It is a video I will not forget: as airplanes took off yesterday from the Kabul airport, desperate Afghans clung to plane tires before plummeting from the sky to their deaths. According to US officials, seven people were killed at the airport yesterday when crowds of Afghans swarmed the tarmac as US military flights were preparing to leave.
The Taliban have been in control of Afghanistan for only a few days but reports of horrific atrocities against women and girls are already emerging. Surrendered Afghan troops are being executed. According to one civil servant, “Everyone is wondering, What will happen to our future?” An article in the Atlantic is especially heartbreaking, describing the tragic consequences for many who helped us and are now being left behind.
President Biden addressed this escalating crisis in a speech yesterday afternoon, stating that he “stands squarely behind” his decision to withdraw US forces and claiming that “it is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.”
The “policemen of the world”?
As a nonpartisan cultural commentator, my purpose today is not to take a partisan position on this issue. However, I do want to address a pressing biblical question raised by this tragedy: What is our responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves?
In the context of the fall of Afghanistan, what role should America have played in defending those who were likely to become victims of the Taliban without our support? Are we to be the “policemen of the world”? If we are to risk our soldiers and invest our resources in Afghanistan, what should we do to help Haiti as it responds to another catastrophic earthquake and devastation from another tropical storm?
The US spent approximately $1 trillion over twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan; what impact could that money have made on crushing poverty in Haiti? On responding to escalating violence and the continuing coronavirus pandemic in America?
In short, what would God want America to do to help hurting people in Afghanistan?
“Three pillars of equal standing”
Cultural commentator David French wrote an article last Sunday in which he referenced a document called “The Responsibility to Protect,” a report produced by an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) established by the Canadian government in the early 2000s.
This report identifies “three pillars of equal standing: the responsibility of each State to protect its populations (pillar I); the responsibility of the international community to assist States in protecting their populations (pillar II); and the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations (pillar III).”
The question is, how are we to balance these three “pillars”? How are we to care for those abroad while caring for those at home?
French cites the work of Australian ethicist Luke Glanville elevating the universal worth of human beings as created in the image of God. According to Glanville, the famed Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas taught that we should give priority to those “more closely united to us,” an approach known as the “order of charity.” But Thomas also insisted that the most important criterion is the degree of need.
Glanville summarizes: “Sovereign boundaries are morally relevant and it is right that states give some priority to the care of the vulnerable within their borders.” Then he adds that “states are also bound to care for the vulnerable beyond their borders in cases of extreme persecution and suffering if they can do so without excessive cost to themselves.”
Of course, the question is whether America could defend the Afghani people “without excessive cost to themselves.”
Paul Miller, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and former national security staff member, asserts strongly that we could do so for an indefinite period. He points to “important successes” of the US mission in Afghanistan and claims that we could have enabled “reconstruction and development to continue.” David French agrees, asserting that “we can stop a mass atrocity with a minimal exertion of our vast national might.”
Others, including President Biden, claim that the swift fall of Afghanistan proves that the Afghan forces would never have withstood the Taliban no matter how long our forces remained before withdrawing.
“Rescue those who are being taken away to death”
The purpose of this Daily Article is not to offer my personal opinion on this fraught and deeply emotional issue. Rather, it is to encourage us to think biblically about our responsibilities to those in need. On this point, I believe that the ICISS’s “pillars” of care are especially relevant.
As “pillar I” states, it is “the responsibility of each State to protect its populations.”
America’s Founders agreed, declaring that “all men are created equal.” Unlike civilizations and cultures that rank people according to royal status (dynastic kingdoms) or utility to the state (communist societies), we believe that every American possesses the same “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This commitment is actually a biblical mandate rising from the biblical commitment to the sanctity of every human life. We are each conceived in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Racial and class distinctions are immaterial to our Lord (Galatians 3:28).
And we are to prioritize the care of those closest to us, remembering that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
“Pillar II,” calling on the international community “to assist States in protecting their populations,” is also biblical.
We are to care for those beyond our borders, recognizing our common humanity and the fact that every person on our planet is someone for whom Jesus died (Romans 5:8). In heaven, we will join people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). We are to help meet their needs on earth, knowing that our service to others is service to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).
ICISS’s “pillar III,” noting “the responsibility of the international community to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations,” is biblical as well.
Consider this sobering text: “Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” (Proverbs 24:11–12).
A personal Acts 1:8 strategy
Just as “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us” (St. Augustine), so should we love each person in the world as if there were only one person in the world.
Our problem is that, unlike God, you and I have only a finite capacity to love others and to meet their needs. Resources invested in Afghanistan are not invested in Haiti or in America’s cities. Time you spend with your children and grandchildren is time you are not spending with other children and grandchildren in need.
For this reason, it is vital that we seek our Father’s direction in responding to the needs of our world. His Spirit has already prepared the hearts and minds of those to whom he would direct us to share our witness and his word. He knows the needs he has gifted and equipped us best to meet. He has a kingdom assignment, a mission field, for every believer.
In fact, I am convinced that every Christian needs a personal Acts 1:8 strategy: a plan to serve those close to home (our “Jerusalem”), those further away (our “Judea and Samaria”), and those “to the end of the earth.” What is yours?
“No power on earth can keep intercession out”
As we ask God to show us how best to balance the three “pillars” of care, we should pray for our leaders to do the same. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) includes a profound prayer “for those in positions of public trust, that they may serve justice and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.” We should offer such prayer for our leaders daily (1 Timothy 2:1–2).
And the BCP invites us to pray for others along the lines of the three “pillars” each day:
- “For all who live and work in this community.”
- “For the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and all who suffer; for refugees, prisoners, and all who are in danger; that they may be relieved and protected.”
- And “for our enemies and those who wish us harm, and for all whom we have injured or offended.”
The late Richard Halverson was a pastor, author, and chaplain of the US Senate. He rightly observed, “Intercession is the truly universal work for the Christian. No place is closed to intercessory prayer: no continent, no nation, no city, no organization, no office. No power on earth can keep intercession out.”
Let’s claim this fact today to the glory of God.