journey down the Jericho road. Interruptions are almost always inconvenient and often difficult to deal with, and perhaps that is part of Jesus’s point.
To identify my neighbour as the one who interrupts me is a profoundly subversive and radically counter-cultural Christian social attitude. And who among us has not been interrupted in our comfortable routines this past two weeks by the stories and images of suffering Afghans? Who among us, therefore, does not have them as our neighbour?
But Jesus does not stop there. As so often, he turns the tables on his questioner (Luke 10:36-7): Who will be a neighbour to the Afghans? The one who, when interrupted, stops and has mercy in tangible ways that exceed his or her strict “responsibility”. I am a neighbour to those whom I allow to interrupt me. Lest we are left in any doubt, Jesus ends the exchange with a no-nonsense command: “Go and do likewise.”
An Imaginable Evil
The second way in which the Bible brings a fresh perspective to recent events in Afghanistan is in relation to the language of the “unimaginable” and the “unbelievable”, terms at which news correspondents have grasped in an attempt to process the swiftness of the Taliban takeover and the scenes of desperation and violence that followed.
I think I know what these correspondents are trying to say. But from a biblical perspective this language is dangerous because it erects a wall of partition between us and the reality of Afghanistan. It frames us as those who cannot imagine or believe that these events are part of our world. Perhaps we can’t, but that says much more about us than it does about the events. It is, I fear, the conceptual equivalent of living in a gated community.
Our social imaginary must be able to process and respond to wretched suffering and blatant evil from any quarter it originates, close to home or far away. Even, once in a while, from the depths of our own hearts.
The history of Western thought and culture is strewn with a catalogue of attempts to draw fault lines between good and evil that run between different parts of creation (form and matter), between different human faculties (reason and emotion), or between different social groups (the aristocracy and the workers). We love splitting our world into the good and the evil.
Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves.
But the Bible, rather daringly in our modern context, locates the fault line between good and evil somewhat differently. It does not run between aspects of creation, between human faculties or between different social groups. It runs down the middle of all of them. It does not run between “us” and “them” (neither with “us” as the good, nor with “us” as the evil, both of which I have seen in the news this past fortnight), but down the middle of both “us” and “them”. What a scandal!
Imprisoned by a Nazi regime that masterminded the concentration camps and provoked a World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer can write “[n]othing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves”. If there is any Christian of the past century from whose pen those words do not sound glib or cheap, surely it is Bonhoeffer.
What has happened over the past days is awful, haunting, and perhaps also criminal. But it is not unimaginable, or at least it shouldn’t be, if we have read our Bibles. We must be able to imagine it as part of the human story, which is also our story. It has happened before, and in all wretched likelihood it will happen again.
If we allow events in Afghanistan to remain an unimaginable evil, that’s on us. What has unfolded this week is also who we are, we humans. Not the whole of who we are of course, but part. If we cannot imagine that, we cannot begin to address it. Nor can we understand our world, or ourselves.
Fresh Responses from the Bible
Biblical concepts enrich our thinking and impel us to action.
These two shifts—from responsibility to love and from an evil and wretchedness that is unimaginable to one that is all too familiar—mark ways in which Christians can bring the distinctive thought-patterns of the Bible to bear on current events in Afghanistan, rather than just peddling reheated versions of secular analyses sprinkled with the odd biblical word. In the first instance they are meant for Christians and churches, not states and governments—though a more careful project of reimagining the paradigm of modern international relations along the lines of neighbour love and an anthropology of creation, fall and redemption would, I suspect, provide fresh and exciting responses to perennial geopolitical problems.
Nor do these shifts provide pat answers, or suggest that there is only one legitimate Christian attitude to current events in Afghanistan. Here as in so many other areas, biblical concepts do not close our minds and deaden our hearts as some critics of religion would like to think, but they enrich our thinking and impel us to action.
They also allow Christians to take a critical distance from the dominant language that is framing the debate across the political spectrum at the moment, and they provide a more adequate biblical starting point for understanding our world and our own place in it.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Christian Gremmels et al., trans. Isabel Best et al., vol. 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010) 10.