10 Reflections on Evangelical Support for the War in Tigray

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Dear friends,

This essay reflects on some Ethiopian Evangelical responses to the war that broke out in Ethiopia on November 4, 2020. My reflections will be uncontroversial to some, controversial to others, and unfamiliar to others. For more context, here is a 15-minute interview that I did with my friend Roger Sandberg for Christianity Today.

As usual, I want to thank you for stopping and thinking with me. My goal is to pause and seek greater honesty, compassion, and human wellbeing across boundaries, while acknowledging the complexity of the situation and limits of my perspective. I welcome your feedback.

Yours with prayers for peace for all,

Andrew

Some Ethiopian Evangelical scholars have published articles on the war in Tigray. Implicitly or explicitly, these articles defend the war. I’d like to offer some brief reflections in response.

1. One article expresses sorrow for the suffering the war has caused. I deeply appreciate this compassionate starting point. (Another skips this expression of sorrow.) But the author seems unaware of how hollow this compassion may sound within the full context of his argument, which largely comes down to: “I’m sorry this war destroyed your life and community. But it was deserved and necessary.”

The author also doesn’t refer to any widely shared concrete numbers about what this suffering actually means, and thus his expression of sorrow remains abstract. These realities include: over 50,000 Ethiopians becoming refugees; estimates of tens of thousands being killed; over a million internally displaced; several million in need of emergency food aid; hundreds or thousands of women raped; hospitals, schools, houses of worship looted, damaged, or destroyed; an entire generation traumatized.

The author speaks of “allegations” and uses multiple “if’s” to speak of these atrocities. It is wise to be cautious since the information environment is so politicized. But the author doesn’t refer to talking to anyone who actually lives in Tigray or has traveled there to do disaster relief, which would seem very relevant. I’ve spoken to Christian Ethiopian humanitarian workers, and their level of depression and devastation after visiting Tigray was utterly crushing. They didn’t speak of “allegations” but catastrophic realities.

Here I am reminded of Paul’s command, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

2. These Evangelical brothers insist that war was the only option in light of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) aggression after repeated attempts of reconciliation by the federal government.

I find this opinion lacking in faith and imagination for serious Christians. On Sunday mornings, we sing songs and preach sermons that declare God can do the impossible, work miracles, and achieve more than we can ask and imagine (see Ephesians 3:20). We claim this is what we believe. But then in our public communication, we are certain: there was only one option, and that option was a devastating war.

Do we really believe what we sing and shout, or are we content with religious theatrics in church that doesn’t apply to our public engagement? We are called to be people of divine imagination who are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” and who “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:2, 21). And yet we too quickly “conform to the patterns of this world” that destroy God’s image and bring ruin to society (Romans 12:2).

3. One scholar comments on how decades and centuries of war have led to Ethiopia’s extreme poverty. And yet they don’t seem to see the irony of still defending another war. It reminds me of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

If civil war leads to poverty, why expect anything other than more poverty from this civil war? Moreover, these scholars never stop to interrogate the price tag of this war — bullets, guns, tanks, planes, trucks, rockets, fuel, destroyed infrastructure, paralyzed economies, human lives, etc. How might these massive resources have been deployed for developmental peace-building? For example, how many hospitals, schools, and other desperately needed facilities could these billion+ dollars have funded?

Acknowledging the impoverishing devastation of war but then not asking these questions exhibits a lack of critical thinking. It reminds me of Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind or what Robert Bellah called “a crisis of incoherence.”

4. Our Evangelical brothers are convinced that “Western” or “Global North” journalists are trying to destroy Ethiopia’s reputation by reporting “negatively” on the war. Again, they don’t seem to notice the lack of Christ’s compassion in their focus: they are more worried about a country’s reputation than its own people’s suffering. Moreover, they are more worried that utterly atrocious, devastating violence may be “exaggerated” rather than the fact that it is actually happening, may continue, and may be covered up without sufficient attention.

These are misplaced priorities for followers of the crucified Jesus: why not give extra attention and alarm to the suffering of the powerless? Wouldn’t it be more aligned with Jesus and the prophets to say later, “In light of the full evidence, I was too concerned for powerless people; I got some facts wrong” instead of, “In light of the full evidence, I was too concerned to defend the powerful; I got some facts wrong”?

I am sobered by the Prophet Isaiah’s description of the Messiah and how easily we “hide our face” from suffering: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).

5. These Evangelical scholars accuse Western journalists of inaccuracies and omissions that distort how we understand the war. Of course, journalists make mistakes, and facts should be rigorously researched and confirmed. Definitely. But the examples they mention are not compelling.

They refer to the Maykadra massacre and insist that “the West” ignored it. But it was Amnesty International that broke the story. In the wake of that horrific atrocity, my news feed was flooded with news articles discussing it, emphasizing the suffering of Amhara people and calling for investigation and protection.

Some scholars insisted the atrocities in Axum were fabricated to shame Ethiopia and “allege” Eritrean military involvement. But now these atrocities are being verified and acknowledged, including by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

They claim that Western journalists have ignored the TPLF’s oppressive rule which contributed to the war. But this is factually wrong: major news outlets repeatedly reported on Ethiopia’s TPLF-dominated government as one of the most oppressive, authoritarian, even totalitarian governments in Africa. They repeatedly covered its mass arrests, killings, torture, and increasing corruption. The reports about the war have also referred to this history.

It’s unclear if these Evangelical scholars simply don’t read the news, or if they are willfully misrepresenting what has been published, both pre-2018 and post-November 2020, because they don’t like its focus on human suffering and the need for violence to stop.

It is also striking that they say nothing about obvious, official lies (for example, no civilian casualties, no Eritrean military presence). Some of these lies are now being publicly acknowledged. If we are truly seeking the truth, we should champion it everywhere we see falsehood. Why take a one-sided approach when we are called to be “unconformed” and to think with a “renewed mind” (Romans 12:2)?

6. Connected to the previous point, these brothers rely on an over-simplistic logic that children use: “They started it.”

Let’s assume that the TPLF did start it. TPLF’s brutality is well known, and it is rightly condemned. But that doesn’t make an obvious case for unleashing a multi-national military campaign that produced what war produces: death, displacement, destruction of infrastructure, generational trauma, mass radicalization, the chaos in which atrocity is entirely predictable.

Parents don’t submit to their kids when they punch their sibling and scream, “But they started it!” Why do we uncritically accept this reasoning when millions of lives and decades of the future are at stake? At the very least, a more critical, imaginative perspective is expected of Christians with PhDs.

This takes me back to Paul’s point in Romans 12 about us having “renewed minds” and not being “conformed to the patterns of this world.”

7. These Evangelical scholars operate with an unhelpful epistemic double-standard. Anything that contradicts their narrative is held to be obviously false or at least highly doubtful and even maliciously intended. Anything that supports their narrative is taken to be obviously true and unquestioned fact.

This is over-simplistic thinking that fails to exemplify the rigorous, self-aware thinking that loving God and loving our neighbors with our minds demands. Again, it also fails to show awareness of our own epistemic finitude and fallibility as sinful knowers (“the noetic effects of sin”).

In a time of severe polarization, today’s leaders need to model more robust critical thinking for the coming generations, so our emerging leaders can break out of entrenched patterns of group-centered, one-sided thinking. This critical thinking is the basis for cultivating honest dialogue, healing trust, and seeking reconciliation.

8. My brothers accuse Western countries of meddling in Ethiopia’s sovereignty by condemning the war and calling for international investigations. But it’s likely that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ethiopians don’t feel like their government has the independence to investigate war crimes since its soldiers were among the perpetrators of these atrocities. Millions of Ethiopians may actually want more independent investigations.

Given our theology of sin, I would expect Evangelical scholars to take a more critical approach to the human and government tendency toward denial, lying, and self-righteousness. As we so often hear quoted, “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). And yet we see a strange Evangelical naivety cloaked in the name of national sovereignty.

9. These scholars also defend the “decency” of the military and insist that only a few bad apples “allegedly” committed atrocities. I sincerely hope they’re right. Being a soldier is not an easy job, and the security of the community is extremely important. Honorable soldiers should be respected.

But what happened to the widespread Ethiopian perception of police and military brutality? Most Ethiopians I know deeply fear both. Even the highest officials have admitted there is a culture of impunity and brutality that will be difficult to reform. Moreover, any student of ethics and war understands that war opens the door to atrocity even among highly trained military forces.

Again, when we apply our biblical theology of sin, why are we more concerned to defend armed soldiers than vulnerable women, children, elders, and the handicapped? Why do we take a naive perspective that is neither supported by experience, history, nor our own theology?

I am reminded of Proverbs’ mandate: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8).

10. My Evangelical brothers call for “unity” and “peace.” I share their passion; we need peace and unity!

But again, they don’t seem to see the irony: they defend a war which has led to mass death, mass displacement, mass destruction, mass traumatization, mass alienation for millions of fellow Ethiopians. And then they present themselves as advocates of “unity” and “peace.”

I think we can all appreciate how this would feel hollow or even cynical to victims. How would you feel if an academic wrote from the safety of their office and (directly or indirectly) justified your family’s experience of devastation, and then claimed to be an advocate for peace and unity in your community? This is an exercise in very basic empathy, of putting ourselves in others’ shoes and asking, “How would that make me feel?”

By abandoning our critical neutrality, we have forfeited our credibility and moral authority to be Christ’s ministers of reconciliation when reconciliation is urgently needed.

***

As I’ve indicated, I consider these scholars my brothers. (I haven’t seen articles by female scholars.) I love them and have learned much from them.

But I am concerned that these pieces on the war are less than focused on Christ, hastily reasoned, and unhelpful for cultivating the reconciled, peaceful Ethiopia we desire. I worry that conscious or unconscious denominational, ethnic, or political biases may be influencing perspectives and distracting from a more robustly biblical, Christ-centered, neighbor-loving approach.

I do not claim to have all the answers — far from it. I also have blindspots and a fallible interpretation of reality. If there are factual errors in what I have written, I welcome evidence and will correct what I’ve said.

Let us pray and work together for a Christian public theology that (1) more robustly practices courageous critical thinking, that (2) prioritizes special compassion for the most vulnerable, and that (3) refuses to take political sides so expressions of solidarity and calls for peace can carry more weight.

We urgently need this moral leadership at this time.

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