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Leaving Afghanistan

Mark 13:1-2, 14-20

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved;

If you’re a student of the bible, you may have heard that the gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four gospels in the New Testament, thought to have been written around the year 70 AD, or 70 CE, about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. One of the main reasons scholars date it there is the passage that I just read, in which the disciples marvel at the grandeur of the temple in Jerusalem, and Jesus tells them that a time is coming when it will be defiled and destroyed. People will flee for their lives and they will scarcely find any safety, as darkness and suffering descend on the nation. Bible scholars note that there was a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire, begun in the year 66 AD, and in the year 70, Roman legions surrounded Jerusalem, starved the city, then invaded, burned most of it to the ground, destroyed the temple, and slaughtered thousands. The passage we just read is thought to be a reference to this national trauma, and the gospel of Mark is thus believed to have been written against the backdrop of this historical experience.

I wish that a passage this dark and foreboding would only ever be about a specific event, that happened a long time ago. But that’s not the way the Bible works. The Bible is the living word of God, and its insights keep speaking to new experiences, whether they be joyful, or horrifying. The words of Mark 13 were echoing in my mind this week, as I watched video clips and heard stories of desperation from people in Afghanistan, as US military forces tried to complete their withdrawal, and the Taliban took over the country, once again.

As we’ve been learning, The Taliban has been patiently and meticulously planning for this transition, for a long time. It appears that the United States and the Afghan government did not. Or at least, they carried out whatever planning they did with an unwarranted level of confidence as to how well it would all go. Now there is terror and chaos, as millions panic amidst the return of a regime that is known for stunning, grotesque and brutal violence and repression.

People are attacking President Biden for leadership failures, and that’s justified. People are spotlighting the failures of previous presidents and leaders, and that’s justified, too. Some are saying, ‘It’s right for the United States to leave, but it’s wrong to leave in such a disorganized and dysfunctional way.’ That critique is justified, also.

But even if the exit had gone as planned, if every Afghan translator who helped the US military got a visa and a plane ticket, and not a single American Humvee was lost to the enemy, would this be a time for celebration? Pat one another on the back for a job well done? No. Because so many people are living out days like those described in Mark chapter 13.

“Some must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in these days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in these days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation.”

Quick confession: I am sometimes a reluctant preacher. Weeks like this week, I feel, as you may feel, ill-equipped to speak to the stark truth of the moment, it is so disheartening. Sometimes, I offer a sermon mostly because I promised I would. I said yes when God called me to this ministry, and so I’m going to try to speak something true, even though I don’t think I’m good enough or wise enough to get it right. I have faith that Jesus will help me if I’m willing to try.

So right now I’m going to offer three short reflections and gentle recommendations for Christians to hold tenderly in such a grave time as this. I hope there’s something in here that you can take away, and it will be helpful. Alright, here goes.

Things we should do, now:

  1. Grieve and Confess

We have to sit honestly and openly in the horror of what is happening. We have to face it, not turn away. Like the women who stayed on Golgotha. They hated being there, they were devastated to see the Lord crucified, they didn’t want the anguish, but they stayed. They couldn’t stop what was happening, but they didn’t look away.

This is essential. People of faith and goodwill must not look away, must not choose distraction, or kid ourselves about what’s really happening. We have to look at it, and feel the pain that comes with really seeing.

Not only that, we have to reckon with our own complicity in the catastrophe that is unfolding in Afghanistan. This is very difficult – it adds discomfort and pain to the sorrow we already feel. If we are culpable, the whole thing hurts even worse. But we have examine the part we have played to this point.

I’m wary of the blame people are throwing around, right now. Criticize President Biden, or Trump or Bush or anybody who has made mistakes, that's fine. But beware the temptation to use the sins or failures of another to shield ourselves from accountability. Americans, this war has been waged for twenty years in our name, with our money, by our beloved brothers and sisters. I have a 17-year-old son, and my nation has been dropping bombs in Afghanistan for longer than he has been alive. What have I done about it, over all that time? I’ve voiced my disapproval, here and there, but I voted for people who kept it all going. I’ve given some money, year to year, to organizations that help people affected by war, but I can’t really claim that I have lived as if the war in Afghanistan mattered that much to me. Most days I have carried on without thinking about it at all.

This is true of most Americans, even as our fellow citizens in the military have risked their lives in service to our nation. And the fact that we haven’t cared that much, and we haven’t made that much of a fuss about it, this has, in part, enabled things to progress to the point where they are today. We’ve seen in the past year, with the Black Lives Matter movement, how much of an impact it makes on our leaders, when the citizenry as a whole is truly engages with a cause. But we have not been engaged with this ongoing war to an extent that could have shaped outcomes into something we’d want. Whatever difference we could have made along the way, we didn’t, and we need to own that. We need to grieve and confess.

2. Remember and Act

At the moment, the war and the suffering of those we leave behind is big news. But Afghanistan will not dominate the headlines for long. Americans are upset today, but we have a way of forgetting to care about something tomorrow.

We cannot change what has happened, but if Afghan people truly matter to us, we can act like it, going forward. In the fiscal year 2019-2020, the United States allowed 29,000 refugees to settle here, and that’s down from 84,000 in 2016. In the 1970s, we welcomed 300,000 refugees a year. (I got those numbers here.) Our nation can take the numbers back up. If you want Afghans to have a safe place to live, you can tell our elected officials, over and over and over again, that you want our refugee resettlement numbers to return to what they once were. That’s a political action, this isn’t all politics.

This week I kept seeing Jenny Yang from World Relief, quoted in articles about Afghanistan. World Relief supports displaced people all over the world, including refugees who come to the United States. Their staff in Afghanistan are dismayed and disappointed, because they’d been trying to communicate about the realities on the ground, since early spring, warning of likely problems with the transition. They didn’t get the message across then (nobody would take their call?) but they’re still in the struggle, now, and they will be, tomorrow, and next year, and after that.

You may know where I’m going with this, because there is a chapter of World Relief in the Quad Cities. You can go to their website right now, and they will tell you all about Afghan refugee resettlement, until you know more than you ever thought you could know about the topic, and they will provide you a long list of ways to join their work of supporting and befriending refugees. From donating clothes or dishes or tools or money, to mentoring a child or helping an adult learn English.

We have Tapestry Farms in Davenport, where Iowa natives befriend refugee neighbors in the work and play of growing and sharing food, together. Come to Tapestry Farms, weed the garden, pick some tomatoes, deliver some groceries - you can contribute, everybody is invited.

The point is, that despite the scandal of our apathy in the past, and despite the horror of what we are seeing in the present, we can make choices going forward that honor and support the people who are surviving the trauma of this war. We can, if we remember, and act.

3. Stop Trusting Violence

This last recommendation may be hard for people to take seriously, but I’m going to say it anyway. We need to reconsider the fundamental presuppositions that human beings hold about violence, generally. People have a widespread, abiding belief that violence solves problems. This belief is conventional, normal, natural and so enticing. If there is a problem, we trust that killing the right person, or hurting an individual, or a community or a family or a nation sufficiently, will make things right. This is what we believe. And if violence is visited upon us, we operate under the assumption that we have to repay in kind, we have to inflict suffering and death on an evildoer.

Christians believe this as much as anyone, despite the fact that we worship a Savior who literally did the exact opposite. He did not try to kill the people who were killing him.

It is difficult to even question the belief that violence is necessary, and it solves problems, because people accept that that is just how life works. Meanwhile our assumptions about the necessity of violence shape what we believe is possible in the world.

Friends, at a time such as this, you and I will benefit greatly from examining the outcomes, the fruit of our belief, our trust in violence. I submit that the travesty in Afghanistan is what it is, because we as a nation have believed that war is the answer to our problems. And we have been wrong in this belief.

A person might respond to me bringing these principles up, by saying, “Thanks for the philosophical pontificating about violence, professor, but seriously. 3,000 Americans were murdered on September 11, 2001. Should we not have hunted the terrorists and killed them for such evil? Were we supposed to give Osama Bin Laden a hug after that? What would you have us do, if not go to war, to destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban?”

These are the kinds of things people say, and it’s an obvious and fair question. I would simply say in response that, after 9/11, as a nation, we didn’t even consider the question of what other options there might be, not even for a moment. Do you know what day Congress voted to start this war that lasted 20 years? September 14th, 2001, a mere three days after the attack. The US Senate voted 98-0, and House of Representatives voted 418-1 to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan. This war was a foregone conclusion in people's minds. Everyone assumed that this is what you do, when you are attacked. (Except Barbara Lee, the singular ‘no’ vote.)

What would we have done to make things right after 9/11, if we didn’t start this war? Frankly, I don’t know. None of us knows what our options might have been, if we had taken the time to think it through, because we didn’t take the time. I don’t know exactly what the President of the United States should have done in the fall of 2001 – all I know is that war was the only path he really considered.

And because we took the only path we really considered taking, we have now lost as many Americans in Afghanistan as we lost on September 11th, and American bombs and bullets have killed many more civilians there than died here. Add in Afghan military deaths and this war has killed 170,000 directly, maybe half a million indirectly.

So, as bad as September 11 was, we have seen the trauma multiplied. Therefore, I have come to believe that the trust we place in violence as a solution to our problems is misplaced. War is not worthy of our trust. It is not the solution we think it is.

Our failure to understand the deceit of war is at the heart of the present travesty, but a national epiphany in this respect would serve us well, as we confront the next grave crisis, and the one after that. Would our nation dare to believe that there is a nonviolent (or less violent) way to respond to terrible events, and actually achieve the things we hope for? Because despite the enormous commitment and sacrifice our brave countrymen and women have made, after all the death and destruction, we have not achieved what we hoped for, in Afghanistan.

I always remember that, in Mark 13, when Jesus told his people to prepare for the coming persecution, he didn’t tell them to stockpile weapons. He said to them, “Things are going to get bad. So bad, you may doubt that you can survive.” He told them not to give up, but he didn’t say, “Gird yourselves for battle, boys. People are coming to kill you, unless you kill them first.”

He didn’t say that, because salvation is not found in those words.

No, he simply said, “Don’t give up – the worst days will not last forever.”

That was true in 70 AD and it is true today. And there will be compassion, and courage and help to be found, even as fearsome things come to pass.

Our hearts are broken by events that we have witnessed, as they should be. In the face of cataclysm and woe, we can grieve, confess and repent, honestly, openly. We can remember and act, with clarity and courage. And we can learn, finally, that war is a scam, not a solution. It’s a gamble that won’t pay out, and we don’t have to believe in it, anymore.

Friends, I’m thankful to be with you, and I am going to stay in the work of grace and goodwill with you, because I believe Jesus is staying, too. He's not going to abandon us in this struggle, no matter how fearsome the foes that align, or how dark the days become. He is the author of our hope, the guide and protector on this path. It is the path of peace. God bless you, Amen.

Pastor Rob Leveridge

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