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Picking Sides: Us v Them

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Whether it's Iran, the world's poor, or any other enemy, Christians must reject the idea that 'they' are less important than 'us'.

War with Iran has been the subject of whispers for weeks. The most likely candidates for attacker of the Islamic republic are of course Israel and her immensely powerful guard-dog, the United States, but there are those who would not rule out the UK (the guard-dog's 'mate', for want of a pithier word). It may not happen. Let's pray that it doesn't. But the clues are worrying.

Do you remember, before the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, how the apparent iniquity of those countries' regimes made its way into our consciousness? Chain emails appeared out of nowhere denouncing the Taliban to people who had never heard of Afghanistan, and attention was paid in newspapers to crimes committed by Saddam Hussein years previously (but ignoring the fact that at the time our relations with him were more than cordial).

Noam Chomsky calls it the 'manufacture of consent' - the process whereby democracies get their citizens on board so as to have a supposedly democratic mandate to do what they had planned all along: in this case, to destroy their enemies. The message you and I are meant to take away is that the enemy of our government should be our enemy too. So, when our ally (Israel) nukes our enemy (Iran), we can all be happy.

It's a tendency that is natural to humans. We (whoever we might be) are right and our enemies are wrong. God is on our side. From the tone of our Remembrance Day services to the images of empire that clutter our old churches in Britain to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the USA , Christians are far from immune from the lunacy we thing ridiculous and dangerous in Islamic extremists. We're just more polite than Ahmadinejad.

But, polite or not, it's an attitude we must reject in our society and fight in ourselves. Because it is not just the prophetic, who speak out against our national aggression, or our enemies themselves who suffer. 'Us and them' thinking makes us comfortable with sweatshops in Bangladesh when we wouldn't allow them here. It concerns itself with whether Britain has enough turkeys while Africa starves and sees no problem with wealthy countries closing borders to keep out the world's poor.

We may not live in a country where God is conflated with state authority like Iran or the United States, but it is still important for people of faith in Britain to reject the 'us and them' mentality that is at the root of so much evil in the world. When a human being becomes 'them', too many of us lose all perspective. People who would be horrified by a single bomb killing one family in Surrey think of hundreds of thousands of deaths elsewhere are acceptable, inevitable or necessary in a way we could not apply to those we call 'us'. Nice, middle-class people who object to having their name on an identity card because it impinges on their freedom will happily sanction the torture and seven year incarceration of people who have never been charged with, never mind found guilty of a crime because it is happening to 'them'.

We all looked on with horror as the Gaddaffi and the architects of the Rwandan genocide before him exhorted people to kill the 'cockroaches' that were their 'enemies', the 'others'. And yet by our own military's refusal to even count Iraqi civilian casualties, are we that different as a nation? Do we dehumanise the 'other' any less? We criticise the governments of Africa for allowing people to starve, but is their famine any less our responsibility?

It is not enough simply not to hate an enemy. It is not enough to pray for 'them'. 'Love your enemies' and 'Love your neighbour' make fine slogans, but they mean nothing if we don't act upon them. And it is impossible to love someone you are trying to kill or allowing to starve.


This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times.