After WWI, my grandfather was placed in an area of the British Empire called “The Northern Frontier.” It’s on the border of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then, as now, the empires – in this case Russia and England – were engaged in a rivalry known then as “The Great Game.”
The British had been suspicious that Russia would invade India through Afghanistan. Russia wanted to dominate the continent the way Americans believed in “manifest destiny.” It resulted in a century long conflict between Russia and England that ended only during WWII.
My grandfather knew that the Tribal soldiers he encountered were some of the most fierce and courageous men he would ever fight. He also knew of them as charitable hosts.
One evening he stumbled upon a camp. There were several Afghan soldiers drinking tea around a fire; he was one. They saw him and stood as he appeared out of thin air. There was no question that if he pulled out his revolver, he would come out on the losing side.
Captain Ray (pronounced “Rai”) simply said, in Pashtun, “I’ve been hoping to find you.” Best to treat the enemy as a friend. Why don’t you sit down with us, they said. Apparently, my grandfather apparently had a winning smile and a generous charism, so he spent the next couple days getting to know his enemies.
At the end, they led him safely back to his camp. When the second world war ended, they would visit the house on Parliament Street with nuts and dates. Apparently, they came by bicycle. Enemies once, friends forever.
War offers a clarity that is exhilarating and profound – even sacred. But it is the task of the gospel to shatter that clarity, to reveal the hidden interests, to expose war’s banality, to desacralize the chants and the cheers that send us into the battle. The gospel reveals it all: the marks of heroism, the reality of cowardice, the needless misery, the fruitlessness of honor and pride. The gospel says, you’re really surprised that our friends are funding our enemies? You really think that the president will save us? You really believe that this war will lead us mutual admiration and respectability? Do you really think that the “best and the brightest” are made of a different character than the rest of us? You really think that if we leave we won’t still bear the consequences? Really? I’ve got news for you…
And this is the gospel truth: as we demonize our enemies, we become more like them. Yes – let us fight the glorious battle, but our armor of righteousness cannot be based on our moral superiority, but instead in our mutual humanity.
When we fight these wars, the gospel reminds us that we battle as sinners in need of redemption, not as heroes desperate for vindication.