President Obama’s Mythical 21st Century

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president-obamaThe beheading of journalist James Foley has shocked the world and elicited outrage from virtually every corner of civilized society.

Unfortunately, this kind of brutality is no longer uncommon. The ISIS rampage has delivered grisly videos of executions, reports of religious minorities being maimed and killed, and beheadings in the Middle East, all designed to draw attention to the bloodthirsty antics of terrorism’s most recent villains.

Foley was not an outlier. He was the public victim of Islamic militancy’s newest wave of terror.

The threat of ISIS should concern anyone who loves freedom and justice. But I fear that the moral convictions needed to confront such unspeakable evil may be missing in the United States today. We seem to be gaining our moral bearings from an overly optimistic vision of the world’s future and human nature.

President Obama’s remarks on the Foley incident included a theme that surfaces frequently in political discourse today. It is the theme of progress, the future, and what it means to live in the 21st century. Obama sounded the note of hope by appealing to the future:

People like [ISIS] ultimately fail.  They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy and the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley, and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.

The president’s comment about the future may be powerful rhetoric, but it is not reality. If history shows us anything, it is that “the future” has often belonged to those who are passionate enough about their cause to destroy anything in their way in order to build something different.

It was “building” a society that inspired Adolf Hitler to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. It is the “rebuilding” of Russia that led Vladimir Putin across the borders into Crimea, a conflict which has resulted in the destruction of a plane full of civilians.

ISIS does not see itself as destroying; these thugs see themselves as building an Islamic Caliphate. They have an apocalyptic worldview; they are for “progress,” only their definition of progress is radically different than ours. They are righteous; we are evil. Therefore, they can pillage, rape, execute and behead with impunity. They see themselves as the future.

Here is where the president’s appeal to “the future” and “progress” lets us down. Let’s summarize the thought process behind these remarks:

Humans are evolving into a more compassionate and just society. These acts of brutality are reversions to our basest, primitive instincts. They are no longer acceptable for a world that is building for the future, continuing on the Enlightenment experiment that leads to peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

A century ago, the world’s leaders were saying similar things. The days of feuding families and pillaging peoples were behind us. Technology and science were ushering us into a new day, and the bloody battles of the past would become a distant memory.

Then came the Great War. The optimistic appeal to societal advance as a hedge against warfare was the pathway to the bloodiest century our world has ever seen.

In last week’s speech, President Obama also said this:

From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.  There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies.  One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.

I appreciate the president’s calling ISIS a cancer. But it appears he uses the metaphor in a way that focuses on its spread, not its intrinsic evil.

Note the last line in that paragraph. Radical Islamic ideology has no place in the 21st century. Which begs the question, In which century does such brutality have a place?

From a purely historical standpoint, the president makes a good point. These kinds of killings are reminiscent of horrible carnage in medieval times.

But simply claiming that the tides of time have done away with such brutality, that the wave of progress has “left these groups behind” is to miss the reality of what is taking place. It’s to appeal to societal advance as the rationale for opposing ISIS, not good and evil. And “societal advance” is the same reason ISIS is fighting the West; they think we are the cancer infecting the world.

Unfortunately, even calling ISIS a “cancer” was too harsh for Michael Boyle of The New York Times. He chided Obama for this choice of words, worried that adding a moral dimension to these events will cloud our judgment when it comes to policy:

Moralizing rhetoric also defines groups on the basis of their tactics rather than their goals. However appalled we might be by a group’s actions, our objective should always be to understand our enemies as they do themselves: in this case, a highly organized insurgency with specific strategic objectives.

Ah, that’s right. We need to better understand what it is the terrorists want, to walk a mile in their shoes, right?

This kind of criticism reminds me of when President Bush was criticized for his “Axis of Evil” talk. Though Bush regularly misapplied his language of “good and evil” (he positioned the United States as the great power “ridding the world of evil”), he was right to speak from within a moral framework. Reagan was right to label the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” No other word captured the oppression of that society.

“The language of good and evil may provide a comforting sense of moral clarity, but it rarely, if ever, produces good policy,” says Michael Boyle. Tell that to Winston Churchill. Without a deeply rooted sense of the goodness of their cause, the Allies would not have had the moral fortitude to stand up to the Nazi war machine.

As Christians, we cannot see the calendar as the arbiter of justice. We uphold the portrait of humanity so richly presented by the Scriptures. Humans are not basically good, building the future of progress toward paradise. Humans are corrupt through and through, and our Towers of Babel are destined for dust.

Until we recognize the innate evil in every human heart, we will seek to relegate dangerous ideologies to “another age,” unable to imagine the moral high ground from which we say that some things are simply wrong, unspeakably evil, always - no matter what day of the week it is or century we find ourselves in.

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