US Policy on Syria: Courage or Cowardice

Press releases from the UN, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and even the front lines of Syria itself, universally signaling Syria’s present instability, make one thing clear:  Syria’s future is not clear.   Should the world do anything to improve this situation?  Or should we cowardly sit back and watch Syria burn?  If world leaders, like the US, have the ability to control situations like this, shouldn’t they also have the responsibility to courageously improve it?

The civil war that now rages in Syria started two years ago when civilian protests and military suppression quickly escalated into bloodbaths killing thousands on both sides.  America quickly took an official but under-committed stand with the rebels, and on September 21, 2013 the whole world resounded with the cry to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

The reason world powers, like the US, have not come to Syria’s aid is clearer than Syria’s uncertain future.  The conflict that rages within has two divisions:

1) The rebels against the government.  The civilians despise the way Assad brutally mistreats them.  They have therefore taken up arms against him and his regime.

2) The rebels against themselves.  Up until a few days ago the rebellion groups, representing the hostile and diverse nature of Syria itself, fought each other with the same fervor they used against Assad.  For now rebellion groups have framed an alliance contract evidently undersigned by the leadership of 75% of Syrian rebellion forces.

There is little hope for a positive outcome from US intervention.  The US must justified its intervention before it actually intervenes.  Just as the UN employed moral justification to commit to the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons, so too could America justify supporting the rebels on moral grounds, by saying “We protect human life.”

But support a side in Syria does not necessarily protect more lives than the current status quo.  Allying with Assad sends the message that the US cares little for human rights. Assad’s utter indifference for the lives of Syrians sparked the rebellion in the first place.  But allying with the coalition of rebellion forces promises more evils than it remedies.  The rebels’ present alliance in opposition to Assad paints over the rebel differences but does not make those differences disappear.  There is no reason to believe that giving the rebels the victory they want will result in respect for human life.  But there is much reason to believe it will result in a more vicious and sectarian civil war over Syrian power.  The US and other world powers must either leave things as they are or risk worse upheaval and bloodshed by intervening.

We should not charge America with abandoning its courage by choosing not to seek justice against Assad’s violations of human rights.  Such a charge demands a bad form of courage.  In the words of G. K Chesterton, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms.  It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”  Yes, the US must be willing to risk life in order to preserve life, even Syrian life.  Nevertheless, as Chesterton points out, courage as a principle has two extremes that are not courage:  living for nothing and dying for nothing.  That is, courage is the midpoint between the two extremes timidity and rashness.  Thus, present conditions matter just as much as the intended end result.  As Obama articulated so clearly to the UN, “The question is whether we possess the wisdom and the courage, as nation-states and members of an international community, to squarely meet those challenges; whether the United Nations can meet the tests of our time.”  America has not abandoned courage to stand up for justice in Syria, but it has abandoned “courage” pursued unwisely through rash, unclear decision-making.

The present situation, therefore, stays as it is.  The temptations to err on the side of foolhardiness or faintheartedness also remain.  External pressures discourage the US from true courage by reminding us of an obligation to virtue.  They say that America has the power to both envision and realize a more positive future for Syria.  And that power should not be left untapped.

Still, the idea that we can guarantee an improved future is a self-deception.  The United States can do nothing to ensure Syria’s future improvement.  The future is always unclear, though marginally predictable.  Our work as humans is not to enforce a re-envisioned future, but live excellently given the conditions present to us. Perhaps being a courageous world leader is less about what you do and more about when and how you do what you do. We must pursue good decisions not decisions that try to show how good we are.

We, as well as the people of Syria, must be courageous enough not to be tight-fisted, white-knuckled humans preoccupied with the future’s vast unknown.  Rather we should allow the present realization of our own helplessness, even smallness, lead us to trust in a God that both orchestrates and improves.

To best safeguard our future we must begin with our limited influence upon it.  The temptation to seek justice badly is too great for us to presume clear vision.  We alone cannot see; therefore let us be bold enough to trust in the One who does.

Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

I was doing some research on short-term missions when I found a blog by Vinoth Ramachandra, a Christian writer in Sri Lanka. He has studied and traveled in Europe, done extensive ministry in South Asia, and he has written cogent criticism of Christianity as it is received in the non-Western world. He clearly and accurately writes things that the West needs to hear, both praising the good and condemning the bad. Incisively addressing everything from the War on Terror, whistleblowers in the US government, and US foreign policy to relations between Western and Eastern Christians, missionary work done badly, and the influence of media on relations in the Church worldwide, Ramachandra is an intelligent voice from the “other side” of world Christianity. Continue reading Vinoth Ramachandra and Theology from the Global Church

America: Hope Of The Earth?

During election season you can count on candidates to vie for the “loves America most” moniker.  Being perceived as down on America, at home or abroad, is a path to a lost election.  We saw this in 2004, when the release of John Kerry’s testimony on the supposed atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers in Vietnam hurt him significantly in the polls.  We are seeing it again now.  In Monday night’s debate, Mitt Romney again accused President Obama of going on an “apology tour”, where the President supposedly took it upon himself to apologize for most of America’s foreign policy over the past decade (while slighting our closest ally, Israel).  The telling aspect of this exchange was not Governor Romney’s accusation, but President Obama’s response.  Rather than explaining his opposition to an American foreign policy that “dictates to other nations”, or talking about the evils of unjustified foreign wars or neo-colonialism, President Obama denied that he apologized for anything and affirmed his belief that America is absolutely indispensible as a force for good in the world.  Mr. Romney, for his part, said that America is the hope of the earth.

The rhetoric on both sides is strong here, and conservatives need to accept most of the blame for how indiscriminate and apparently inevitable this rhetoric is. We are fond of pointing out the “anti-American” rhetoric of many on the Left, yet we often seem unwilling to acknowledge that there is an opposite extreme.  I am certainly guilty of this.  

John Piper and Doug Wilson have already pointed out that this language amounts to a kind of soft idolatry, ascribing to American military and political power a role that once belonged to the Gospel.  Now instead of sending missionaries into foreign lands to convert the “heathen” to Christ, we send political pressure in its many forms to ensure that the heathen (whose own religious beliefs we refuse to interfere with in the name of pluralism) does what is in the American state’s best interests.

Now of course I have to clarify.  I am not speaking about the use of government per se.  America is no Theocracy, and the role of the state is not to spread the Gospel.  I am speaking to individual Conservative Christians and the policies they support most vocally.  Favoring a strong military to help ensure international harmony (or “peace through strength”) is not bad in itself.  But we need to be measured in our rhetoric.  We should push back when a Presidential candidate talks about America in unmistakably Christological terms.  At the risk of sounding utopian, our hope of world peace and universal redemption should be grounded in the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  This means we should be more concerned with saving souls under condemnation, not creating societies where “moderate” Muslims and Hindus will build McDonald’s and Starbucks.  Energies and resources should be spent putting a Bible in every hand, not an iPhone.

Lest I sound down on America, let me add an encouraging caveat.  First, it must be admitted that both candidates were only speaking in political terms, and there is no doubt that America has been, on the whole, a force for good in the world.  I only want to caution how we speak about America’s role in the world and what aspects of our foreign influence we choose to emphasize.  Our nation was once the greatest launching pad for missionaries before it was the greatest launching pad for F-22 fighters.

Second, the increase of America’s military and economic influence, while not the primary “hope of the earth”, should not be totally disparaged toward that end.  A strong American military presence throughout the world would aid the church’s missionary work, not to force conversions, but to protect missionaries from the retaliation and violence of intolerant states.  Moreover, the spread of some non-religious aspects of American society and influence is not all bad.  Putting an iPhone in the hand of every non-Westerner should not be confused with cultural salvation, but an iPhone would connect a new believer in Pakistan or China with a entire world’s worth of evangelistic and educational resources. 

In short, America can indeed be one hope of the earth in a very limited sense, only insofar as its influence is used to protect and aid those who go forth and proclaim the true hope of the earth.

Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit.

Gilad Shalit was welcomed home today after five long years in the Hamas prison system. (The Telegraph is live-blogging his homecoming for those interested.)

The 477 Palestinian prisoners who were freed today in exchange for Shalit are also celebrating their own homecoming, albeit under different circumstances. (The remaining 550 prisoners will be released in two months.) Though Israel hopes the terms of Shalit’s release will lead to renewed peace efforts, Gazans have already greeted their released compatriots with demands for more kidnapping and violence:

“The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, suggesting the abductions of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

…most of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with “blood on their hands”…

In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as “freedom fighters.”

He suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit, saying that “there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes.”

His comments marked the first time he referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment.

The Boston Globe has some sobering (and gruesome) details about several specific Palestinian soldiers and the reasons they had been imprisoned. JTA has more here.

Even so, polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the terms of the exchange–likely because universal conscription means nearly all Israelis can strongly identify with the desire to leave no soldier behind.

Curiously, polls also indicate that 66% of Israelis have little hope for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflicts. 67% of those polled last month also said that President Netanyahu did not believe peace with the Palestinians is possible.

It’s as if Israelis are desperate for an end to the conflict, but have all but given up hope that an agreement will ever be reached. No doubt Palestinian families feel the same way, though many of their leaders seem bent on continuing the conflict at all costs.

Netanyahu noted this morning that “On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain.” That may be the best, most universally applicable summary of this situation yet uttered. And as Palestinians welcome home their loved ones today, no less loved for having blood on their hands, it’s hard to imagine a time when the pain and the joy will not be thus co-mingled.

Photo courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces

 

What if Spock Was Right: Gilad Shalit, the Many, and the One

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas announced yesterday that Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, will be released.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them convicted terrorists, will also be released.

The lopsided nature of this one-for one thousand exchange has not gone unnoticed, especially since similar past exchanges have not worked out well for Israel. It’s generally agreed that Hamas is set to be the winner in this instance, and though many believe Israel ought to be commended for a renewed commitment to life and hope, it seems probable that the freeing of these hundreds of convicted terrorists will bring an end to many, many more lives in both Israel and Palestine.

Has Israel made the right decision? It’s hard to know.

Perhaps it’s trite, but I can’t help thinking here of two exchanges between Spock and Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies.

As Spock sacrifices himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he tells Kirk,

Spock:“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

Kirk: “The needs of the few.”

Spock: “Or the one.”

Later, when Kirk and Spock are reunited after Spock’s rescue, Spock is puzzled—why was he spared when so much was at stake?

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

In the Star Trek universe, Kirk found a way to save both the many and the one. Spock sacrificed himself for his shipmates, and they in turn sacrificed themselves for him. It makes for a good story—but real world struggles rarely end so neatly. In buying Gilad Shalit’s freedom at an almost impossibly high price, Israel may end up sacrificing its own people for the sake of a compelling national narrative.

It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s what the “good guys” in the movies would do. But is it wise? Perhaps not.

This tension between the needs of the one and needs of the many is, by the way, an old problem for Israel. In John 11, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing what to do about the man whose actions threaten their own power, Caiaphas convinces them to simply do away with Jesus:

“…You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50)

In the past, when Israel acted out of fear and favored the “many” over the “one”, Jesus died. (Of course, Gilad Shalit is not Jesus, and both stories are complicated. This is not a perfect analogy!) This time, though it’s easy to criticize the country’s desperation, they are at least moving forward boldly, and without obvious fear.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—and pray for Gilad Shalit. That much, at least, is clear.

 

US Support for Yousef Nadarkhani Grows as Iran Denies Its Own Apostasy Charges

In a move more reminiscent of a badly regulated nursery than of a foreign power, Iranian officials have now denied that Yousef Nadarkhani is to be executed on charges of apostasy.

Instead, the young Iranian Christian will be executed on charges of rape, treason, and Zionism. Maybe.

Or maybe not; a statement on the Iranian Embassy site in the U.K. contradicts numerous reports—including official Iranian court documents—when it claims that no verdict has been issued:

The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London renounces the published news regarding the death penalty for Mr. Yousof Nadarkhani and announces that the Court of Appeal in the Islamic Republic of Iran has not issued any verdict on his case. Accordingly, the allegations to the issue of the death penalty for the above mentioned, are unsubstantiated.

Iran’s wish to do away with Pastor Nadarkhani while maintaining an increasingly absurd semblance of legality has not received nearly the attention it deserves, especially when compared with some of the better known court cases that have crowded our news feeds. Mark Tapscott writes,

Unlike Troy Davis, for whom the evidence of his innocence was at best questionable, Nadarkhani is unequivocally innocent of wrongdoing. So why the seeming celebrity indifference to his situation and to the worldwide Muslim persecution of Christians?

Unfortunately, celebrity outrage reflects the multiculturalist mindset of our era, which places all minorities on a pedestal – unless that minority is a devout Christian. Celebrities flocked to support American Muslims’ right to religious freedom in the Ground Zero mosque controversy (a right which the mosque protesters were not even contesting). They decried the “state-sanctioned murder” of the black Troy Davis. But they can’t be bothered to take even a stand on Twitter for Pastor Nadarkhani, whose murder at the hands of an oppressive state is imminent.

Fortunately, as the expected execution is continually delayed, more and more people are beginning to take notice. Condemnations from the White House, numerous members of Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocacy groups like Amnesty International, and a few mainstream news outlets have made Iranian officials nervous enough to deny the findings of their own court system. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to save Nadarkhani’s life.

Yousef Nadarkhani’s case is particularly important because he is just one of the many Iranians suffering under increased religious persecution. No one has been executed for apostasy for Iran since 1990, but if Nadarkhani dies, many others will no doubt follow. Let’s hope that future martyrs will be enabled to keep the faith, as Nadarkhani has—and let’s hope the world will start to pay more attention.

 

The Irvine 11: Pity They Settled For So Little

The verdict was just announced a few hours ago, but, predictably, the Irvine 11 have already been turned into hero-martyrs all over the web. Though there’s no knowing yet whether the  students involved planned this kind of treatment for themselves, their website and twitter stream make it appear that they’ve been ready and waiting for this for some time.

This makes it doubly important that people look at both sides of the issue.

I was in a group with Ambassador Oren just an hour or two before his speech in Irvine, at a pastor’s reception at Mariner’s Church. He had a lot to say about the opposition he knew he’d probably face at Irvine. It’s a shame his comments have not been more widely aired, as they were both interesting and illuminating.

Here’s a video in case you haven’t heard what happened. In February, 2010 Ambassador Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, was invited to speak at the University of California, Irvine. Though school officials practically begged the hecklers to behave, a number of students so disrupted his talk that a planned Q & A session was cancelled and several students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside were afterwards arrested.

This morning an Orange County, CA court found ten of the students guilty of conspiring to disrupt the Ambassador’s speech, and of then following through with plans to disrupt it.

As he was leaving the pastor’s meeting, Ambassador Oren mentioned that he expected to meet some opposition in the coming hours at Irvine—and that he was glad his detractors would likely be present, because he really wanted to spend time listening to and dialoguing with them. I can’t quote him directly, but I do know he said that such people were the audience he most cared about. He appreciated that they were passionate about an issue he also felt passionately about, and he expressed a strong desire to fully understand their objections and to spend time addressing their concerns.

Of course, anyone can say that. But Ambassador Oren spoke so firmly about his desire for fair, honest, productive dialogue with Palestinians and their supporters that it’s hard to discount him. Had the students who disrupted his speech instead asked him to have a real conversation about real issues, he surely would have given them his time.

Unfortunately, it seems that’s not what the Irvine 11 wanted.  Too bad—if they’d really wanted to start a conversation, as their website claims, they could have had quite a conversation with Michael Oren that day in Irvine. It’s a pity they decided to settle for less.

America! Exceptional! For Goodness’ Sake!

As I went through public school, I heard all about America the melting pot, the New World refuge for victims of persecution or economic hardship, the “city on a hill” of democracy. In church I heard all about how our Christian founding fathers wanted a nation where they could freely worship God and do what was right. In both I heard about America’s founding principles regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The common theme that I heard in school and in church was the exceptionality of America: in the history of the world, there has never been a nation state quite like America.

America is exceptional in that people could be proudly Arab, Basque, Chinese, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, German, Haitian, or any ethnicity and yet be American. For instance, if you want to go to China and be Chinese, you have to be Chinese to be accepted as Chinese; if you want to go to Kenya and be Kenyan, you have to be able to name your tribe. In America we have ethnic enclaves flying foreign flags and all are proudly American. Broadly stated, one of the distinguishing features in America’s national narrative is that everyone is originally from somewhere else and somehow they all live together peacefully.

While I am not acquainted with the current state of political discourse in this election season, I believe that there is thunderous debate regarding the exceptionality of America as a nation. On the Republican side of things, it seems that the debate fights a lot over just how Christian America is or is supposed to be. I recently saw this video posted by Joe Carter over at First Things, and I got to thinking about the exceptionalities of the United States of America, and I want to posit a historical counterexample to America’s exceptionality.

In the video referenced above, a speaker highlights America’s founding principles and holds adherence to those as the thing that makes Americans truly American. Another nation founded upon certain governing principles was the Soviet Union—equal distribution of wealth, jobs, food, and worldwide socialist revolution for all. In the founding of the Soviet Union, there was a revolutionary vanguard of people who had a vision of a socialist future. They pushed the whole nation to be where they wanted it to be, and the Soviet Union was born. The Bolsheviks pushed class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat into the national narratives of the Soviet Union’s constituent states. Perhaps their failure came in their attempts to extend the national narrative to other nation states; whatever the case, many nations have been unique in the history of the world, but they fail when they conflate national narrative with foreign policy objectives.

America has a unique national story, but it is not the world’s story. It is America’s story. For all of America’s exceptional qualities, those are true of America, for America. For American Christians, we have to understand when we are being good Americans and when we are being good Christians; we need to not be bad Americans while trying to be good Christians, and vice versa. We as American Christians have to be able to shift gears when we transition between politics and religion. While the American government has many tools to influence the world, the American government is not our tool to influence the world. America is indeed exceptional; America is indeed an example to the world; America is indeed a force for good. That said, America needs to be good for its own sake, for the sake of goodness and for the sake of the country.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Abdolreza Haghnejad and Yousef Nadarkhani: Christians in Iran

Yousef Nadarkhani still looks set to become the first Christian executed for apostasy in Iran since 1990. Unfortunately, he may be merely the first in a new wave of Iranian persecutions–yet the media has hardly noticed.

Abdolreza ‘Matthias’ Haghnejad, a pastor in the Evangelical Church of Iran, was arrested August 17 while on a pastoral visit. It is not known where he is being held, or what charges he may face, and he does not have access to a lawyer.

Haghnejad and others were arrested last April, but acquitted in mid May when Mohammed-Ali Dadkhah, a human rights lawyer, took on their case. Despite this high-profile acquittal, other Iranian Christians have also been arrested in recent days:

Last month, a Christian man and woman were detained in Iran. The man was released but the woman, Leila Mohammadi, was arrested and is believed to be behind bars in Evin prison.

CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said: “It is vital that the Republic of Iran ensures due process and ends this practice of incarcerating persons simply on the basis of their faith as this is in clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“Those who, like the pastor, have been arrested must either be charged and tried in a timely manner or released, and all detainees must be allowed contact with their families and lawyers.”

Stories like this are on the rise in Iran, a fact that has largely been ignored in the media despite having been addressed at the U.S. State Department and by Canadian officials.

Arrests are not the only setbacks Iranian Christians have had to endure:

In August a consignment of 6,500 Bibles was confiscated as it was being transported between the cities of Zanjan and Ahbar in the north-western province of Zanjan. In a comment on the seizure, Dr Majid Abhari, advisor to the social issues committee of the Iranian parliament, declared that Christian missionaries were attempting to deceive people, especially the youth, with an expensive propaganda campaign. He also indicated his belief that all religions are strengthening their power to confront Islam.

This rhetoric is the latest in a stream of condemnations of Christians from members of the Iranian regime, who have attempted to demonise Christians as western-backed conspirators, ‘parasites’ and ‘like the Taliban’.

Christians are not the only religious minorities to be targeted in Iran; Sufis and those in the Baha’i community have also seen an uptick in persecution.

Iran’s treatment of its own legally-protected minorities may prove a harbinger of things to come in its relations with the rest of the world. That’s especially relevant given the nation’s penchant for nuclear weapons development. As Walter Russell Mead observed,

Interestingly, like many stories of Christian persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, the stories of Iranian Christians and Pastor Nadarkhani have received widespread attention in the US religious press — and are covered much more episodically and lightly if at all by mainstream outlets.  The contrast not only undermines public credibility in the mainstream press as readers take this as evidence of an anti-Christian or anti-western PC bias in the press; it blinds those who rely on mainstream reports to the actual state of US public opinion.

For many Americans, evidence of how Iran treats its Christian minority is an indicator of the kind of uses to which it would put nuclear weapons.

This should concern even those who are uninterested in what happens to Iran’s Christians. Iran persecutes its own people–why should should it treat other nations any better, especially if it gains access to nuclear weapons?

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Good News From Libya–For Now

As Libyan rebel forces occupy the capital at Tripoli, it’s natural to wonder whether the presumed ousting of Moamar Qaddafi will lead to something even more insidious than his tyrannical regime.

It’s a distinct possibility, but perhaps not for the reasons you expect.

Unlike in Egypt, where it’s likely that coming elections will usher in rule by members of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, it appears that dangerous Islamists have managed only a relatively small showing in Libya. That may change, but for now this looks like good news.

That doesn’t make matters any easier for the Libyan citizens who will no doubt endure many more months of conflict and uncertainty before a new government is established (if that is, indeed, what lies ahead–even that is still unclear), but it is certainly good news for the rest of the world–at least for now.

Of course, this may all change very quickly. Walid Phares points out,

… the Obama administration and European governments stood with the rebels in the uprising against the tyrant of Libya. It was the right thing to do. But as in the previous revolutions we’ve seen in this region, the West abandoned the secularists, liberals and minorities and partnered with the Islamists.

If this repeats itself in Libya, we would have replaced one devil — the traditional authoritarians — with a new devil: the Islamist authoritarians.

For now, however, it appears that Libya is not like Egypt. There is still potential for good to come out of this conflict. Small potential, perhaps, but potential nonetheless.

Image via Flickr.