Bowe Bergdahl and Looking Toward the Heavens
Having grown up near Norfolk, Virginia, I’ve perhaps come closer to war than some. I’ve read the letters my grandma saved from my uncle’s term in Vietnam. I’ve seen the photos, touched the uniforms, and heard the stories from my grandfathers’ service in World War II and the Korean War. I’ve attended their military funerals—heard the gun salutes, saved the shells, and watched the folding of the flag.
I’ve had short-term friends whose lives were marked by the transience of deployed parents. I have long-term friends whose lives were grounded but whose fathers were absent for months at a time. I know women and men who struggle against PTSD or whose bodies bear scars or remnants of shrapnel.
The Christian worldview explains why cases like this are so challenging and why they should turn our minds toward our great hope to come, where the depravity of a fallen world will no longer taint our lives.I know enough about war to know there is nothing simple about it. Within its scope, pride can live alongside guilt, loyalty may dwell with regret, faith might coexist with doubt. If nothing else, war highlights the depravity of our fallen world, depravity that taints our lives and insinuates itself into the cultural and political systems in which we are embedded.
So I know, too, that, amidst this complexity of values inherent to war, President Obama’s decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay detainees for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan, was guaranteed to fiercely stir the political pot.
In what seems to be ever-more-typical American media fashion, the event was instantly polarized: conservatives argued that Bergdahl was captured because he deserted his base. They noted that at least six American soldiers had already died in search missions to recover the “traitor.” They condemned the president for “negotiating with terrorists.”
Liberals highlighted the hypocrisy (and trail of deleted tweets) of Republicans who once supported the trade. They said Bergdahl’s health was in decline. They argued that the Taliban is not technically a terrorist group. And they claimed that America must rescue their own no matter what.
The public attempts by journalists, political leaders, bloggers, and social media users to lay claim to the “truth” of the situation has been largely painful to watch. Some of the harsher upshots include attacking Bergdahl and his father’s religious affiliations (a challenge so profound that Bergdahl’s pastor was compelled to speak out in his defense) and threatening Bergdahl’s parents’ lives.
In this discussion, grace has had very little hearing.
And yet the Christian worldview explains why cases like this are so challenging and why they should turn our minds toward our great hope to come, where the depravity of a fallen world will no longer taint our lives. Even now there are three points about the Bergdahl case that reveal the influence of sin on our fallen world but that also remind us why we still have cause for hope.
(1) We live in a world where lives are ranked and exchanged according to values assigned by a faulty system. President Obama determined that the redemption of one American POW’s life was worth the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees. This equation was complicated by the six American lives already lost in missions to recover Bergdahl. Further revelation that he may have intentionally abandoned his base proved additionally challenging. How do men—politicians or military leaders—weigh these details?
How do they decide whose lives to risk, whose lives are worth how many others? There is no way to balance that equation. Man was never intended to have to make such negotiations, and the mess we often make of them proves this abundantly clear. God’s intention was for no human life to have more value than another. His equation is that the sacrifice of one perfect life serves as fail-proof ransom for all our imperfect lives. And that one sacrificed life, having been restored, leaves the potential for no life to be entirely lost. In God’s economy, it is life that abounds, not death; gain that proliferates, not loss.
(2) We live in a world where salvation is awarded based on cultural status and prior behavior. If Bergdahl did go AWOL—as his compatriots have informally testified—does he “deserve” rescue? Does one error in judgment trump all previous loyal service? What is the weight of the status “American soldier”? And how were the lives of the five Taliban terrorists chosen among the many convicts as acceptable for freedom? Who can ever know which among us are like the prodigal and will—at the great and undeserved gift of freedom—be reformed, and which are like Lot’s wife—granted rescue but ever looking back to their ultimate destruction? That is to say: though the released terrorists will be harbored in Qatar and their future threat is to be monitored, we cannot ensure that a renewed lease on life equals a change of heart.
Nor can we know what was in Bergdahl’s heart when he was not in his bunk on the night he was captured. Or how his incredible release—after five years of imprisonment—might impact his heart, his view of the world, his goals, his priorities, his loves and loyalties. Such insight would surely make negotiations like this one much easier. But man can never see another’s heart or know anything of another soul’s state. Our limited knowledge forces us to deal solely with the material evidence: Bergdahl is an American soldier; his previous service qualifies him for release. The five Taliban detainees are not members of an officially-recognized terrorist cell; their previous actions are not so severe to qualify for permanent imprisonment.
We can only hope for positive change in the lives exchanged. And that is because such tasks—the exchange and release of both the body and the soul—was one intended for God alone, a God Who offers a rescue plan for all but Who knows also which men have merely wandered and can be changed and which—through their own choices—are past hope.
(3) We live in a world where the consequences for sin are treated as negotiable. The Bergdahl trade-off reveals the way our culture attempts to negotiate degrees of sinfulness and how these degrees are related in turn to degrees of freedom deserved. The American government determined that Bergdahl’s status as an American soldier covers any potential sin of abandonment or dishonor. Indeed, it also covers the offenses of the five men released: war crimes, the massacre of Afghan citizens, drug lording, and connections with Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking terrorist leaders.
Consider what a perversion of the Gospel narrative this model exemplifies. Humans, who ultimately can offer no more than physical transfer (one “good” body exchanged for five “bad”), attempt to use moral categories to validate such exchanges. Bergdahl is more good, and his greater goodness trumps even great evil in negotiations of war. Certainly in the unfolding days, answers about both Bergdahl’s past and the management of the five Taliban men will become more apparent, but the fact remains. The human ability to evaluate, create consequences for, and redeem lives is painfully limited and commonly results in less-than-ideal terms for all involved. Rather, in the midst of his freedom, Bergdahl’s whereabouts on the night of his capture will likely continue to be investigated, and the freed Taliban men will be closely supervised.
The biblical navigation of sin is radically different: no sin is beyond redemption—not treachery, not terrorism—and no freedom from sin attained is conditional. It is anything but tainted with illogic, moral hedging, and political spin. It is pure, beautiful, unchanging, and complete—traits no political judgment can ever attain.
The purpose in considering how Bergdahl’s case might point us directly towards hope, towards Jesus, and towards heaven and the restored world we are promised is not necessarily that we need to change our policies or way of doing things, only that it won’t always be this way for Christians. We find ourselves ranking lives, judging who deserves rescue, and identifying some sins as beyond redemption because we are fallen people living in a fallen world and don’t have the ability truly to value with equity, love without judgment, and redeem each other from sin as only Jesus can.
The other day on Facebook, Tim Keller posted a status relevant to this case: “While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
The ugliness of war is one of the world’s greatest sorrows. We would, perhaps, do well to sit in the midst of it— not to ignore or add venom or jump to assumptions—and realize that this is the way of the world. It will be—has, in fact, already been and is being as we speak—redeemed.
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