The images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq this past week were shocking. Photos of Iraqi prisoners being subjected to humiliation and abuse in the presence of smiling American soldiers sent shock waves of anger and protest both in the Arab world, but also in the United States as well. We are supposed to be the good guys. We don’t do things like this. We would be incensed if this sort of abuse were perpetrated against our own soldiers.
Of course, that’s part of the problem. We know our soldiers when captured are subjected to abuse, to humiliation and to beatings. Knowing the cruelty and torture our troops and other captives are receiving makes it hard not to want some payback. There is a cunning logic in the calculus of retaliation. What is done to one is done to the other. Unfortunately the cycle of retaliation has no end.
Some of this is the unintended consequences of fighting a war. After all, once we declare someone an “enemy,” it’s natural to harbor feelings of hate or resentment. And, if we are convinced that our cause is just, that we are fighting for the right, then our enemy is not only our enemy, but also the enemy of all that is good. Fighting against our enemy is almost like fighting for God. Every war we have ever fought has had at least some hint of divine sanction.
So it follows, if we are fighting for the right, and our enemy is an agent of what is evil, then anything we do to them is justified. Even the tragedies of collateral damage, the accidental injury or death of non-combatants, even that is a necessary consequence of fighting for the good and removing the evil.
If we are forced to adopt the tactics, the cruelty and the brutality of our enemy, even that is justified because our cause is just and our enemy is evil.
Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink has serious questions about the validity of such thinking. In several essays and books Wink has asked, “How can we claim to be on the side of right and our enemy on the side of evil if our actions mirror our enemy’s exactly?” In short, Wink argues that the process of retaliation and hate so distorts our sense of moral purpose that we become our enemy.
When this happens, the entire moral field becomes distorted. Even if our cause is just, and our military involvement is the only way to restrain an evil force, the moral high ground created by that justification is abandoned when we adopt behaviors that we decry in our enemy. Whatever good purpose our efforts might have produced will be lost. Wink puts it this way: If we adopt evil practices and attitudes in order to defeat evil practices and attitudes, evil wins the day.
The photos from Abu Ghraib certainly seem to bear this out. Angry and frustrated by the cruelty of our enemy, we temporarily set aside our humanity, and theirs.
There is an incendiary quality to violent retaliation. That is why the Apostle Paul instructed us to leave revenge to the Lord—God’s the only one strong enough to manage it. Paul knew that hate, like a raging fire, has the potential to consume everything in its path—good and bad alike. His instruction was to overcome evil with good. That may not be as satisfying as revenge, but at least it avoids burning the whole place down.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.