Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reflections on the Nature of U.S. Power

Or

Why ISIS is all the U.S.’ Fault

“Our military has no peer.  The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth; our businesses the most innovative.  Each year, we grow more energy independent.  From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations. …So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.  That has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.” 

President Barack Obama, May 28, 2014


“People  worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’”

- Revelation 13:4

Today, as I write this, U.S. warplanes have been striking positions of the “Islamic State” (IS) in northwestern Iraq for three days.

This has been a rough week for me emotionally. A ludicrous thing to complain about given the context, but there it is. I haven’t been sleeping well. I’ve been getting lots of headaches.

I’ve spent a grand total of seven days in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, but that apparently was enough time for me to develop an emotional attachment to this lush region, its wealth of ancient peoples, languages and religions, and my brave Iraqi friends who live there.

Over the past week, fighters from the Islamic State have gone on a rampage across the region, forcing 400,000 Christians and Yezidis (an ancient pre-Christian religion) to flee their homes. Nearly the entire Nineveh plain – all the ancient Christian towns and cities – has been emptied, all in one day (Thursday, if you were wondering). All my Iraqi friends are homeless. All the kind, longsuffering refugee families I met there are refugees once again. The Yezidi city of Sinjar was also emptied, with 50,000 people fleeing to a nearby mountain, only to find themselves surrounded by Islamic State fighters, without food or water.

By now, the Islamic State’s modus operandi is well-known – crucifixions, torture, rapes, abductions and enslavement of non-Muslims, mass executions of Shia Muslims and Yezidis, forced subjugation and plundering of Christians, videotaped beheadings. The indigenous peoples of Iraq have every reason to be afraid. 

The news that my country was bombing these monsters, and airdropping humanitarian aid to the children trapped on that mountain, came as an enormous relief to me. Even as an ostensible pacifist, I couldn’t help exulting in this act of war.

Nevertheless, I insist on seeing this bombing, not as an act of mercy from the world’s superpower to the wretched of the earth, but as an act of imperialism.

I spent most of yesterday with an old DC friend I hadn’t seen for some time, who was introducing me to a lot of his new friends. He kept asking me to share “your conspiracy theory” with them. Apparently it was entertaining or enlightening or something. After telling it for the third time, I figured I better write it down so my paranoia can be public knowledge. Here it goes.

The U.S. is using IS as a tool of its Middle East foreign policy. It facilitated and allowed its rise to power, and is now seeking to benefit from the chaos it is stirring up.

My friend’s introduction notwithstanding, this is not a conspiracy theory, nor is it mine. There is no secret to the U.S.’s Iraq and Syria policy. It simply needs to be put into context for the U.S. government’s true intentions to emerge.

Consider: ever since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has proclaimed itself to be at war with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operatives across the globe have been hunted down, killed, abducted and droned into oblivion, whether they are active or inactive, imminent threats or merely have bad intentions, are violent themselves or mere propagandists. This has only increased after President Bush’s departure from office. On October 5, 2013, U.S. forces launched simultaneous attacks to kill two low-ranking al Qaeda members 3,000 miles apart from each other – one in Libya, one in Somalia. Drones attacks on people loosely affiliated with al Qaeda are more or less constant in Pakistan and Yemen. In some areas of Pakistan, the sound of buzzing from American drones looking for al Qaeda and Taliban targets to kill is so frequent that it wreaks psychological damage on the entire population. “Total war” is an accurate description.

How does one square that reality with the fact that, in March 2013, the Islamic State (at the time an al Qaeda affiliate known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria”) took over Raqqa, Syria, a city with over a million people, religiously cleansed the entire region, and has held it ever since with NO response from the U.S. government? No airstrikes, no drones, nothing?

At the time, the press accurately reported that Raqqa was the largest city ever controlled by al Qaeda. Today, IS is no longer affiliated with al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s successor expelled them for being too extreme. Think about that for a second.

How is it that, over a year later, IS was able to overrun Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul – population two million – and seize huge amounts of abandoned U.S. military equipment belonging to the Iraqi Army, once again without any response from the U.S. government other than mealy-mouthed statements of concern from the State Department?

Answer: the U.S. allowed it to happen. Perhaps it’s too strong to say they wanted it to happen, but they correctly perceived that IS was not a threat to their regional strategy, and actually fit into it quite neatly.

The U.S. purposefully dominates the Middle East. It has ever since the end of World War II, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union, victorious allies, turned on each other and began a long struggle for control in the region. Both powers saw very well how a lack of oil played a large role in Germany’s defeat, and decided that they would not allow that to happen to them. Needless to say, the U.S. won that struggle, along with everything else.

The U.S.’s dominance over the region rests on its alliance with two countries – Israel, which we hear about all the time, and Saudi Arabia, which we hardly ever do. Were it not for our alliance with Saudi Arabia, we would probably view that country as something akin to North Korea. Thousands of foreign workers are held in slave-like conditions. Women are subject to what can only be described as gender apartheid. Religious police force everyone in the country to practice the most severe variety of Islam.  No political or religious dissent is allowed. Jews are not allowed to enter the country (unless they happen to be high-ranking U.S. diplomats.)

The U.S. uses its alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia to achieve two key objectives in the region: protecting U.S. access to oil, and preventing the Islamist terrorist threat to the homeland from getting out of hand. We could add many smaller goals to this list – regional peace and stability, democratization, human rights, cultivating pro-American public opinion – but all of these come second to oil and counterterrorism.

Why? Because, the intelligent, dedicated government officers who direct our policy tell themselves, without a secure oil supply and protection from terrorism, the U.S. won’t be in a position to help anybody. First things first.

Al Qaeda is not the biggest threat to this arrangement. Not by a long shot. The biggest threat to this arrangement is the Islamic Republic of Iran – a huge, revolutionary, anti-American country that is seeking to replace Israel and Saudi Arabia as the strongest country in the region.

That cannot happen. So Iran is public enemy number one. Their alleged nuclear weapons program is the justification given. Their potential to wrest the region from the United States’ control is the real reason.

Forget everything you ever heard President Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry say about democracy in the Middle East, and take another look at the region. In 2011, revolutions broke out in six Arab countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

Bahrain is an island nation near Iran. The majority of the population is Shi’a Muslim, like Iran and Iraq, and unlike the rest of the region. Their king is Sunni Muslim, like the king of Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which protects U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Sunni king of Bahrain is a U.S. ally. If he were overthrown, he would almost certainly be replaced by a Shi’a ruler who would be much friendlier to Iran and much less friendly to us.

Early on in the Bahraini revolution, Saudi tanks invaded Bahrain across an enormous bridge that connects Saudi Arabia to the island (which was built for precisely that purpose) and put down the revolution. The U.S. gave its tacit approval.

Did you even hear about it?

Compare that to the revolution in Syria – a majority Sunni Muslim country ruled by a secular dictator from a Shi’a Muslim offshoot religion, the Alawites. The Syrian government is Iran’s closest ally.

Working together, the United States, and the Sunni countries Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar took advantage of the Syrian revolution and funded and armed a violent, Sunni Islamist insurgency that tore the country apart. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have died so far. Nearly half of all Syrians have had to flee their homes.

Mind you, the U.S. and its allies haven’t given the rebels enough money and weapons to actually win. The last thing the U.S. wants is for the Sunni extremists it is supporting in Syria to take over. We support them just enough to keep the war going and going, and to keep Iran (and the Syrian people) bleeding, and bleeding, and bleeding.

It is in the chaos and horror the U.S. created in Syria that the Islamic State arose.  And they had considerable help. Not from us, of course! Perish the thought. Just from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – our closest allies in the region.

Meanwhile, across the border, in Iraq, the prime minister we had chosen to lead the country we spent so much money and gave so many lives to “liberate” and “rebuild” (the electricity still isn’t on, if you’re wondering) was not cooperating. Weapons shipments from Iran to Syria passed through Iraq easily and regularly, despite the U.S.’s public protests. Nouri al-Maliki had decided his Shi’a-majority country’s ties to Iran were more important than his ties to us.

Then, in June of this year, lo and behold! Here comes IS, overrunning huge parts of Iraq and humiliating the Iraqi army. The U.S., of course, promises immediate assistance. On one condition: that Iraq chooses a new prime minister.

None of this is a secret. It is merely done in the name of “spreading democracy” and “protecting human rights.” Because our efforts have manifestly failed to do either, pundits on the right criticize the Obama administration for its “failure” and “incompetence” while pundits on the left praise him for his “restraint” and “keeping us out of war.”

We are very much at war. And it is not failing. It is succeeding brilliantly. All of Iran’s allies are on fire, and Iran has elected a president who all but begging the U.S. to back down.

Why then, if IS is serving the U.S.’ goals so well, are we bombing them now? Not because they are threatening genocide against Christians and Yezidis. That’s been the case for over a year. My best guess is that it is because, this week, the Islamic State stopped attacking the Iraqi Army and started attacking the Kurds.

With extensive American help over the last twenty-three years, Iraq’s Kurds have set up a virtually independent state in the northeast of the country. They are oil-rich and very reliably friendly to America. And IS’s latest attacks drove almost to the gates of their capital, Erbil. (The Christians were unfortunate enough to live in the region between them.) That was a step too far for America. 

So we have started bombing IS. Not enough to wipe them out (like we do virtually everywhere else al Qaeda rears its head). Just enough, as White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said this week, to "tip the balance in support of Kurdish forces." Any more help, Obama continues to openly insist, is dependent on Maliki getting replaced by someone more to our liking – pardon me – on having “a legitimate Iraqi government.

If Maliki goes, expect to see major U.S. operations against IS in Iraq. Maybe even in Syria. If he doesn’t, expect a lot more beheadings.

Again, I don’t consider this to be a conspiracy theory. Much of this is said aloud by public officials. The U.S. government is working for American interests first of all, and tacking on good deeds for human rights secondly. We do nice things for people who are nice to us. People who get in our way, we undermine.

That’s to be expected, right?

Why has this perfectly normal behavior – supporting human rights where we can, but pursuing our own interests first of all – resulted in the near-complete destruction of Iraq and Syria, serial massacres in Gaza, a crushed and terrorized population in Bahrain, two military coups in Egypt, civil war and religious cleansing in Libya, near civil war in Ukraine, etc., etc., etc.?

Because the U.S. defines its interests globally.

The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called Obama’s May 2014 West Point foreign policy address “literally pointless.”

On the contrary – it had a very, very telling point. You may have missed it, because in the U.S., we are raised to take it for granted.

Here it is:


Read that again.

Isn’t that kind of insane?

Consider the implications of that. Ukraine? Dispensable. Israel? Dispensable. Syria and Iraq? You’d better believe they’re dispensable! Only the interests of the U.S. are sacrosanct. The interests of all other nations must give way to the U.S.’s efforts to maintain its leadership status.

In the same speech, Obama continues,

“The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead - not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also extend peace and prosperity around the globe.”

America – under President Obama and under all presidents since World War II – sees itself as responsible for the peace and prosperity of the whole world.

A laudable goal, perhaps – but how much power will we have to accumulate to achieve it? And how many people will we kill in pursuit of that power accumulation?

In the Middle East over the past 13 years, the answer is somewhere north of a million. And there’s no end in sight.

This is not a vision of the world that allows for alternate centers of global power.  So NATO and the European Union steadily integrate more and more of Russia’s former satellite countries into their alliances. And when the government of one of these nations – Ukraine – reneges on a EU deal in favor of closer ties with Russia, we overthrow their government and replace it with one of our liking. (Again: not a conspiracy theory. There are tapes of U.S. diplomats discussing which Ukrainian opposition figure to put into power weeks before Yanukovych’s overthrow.) It’s just too bad about the hundreds of Ukrainians (and Dutch air passengers) who have died as a result.

And when China starts increasing its military strength and making noise about disputed islands and extending its navy into the South China Sea, the Obama administration starts talking about “pivoting to Asia” and shoring up our alliances with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Muslim-killers in Myanmar.  If China doesn’t cut it out, look for the U.S. to start championing human rights in Tibet and East Turkestan.

Hopefully I’ve made clear that this problem is much bigger than any individual or political party within the U.S. government. The U.S. government’s foreign policy has taken on a life of its own. Each new president, secretary of state and foreign service officer inherits a set of commitments, priorities, alliances and arms agreements from his predecessors, and is constrained by them. It’s much easier to ride a tiger than dismount it.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment, I believe, is a principality – one that is increasingly given over to the demonic power of death.

Bear with me.

I owe basically all my thinking in this area to William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian from the 1970s. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s reference to “the principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), Stringfellow defines a principality as “a living reality, distinguishable from human and other life” – in other words, something that has taken on “a life of its own,” such as images, institutions and ideologies. 

In our fallen world, Stringfellow says, “each principality boasts that men will find the meaning and fulfillment of human life in service to the principality and that which abets its survival; a profound concern for self-survival is the governing morality of every principality. This comes first. To this all other interests must be sacrificed.”

I can personally testify that this is an accurate description of the workings of the U.S. government. I know people who have been literally blacklisted by U.S. State Department employees for embarrassing the Department over its inaction on its human rights commitments. People are capable of unbelievably brazen perfidy when they are defending their principality.

Because the principalities deny the lordship and power of Christ, the only power that they are able to use to control human beings is the power of death. In Stringfellow’s words, “death is the only moral and political sanction of the State.” Every government, organization, and institution naturally seeks to accumulate more power, and outside the will of Christ, the quest for power eventually reduces down to death and the threat of death.

Witnessing the carnage of the Vietnam War in his day, Stringfellow identified the U.S. government’s institutions as principalities that were possessed by the demonic power of death:

“The war has exposed the process by which a principality or conglomeration of principalities beguiles and entraps people in courses of action that wantonly debilitate and destroy human life. …during the ordeal in Southeast Asia of the past decade, Americans have been successively induced to squander life on a scale so prodigious it appalls imagination and defies calculation for the sake of stopping the alleged threat of communist China or of securing ‘self-determination’ for the Vietnamese or of hindering the so-called domino theory or of vindicating American ‘honor’ or of serving the ‘national security’ interests.”

The squandering of human life on a prodigious scale has not changed. Today, the justification is “extending peace and prosperity throughout the globe.” 

In that goal, our leaders may be sincere. But they are trying to achieve it through the power of death - military power, economic coercion, violent revolution, coups d'etat, sanctions. Accumulating the power necessary to dominate the world is ultimately impossible. It requires the killing of too many people. Eventually, the power of Death takes over completely. We have to destroy the village in order to save it.
 
Considering all of this, I have to laugh every time I see a new instabook in Christian bookstores about the “Islamic Antichrist.” Such a book could only be published in America. Forget 666 and the ten horns and all the other biblical identifiers prophecy enthusiasts puzzle over. Surely the crucial feature of the Beast is that it controls the whole world. Does that sound like Iran?

Nearly all of the Bible’s symbolism of the antichrist – seven hills, ten kings, “Babylon” - pointed to ancient Rome for John’s first readers. Where is Rome today?

If you were the devil, what country would you focus your efforts on? Who else would have the power to make American Christians obsess over inscriptions on courthouses and Obama’s birth certificate, and ignore the U.S.-engineered starvation of a million Iraqi children?

Besides William Stringfellow, these thoughts also owe a lot to Professor John Kok. I distinctly remember being at Dordt College as a sophomore, giving a presentation at a Kuyper Scholars Seminar where I argued for the U.S. to work to maintain its global supremacy to prevent China or Russia from replacing it. Because, I reasoned, obviously they would be worse!
After I finished, Professor Kok posed some questions to me that (kindly) made it clear he disagreed.  He finished by advising me to read I John 5:19, which said that the whole world was under the control of one person.  Being a good Kuyper scholar, I was about to answer, "Jesus!" but he cut me off and said, "Look it up, and you'll find out who that is."

That wasn't my moment of conversion. I’m kind of thick-headed. But over the last four years, God in his great mercy has brought into my life a great number of Christian and Muslim Middle Easterners whose lives have been turned upside down by the terror unleashed on their countries by my government. They were unfailingly gracious about that reality, and today, I’m honored to call them my friends. But early on in my relationships with them, the Lord made something clear to me: you can’t call yourself their friends, and still support what your government has done to them.
In a month, I’ll be on my way to grad school at the University of Chicago. My career prospects after that are far from certain, but I intend to try to find a way to use my life to do something about this.
It’s taken me a long time here to get here from being the insufferable neoconservative know-it-all you knew so well. But here I am. I am ready to be talked down.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Moral Sophistry in Gaza

Or

"An attempt to stop talking past each other."

Or

"How to not let yourself get talked into killing 1,000 people."

What follows is an extended response to Charles Krauthammer’s July 17, 2014, column, “Moral Clarity in Gaza.” Krauthammer's words are in normal type. Mine are in bold.


Israel accepts an Egyptian-proposed Gaza cease-fire; Hamas keeps firing. Hamas deliberately aims rockets at civilians; Israel painstakingly tries to avoid them, actually telephoning civilians in the area and dropping warning charges, so-called roof knocking.

All true, though by the time of this writing, Israel has also rejected a proposed Gaza ceasefire.  

But here’s what supporters of the Jewish state need to ask themselves: are they okay with bombing residential areas in the most densely-populated area on earth if it’s done while trying really hard to avoid civilian casualties? Is it okay to drive 100 mph the wrong way down a busy highway as long as we’re all wearing our seatbelts and flashing our lights? 

Under some circumstances, sure. Are these those circumstances?

“Here’s the difference between us,” explains the Israeli prime minister. “We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”

Again, all true. Again - does that make it okay for Israel to kill 1,000 people? 

Rarely does international politics present a moment of such moral clarity. Yet we routinely hear this Israel-Gaza fighting described as a morally equivalent “cycle of violence.” This is absurd. What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting? Everyone knows Hamas set off this mini-war. And everyone knows the proudly self-declared raison d’etre of Hamas: the eradication of Israel and its Jews.

Again, all true. (Or at least arguably true.) But for the answer to the question, “What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting?,” read on. And again – does this make it okay for Israel to kill 1,000 people?

Apologists for Hamas attribute the blood lust to the Israeli occupation and blockade. Occupation? Does no one remember anything? It was less than 10 years ago that worldwide television showed the Israeli army pulling die-hard settlers off synagogue roofs in Gaza as Israel uprooted its settlements, expelled its citizens, withdrew its military and turned every inch of Gaza over to the Palestinians. There was not a soldier, not a settler, not a single Israeli left in Gaza.

And there was no blockade. On the contrary. Israel wanted this new Palestinian state to succeed. To help the Gaza economy, Israel gave the Palestinians its 3,000 greenhouses that had produced fruit and flowers for export. It opened border crossings and encouraged commerce.

The whole idea was to establish the model for two states living peacefully and productively side by side. No one seems to remember that, simultaneous with the Gaza withdrawal, Israel dismantled four smaller settlements in the northern West Bank as a clear signal of Israel’s desire to leave the West Bank as well and thus achieve an amicable two-state solution.

This is not ancient history. This was nine years ago.

And how did the Gaza Palestinians react to being granted by the Israelis what no previous ruler, neither Egyptian, nor British, nor Turkish, had ever given them — an independent territory? First, they demolished the greenhouses. Then they elected Hamas. Then, instead of building a state with its attendant political and economic institutions, they spent the better part of a decade turning Gaza into a massive military base, brimming with terror weapons, to make ceaseless war on Israel.

Where are the roads and rail, the industry and infrastructure of the new Palestinian state? Nowhere. Instead, they built mile upon mile of underground tunnels to hide their weapons and, when the going gets tough, their military commanders. They spent millions importing and producing rockets, launchers, mortars, small arms, even drones. They deliberately placed them in schools, hospitals, mosques and private homes to better expose their own civilians. (Just Thursday, the U.N. announced that it found 20 rockets in a Gaza school.) And from which they fire rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

All tediously debatable, but for the sake of argument - fair enough. Hamas is the worst. But read on! We’re about to reach a crucial point. 

Why? The rockets can’t even inflict serious damage, being almost uniformly intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Even West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas has asked: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”

The rockets can’t even inflict serious damage. So. Hamas took advantage of Israeli generosity, squandered a chance at peace, and turned Gaza into a hellhole/base for launching rocket attacks on Israel. Attacks that “can’t even inflict serious damage.” So let’s ask ourselves again – why has Israel just killed 1,000 people? 

It makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Fair enough. But then why does Israel oblige? As one Washington Post columnist recently asked us, “What possible interest can Israel have in cross-border fighting?” If Hamas’ attacks do not inflict serious damage, why does Israel feel the need to kill 1,000 people? 

We can multiply possibilities. Israel needs to demonstrate that people who attack it, however ineffectually, will suffer. Israel needs to punish the Palestinian population to terrorize them into relative docility. Israel needs to keep Gaza uninhabitable to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state or civil society. Israel needs to fight terrorists to legimitize its existence as a state. The current Israeli government needs to demonstrate its strength to the Israeli electorate and keep its coalition partners in line. Israel is just bombing back because that’s what, in our enlightened world, one does when one is bombed. 

Are any of those reasons a good reason to kill 1,000 people? 

This produces dead Palestinians for international television. Which is why Hamas perversely urges its own people not to seek safety when Israel drops leaflets warning of an imminent attack.

To deliberately wage war so that your own people can be telegenically killed is indeed moral and tactical insanity. But it rests on a very rational premise: Given the Orwellian state of the world’s treatment of Israel (see: the U.N.’s grotesque Human Rights Council), fueled by a mix of classic anti-Semitism, near-total historical ignorance and reflexive sympathy for the ostensible Third World underdog, these eruptions featuring Palestinian casualties ultimately undermine support for Israel’s legitimacy and right to self-defense.

All plausible. Is that a good reason for Israel to telegenically kill 1,000 people? 

In a world of such Kafkaesque ethical inversions, the depravity of Hamas begins to make sense. This is a world in which the Munich massacre is a movie and the murder of Klinghoffer is an opera — both deeply sympathetic to the killers. This is a world in which the U.N. ignores humanity’s worst war criminals while incessantly condemning Israel, a state warred upon for 66 years that nonetheless goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid harming the very innocents its enemies use as shields.

It’s to the Israelis’ credit that amid all this madness they haven’t lost their moral scruples. Or their nerve. Those outside the region have the minimum obligation, therefore, to expose the madness and speak the truth. Rarely has it been so blindingly clear.

A good rule of thumb, for Christians especially, but also for Jews, Muslims, and everyone else - if your moral scruples and clear truth have led you to support the killing of 1,000 people - mostly civilians, although that matters less in God's eyes than our murderous species would like to think - then stop. 

Just stop. Be silent. Breathe deeply. Take a step back. Wipe off the chalkboard. Pray for mercy. Start again. Start with this: lo tirṣaḥ. La tiqatl. You shall not kill.

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

HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS

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.

AND ALSO, A GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF SOMETHING PRETTY HORRIBLE

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