“Judgment and Grace in the Middle East” by Pat Conover

09 pentecost cover full.jpg"Judgment and Grace in the Middle East" by Pat Conover

June 21, 2009



Psalm 9: 1-10

God, I praise you with my whole heart.
I tell about your marvelous deeds.
You are powerful God, and I rejoice and exult in you.
I sing praise to your name.

Because of your presence, my enemies run away.  They fall headlong and perish.

God, you are a righteous judge, seated on your throne.  
You have upheld my rights and supported my cause.
You have rebuked the other nations and overwhelmed those who do not recognize you.
You have blotted out their names for all time.
My enemies are finished, ruined for evermore.
You have overthrown their cities; all memory of them is lost.

God, you will sit on your throne forever and continue to offer your judgement.
You will judge the world with justice.
You will offer fair trials, provide equity for all people.
We want you to be a tower of strength for the oppressed,
a tower of strength in times of trouble.

God, we will acknowledge you by the name we know.
We will trust you.
We believe that you will not abandon us whenever we seek for you.

Paraphrase by Pat Conover
Based on the Revised English Bible
June, 2009

This lectionary scripture caught my eye because it contains two contrasting themes that are found throughout the scripture that was holy for Jews, for Jesus and his first followers.  On the one hand this is a hymn of exultation in revenge following victory in battle, a common theme for the oppressed tribes that had to fight repeatedly for their  existence.  Then they fought for domination and that was finally achieved in the brief regional-empire of Saul, David, and Solomon.  

On the other hand, Psalm 9 is also a hymn of faith in a God of justice for all people, justice with recognition that it is the oppressed who most need justice to restrain the arbitrary whims of those who hold power.  It is this last theme that is the foundation for rejecting the divine right of kings and is still a critical foundation for democracy and the rule of law.  This theme carries the memory that the tribes had been oppressed by  Pharoah and then the kings of Persia, Assyria, and Babylon.  This theme remembers what it is like to be a slave, to be a captive in exile.  The theme of universal justice was also at the heart of the messages of the priests and prophets who criticized the kings of Israel and often paid a heavy price for doing so.  It is just such criticism that led to the beheading of John the Baptist and then the crucifixion of Jesus.

For the first couple of hundred years early Christians were an oppressed people.  They were fed to the lions in Roman circuses.  They were ejected from worshiping in Jewish synagogues and often had to worship in secret and use secret codes, like the sign of the fish, to avoid detection.  They refused to serve in the Roman armies.  Then Christians came to power under Constantine in the last brief revival of the complete Roman Empire.  When Christians could ride on horses and not merely walk on foot, some changed from pacifism to what passed as the patriotism of those days.  A few hundred years later, Christians fought in the Crusades against the Muslims who then controlled Jerusalem. They had only temporary success in a period of history with multi-faceted relationships with a diverse and powerful Muslim world that, among other things, preserved the only copies of some scriptures in the Bible.  In short, Christendom repeated the sins that come with believing that they had a special relationship with God that meant they had the right and duty to control the world.  When they ran at least part of the world, when the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, we got not only the crusades, but also torture in the Inquisition, worse torture than water-boarding.  Instead of hanging their enemies on a cross Christians burned them to death on stakes.  

As Christendom unfolded down the centuries the tension between special privilege and universal justice showed up in numerous ways: crying out for justice when oppressed and acting out of arbitrary dominance and revenge when in control.  And, yes, we can see both themes alive and well today in Christendom in the United States and in other parts of the world.

Which side are we on?

Which side are we on?
Everybody now which side are we on?
Which side are we on?

How does God guide us to the best side?  We have two landmarks to pray our way into this discernment: the landmarks of judgement and grace.  The rest of this sermon will exemplify these landmarks as we consider the interlocking questions of the relationships between Christendom and Islam, between the United States and the Middle East.  Let’s start with judgement.

One of my limits as a human creature is that I am standpoint dependent.  I see what I see from where I stand.  My sense of the landmarks of God’s judgement is based on what I know of the history of Christianity and Islam, what I know of the history of the United States and the Middle East, what I know of the sacred stories of Judaism and Christianity that leads me to look for the landmarks of judgement.  

My first standpoint for this conversation came in 1959.  I was 19 years old and in the active Army Reserve after 6 months of basic training.  During my active duty I became a marksman with the M-1 rifle and learned to write free hand Olde English lettering.  President Eisenhower called me to stand bye for deployment to Lebanon.  As it turned out, the war in Lebanon was the best kind of war.  It didn’t happen.  

But Lebanon caught my attention.  I was a serious, if very young, Christian and I believed then, and now, that it was my responsibility to decide for myself if a war was a just war or not, and therefore whether or not I should fight for the United States.  I knew that the Army would not recognize my selective conscientious objection and that I would go to prison if I didn’t respond to an order to report for duty in Lebanon.  It never crossed my mind to run to Canada or anywhere else.

My problem was that I didn’t know squat about Lebanon.  I learned a little bit, but, back then, there was very little about Lebanon available in the Florida State University library and I didn’t know where else to look.  Since I knew I didn’t know enough to make an informed decision about whether what Eisenhower wanted me to do in Lebanon was a just cause or not, I decided I would report for duty and make a decision later if I found the cause to be unjust.  

It caught my eye that Lebanon had a significant Christian population and I assumed, without any real basis, that what I might be called on to do in Lebanon would be in support of "our Christian friends" in Lebanon.  Right there I made a very common and basic mistake, thinking that the cause of Christianity and the cause of the United States would almost surely be the same cause.  I grew up in the South and my life experience was that the United States was mostly made up of white Protestants.  The white Protestants I knew certainly thought they had a God-given mission to be the people to run the United States and the world, starting with the "manifest destiny" to run both American continents.  Every U.S. president up to that point was, at least nominally, a white Protestant male.  Almost everyone I knew in any position of authority was a white Protestant male.
First Presbyterian Church had prepared me slightly for my 19 year old circumstances by teaching me something about the distinction between pacifism, crusade, and just war as Christian positions regarding war, with a clear message that Just War theory was the best as exemplified by the U.S. participation in the Second World War.  The story of the Numemburg trials of Nazi war criminals was still a fresh and powerful story.  I understood the basic point that following orders was not a sufficient defense against becoming a war criminal. 

I would have loved to discuss these concerns with my father.  I knew he was very knowledgable about all aspects of my concerns.  Unfortunately he died when I was fourteen.  I never thought about discussing these issues with my mother.  I thought she was clueless about such matters and now I believe I underestimated her at that time.  However, when I told mother I was planning to enlist in the Army Reserve as a seventeen year old she never offered a word of support or opposition.  When I got on the bus she shook my hand.

 If my 68 year old self could talk to my 19 year old self, the first thing I would say is that our situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan is a sign of the judgement of God against both Christendom and the United States. 

The United States didn’t exist at the time of the crusades and we exercised our colonial powers in Central and South America rather than the Middle East.  Our U.S. part of the story really begins after the Second World War when I was a very young child.  We mostly stood on the sidelines as Britain and others carved up the post-war Middle East along colonial lines.  Little had been done to prepare the nations of the Middle East for governing themselves and the colonial heritage was to crush the voices of independence, the voices of human rights.  It is hardly surprising that the new nations did not rush to embrace democracy and free market capitalism. 

The United States was mostly focused on the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  Back then, Middle East Oil was not a big deal for the United States because we had plenty of our own.  However, American Oil companies wanted to be the ones who made the profits out of selling oil to Europe.  That fit with the U.S. interest in denying Middle East oil to the Soviet Union.  We were not very focused on the Middle East, but, when we did play, we played traditional European power politics.  Secretary of State Henry Kissinger renamed such Machiavellian maneuvering "real politics" which he contrasted to the naïve distractions of idealists who were concerned about democracy, human rights, economic development to help low-income people, etc.  From my point of view, that amounts to sin, eyes wide open, I don’t give a damn, sin.

Not surprisingly, those we sinned against didn’t feel that good about it.  Such alienation and distrust is at the heart of all the hostility, then and now, that we face in the Middle East.  This is God’s judgement upon the United States.

I understand that we won a lot of the geopolitical power games in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80, 90s, and in the new millenium.  We won the Cold War.  We supported warlords and the Taliban in terrorist activity that contributed significantly to the end of the Soviet Union and its diminishment to just Russia.   I’m glad we won the Cold War and I’m glad for the independence of new nations with Muslim majorities around the Southern side of Russia.  I’m glad Russia was defeated in Afghanistan.  But I don’t blink at the sins we committed along the way and I think they matter a lot.

We not only supported the Taliban and even worse war lords, we supported Saddam Hussein as a balance of power against Iran.  We supported the oppressive Saudi kings and sold them our most advanced fighter planes and other gear.  We supported the near-dictators in Egypt.  We used that support, and many similar supports, on behalf of Israel and tolerated their continuous oppression of Palestinians.

Like my parents, I am pleased that the United States responded to Germany and Japan by working away at turning enemies into friends.   That was the lesson of World War One, my parents said.  The oppressive terms imposed on Germany after World War I had led to World War II.  We didn’t extend that kind of thinking or caring to the Middle East. 

I was surprised by the ingenuity and organizational capacity of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade buildings and the Pentagon.  I was on Capitol Hill that day and anxious about two young interns in our office, both on their second day in Washington.  They were on the Hill and separated from the rest of us. 

I was not surprised that there were angry Muslim men who wanted to hurt the United States.  I’m not surprised at God’s judgement, I’m just thankful it hasn’t been worse.

Neither am I surprised by God’s grace, and there have been plenty of grace notes in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I love the stories of the Peace Corps and the kind of hope that John Kennedy inspired.  The Peace Corps is a landmark for a lot of what the United States should be doing in the world.  I also love the numerous stories of Christian and other NGOs that have done good work in the Middle East and elsewhere.  For example, the United Church of Christ supported a missionary family in Turkey for decades in a ministry of running a modest-sized independent book printing and publishing business.  They were extremely restricted by the Turkish Government in even small public witness to their faith.  They nonetheless published a lot of books that the secular Turkish government wanted even if they would not otherwise have been published by other presses in Turkey.  I believe that ministry has had a significant impact on the way Turkey has played its cards as a positive player in the Middle East and, for example, helped with the growth of women’s rights in Turkey.  We recently heard the amazing story of the contributions of Sakeena Jacoobi in Afghanistan and several Seekers have read the Three Cups of Tea story in Pakistan.  Some of us know the work of the Churches for Middle East Peace, the Witness for Peace accompaniement ministries in Israel, and the work of the Jewish Voice for Peace in Israel.  We celebrate our small and direct involvement in the Middle East through our missioner Ron Kraybill.   

I am also thankful for the Cairo speech of President Obama.  I thought it was brilliant in general,  and honest in tone and confession.  I was pleased at the message of hope that he spoke, and delighted that he has a bigger perspective than "real politics."  He is aiming at building peace, advancing human rights, supporting the development of democracy, and encouraging a better life for the average people in the Middle East.  He is resolute about opposing dangerous religious extremists in Afghanistan and the Northwest Provinces of Pakistan, however justified their anger.  We cannot right old wrongs, but we can do a lot better than just shooting enemies.  When we confess our wrongs we are better prepared to take advantage of current opportunities.  That is an important part of repentance.  The other part is seeking reconciliation and not just political manipulation and advantage.  Confession is a sign of respect and of caring and both are critical to building a "Just Peace."

It is very interesting to me that some of the key perspectives of counter-insurgency warfare are similar to Just Peace perspectives.  I see the general perspective of counter insurgency as creating enough security so that we can build functioning local economies, the first beginnings of institutions that are critical for the emergence of democracy, reducing immediate humanitarian problems, advancing human and civil rights by including them in counter-insurgency activities, creating trust and even friendship.  Real politics led to cynical hit-and-run warfare.  In the "Desert Storm" war the United States used the Kurds against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them to slaughter after we chose to cease fire. 

Counter-insurgency is also different from the Neo-Conservative rhetoric and failed policy about expanding "democracy" to Iraq.  The Neo-Conservatives talked about democracy and the George W. Bush Administration was able to install a weak illusion of democracy while it governed as an occupying power.  You may remember that the Iraqi Parliament resisted passing the model democracy structure presented by the Neo-Conservatives.  There was a simple reason.  Almost all or Iraq’s natural resources and businesses would have been turned over to multi-national corporations.
"Democracy" was just a cover story for a raid by multi-nationals.  Remember that the multinationals rushed in with big U.S. government contracts to fix the water supply, electrical grid, and many other things.  They brought in workers from other countries because they didn’t trust the Iraqis.  They cut out the Iraqi billionaires with the argument that they had made their money under the corruption of Saddam Hussein.  They cut out Iraqi workers which led to huge unemployment, desperation, and the quick emergence of anti-American armed militias that created enough violence, particularly the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters, to drive out the multinationals, non-U.S. Foreign assistance, and relief and development NGOs.  The Iraqi were not stupid.  They saw that the Neo-Conservative approach was just neocolonialism with a cover story.  Years later, after President Bush overrode Vice President Cheney and fired Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and changed to a counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq, The Iraqi Parliament completed a constitution without the giveaway.

Counter-insurgency is similar to the work Peter Bankson did in Vietnam: working with local leaders, creating security by building trusted relationships, taking on local problems – in his case, building an orphanage on a low-budget with local labor.
Counter-insurgency is akin to community organizing that starts with the interests of the local leaders, values local resources, circulates the benefits of an improving economy at the local level, builds self esteem and dignity, and builds friendship and trust.  It helps to create some of the beginning social infra-stucture needed for the success of democracy.  It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach with an emphasis on problem-solving rather than grand strategy.  Counter-insurgency sees the work of NGOs and government based development programs as a key part of the path to a successful outcome.  In a small-scale way, counter-insurgency repeats the dream of the Marshal Plan after the Second World War and has the potential for turning former enemies into friends.

I am praying for the success of General McCrystal in Afghanistan.  I am praying for the early stages of the next rounds of negotiating a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.  I am praying for those who are risking their lives against oppression in Iran today.  I am praying that the Obama Administration can find many ways to build bridges and end old hostilities in the Middle East.  I am praying for the Lutheran churches in Baghdad and Bethlehem, for the Christian refugees in Iraq and Lebanon, for Ron Kraybill, for Sakeena Jacoobi, for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for our diplomats and aid workers, for the many Iraqis and Afghanis who are suffering and serving, and more. 

I am also praying prayers of confession and repentance for the sins I have tolerated as a United States citizen, for my willful ignorance about a lot of Middle East issues, for my self-interest every time I fill up our car with gasoline, and more.

I believe we Christians are a special people, but our specialness is to serve and not to dominate, to build friendship rather than manipulate, to consider the good of others as important as the good we seek for ourselves, to be a Pentecost people who align themselves with an active and loving God

God, you will sit on your throne forever and continue to offer your judgment.
You will judge the world with justice.
You will offer fair trials, provide equity for all people.
We want you to be a tower of strength for the oppressed,
a tower of strength in times of trouble.     


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Roy Barber on Miracles
"We walk by faith and not by sight" by Jill Joseph