Depart from Me: Jonathan Merritt vs. Mark Tooley on Yemeni Civil War
Recently a prominent religion journalist who might be called Evangelical Left tweeted:
The next time you’re tempted to think that @BenSasse is God’s gift to Republicans, remember that he voted NOT to halt US involvement in a genocidal war being waged by Saudi Arabia, a state sponsor of terrorism that just brutally murdered a journalist.
Maybe he & others didn’t want to surrender Yemen to proxies of Iran. In @ProvMagazine we try to examine world in Augustinian/Niebuhrian spirit, realizing there’s often no crystal clear righteous pathway in statecraft.
Allowing tens of thousands of children to be murdered bc of what you think might-maybe-who-knows happen is evil. Hiding behind models of “statecraft” is cowardice. Your “pro-life” card was just revoked, Mark.
So I said:
Maybe some day I’ll earn back my pro-life card. 🤨 But meanwhile you might consider that Iran’s backing insurgency to overthrow Yemen government is at least noteworthy.
And he responded by quoting his pastor father:
My dad taught me when I very young “It is never right to do wrong to do right.” Once you’ve accepted an ends-justify-the-means ethic, you’ve already lost.
Then I said:
Sadly single aphorism doesn’t provide total ethical insight on war & peace. Armed force often tragically kills innocents. Yet total pacifism permits great evil to prevail unhindered. Church tradition & Just War teaching offer tools for addressing. Rarely simple.
And he replied:
Conservatives are alllllll about “moral absolutism” until it comes to murdering children in war or torturing prisoners who are made in the image of God. They love nuance when it helps justify whatever grizzly behavior advances their neoconservative imperialistic vision. Spare me.
Then he added:
Jesus: “Wait. So you supoorted the murder of tens of thousands of children? And you know I abhor the shedding of innocent blood?”
Mark: “Yeah, but Iran and Just War theory and it’s nuanced.”
*79.2% chance that Jesus’s next words in this exchange would begin w/ “depart from me”
So I was left implicitly damned for suggesting the war in Yemen is complicated. This exchange with a liberal Christian journalist is notable because it exemplifies much of American Christian political discourse today: simplistic, absolutist instead of prudential, indifferent to historical church teaching, and relying on aphorisms or brief Bible verses for holistic answers.
Much of Christian political discourse today is generationally reactive. The Religious Right has supported assertive US foreign and military policies for the last 40 years. So rejecting religious conservatism requires rejecting US geopolitical projection directly or through allies. After all, Jesus was for peace and rejected “empire,” etc. etc. It’s all very straightforward unless you’ve sold your soul to the “empire.”
Contra this facile perspective, Christianity has across centuries developed nuanced understandings of state geopolitical duties. Governments are ordained to protect and assert the interests of their nations, while also ideally seeking peaceful collaboration with the community of nations.
Human nature ensures there will always be aggression and lawlessness within the community of nations, requiring a forceful response. But even justified force, because of humans, will be morally flawed. Prudential discernment, and not an aphorism or single Bible verse, must decide whether the damages from just force are less egregious than acceding to lawlessness and aggression.
The liberal religion journalist with whom I debated, like so many other flippant Christian absolutists, believes a complicated geopolitical struggle in Yemen is a simple morality play. America, which is usually wrong, is supporting a “genocidal” war and must stop right now, after which peace can prevail.
There will not be peace in Yemen anytime soon. The Iranian backed insurgency trying to overthrow Yemen’s government is itself often murderous. Abruptly ending support from Yemen’s rulers and their Saudi allies would enable further depredations by the insurgency. It would also solidify Yemen as a proxy for Iranian terror and mischief against its neighbors and international sea lanes.
Saudi-led military operations in Yemen have included civilian casualties, as do all wars, tragically. Perhaps the US can steer the Saudis into more prudent and effective war-making against the insurgency. But complete American withdrawal likely precipitates more death and upheaval, not less.
Anti-war activism by Americans for decades, perhaps always, typically assumes US withdrawal from a war means peace. It might sometimes mean peace of mind for Americans, but it rarely leads to peace in the war zone, where aggressors are then able to accelerate their own war-making.
Religion journalists and activists have the luxury, if they choose, of treating geopolitics like a Sunday school lesson, with five yes or no questions at chapter’s end. But policymakers for nations, especially for America with its global duties, don’t have this luxury. They must make choices in which every scenario entails tragedy and suffering.
American Christian commentators can preach smug, condemning bromides. Or they can, if they are more serious, labor to apply the historical church’s vast ethical resources to complex geopolitical challenges for which there are usually no comfortable answers.
Mark Tooley is co-editor of Providence.