As some of you know, this whole march to war has been a source of great reflection and turmoil for me (and I know I’m not unique in that). I’m persuaded that Saddam and his regime are bad for the Iraqi people (an understatement, obviously) and a threat to all kinds of other people. I recognize that they’ve repeatedly violated the truce that halted Desert Storm in 1991, and I’m unmoved by the stubborn and self-serving nations who have opposed the United States in the UN. From a classic western political perspective, the current war makes sense. And, personally, I love and support the folks I know in the military. My Dad’s big brother is an Army chaplain on temporary assignment in Korea (if you’re planning a vacation in that quiet corner of the world, be sure to let me know so I can hook you up with Uncle David. I’m sure he’d love to show you around the DMZ). At the same time, I find myself deeply concerned over the greater implications of this large scale violence visiting the people of Iraq and the lives and families of American soldiers. We live in a fallen world where violence and tragedy will only be permanently resolved by a coming Divine reconciliation. The great debate is how we best handle these conflicts in the meantime. I’m decidedly undecided (if you care where I stand).
So, I want to engage this enormous topic with some intelligence and compassion, but I’d rather steer clear of the standard back-n-forth shouting over who’s right and who’s wrong. I know and love people deeply entrenched on both extremes of the: Is this war just? debate. I’m not sure we can accomplish much in trying to resolve that question here, so let’s not. Instead, I’d like to present and invite some less ubiquitous perspectives on the edges of the bigger discussion.
We’ll start with one that requires you understand this: not all Iraqis are Muslims. There seems to be a common assumption that Saddam and his regime are a classic fundamentalist Muslim theocracy. The truth is he’s considered a secular ruler by most of the Arab world. He actually claims a tolerance for Christians, and his Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, professes to be a Christian. Saddam once contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Chaldean-Catholic church in Detroit, and in return received the key to the city. I’m not kidding. Most reasonable estimates place the number of professing Christians in Iraq around one million, a little less than 5% of the total population. Iraq is by no means a “free” country, but the prevailing notion that Iraqis can’t choose to believe in Christ isn’t quite accurate. Saddam seems to tolerate Christianity so long as the practice of it doesn’t interfere with his agenda. In other words, as long as the Christians are quiet, he puts up with them, but his record isn’t as clean once they start living out the more disruptive elements of their faith.
I offer that as context for the following note written by an American Christian doing humanitarian/mission work in Baghdad. He was there before the war began, and his purpose is the same as any aid worker or missionary in a land marred by poverty, oppression, and violence. He’s not a politician, and he’s clear about the fact that he’s not there to serve as a “human shield.” He does oppose the war, but not for the purpose of protecting or preserving Saddam. He’s witnessing up close the results of the first war, twelve years of sanctions, and the current bombing campaign in Baghdad. Again, my purpose is not to offer a simple answer to the complex questions of the justness of this war or the broader dilemmas in the Middle East. This is not leftist propaganda propelled by a political agenda, and it’s actually a mild selection from some of his descriptions of what he’s witnessed. It’s the real experience of a guy living what the rest of us are only guessing about. Shelve your inherent suspicion of anything slightly un-American for a few minutes, and consider that there may be more to all of this than we like to think.
I went to worship at St. Rafael’s Cathedral today in Baghdad. We sang familiar tunes, and the priest got up to give the homily. He had just served six months in prison for his faithfulness to the Gospel. What would his message be at such a crucial moment?
He told the true story of a woman whose son and husband were killed by a police officer. In court, as the judge considered the sentence of the police officer, the woman spoke forth boldly: “He took my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give… So I would like for him to come to the ghetto twice a month and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him… so that I can embrace him, and he can know my forgiveness is real.”
The priest urged the listeners to love their enemies. I have heard that a million times. I have traveled across the country preaching it. But now there was a twist, the enemy he spoke of was my country. The boundaries of God’s grace were being pushed once again. Somehow it didn’t seem fair to tell these beautiful people who were about to be attacked by the same enemy that killed many of their family members and decimated their city only ten years ago. We are to love those who bomb us? The priest led us to the cross, urging us to say to the Americans: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He admitted that it is not based on logic – it is a love that does not make sense, a scandalous grace. And he urged this Iraqi congregation and their international friends to love those who persecute us. I wondered if perhaps our enemies will be witnesses before our Judge. Maybe as Psalm 23 says, the Lord will prepare a table before us “in the presence of our enemies” and they will be witnesses of our love. What will they say of our love? And what would dinner look like with Saddam or George W?
The service ended with the singing of “Amazing Grace.” And I sat in tears, wishing I could be the judge of George W. Bush. I would sentence him to spend two days a month in the Al Monzer pediatric hospital in Baghdad.
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and threaten our children and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the progress, and our victory will be a double victory.'” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.