Afghanistan and the Thucydides Trap

As we look at the images from Afghanistan from this past week, it is always helpful to remember why things happen. I thought my posts on Plato and his truly nefarious influence on humanity were done, but then things happen, and the printing press rolls again.

Consider the Think Tanks, the nexus between government power, international corporations, and . . . academia. Yes, the nexus of financialized and weaponized ideas. Like, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we . . . ?” Afghanistan, against the wishes of Platonists and all variations thereof, is Exhibit A for us that re-wiring shepherd societies does not work, no matter how many books, papers, or counter-insurgency manuals are written and discussed.

But what I want to focus on today is an idea promulgated by American think tankers called “The Thucydides Trap.” It’s a pseudo-intellectual “idea,” really, a half-idea, that uses the ancient Athenian historian Thucydides to justify American foreign policy today. It was, as Thucydides explained, the rise of Athenian power that caused fear in Sparta, and not the other way around.

The Thucydides trap is named after the first serious historian, Thucydides the Athenian, who set out to explain the destruction of Athenian society as a consequence of a very long war against Sparta and its allies. During the Cold War, some American academics used The History of the Peloponnesian War as a kind of blueprint. They saw America as Athens and the USSR as Sparta; in their mindset, the one a democracy, the other a closed society; the one a naval power, the other a land power.

Whatever the facile comparisons, the Trap is up and running again, this time between the US and China, with the same comparisons.

The problem is that, well, one wonders how well the promulgators of this idea . . . actually paid attention to what Thucydides actually wrote. Why do I say this? Because Athens lost the war, and did so because of the same kind of policies we are seeing today — expeditionary warfare, brutal occupations, internal societal tension, and poor leaders (including demagogues), among other things (yes, there was also a plague). In short, they were eliminated by their own empire.

It’s hard, because empires, following the Scriptural approach to these matters (see Tasks), always build too high. It’s the internal logic of empire. Their builders do not realize it’s a fool’s errand to begin, and simply do not know when to stop once they’ve begun.

Arc of the Covenant

By a perversion of justice he was taken away — Isaiah 53. 8

It is hard, as a reader or listener, to control narration. It just moves, like a train. Hit the “pause” button, quit the movie, the story remains as is. You and I cannot control it. To ignore anything uncomfortable, well, just leave the story and do not return to it (until you’re ready).

Along these lines, narration is like a moving stream. So is narrative character development.

So we would not just jump to a certain point, in say, The Grapes of Wrath, and expect to have the clearest picture of a certain character. We start from the beginning, and can discuss character traits, likes and dislikes only at the end.

In large stories, even those that take place over several books, we speak of a character’s arc, meaning how their life story or purpose develops, or doesn’t. The character begins here, but ends up there. As we have seen, David begins as a beloved shepherd but ends up as a proprietor king. That is his arc.

Others in the Bible have an arc. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Elijah — to name a few. They encounter struggles, have to make decisions, and come out “the other side” in a different way, though I would not say necessarily as “better.” There is no “better” in Scripture.

The question I have been trying to answer is this, though: does Jesus have an arc?

This is not some theoretical question. All characters go through a change, but it seems that Jesus does not. We have presented to us, from the beginning, someone so perfect, there is no room for growth. And this is not an inconsequential question. If he has an arc, what is it? What would this then mean? If he does not, then how can this be possible?

Classical theology addresses this issue with the expression that, being fully God and fully human, Jesus possesses perfect knowledge as God. He lacks nothing. So, in this sense, He does not have a development, at least (as one could argue) after his baptism. He may even “grow” and mature, but only in the sense that, as a human, he learns to follow his divine will.

In storytelling, a character, especially the hero of the story or protagonist, undergoes change and growth (usually for the better) by experiencing and overcoming an adversary or a struggle. Sometimes, these struggles are internal — for example, consequences of one’s upbringing, social and class status, doubts, psychological weaknesses, etc., and other times they are external — for example, a nemesis, a monster, or a natural event.

These lines are not absolutes, as different types of struggles can be “won” by the protagonist. Sometimes an inner struggle allows for an outer struggle to be conquered. For example, Moses “comes to terms” with his mission from God in Exodus 3, and so he has no doubts leading the Hebrew people into the wilderness, where the natural environment becomes unbearable for them but not him.

Does anything like this happen to Jesus?

In the Gospel of Luke, two events stand out: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4. 1 – 15), and the agony at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22. 39 – 54)). One is an external struggle, imposed by the three questions Jesus is asked; the other is his internal agony in those final moments before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Jesus “passes” both of these tests. The consequence of passing his temptations is that he begins proclaiming the Gospel; in passing the test of his agony, he endures the trials and the cross.

But does he change, or become better by any of this? Well, Jesus is no more wiser after the first test than before. In fact, it was his knowledge of God’s wisdom (i.e., the Scriptures) prior to the temptations that allowed him to pass the test. With the agony at the Mount of Olives, however, Jesus passes a major test of trust in his Father’s will (see v. 42).

So Jesus does appear to have an arc in the Gospel of Luke. His agony at the Mount of Olives, which we are told led to him sweating as if with great drops of blood (22. 44), is a “crucible” moment for him, as this is a test imposed on him by the Father.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ arc in the Gospel of Luke does not make sense as it is presented along these terms. Why not? Consider the following: Jesus is conceived and born according to divine purpose and is born near a shepherd field (Luke 1 and 2); he lives among the poor in Galilee of the nations, and dies outside of Jerusalem, the capital of Roman Judea; he teaches in parables along the way, and enters the homes of the poor and the oppressors (Bethany and Jericho); he dies at the hands of a collusion between local religious authority and the Roman power on the cross.

Throughout Luke, Jesus encounters an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There is not one defining obstacle that defines him, but many trials throughout his life. He says as much to the disciples at the last supper: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (22. 28).

So, then, does Jesus have an arc? Yes, it is the arc of Scripture.

In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist highlights the oppression and the injustice that Isaiah proclaims, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (53.8). Notice the cruelty in Luke 23. 16. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, yet he is still ready to have him flogged. And, upon his death, the Roman centurion proclaims the innocence of Jesus (23.47; an ironic statement, as the Romans were proud of their legal system, which Luke shows to be corrupt and which the Gentile centurion recognizes).

The crucifixion of Jesus was not just simply the death of one man in a stand-alone life story. The Gospel of Luke is not a biography of Jesus. The crucifixion was an attempt to bury into oblivion not only Jesus but also the entire Good News, which Jesus proclaimed starting from Galilee and carried on his shoulders to the cross outside of Jerusalem.

The life and death of Jesus can only be understood in light of what came and was promised before (Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12; Luke 25.27; 25. 25.44 – 45).

The true arc here is the arc of the Scriptures, expressed as God’s covenant and promise, which Jesus carries “against all odds” leading him to the cross. No one else in Scripture does that. While the forefathers and mothers, prophets and poets each have their own individual arcs, only Jesus carries the entire arc of Scripture as part of his own life story.

This is why for John, writing after Luke, Jesus is the Word.

Consult the Book of Armaments!

In the history of biblical interpretation, for a very long time there were two “schools” of thought on the matter. These views were named after the cities where this kind of early research, if you will, was concentrated, namely Antioch and Alexandria.

The group in Antioch took a kind of “matter of fact” view, that the Bible should be read “as is,” without a tendency to speculate about deeper meanings. This school of bible study also led to some dedicated attempts to understand the languages of the Bible (i.e., Lucian of Antioch).

The speculative aspect is what the group out of Alexandra, Egypt did, which made sense since they were disciples of neo-Platonism, and speculation is the name of the game with philosophy. So, under this scenario, the Bible has a plain meaning, but also deeper “spiritual” meanings that spiritual people can unlock. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea is a metaphor for knowing God.

Of course, either system also has its extremes. The Antiochian school can tend towards fundamentalism, while the Alexandrian tends towards mysticism and guru-like devotion (“tell me, Master, what does it mean?!”).

With all the ink spilled in battles over which way is the best of reading the Bible, have you ever wondered if there is, well, a clearly wrong way of reading the Bible? I present to you this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Behold, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!

Was this a comedic critique of how the Middle Ages used the Scriptures (“Consult the Book of Armaments!”) or how we do it today?

More importantly, what does this scene also say about how we use the Bible as a justification to wage war on our enemies? That is, when the Bible is a weapon itself. What does this say about how we engage in false piety? The king lowered his head as the reading took place from “the Book of Armaments,” heard the directions, and still counted wrong (i.e., he was not listening).

And of this focus on seeing the Bible as a handbook for war, or as a text that needs to be “consulted.” Yes, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is filled with battles, and presents the hearers with God as Warrior and record title holder. But the purpose of all those scenes is to tire out even the most die-hard warrior, and to show how war is ultimately a futile act. Better the silence of the cave at Horeb than the tumult of battlefield victory (1 Kings 18-19).

The other aspect of “how not to” involves the tendency to use the Bible as a generic handbook or manual. Chapters and verses become verbal weapons in our arguments with ideological Philistines. This mindset has even penetrated to the popular level, as people “see,” especially in end-times books like Revelation, which country represents which enemy of God.

How did we get here? Well, only a modern industrialized society, used to putting things together (like a new cabinet or TV stand), could have created the “Bible as Manual for Living” school of popular Bible studies. In this way of reading, the Bible becomes no different than a map for “making it to heaven.”

If we want to see the Bible for what it “really is,” and listen to what it actually says, then we need to pay attention to how we are hearing and reading it. Begin with the “how” over the “what.” The Bible has its own field of vision. We are to see what “it” sees. And that begins by foregoing the inclination to think we control the text. You can do it! It’s not too late!

Plato’s March of Folly, Round One

It was the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

The influence of Plato on the Western philosophical tradition cannot be overstated. Whitehead was correct in that Plato’s ruminations led countless generations after him to “play ball” by taking his ideas seriously. Plato led to Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy was seen as a “handmaiden to theology,” while in the Byzantine East it provided, through neo-Platonism, the language and terminology for theology. Then with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the western philosophical tradition really took off, often grouped into geographical regions that mirrored the rise of nations and European empires (i..e, British Empiricism, French Rationalism, German Idealism, etc.).

Think of this — is it a coincidence that the last five hundred years of Western history have also involved absolutist inter-state conflict on a large scale, as nations and empires with different philosophical traditions vied for dominance? One worldview fights another.

All this can be traced to Plato and his Republic. Plato’s Republic was not just a pitch for a new model of society. It was a cultural re-programming, so much so that the introduction of Plato to any region would entail, de facto, a re-wiring of a society’s norms and traditions. This re-programming is written into the DNA of philosophy, since the philosopher lives a quest for a newer society. Of course, newer for whom?

The thought of having this power over the society is tempting and beguiling fruit (Genesis 3.1 – 7; The Rise of Scripture, chapter 1), and is a foreign and corrupting practice introduced into the garden of the Earth created by God.

While Plato was even too much for the ancient Greek city-states to handle (as far as we know, no one in the city-states accepted his sales pitch in his lifetime, as each local society had its own traditions they likely wished to preserve), after his death Alexander of Macedon introduced Plato’s writings to the ancient Near East and to a foreign peoples no less who were conquered by him. These people, with a civilization predating the Hellenistic peoples, were on their way to being culturally erased from history.

So, the cultures of the ancient Near east became a kind of “test case” of rule by a philosopher-king (Alexander). As we saw in the previous post Tasks, though, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Interestingly, it is not known whether these writings were introduced to Afghanistan, also a place conquered by the Macedonian armies. There are places, in fact, where Greek is spoken to this day in remote Afghani villages. Had Alexander not actually introduced Plato’s writings there but did so only in the more developed Near East, then this would support the contention that Plato’s march of folly (a term I borrowed from the late historian Barbara Tuchman) is a cultural re-formatting of society.

Yes, this was an attempt at a cultural reformatting of an entire people, of many languages and traditions, from the least to the greatest. While Alexander was the first to accept the challenge, others have followed after him, with even more passion and destruction, and their own special self-affirming brand of philosophy. As conquerors try to create their perfect world (perfect for who?), the beguiling quest and thought remains that, “I just might succeed where others failed.” This is why, in the history of the West, kinetic wars have been fought to advance ideology, thus affecting entire societies.

With Plato, the march of folly clearly has its costs.

Whose Story Is It?

One of the recurring themes of the Scriptures is a tension between what is called the will of man and the will of God. The former is also called the will according to the flesh.

There are many examples of what this entails in the Bible, from the Garden narrative to the decision of Sarah for Abraham to father a child through Hagar. God promises Abraham, who has no heir, that he will be the father of many nations, so Sarah (who is advanced in age) concocts a plan to make him a father on her own terms. She encourages Abraham to father a child through her slave girl Hagar, and in this way, the human being would move God’s plan along (Genesis 16). A child named Ishmael is born.

But God fulfills His promise to Abraham according to His plan. Sarah gives birth to a boy named Isaac. He is a miracle child. The sad state of affairs is that out of jealousy Sarah later has Hagar and her (and Abraham’s biological) son Ishmael exiled, enacting horrible abuse towards other human beings who were actually part of the same household. While not the child of promise, Ishmael is still part of Abraham’s household. Now, he becomes homeless.

The will of man in Scripture is not just a case of willful disobedience; it is more along the lines of “I know better, so we’ll do it this way.” Or, “I know better than God,” “Here, Lord, let me help.”

We see these examples in the larger narrative of Scripture (e.g., Israel ends up in Egypt for over four hundred years because of Jacob’s willfulness), but this tension between God’s will and the human will in the Bible stories also happens directly between the text and us.

An example of this is Luke 1 and what happens to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.

In the narrative, Zachariah encounters the angel Gabriel as he, Zachariah, is serving in the Temple. He is told by Gabriel that Elizabeth, who is Zachariah’s wife, will conceive and give birth to a son named John, and that this child will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17).

However, because Zachariah doubted the angel’s words, Gabriel makes him mute until the time the child is to be born (v. 20). Considering Elizabeth’s age, the birth of John is a miracle.

It is here where questions should arise. After all, why mute Zachariah when a miracle has happened? If it were up to us, would we not have announced this miracle for everyone to know?

We would have had the story go differently. If it were up to us. If it were up to us, Gabriel would have told Zachariah to announce the miracle, so people could believe. If it were up to us, sure, we would say, Zachariah might have made a mistake in not believing the angel, but he should have been given a pass. If it were up to us.

But it’s not our story. So it is not up to us.

One of the hardest aspects of reading or hearing the Scriptures is that we say, “well, I would have done it differently.” Or, we contort the actual story to fit a prearranged box of truths we have set up to read the Bible, kind of like having Bible Cliff Notes*. Because we are not reading it with an open mind, we miss the tension in the stories.

*These are books that summarize the major points or plot sequences, themes, and character traits found in a work of literature. If you buy and read the Cliff Notes, you can, in theory, write a serious sounding paper or test answer — without ever having read Steinbeck or struggled with The Grapes of Wrath. But the Cliff Notes miss the emotive aspect of a story.

In the same way, to the question as to why Gabriel muted Zachariah, it is because, for Luke, this is the will of God. It is His story, and this is how He chooses to tell it. Not everything that is of God needs to be publicized.

Instead of just a retelling of the birth of the Baptist, this event now becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on how our efforts as humans may not always advance the Kingdom.