When an American drone attacked and killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, it was an unambiguous act of war. We haven’t targeted and killed an enemy military leader since World War II. Whether the attack was provoked or not is controversial to some extent, although the White House is backing away from its justifications based upon a supposedly imminent terrorist attack. This change is unsurprising considering that Congressional sources briefed on the intelligence allegedly supporting this action have stated that the reports are unpersuasive.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently admitted that the attack was a response to a terrorist attack last year, allegedly supported by Iran, that killed an American contractor working in Iraq. In other words, it was vengeance.
According to reports, military officials presented the President with a series of options including decapitation. Aides were stunned when he selected that most extreme option, thinking that he would understand the potential ramifications of such action. But Trump, unsurprisingly, was driven by his emotions to that most extreme option, starting in a fit of resentment an undeclared war against this nation of 86 million with a military of over half a million personnel that is located in one of the most strategically critical locations in the world, right next to the straits through which much of the world’s oil passes.
One might hope that relations with nations in such a volatile region would be driven by cool-headed strategic thinking instead, deliberations that consider all the potential chess moves each country can take. Ironically, the nuclear deal former President Barack Obama negotiated with Iran represented such a rational strategy. Obama knew that Iran was a bad actor, but he decided his priority had to be stopping them from gaining nuclear weapons. To that end, he set aside many of our other disputes with Iran to focus on this single existential threat. This strategy was shockingly successful, with Iran continuing to honor the deal and put its nuclear ambitions on hold even as Trump tried his best to scuttle the agreement. That all changed with the Soleimani assassination.
So we’re going back to war again in the Middle East. After decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, this development hardly seems surprising. The big question is whether Americans will rally around the flag they way they have in previous international crises. Initial indications are mixed.
The media have certainly picked up the banner of boosterism. The various news networks have already created graphics breathlessly touting the pending war. War, after all, makes for good ratings.
Back in 2003, when President George W. Bush pushed for the American invasion of Iraq, the media unhesitatingly reported pronouncements from the administration that we faced an immediate threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Those reports later turned out to be blatant lies, but yet the media seems to learn nothing, again reporting unfounded administration pronouncements of a link between Soleimani and the 9/11 hijackers.
There is a long history of unquestioning media war hype. In high school, we all learn about the New York newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer fanning the flames of the Spanish-American War with their reporting on the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine battleship in Havana, Cuba. Their bold headlines presaged the modern media environment, coalescing American public opinion in support of military action. When it became clear that their reporting was baseless, both Hearst and Pulitzer were unrepentant. As Hearst once famously declared, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!”
A century later, I remember watching the live reports from Baghdad of the initial Operation Desert Storm bombings. CNN reporter Arthur Kent became known as the “Scud stud” for his reports from Israel on Iraqi Scud missile attacks. Americans were glued to the images on their televisions of smart bombs being guided into targets. Approval of President George H.W. Bush reach 85.9 percent in the wake of the war. The media played such a big part in war boosterism that Saturday Night Live declared, “Now that the war is over, we can go back to ignoring CNN.”
But apparently, the media has learned a thing or two. The current media feeding frenzy is nothing like what it was in 1990 or 2003. Amid the breathless reporting, there is a growing chorus of voices questioning the current action. Most of that coverage has focused on a few key arguments, largely based around whether the American drone strike that initiated the current crisis helps or hurts our strategic interests. To the extent that morality has entered the discussion at all, it has been to point out that Soleimani was a bad guy who deserved to die.
But morality does have something to teach us in the current crisis. The question goes beyond whether killing is right or wrong, or whether we should back our country no matter what. All too often we remember the wisdom the Bible offers us only when it is convenient. It is at the times it raises questions about our values that it is most valuable.
This is one of those times.
In particular, the Bible has much to say about that destructive human emotion: the desire for revenge. Most famous is Jesus’s calling for his followers to turn the other cheek to those who slap you. His call is for forgiveness, not revenge. If there is any central teaching of Jesus, this is it.
War enthusiasts will counter that sometimes violence is necessary. In World War II, after all, we were fighting true evil in the form of the Nazis. What would the world be like had we not taken up arms in the 1940s? On that point, they may be right. The question is whether we are at one of those moments of inevitability now. In fact, we are not.
It is especially instructive to consider the context of Jesus’s famous mandate. He made his turn the other cheek statement as part of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 (verses 38–42). The entire directive is as follows:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
Jesus was responding to the prevailing doctrine at the time, one based upon the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye.” Thus, the interpretation generally goes, if someone injures your eye, you are justified in taking his. Jesus’s statement appears to be a repudiation of this doctrine, and it is why many consider the Old Testament to be angry while the New Testament is peaceful.
Again, it is worth looking at the actual Biblical text. From Exodus Chapter 21 (verses 22–25):
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Looking at the verse in context reveals something surprising. The law regarding an eye for an eye is a limitation. It does not grant permission to seek revenge. Indeed, the other verses in that chapter support this interpretation. Consider what verses 12 and 13 command:
“Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate.”
Imagine that. In your grief, you are to show mercy and forgiveness if the death is accidental. Or verses 18 through 21:
“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed. Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”
Setting aside the issue of slavery in the Bible, a topic for another day, the command is to limit punishment to an appropriate level. The goal is to stop the escalation of violence. Similarly, verses 26 through 28 direct:
“An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth. If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible.”
Here Exodus makes clear the goal of its laws: compensation. Someone who bears a loss deserves adequate compensation for that loss. Even slaves deserve compensation for their losses. Upon receiving just compensation, however, there can be no further call for repercussions. At that point, any call for further violence is immoral.
If Exodus were truly mandating “an eye for an eye,” then the death of a person should warrant killing another person. But the Bible says no. If a bull kills a person unexpectedly, there can be no revenge against the owner of the bull, no matter how sad or outraged is the family of the deceased.
At the time Exodus was written, between 600 and 400 B.C.E., the world was a violent place. Killings in revenge for one perceived wrong or another were common. And one killing would always result in a justified response. One could argue that this is the natural state of human beings, driven by our emotional desire for revenge when we are hurt.
Modern law, especially American law, has sought to tame these responses. Rather than allowing for revenge, juries must be impartial, able to consider the facts of the case coolly without emotion. Jurors never see evidence that might inflame those emotions, called “unduly prejudicial.” The goal is to administer justice and keep order in society, not to grant the aggrieved revenge.
Even the mafia knows that revenge killings only lead to escalating, self-destructive violence. As a result, to kill one of their members in revenge, the aggrieved must first get permission from the mafia leadership. In other words, there must be a just reason, and once justice is administered, the killing must stop.
Despite such efforts, we can see the remnants of emotion-driven revenge in modern times. In America, we hear about the Hatfields fighting the McCoys along the Kentucky-West Virginia border in the wake of the Civil War. Honor Killings, in which a father kills his daughter to preserve the family’s honor, continue worldwide, even in the United States.
The rhetoric of revenge is already visible throughout the dialogue between the administration and Iran. General Soleimani’s successor is already promising revenge, claiming that “God the almighty has promised” it. In response, President Trump promises “major retaliation” against any Iranian action, including attacks upon historic and religious cultural sites.
Every time one side promises revenge, they can point to specific grievances they seek to address. But then one side’s vengeance leads to a desire for revenge on the other side, and so on, and so on. That is exactly the kind of escalating cycle that Exodus sought to end. Each specific action may seem justifiable at the time, but overall, both sides are simply destroying themselves.
We already see evidence of such self-destructive outcomes. Americans are virtually unanimous in agreeing that Iran should not gain access to nuclear weapons. When President Obama negotiated a deal with Obama that would deny Iran access to nuclear weapons technology for fifteen years, Republicans criticized the deal as insufficient. But now, just five years after Iran abandoned its nuclear enrichment program, it announced that its weapons programs will restart. That is certainly not good news for anyone, and is not worth the brief moment of satisfaction we might get from justifiably killing a bad guy.
Our proudest moments as a nation typically involve restraint, not violence. Our efforts after World War II to rebuild our former enemies is a shining example. Ironically, the initial response by President Bush to the 9/11 attacks also earned worldwide praise. People around the world were horrified by this outrage, with nations everywhere pledging support. Few would have blamed the United States had we nuked Afghanistan in response.
But we didn’t do that. Instead, we took a very measured approach to supporting the opponents of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and searching for Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants. The irony is that the enormous goodwill this restrained response generated was squandered by the lies leading us into war in Iraq. But at the time, America was likely at its height in international prestige.
Even the mendacious campaign to bring war against Iraq was couched in terms of conciliation. Bush promised to bring democracy to the Middle East, freeing the oppressed Iraqis. Such lofty goals are what typically have characterized American rhetoric, even when they serve to justify unfounded policies.
But this time it’s different. There is not even the sheen of restraint or idealism to the administration’s pronouncements. It’s all about revenge and retaliation. And while history tells us where that ultimately leads, the Bible begs us to avoid that fate.