Collaterally damaged, collaterally blessed

Incidental damage

As a kid, I’d come across the term collateral damage but it wasn’t until I studied the “War on Terror” in high school that I learned its true, ugly meaning. A military term, it refers to incidental harm caused when attacking an enemy, especially to civilians. When you pick a military target you know there are risks of other damage being inflicted and you make a strategic decision to wear that risk. But we call it collateral damage – as if it’s an accident, unintended.

Photo credit: British Library.

More recently, collateral damage has been used in the context of COVID-19. In my line of work, we’re seeing that those who are already vulnerable are now even more at risk of being enslaved, exploited, trafficked or retrafficked. They are collateral damage. Closer to home, lockdowns have disproportionately affected non-essential businesses and working parents who need to homeschool small children. They are collateral damage.

In a way, the perpetuation of slavery is the collateral damage of our society’s insatiable appetite for cheap goods. We’re not physically putting chains on anyone, but when we buy unethically made items, we feed the demand for the people who make them to be exploited. Similarly, environmental degradation and climate change could be considered the collateral damage of industrialisation and the convenience we enjoy today.

We wrestle with this on a micro level in our own lives, too. Often the choices we make have unintended negative consequences. Sometimes we know they’ll have negative consequences but we make that choice anyway, either because it’s the lesser of two evils or because the outcome is enough of a priority for us to justify the harm caused.

But what about the inverse? Is there such a thing as collateral blessing?

Unintended blessing

I’ve read the Exodus account of Israel’s flight from Egypt a couple of dozen times but there is one detail there that I never noticed until now.

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. 

Exodus 12:37-38

Elsewhere, we read that foreigners settled among the Israelites and shared in their blessing.

In my work with International Justice Mission, we’ve seen survivors become leaders. Raja was enslaved in a brick kiln as a boy. After rescue, he went on to study law and he now works for us, seeking justice for other slavery survivors in court. That was not IJM’s intention when we rescued him – but it is a form of a collateral blessing.

Photo credit: International Justice Mission. The woman pictured is not an IJM client or survivor.

More broadly, when traffickers and abusers are arrested, convicted and jailed, not only do immediate victims see justice done – the broader community is that little bit safer because those particular perpetrators are restrained and other would-be perpetrators are deterred from committing those crimes. This, too, is like a model of collateral blessing.

Except that it’s not collateral. It’s intentional.

The reason we run individual cases through court is to show that justice is possible and empower local law enforcement, lawyers, courts and social workers to effectively protect people in poverty. We deliberately set out to create a deterrent effect by showing would-be perpetrators that crimes of slavery and violence aren’t worth it because they will be caught. Whenever we focus our attention on the rescue of a child, we always have an eye to the bigger picture of protection.

So it is with those “many other people” released from slavery alongside the Israelites. I don’t think it was a tack-on to God’s plan to rescue Israel – I think it was God’s intention all along. As humans, it just looks collateral to us.

Collateral is a human concept

I don’t think there’s collateral anything in the Kingdom. Collateral, whether damage or blessing, is a very human thing, a product of our inability to control all circumstances and predict all outcomes.

But God sees the damage – and it breaks his heart. He gives the blessing – and it’s never incidental.

I believe he fully intended for each of those foreigners to leave Egypt just as he fully intended for each of us to be restored to right relationship with him, “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16-17). Non-Jews aren’t incidental to God although the Bible narrative might focus on Israel in order to point us to Jesus.

What’s my point in all this? I guess my question and challenge is how to be more Kingdom-sighted. How can we:

  • stop justifying the collateral damage in our lives; and,
  • start seeing the potential for collateral blessing – then ask ourselves whether that blessing should be collateral at all?
Photo credit: Bekky Bekks.

In this life, we have to take risks and make trade-offs. It’s too easy to unwittingly become mercenary in justifying things that might not be as justifiable as we think. Each of our little lockdown non-compliances is probably a case of us calculating collateral damage and concluding that it’s minimal. When we work late regularly, there’s going to be collateral damage borne by our wellbeing, if not our family and other relationships.

In terms of the inverse, I like to think that getting a coffee and a treat from the new cafe round the corner is a decision to bless those struggling business owners, with my belly bearing the collateral blessing. But if I’m honest, is my decision based on my belly, with the business being collateral?

Each of us has great potential to bless others through who we are and the good that we do. Equally, each of us has great potential to hurt others in lasting ways through the words we say and don’t say, our acts and omissions. We should pause a little more often to marvel at how powerful that is – and to ask how we can use that power intentionally, wisely and compassionately every day.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema.

Header photo: Joes Valentine.

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