“Why should we give a damn about the Afghan people?” Andy McCarthy asks. Our presence in Afghanistan, he says, is “pointless.”
Now, this is different than saying we would like to help them but the ability to do so is beyond our reach. It’s also a separate matter from saying that there are countless claims on our conscience, but because of inherent limitations on our resources, the suffering the Afghan people are experiencing doesn’t warrant our assistance. And it’s a different argument from saying we shouldn’t continue to expend American blood in a 10-year-old war.
No, what McCarthy is arguing, in intentionally provocative words, is that we shouldn’t give a damn about the Afghan people at all. The argument, presumably, is that Afghanistan is an impoverished country located on the other side of the world, inhabited by people who are not worthy even of our concern, let alone our care. If the Taliban retook control in Afghanistan and returned to their barbaric practices should be a matter of complete indifference to us. A similar argument could apply to the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the dissidents in China, the orphans in Romania, the earthquake victims in Haiti and Japan, and the children with malaria in Nigeria.
So why should we give a damn?
The answer is an important one, since it helps shape a world view. And the answer to it depends on the premises from which we begin—in this case regarding teleology, the purpose and design of human nature, and the rights we are owed simply and only because we are human beings. For many of us this inevitably leads to the subject of theology—whether there is a Creator and if so, whether we are made in His image and precious in His sight. Assuming we are, certain rights are deemed to be unalienable, and willful indifference to human suffering is contrary to the mind and heart of God.
This is what Lincoln was getting at, I think, when he said, in his meditation on the words in the Declaration of Independence,
This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by his fellows.
For me as a Christian, McCarthy’s question is answered on the road to Jericho. It was in parable in Luke in which a Samaritan—who was viewed as a hated foreigner and a spiritual half-breed—showed mercy to a wounded stranger. What Jesus was teaching is that love and mercy are not restricted by national boundaries, that to “love your neighbor” means caring for strangers in need, and that as recipients of grace, we ought to demonstrate it to the outcast, to those deemed to be the “other.”
Now this ethic is not only intensely difficult to uphold in our daily lives, it’s extremely unclear how to translate it into public policy. A nation of limited resources cannot help everyone in need. We need to prioritize our commitments, including what we owe to our fellow citizens. And the compassion we might act on as individuals should not always express itself in action by the state. So it would certainly be wrong to draw the conclusion that mercy self-evidently demands that we remain in Afghanistan. But this ethic does, I think, begin to answer McCarthy’s question.
After reading McCarthy’s words I pulled from my shelf Something Beautiful for God, a short book on Mother Teresa in which Malcolm Muggeridge writes,
Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other. The God Mother Teresa worships cannot, we are told, see a sparrow fall to the ground without concern. For man, made in God’s image, to turn aside from the universal love, and fashion his own judgments based on his own fears and disparities, is a fearful thing bound to have fearful consequences.
That may not provide us with a governing blueprint. It doesn’t specify how mercy should manifest itself. But it is at least a reason we should give a damn.