So, if you were either George W. Bush or Colin Powell sitting down for this morning's review of the world's crises, which would you take on first? Of all the overseas snarls, which needs most urgently to be untangled? Israel and the Palestinians? Pakistan and India? The frustrating invisibility and elusiveness of Osama bin Laden? The mass weapons factories of Saddam Hussein?
And those are only the ones that could end civilization as we know it by the end of the afternoon.
To that scary list add current tensions in the Philippines, North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, China, Taiwan, and several dozen other places as well.
One thing you know for sure, as you sit down to do your day's work, is that simple formulas don't apply. Maybe once you could reason that "the enemy of my enemy must be my friend." But no more. The world is way too complex and nuanced for simplistic recipes like that.
One formula that does help, of course (even if it doesn't solve all the details), is to start every problem-solving session-even the big international tussles-with an earnest effort to see things from the other person's (or country's) point of view. That's not the same as approving that point of view; it's not even saying, "You have a point." It's just making sure that you accurately understand the other party's perspective. Part of the benefit comes just in sending the message that such clarification is important to you.
Almost certainly, we American evangelical Christians have taken time to do that far too rarely with those we perceive to be our enemies. Whether these are folks who oppose us politically, economically, culturally, religiously, or even militarily, we almost never sit down with such folks to ask them bluntly: "Why are you so mad at us?" It might help if we did.
But the reality is that even after we do that, stark differences will still be sitting there staring us in the face and daring us to find solutions. The Jews and the Muslims will both still want Jerusalem. It's not a matter of reaching a better understanding; we already understand the problem too well! The communist dictators who rule China enjoy their privileged positions, and so does Saddam Hussein in Iraq. No extended conversation, no matter how empathetic, is going to change all that.
And you haven't even yet added in the mind-rattling complexities of forming alliances. Take Pakistan, for example. Or, to paraphrase humorist Henny Youngman's famous line, "Take Pakistan, please." Who needs an ally like Pakistan?
America does, and it doesn't. For the last nine months, America has desperately needed Pakistan. Yet at the very same time, America can barely afford to identify with an ally like Pakistan. Pakistan's rambunctious attitude toward India, America's occasionally more dependable friend in the region, makes everyone feel apocalyptically wobbly.
It would be nice in such circumstances, while deciding who your allies are and who they aren't, to look to the Bible for some straightforwardly helpful formula. President Bush seemed a few weeks ago to have done just that. Echoing Jesus' comment in Luke 11:23 that "Whoever is not with Me is against Me," Mr. Bush said bluntly that anybody who didn't side with the United States in the war against terrorism might well be considered our enemy.
But, as usual, Jesus was actually challenging His followers not to memorize a recipe but to do some deep mental digging. For just a bit earlier, in Luke 9:50, Jesus said almost enigmatically, "The one who is not against you is for you." So which statement applies?
Much of the time, Jesus offers His people crystal-clear teaching. But sometimes He seems deliberately inscrutable, challenging us both cautiously and modestly to think our way through the issues. Especially when our tendency is to cut other people off, or maybe to show how good we are compared to others, He slows us down: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7).
As we've emphasized here repeatedly, that is not at all because God thinks all ideas are equal and all values relative. God doesn't look at the American republic and the Iraqi dictatorship and say dismissively, "They look pretty much alike to Me."
But God knows equally well our tendency toward self-righteousness. That's one reason He makes so many of the problems in life so hard to solve.