The tagline of One Spoke is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are not to simply bandage the wound of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” In other words: don’t be content with soothing the signs of suffering; disrupt the causes of suffering.
In my paraphrase of Bonhoeffer, I could have used the word “attack” to describe the action of driving a spoke: attack the causes of suffering. If I had, I would have echoed the kind of rhetoric used to justify a seemingly endless stream of drone strikes and military operations conducted in the Middle East for decades, including not only a recent airstrike against a military base in Syria, but also the 26,171 bombs we dropped in seven countries in 2016 alone. Rather than resettle refugees, we bomb targets. And the result, we are told, will be less suffering.
But how would people of faith respond to such a gloss? In his official statement on the recent airstrikes – with its religious language of blessing, prayer, and “God’s wisdom” – our current president asks people of faith, specifically, to embrace Tomahawk missiles as tools for stopping suffering. In terms of their ends and processes, “order a targeted military strike” is meant to rhyme with “seek to end slaughter and bloodshed.” And because the statement’s “call” to “civilized nations” is also a call to Christian ones, the president's address leaves people of faith with a special responsibility to discern whether we will accept “order a strike” as a synonym for “drive a spoke.”
The answer from much of the country has been, “yes, we will.” The recent missile launches have created greater cohesion in Congress, as many former critics of the administration have saluted the strike as appropriate and "presidential." I could have said "applauded the strike," but the word “salute,” too, I have chosen deliberately. Meaning not only “to express commendation of” but also “to show respect and recognition to (a military superior) by assuming a prescribed position,” “salute” marks the prescribed position that military actions demand we assume. If we don't assume the position, if we criticize our country's violence at home or abroad, we open ourselves to the charge of being unpatriotic. This is why – as our current leader once noted and as a string of previous presidents have demonstrated – making war can be a powerful tool for unpopular leaders. When we assume a prescribed position of respect, we provide support for a leader. Falling into line together in this way can leave us feeling more supported as well: in times of division, the sight of the masses saluting together creates comfort.
But the pattern of the past two decades alone would be enough to show us that this apparent comfort is also a humanitarian, political, and spiritual danger. We have been (to borrow a phrase from our current president) “bombing the shit out of” majority-Muslim countries for decades, and these bombs have not ended terrorism but have continued to create the conditions where extremism flourishes. This has been especially true as civilian casualties increase:
AirWars, which tracks civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, counted over 1,300 reports of civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in March alone. That’s about triple the count from February. In fact, AirWars estimates, US coalition strikes are now causing more civilian casualties than strikes by Russia, which was loudly (and appropriately) accused of war crimes for its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, last year.
Attacks like these kill, wound, displace, and radicalize. In response to this radicalization and displacement, Western countries ban survivors from migrating and target and surveille those who do gain asylum. This discrimination, in turn, fuels more radicalization, which gives pretense for more military strikes. The cycle continues. The bombs we drop are not spokes through the wheel. They are spokes on the wheel. They help it turn.
In this way, the choice between “attack” and “disrupt” may not be a choice between synonyms but between verbs that are often, functionally, antonyms. By choosing to respond with military attacks, we can make it more difficult to disrupt (disarm, deescalate, defund) the underlying causes of the suffering we see. This is not only a matter of economic scarcity (although, as Cameron Sinclair notes, the money spent on the April 6 Tomahawk missiles that failed to destroy a Syrian airbase could have supported the resettlement of 3,650 refugees). It is also a question of what spins the wheel. If we want to limit suffering in Syria, Yemen, Libya -- or in the United States -- we have to reach beyond particular individuals or regimes to look for the historical forces that have fostered the violent, oppressive leaders wreaking havoc today. We have to work toward defusing imperialism, global inequality, and racial and ethnic discrimination. This is painstaking, complicated work (much more complex than quick shows of force, although not more costly than the interminable conditions of war that can result from such shows). It is also the only work that could provide longterm relief to those suffering from violence and displacement. One lesson we should have learned from history (even the history of my own, short lifetime): we can’t “end slaughter and bloodshed” by ordering military strikes against a region whose resources we are attempting to exploit and whose refugees we are attempting to ban.
So, as a student of English invested in the meaning of words and as a Christian engaged in spiritual hermeneutics, I don’t gloss Bonhoeffer with the word “attack.” My preference for “disrupt” makes a claim: driving a spoke means stopping the wheel, and you can’t stop this wheel by stoking up the engines of an imperial war machine.