God's Politics

Brian McLarenThe other night a retired general appeared on CNN describing how to “win” in Iraq. Quoting analyst Andrew Krepinevich, he called for the “oil stain strategy”: Don’t spread our troops out thinly over a large region, but rather concentrate and dominate strongly in one or two places (Baghdad being one of them), thus letting security through domination spread across the surface of the nation like an oil stain on water.

The phrase “oil stain strategy” is almost poetic in its many layers of ironic meaning, which I will let you ponder for yourself.

The choices we face in Iraq are not easy. It seems to me that we have a moral responsibility not to let the nation that we unintentionally destabilized sink into complete civil war and unchecked violence, but I am certain I don’t have the expertise to advise anyone – especially a retired general – on exactly how to fulfill that moral responsibility without causing even greater damage. Such are the complex choices we find ourselves facing after rushing to war.

The retired general’s strategy reminded me of a penetrating insight by Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff:

Humanity encompasses differences such as gender, races, cultures, opinions, ways of relating to nature and religions.

How did Western culture, that is so dominating, behave in the face of so many differences? The answer is, in an atrocious manner. Westerners have great difficulty in living with differences. With very few exceptions the Western strategy was the following: whenever in contact with Africans, Asians, indigenous populations, non-whites, make use of force. The strategy was to dominate them, assimilate them, so that they would become similar to Westerners. Otherwise the strategy was to destroy them. Rarely was an alliance forged with the different so that humanity could progress together in this great adventure that is called life. (Global Civilization: Challenges to Society and Christianity, Oakville, Connecticut: Equinox, 2003, 2005, p. 54.)

Boff, as a Brazilian, is well placed to reflect on the “oil stain strategy” of the conquistadores of the 16th century across his continent: “In one single century, 50 million people were killed, or died as a consequence of the violence….”

I wonder to what degree the “oil stain strategy” is simply the latest expression of what Boff describes as the dominating manner of Western culture. However the situation in Iraq is ultimately resolved, I wonder if now is the time for us to reflect deeply on domination as an acceptable future strategy for Western culture in its encounter with difference.

As a committed follower of Jesus, I am struck by how different the “oil stain strategy” is from the strategy of Jesus – a strategy of incarnation, communication, service, suffering, invitation, acceptance, reconciliation, and love. If we were to give it a name, we could perhaps call it “The Seed-Sowing Strategy,” because it envisions the liberation and transformation of the world not by forceful domination but by sowing the seed of the message of God’s kingdom. I believe the time has come for people in the United States – and especially professed people of faith – to decide which strategy they have more confidence in: Oil-Stain or Seed-Sowing.

Brian McLaren ( is an author and board chair for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. His most recent book is The Secret Message of Jesus (W Publishing, 2006), and his next book will be Jesus and the Suicide Machine (W Publishing, 2007).

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