Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Some Thoughts (and spoilers)

I got to see the movie 12 Years a Slave last night with my sophisticated and attractive friends Jordan, Landon and Janae.  It is an incredible movie - incredibly good and incredibly disturbing.  The nearest thing I can compare it to, movie-wise, is The Passion of the Christ.

12 Years a Slave is a true story, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, an American citizen from New York with a wife and two kids, who was abducted by slavers on a trip to Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  He stayed trapped in slavery for twelve years until


he was able to convince a sympathetic white laborer to carry a letter to his white friends in New York, who came and rescued him.


For me, the most arresting scene in the film comes soon after Solomon is sold into slavery.  The master of his plantation is supposedly a "decent" slave owner.  He gives his slaves plenty of food and good living quarters. He is unable to purchase a woman's children along with her to keep her family together, but he feels bad about it.  He respects Solomon's intelligence and obviously realizes he was not born in slavery, but makes no effort to find out the truth, since he went into debt to buy Solomon. 

One day, one of the master's  sadistic overseers attacks Solomon, and Solomon, still fresh from the North, fights back, steals the overseer's whip, and strikes him with it.  Shocked and enraged, the overseer flees, and returns with a gang to hang Solomon.  They get the noose around his neck and hoist him into the air from a tree branch, the other end of the rope staked to the ground.  At that moment, a different overseer arrives, and, knowing Solomon's value to his master, drives his attackers off at gunpoint.  After the attackers release the rope, Solomon drops just low enough that his feet are brushing the ground, and he can breathe if he pushes his body up with his feet.

This is where the truly horrible part comes.  Instead of cutting Solomon down, the overseer sends for the master - and then leaves.  Solomon is left hanging by his neck for hours, just barely able to breathe by constant, laborious footwork.  In the background, we see the other slaves coming and going about their work, their eyes averted.  And not just other slaves, but other white people - the master's wife, the other overseers, day laborers.  No one dares rescue Solomon until the master returns at sunset, rushes over with genuine alarm, and cuts Solomon down with a machete.

That night, Solomon sleeps on the floor in the foyer of the master's house, the master watching over him with a shotgun, hastening to investigate every little sound in the darkness beyond the porch.  He is terrified that the attackers are coming back for Solomon, and arranges to sell him as soon as possible.

For the vast majority of this horrifying segment, there are no villains onscreen.  The only villain present is the invisible, demonic Power of racism.  This Power dictates the actions of everyone onscreen, from the blacks who have been taught by long years of terror never to interfere in the punishment of a black, to the whites who have learned the same lesson.  Even the supposedly all-powerful master is only powerful enough to cut down the noose - to do the very least to help the black man.  He is too afraid to do anything else.  The terror, the violent Power of racism that Americans invited in to help build their country hangs over all their heads, ruling over them.  Some people in this picture are rich and comfortable, but none are free.

Over and over again, the movie presents us with similar no-win scenarios.  Does the "good" slave master buy the enslaved mother and separate her from her children, or leave her with her children and run the risk that they get bought by someone awful?  Does Solomon accept his status as a slave and get constantly abused, or insist on his rights as a free citizen and get beaten even more?  Does he help a tormented female slave  commit suicide, or force her to stay alive?  Do the slaves intervene when the master rapes a slave woman, or look away?  When Solomon's deranged second master pulls out a gun and orders Solomon to whip his fellow slave or "I'll kill every n----- here," does he do it?

There might not be right answers to these questions.  There might also not be right answers to the questions that confront Americans on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not.  I passed a homeless man asking for money twice on the way in and out of the theater last night.  Do I give him money and contribute to making degrading street begging a viable means of survival for him, or do I pass him by and do nothing to help him survive?  Which of two candidates promising to continue bombing innocent people overseas do we vote for?  Which national corporate bank involved in massive fraud and economic malpractice do we open an account with? Which grocery store carrying cheap products produced at unimaginable cost to the environment and overseas laborers (and yes, slaves) do we shop at?

This summer, I read An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a frustrating, convicting book by William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian and 1970s antiwar activist.  Stringfellow argues that the "powers" of the world - all governments, organizations, militaries, churches, schools and families - are fallen creatures, fallen separately from the human beings that constitute them, and are given over the demonic Power of death.  Certain things - the Vietnam War, for him, and I would add the Iraq War, farm subsidies, carbon dioxide pollution and the abortion industry to that list - only make sense if we realize that they operate not for the benefit of anyone involved, but for the benefit of the System itself - which is to say, for the benefit of Death.

For Stringfellow, the only answer to this dilemma we are all caught in is to resist the power of death, in whatever fashion our circumstances and the Holy Spirit avail us of.  Our resistance will inevitably be futile, fallen and sinful to some degree, but "resistance is the only human way to live."

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that, except for the racial and religious dynamics, all the elements of slavery I saw in this film are present in modern-day slavery in Sudan, where I regularly travel to see people who have been liberated from slavery through the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International.  Abduction, family separation, name changes, murder with impunity, rapes, constant beatings, torture, maimings - it's all still happening today, and at about the same level of technological development, in the Darfur and Kordofan regions of North Sudan.

I met this man, Deng Akol Acien, in September.  He was 20 years a slave.  Before his capture, he was a Christian, a sugar trader.  His master changed his name to Abdullah and forced him to pray like a Muslim.  After Abdullah lost one of his master's sheep, he beat him, cut off the tip of his ear, tied him to the ground and left him in the sun for three days without food.  On the fourth day, his master brought him food mixed with dirt to eat.  Abdullah saw seven of his fellow slaves executed for trying to escape.  There's more, but it's not fit even for this horror-show of a blog post.  When I met him, he told me he wanted to be called Deng again. "I'm done with Abdullah forever now."

We can get people like Deng out of slavery through our contacts in Sudan, usually for the price of about $50 worth of cattle vaccine - per person.  

It won't solve poverty, racism, systematic abuse of women, and war in Africa.  We can't defeat the power of death on our own. 

But we can resist.  And that, I believe, is what we are called to.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Evangelicals and the World Abroad

Dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ,

Bear with me as I relay three personal stories from the last month that have been weighing on my heart.

Story 1: I'm on the plane to Cairo early last month.  I strike up a conversation with the friendly Egyptian Muslim man next to me.  He tells me about his family and his fears for his culture and his country.  I tell him about my previous visit to Egypt and my love for his country.  He speaks perfect English.  He pretends to be impressed by my Arabic.  At some point, I tell him that I'm an evangelical Christian.  He reacts with surprise, and keeps prodding me about my beliefs.  Finally, he tells me about his one other encounter with an evangelical: he was traveling in the U.S. on business during Israel's war with Gaza in 2008-2009, in which 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of women and children, were killed. 

Needless to say, he wasn't a fan of the war.  But the evangelical businessman he met was.  And why was that?

Because, the man told my friend, it means Jesus is coming back sooner.

I apologize, and try to explain that not all evangelicals are like that.  I'm not like that.  My pastor's not like that.  Some of us, I tell him, are moderates.

Story 2: I'm in Nairobi, Kenya, where evangelical and pentecostal Christianity are thriving.  I'm flipping channels in my hotel room, and come across John Hagee preaching a sermon on "The Four Blood Moons of the Apocalypse" or something or other.  Knowing that Hagee is one of the most powerful American Christian leaders, commanding, among other things, a pro-Israel organization with 13 million members, I decide to watch.

In this particular segment, he is preaching on Ezekiel 38-39, a prophecy of a coming war between Israel and a collection of nations led by an unspecified northern power, a war that will end with the divine destruction of the attacking nations.  Ezekiel identifies the nations in this prophecy as Gog, Meshek, Tubal, Persia, Cush, Put, and Gomer.  John Hagee says that this war is coming within the next two years - because blood moons! (I didn't understand that part) - and he helpfully tells us which nations these are.

Gog, Meshek and Tubal are identifiers for Russia, he says.  Persia is Iran.  Put is Libya.  Cush, Hagee says, is "Ethiopia and all the other Arab Spring countries." Confused because Ethiopia is a Christian African country, not an Arab Muslim one, and that the principle Arab Spring countries, Egypt and Syria, don't get a spot on the list?  Don't be, because we're already moving on.

Gomer, John Hagee says, is Germany.  Yes, Germany.  Germany is going to attack Israel next year, and God will totally wipe it out in response.  Why?  Because Germany killed the Jews in the Holocaust, and - this is what he said - "God doesn't forgive sins that you don't confess."

Thus, in the space of about three sentences, one of the most famous American Christian leaders condemns Germany - a country of 80 million people, 50 million of whom call themselves Christians, the home of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Beethoven  - to total destruction.

This brings a few questions to mind: Hasn't Germany confessed to the Holocaust?  Haven't they made reparations to the Jews?  Does God punish children for the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents (cf Ezekiel 18)?  Could total genocide be the punishment of a just God for attempted genocide?  Does God have plans to avenge other "unconfessed" genocides in this manner - say, the United States' genocide of Native Americans?  Does Pastor Hagee actually know any Germans?  Has he run this theory past them?  Has he thought about trying to warn the Germans of their impending doom (cf Jonah)?  Can we hear from Pastor Hagee on any of this?

Nope, because Germany's 30 allotted seconds in Hagee's sermon have passed, without any indication that Hagee or anyone in his audience spent more than 30 seconds thinking about it, and now we're talking about the outrage of Obama's Benghazi coverup.

Story 3: Famed American Christian author Joel Rosenberg has a new book out, Damascus Countdown, and it's climbing the bestseller lists.  SPOILERS AHEAD: The book ends with Damascus getting destroyed in a nuclear attack in a war between Israel and Iran, thus fulfilling Isaiah 17.  On Rosenberg's website, it is advertised with the tagline, "Is it a novel or today's headlines?"

Well, in point of fact, today's headlines will tell you that Damascus and Syria are being torn apart, not by nuclear weapons, but by a vicious government and an equally-vicious rebel movement being extensively funded, armed and supported by the U.S. government and its allies.  Syrian Christians are being systematically driven out of areas where the rebels have taken control.  One might think that the destruction of Syrian Christians at the hands of the American government would be of interest to American Christians, as opposed to thinly-disguised fantasies about cities full of brown people getting nuked.

Judging by the bestseller lists, one would be wrong.

Let me reassure you: the common theme I see in these three totally true stories is not "evangelicals are stupid" or "evangelicals are racist" or "I, Joel Veldkamp, American evangelical, am smarter than other evangelicals." (God forbid.)

This is the theme I see: A large swathe of evangelical Christianity in America seems unaware that other countries are real.

Intellectually, of course, we know that other countries are real.  But our truly-felt beliefs are reflected in our words and actions.  And judging by the popularity of John Hagee, Joel Rosenberg, and the State of Israel among evangelicals, for far too many of us, foreign countries exist only as props in our dreams about the Rapture. That has to change.

Let me leave it at this: if you wouldn't be comfortable explaining your hope for the last days to a German person, a Palestinian person, an Iranian person, a Syrian person, or an Ethiopian person, you're doing it wrong.

Friday, September 20, 2013

An Open Letter to Suzan Johnson-Cook, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom

Suzan Johnson-Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
September 20, 2013

Madam Ambassador,

After two and a half years of constant, nihilistic, ever-worsening bloodshed in Syria, I’ve become somewhat desensitized to bad news.  There’s a massacre in Hatla?  Can’t have been worse than the Baniyas massacre – or the Houla massacre or the Daraya massacre or the Aleppo massacre.  Maalula, a city continuously inhabited by Christians since the time of St. Paul, whose people still speak Aramaic, is religiously cleansed by al Qaeda?  It was bound to happen sometime.

Every once in a while though, a particularly horrible Syria story breaks through the fog and socks me right in the gut, sending me back into the tailspin of despair I felt when I had to leave all my friends in Damascus behind, and the first time a car bomb went off in the neighborhood I used to live in, and the first time a Syrian friend of mine had to flee their home, and the first time I heard Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb’s name.  

This week, you were that story.

At a meeting of NGOs in New York, a representative from the American Jewish Committee asked you, “What is the U.S. doing to protect minority religious groups in Syria and how is this being factored into potential U.S. military operations?” 

You – the U.S.’s ambassador for international religious freedom, whose ONLY job is to try to blunt the horror of religious persecution and cleansing in our tortured world – said:

 “Syria is very much in the news right now, and right now we’re not free to comment on what’s happening in Syria.  Right now we will refer that to the White House and we respect our marching orders from the White House to comment on that. But thank you for the question.”

For the love of God, Ambassador.

I won’t recite to you the whole list of scores of documented vicious attacks on religious minorities in Syria – the systematic kidnappings of Druze in Suweida, the religious cleansing of Christians from Homs, Qusayr, al-Thawra, Raqqa, Maalula and much of the northeast, the burning of Shia mosques, the huge car bombings in Christian and Alawite neighborhoods in Damascus.  I have to assume you know all this already.  Don’t tell me you don’t – you’ll just make me more depressed.

At any rate, I don’t expect you to take it from me.

Take it from these people:

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect:  “Growing numbers of foreign Sunni extremist fighters are battling not just to rid Syria of Mr. Assad, but to religiously cleanse it.”

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury: “It’s absolutely clear that Christians in Syria are being persecuted.”

Neil Hicks, International Policy Advisor, Human Rights First: “What has happened in Iraq and Syria is de facto ethnic cleansing of Christians.”

Bishop Nicholas Samra, head of the Melkite Catholic Church in the United States: “We’re seeing what looks like an extermination of Christianity [in Syria].”

Nina Shea, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom:  “Syrian Christians are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign.”
Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith: “The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.”

If you have nothing to say, you are increasingly isolated in that regard.  You aren’t totally alone, of course.  The entire presidential administration you’re a part of seems to inhabit a bizzaro world where the evil regime and the moderates are the only players in Syria, where the religious tensions that have defined every Middle Eastern land for 1,400 years are a non-issue.

But you aren’t them.  You are the religious freedom ambassador, and I can only assume you agreed to take this job because, on some level, religious freedom matters to you.

If the White House won’t let you, the religious freedom ambassador, speak about the single most egregious, most urgent crisis of religious persecution in the world today, then they aren’t letting you do your job.  And if you continue to pretend you ARE doing your job, you are letting them use you.

I say this without malice, and without anger: please resign.

With respect,
Joel Veldkamp

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Six of the Many, Many Ways That Bombing Syria is a Horrible Idea

1. What the Rebels Will Do If They Win

"Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this conflict... If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now. It would be preferable to avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.  The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high."

- Professor Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma

2. What the Rebels WON'T Do If They Win

"The opposition is incapable of providing government services.  Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse."

- Professor Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma

3. What the Regime Will Do If We Bomb

"Military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40%."

- Erica Chenoweth, citing a 2012 study of military interventions from 1989 to 2005 by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman, and Stephen Gent.  Hat/tip Matt Yglesias.

4. Cost/Benefit Analysis

"Should the United States government drop a bunch of high-powered explosives in order to kill and maim a bunch of Syrian individuals while destroying some of Syria's physical infrastructure in order to help other Syrian individuals? ...If the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. ...That's something to think about."

- Matt Yglesias, Slate

5.  And Generally Speaking...

"Civil wars with outside involvement typically last longer, cause more fatalities, and are more difficult to resolve through negotiation."

- Cambridge Journal of International Organization, October 2011 (cited here)

6. This Was True Even Before We Got All Snippy With Egypt for Overthrowing an Islamist Government:

"For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites [or secularists]. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East."

- Robert Fisk, The Independent

In Short:

There's still time.  Make your voice heard!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pharaoh's Protection

I speak only for myself in this post.

Oh my.  It has been a terrible week in the Middle East, beloved.  Egypt's worst political violence since people started using the term "political violence." The worst anti-Christian pogroms in Egypt in over a century.  The deadliest single day in Syria's civil war so far, in the form of a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds - the worst chemical attack since Saddam Hussein's genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s.  A suicide bombing at a Sunni mosque in Lebanon that killed 27. 

There's so much to say, and so many people talking, to so little avail, that I'll let most of it pass, except for this comment: The U.S. is going to start bombing Syria in the next few weeks.  Expect it.

The likely result will be the victory of the rebel forces, the end of Christianity, Alawite Islam and the Druze religion in Syria, and all-out civil war in Lebanon and Jordan, as both of these tiny states buckle under a refugee influx in the millions.

All that will have to wait.  What I want to focus on in this post is Egypt.

Almost two years ago, I joined hundreds of Egyptian Christians in a rally at the White House after the U.S.-funded Egyptian military massacred 24 Christians in Cairo. 

Today, the U.S.-funded Egyptian military is back in power, and, as the New York Times puts it, "
In the more than seven weeks since [President Mohammed] Morsi’s ouster, security forces have carried out at least three mass shootings at pro-Morsi street protests, killed more than a thousand Morsi supporters and arrested at least as many." Mohammed El-Baradei, the civilian vice president who resigned in protest when the massacres began, is now under investigation by the military government for “betraying the public trust.”

The Muslim Brotherhood scapegoated Egypt's Christians for the killings, and unleashed a countrywide wave of violence against them, torching scores of churches, Christian homes and businesses.  During these attacks, Human Rights Watch found, the military's "security forces were largely absent or failed to intervene even when they had been informed of ongoing attacks."

 And Egyptian Christians were out protesting again in Washington DC on Thursday - holding up hagiographic portraits of the new military dictator (Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi), writing his name on their faces, calling him "our hero" and "the eagle of our flag."

"C C"=Sisi.  Get it?

Then, on Friday, a Coptic Christian youth organization I follow on Facebook, the Maspero Youth Union, shared this photo:


Point of interest: the "Maspero Youth Union" is named after Maspero Square, where the Egyptian military murdered 24 Christian protestors less than two years ago.

This group is now asking people to report Facebook friends who use logos showing support for the victims of another military massacre, to military intelligence.

I have Egyptian friends who use those logos on their Facebook profiles.  I disagree heartily with them on politics, but they are not terrorists.

GUYS - aside from the horrifying moral implications, do you really think the Egyptian military, which has proven itself only too willing to shoot Christians dead in the street if it suits their purposes, is on your side?

They are not.  Their main interest in church burnings is using them as political propaganda, not in stopping them.  And if the Brotherhood ever ceases to be a threat, they will be only too happy to use church attacks as a safety valve for Islamist violence, as Mubarak did. (The military just released Mubarak from prison, by the way.  No big deal.)

I am 100% anti-Muslim Brotherhood.  If I lived in Egypt, I would have been out protesting against the Brotherhood regime on June 30.  But removing them from power does not require a return to military dictatorship.  And the point of being a Christian is knowing that we don't have to rely on wicked, violent men for protection.

I know this is easy for me to say.  My life isn't in danger.  And this is a lesson American Christians need to learn, too.  Our political leaders, with the support of most of us - including me - invaded two countries and killed a million people in the last decade to keep us "safe."

Take it from me - it's not worth it.

"Pharaoh's protection will be to your shame." - Isaiah 30:3

 "The LORD will fight for you.  You need only be still." - Exodus 14:14

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

For the Damascus Countryside

I can’t take it anymore.
I can’t read any more reports
Speculating endlessly, “Who?” and “Why?”
I already know the answers I will hear –
Who: The regime, the rebels, the Zionists, the Islamic extremists, the enemies of the Syrian people
Why: Counterinsurgency, fighting terrorism, fighting for freedom, false flag
All lies, meant to disguise the truth
That Who is our Fellow Man
And Why is to appease the God of Death
The God on whom all governments and rebel groups rely
From whom they draw all their power and authority
To whom they pray for deliverance
From the consequences of their crimes
And the God of Death is only too happy to oblige
But the God of Death demands sacrifice
And demands the right to choose the victims
Soldiers, freedom fighters, little girls in pajamas, babies, nursing mothers
Gasping, burning, screaming, shaking, shaking, shaking and then becoming still
And perhaps the supplicants cringe at the demand
But in the end, they make the hard choice, and the tough call
Because that’s what it means to be a leader
To do what it takes to defeat your enemies
But "the last enemy to be defeated is Death."