by Berry Friesen
“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain” (Psalm 2:1)?
The psalmist answers his own question. “The kings of the earth . . . and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder and cast their cords from us’” (Psalm 2:2-3).
These words come to mind as we reflect on the recent escalation of the war in Syria and Iraq through air attacks by western forces. This escalation has long been plotted by the nations. In September 2013, the US plan to bomb Syria was put on hold because of public opposition. “Why should we provide an air force for al-Qaeda?” people said. President Obama had no answer, but now he does: the Islamic State.
The psalmist speaks of conspiracies that enable kings to overcome resistance to their plots. He speaks of secret counsels to find ways to tear apart the arguments against war and overcome the restraints of international law and moral legitimacy.
Apparently, the kings of our time have succeeded in Syria. Now, just one year after the people’s success in stopping the US bombing of Syria, we see little opposition and the bombing has begun. Everywhere we look, we hear reports on the atrocities committed by the Islamic State and read accounts of how the nations must do something to destroy it. Even voices that usually speak for peace seem flummoxed.
What can those who are committed to peace say in the face of something as horrible as the Islamic State?
There is much we can say. But to say it, we must first confront a very specific fear that keeps us silent: we will be called “conspiracy nuts.” That is a mighty sword in the hands of kings. We fear it more than nearly anything for it will cause our friends and neighbors to avoid us and shut their ears to our voices.
There is ample evidence that the kings of the earth created the Islamic State. The funding for its fighters, their freedom of movement across international borders into Syria, their sophisticated weaponry and their training in how to use it, their access to military intelligence about Syrian and Iraqi forces, their efficient command structure, their access to Western media to distribute propaganda and agitprop–all of this has been provided by members of the US–led alliance.
No, we will not hear confirmation of this on National Public Radio (NPR) or read of it in the New York Times; those media outlets have become integral parts of the public relations structure of the ruling powers. But when we sift through news article over the past few years and consider how the Islamic State came into existence in such a miraculous and “unexpected” way while under the 24/7 surveillance by satellites and drones, we can only conclude that the Islamic State is the result of a conspiracy of the US and its allies.
As I write, my radio is broadcasting a report from NPR in which Syrian President Assad is blamed for the emergence of the Islamic State. It’s an Assad conspiracy, NPR wants us to think, and a legitimate use of the term since it is pointed at someone it wants us to hate.
The Apostle Paul can help us get past this regime of deception and our fear of being labelled “conspiracy nuts.” In his very first letter, Paul reminded the believers in the assemblies of Galatia that “the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Gal.1:3-4). In a subsequent letter to the believers in Colossae, he again linked the salvation we have received in Jesus Christ with our rescue from “the power of darkness.” (Colossians 1:13). And when writing to the believers in Rome, he attributed our bondage to sin to “the exchange of the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1”25).
Paul’s candid assessment of empire’s ways matches the psalmist’s view. But we are slow to be convinced; we still prefer to think the empire’s leaders are well-intentioned and that when a bombing campaign is derailed (as it was just a year ago), the powerful accept the rebuke and change direction.
What is the point of challenging the popular story of how the Islamic State so suddenly emerged out of the desert to threaten the world? It is the moral power of the story that justifies the expansion of the war. If the story remains unchallenged, then the violent plan will proceed. If the deceptiveness of the story enters popular conversation, then implementation of the plan will stop.
So we have a choice: join the psalmist and talk openly about the conspiracy of kings, or preserve our reputations and watch the violence escalate. What would Jesus do?