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."

Monday, August 12, 2013

More Adventures in Muslim Apologetics

Courtesy of one of my Muslim Facebook acquaintances, I present to you a 20-minute-long video “proving” that the Jewish Bible predicts the coming of the prophet Muhammad – “by name!”

Too long, didn’t watch? The entire case is built around Song of Songs 5:16:

“His mouth is sweetness itself;
he is altogether lovely.
“This is my beloved, this is my friend,
daughters of Jerusalem.”

According to the video, the word “lovely” in the original Hebrew is actually “Muhammad.” Therefore, the Bible predicted Muhammad’s coming! Or, at least, the coming of someone who would be “altogether Muhammad.”

(If you’re wondering what the other 18 minutes of the video are, it’s mostly accusations of Christians and Jews hiding the “real” Bible. How clumsy of them to forget to remove clear prediction of Muhammad’s coming.)

In Arabic, the name “Muhammad” simply means “praiseworthy.” Given Hebrew and Arabic’s similar linguistic roots, it’s not surprising that there’s a Hebrew word – “mahammad” – with a similar meaning. (“Lovely, desired, charming.”)

It’s actually interesting that this common adjective doesn’t occur more often in the Jewish Bible.

I now have a mental picture of God looking into the future, and seeing Muslim evangelists scouring the Jewish Bible for any occurrence of the common adjective “praiseworthy,” and deciding that the one – the only – place that word will occur in scripture is in a passionate dialogue about sex between two people anticipating their wedding night.

Your move, apologists.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, explained (at least to myself)

I just finished reading The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, the indispensable guide to Anabaptist Christian pacifism.

Yoder's central argument is that Jesus' life and teachings are a model for how Christians should act in everyday life.

As my housemate Jordan said when I tried to sum it up that way, that seems like a pretty obvious, even cliche statement. Most of us who grew up during the "WWJD?" fad would probably agree. Cliche it may be, but that doesn't make it untrue. Nor does it mean we've fully grasped the implications.

Christendom's "traditional" understanding is that Jesus' primary mission was to die for the sins of mankind, and conquer death through his resurrection. It's a nifty bonus that he was around long enough to teach us, do some miracles, and choose the apostles. His was a unique mission, and while Jesus' teachings and actions are very important as a model for us, we aren't called to literally follow him to the cross. The cross was a spiritual event. The Son of God had to die to make peace between God and mankind with his blood, something no one else could do. Jesus had to live a perfect life, otherwise his sacrifice wouldn't have counted, but it's not the life for everyone. When the Gospels say Jesus "set his face towards Jerusalem," it means he was preparing himself to die. Jesus yelled at Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!" for suggesting that he shouldn't let himself die, and ordered Peter to put away his sword in the garden of Gethsemane, because he knew he had to be the sacrifice, and Peter was trying to prevent that. Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish religious leaders had no idea what they were really doing. They were essentially being used by God and Satan like puppets in a larger, unseen cosmic struggle. Jesus basically tricked them into killing him. He presumably could have allowed himself to be killed in the remote forests of Lebanon, and it would have been just as spiritually meaningful (with perhaps the drawback of fewer spectators.) Jesus had no political mission. He was a king, but his kingdom was not from this world.

Jesus' crucifixion, while of ultimate spiritual significance, had no political significance, and certainly isn't a model for how Christians should live their lives.

This is what I grew up believing, at least implicitly, and this is what, I think, most evangelicals and Catholics teach, at least implicitly.

John Howard Yoder rejects this interpretation.

For Yoder, not only is all of Jesus' life a model for Christians in politics, but the cross is its centerpiece. Jesus did come as a king, and all Christians are called to participate in his kingship. When Jesus began his ministry with a sermon in Nazareth, he read from Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

Then he said, "Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

According to Yoder, this was the announcement of a political program: Jesus wanted to reinstate the Jubilee, the ancient Jewish practice of annulling all debts, returning all property, and letting all the slaves go free every fifty years. This was a requirement of God's law, but not surprisingly, it was rarely applied.

Yoder views Jesus' entire ministry as a movement for the restoration of the jubilee. In occupied Judea, this call posed a direct challenge to the Roman authorities, the Herodian monarchy, and the religious leaders who collaborated with them.

Seen in this light, the crowds of tens of thousands of people following Jesus all across Galilee and Judea, repeatedly trying to make him king, following him into Jerusalem in a giant procession, where he proceeds to basically take over the temple, take on a rather different significance, no? Jesus "setting his face towards Jerusalem" meant he was embarking on a political mission.

Under this interpretation, Jesus didn't trick the Romans into killing him and thereby fulfilling God's sacrificial purpose. The Romans had no choice but to kill him. He posed a huge threat to their rule.

However, Jesus refused to marshal his followers into an armed challenge to Rome and the Sanhedrin. He combined his demands for political justice with the universal love of God, a love that ruled out killing his enemies, even in self-defense. Jesus orders Peter to put away his sword because killing is wrong, not because Peter's about to unwittingly screw up God's plan of redemption.

Rather than adopt Rome's tactics and use their own violence against them, Jesus confronts the powers for their corruption, oppression and injustice, and then lets himself die at their hands, rather than call on armies of angels to smite them down.

Jesus' living a perfect life and Jesus' self-sacrifice aren't separate things. They're the same thing. The only way to be a witness for justice and peace in 1st-century Judea would inevitably result in execution. So Jesus did it, and through his resurrection, proved that the power of this world and its violent men is meaningless.

Therefore, Jesus' call to his followers to "pick up your cross and follow me" is in part a political call. We are to struggle against the injustices of the world's fallen political systems, even if it costs us our lives - but we are not to do so by using the devil's methods. To the crowd he had fled from when they tried to make him king by force, Jesus says, "You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning." (John 6:15, 8:44) To his own followers, Jesus says, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:44).

I hope I've explained Yoder's thesis well. (Obviously he has a lot more to say than this.) I'm not sure to what degree I accept it. On the one hand, I think it coheres very well. It makes more sense of Jesus' ministry than the traditional model. It unites the human and divine missions of Jesus into one. And it reaffirms the importance of human life and human history to God. If Yoder is right, the oppressive politics of Judea were not a sideshow to him when he lived with us. It follows that oppression is not a sideshow to him now.

But I have a lot of unresolved questions. Well, two, I guess:

1) Doesn't the Bible pretty clearly teach that Jesus eventually will come with angel armies to defeat the wicked? If so, there seems to still be a division between the ethics of God and the ethics of man.

2) What tactics are acceptable to God in our struggle for justice? May we try to reform state institutions that inherently depend on violence? May we work through political parties and elected officials? Or should we abandon state politics altogether, in favor of a community that tries to embody God's justice in a fallen world?

Yoder's argumentation style is different from every other theology book I've read. With some exceptions, he doesn't spend long pages poring over select passages and proving his interpretation of them. Instead, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Jesus' ministry, placing almost every event and conversation into a political context. On the one hand, I appreciate the holistic-ness of this approach. On the other, I feel a little bit like I've been taken for a ride. I'm not sure whether I agree with him or not (though I want to); the book didn't give me time to examine any of the issues he raises in-depth. I suppose I could do it by myself, but I also work full-time, you guys.

So let me know: if you've read John Howard Yoder, what do you think of his work? If you haven't, what do you think of his ideas as I've laid them out here? And if you don't care to get that specific, what do you think about pacifism generally?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Preliminary Thoughts on Egypt's Coup/Revolution/Crazytime

Wait.  What Just Happened?

Here's how I see it, based on what I've read and conversations with Egyptian people somewhat in-the-know.

In January 2011, massive popular demonstrations throughout Egypt convinced the Egyptian military that continuing to rule Egypt through Hosni Mubarak was not a viable option.  They forced him to step down, and promised democratic elections.

At the same time, they were furiously negotiating with the largest, most organized opposition group in Egypt - the Muslim Brotherhood.  The negotiations resulted in a deal: the military would aid the Muslim Brotherhood in its rise to power, and the Brotherhood would respect the military's autonomy and considerable economic interests.  The military rulers of Egypt would keep their villas, and the Brotherhood would take power.

The Brotherhood won in relatively free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012.  The yearlong rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's president Mohammad Morsi was characterized by economic tailspin, a violent crime rate that tripled, the disintegration of police authority in many parts of the country, vicious attacks on Christians and Shia Muslims, rampant sexual violence against women, and political violence from the Muslim Brotherhood's armed factions against its opponents.

Mohammad Morsi wrote the grim epitaph of his stunningly incompetent, tone-deaf, evil presidency last month, when he appointed a former terrorist responsible for massacring scores of foreigners and Egyptians in Luxor governor of Luxor province.

No, for real.  That happened.

Christians, liberal Muslims, and other opponents of the Brotherhood organized a campaign called "tamarod," or "rebellion," and called for massive anti-Morsi rallies on June 30, the one-year anniversary of Morsi's inauguration as president.  They gathered some 22 million signatures on a petition calling for his removal and for new elections.  (Morsi won the election with slightly more than 13 million votes.)

Driven by desperation at the course the new Egypt was taking, these protests may well have been the largest in world history. (I've heard the number 33 million bandied about, but who can say?) After a day of this, the military decided that Morsi was no longer a reliable protector of their portion.  They gave him - with a straight face - 48 hours to "meet the people's demands." Morsi went on TV and gave a desperate speech, yelling over and over again, "I am the president of Egypt!," forgetting that:

Morsi was unable to resolve all of Egypt's political problems in 48 hours, and the military threw him out.


Tahrir Square in Cairo.

What Will Happen Now?

The Facebook page NOT A COUP currently has over 12,000 likes.  The protestors are insisting that this is a popular revolution, not a military coup.

The popular protests triggered the chain of events that led to Morsi's fall, to be sure.  But there's a reason the Egyptian popular revolution has now displaced two presidents, while the Syrian popular revolution has devolved into a horrific war.  In both cases, the military's decisions were the driving factor.  Syria's Alawite-dominated military has thrown in its lot with their president.  The Egyptian military is willing to chuck their president when necessary.

What it isn't willing to do is let go of its autonomy and economic power.

My guess is that the Egyptian military will now try to install another president - through popular elections, no doubt - who has the support of the people, but will protect the military's interests.

(They may also move to cement a military dictatorship.  See below.)

Because the Egyptian military is terrible (massacring peaceful Christian protestors and such), the new president will probably be a terrible person.  But terrible people can still guarantee a modicum of prosperity and peace. (See, the Great, Cyrus, and Obama, Barack.) That's not what worries me.

What worries me is: what is the Muslim Brotherhood going to do now?

After 80 some years of state persecution, they are finally given the chance to participate in a free presidential election, and they win, fair and square.  And now, that president has been overthrown.

Egypt's Islamists have engaged in armed resistance against the government before.  When the Algerian military overthrew a freely-elected Islamist president in 1991, it triggered a ten-year civil war in which 200,000 people died.

And now Egypt is surrounded by chaotic countries full of loose weapons and Islamist militias that are better-connected and more motivated than they've ever been. (Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Mali.)

"A message to the church of Egypt, from an Egyptian Muslim: if you conspire  to bring Morsi down, that will be another matter. [T]here are red lines—and our red line is the legitimacy of Dr. Mohammad Morsi. Whoever splashes water on it, we will splash blood on him."

- Safwat Hegazy, Muslim Brotherhood cleric, December 2012

“Measures announced by the armed forces’ leadership represent a full coup categorically rejected by all the free men of our nation."

- Dr. Mohammad Morsi, July 3, 2013

Might Egypt become the eleventh Arab country to have a post-independence civil war?  And might that give the military just the excuse it needs to put itself in power again - and permanently?

Buckle up, kids.  This is gunna suck.

Isn't there a chance that this is a genuinely democratic moment that will lead to a brighter future for the people of Egypt?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

U.S. Sending Weapons to Syrian Rebels: A Grief-Stricken Attempt at Analysis

Hello America.

Can we talk about what just happened?

Great, thanks.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama announced that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime was a "red line" that would "change his calculus" in deciding how to intervene in Syria.

A month and a half ago, after evidence of small-scale chemical weapons use in Syria apparently became impossible to deny, the White House admitted that:
"Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria... Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making ..."
Translation: We're pretty sure, but not sure enough to do anything about it.

Last week, the Assad regime retook the strategic town of Qusayr in western Syria from the rebels, with the help of Hezbollah fighters.  Thousands of Hezbollah fighters have entered Syria from Lebanon to fight for the regime, and regime forces are heading north to Aleppo to retake Syria's largest city once and for all.

As Samuel L. Jackson said in Quentin Taratino's most recent film, "Lo and behold!  Out of nowhere!" the administration now concludes that all the evidence is in on chemical weapons in Syria:
Today, we are providing an updated version of our assessment to Congress and to the public.  ...Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.
So said Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security adviser, in a statement today.

Reuters is reporting that Obama has now authorized direct weapons transfers to the Syrian rebels.

Do not believe for a second that this decision is based on the Syrian government's chemical weapons use - which is responsible for less than a fifth of one percent of the casualties in this war.

This decision came about because the Assad regime, with the help of Hezbollah, gained the upper hand.

Our government was only to happy to watch Syrians dying en masse, as long as its enemies were losing.  Now its enemies are winning, and our government aims to correct the problem by sending weapons to its enemies' enemies, including groups affiliated with al Qaeda, who have pledged to cleanse - and are cleansing - Syria of its non-Sunni Muslim population.  60 Shiite Muslims were massacred in eastern Syria on Tuesday.

There's really nothing else to say.  I feel like I'm watching a train wreck from a mile away.  The human catastrophe that's approaching is so obvious, and I can't do anything to stop it.

Please pray for Syria.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Week in God's Country

In Lebanon, the land rises steadily from the coast, a series of green mountains racing each other east towards a pinnacle in the center of the country.  At Harissa, where an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the country, I can peer down into the Christian coastal town of Jounieh, south along the coast to Beirut, the capital, and up the coast all the way to Byblos.  The Mediterranean Sea stretches out before me for long miles, seeming almost to rise into the distance like another mountain.  While it is bright and sunny where I stand, out over the sea, layers of clouds obscure the horizon, gray near the sea and dark black above.  A gigantic waterspout dips out of the cloud layer, skirts the surface of the sea, and retreats back into the firmament without making a sound.

If a multitude of press reports are to be believed, farther north up the coast, past Byblos, past Tripoli, in the Syrian town of Baniyas, pro-government militias are going “house to house, killing entire families and smashing men’s heads with concrete blocks.”

This trip to Beirut with Christian Solidarity International, the human rights group I work for, was my first visit to the Middle East since I left Syria in May 2011, when the country’s burgeoning anti-government uprising had claimed “only” a few hundred lives, and all of Syria’s main cities were intact.

On the coast of Lebanon, there are few tangible signs of the carnage taking place on the other side of the mountains.  The schools are open, the streets are clogged with traffic, and construction is booming. 

But you cannot avoid Syria’s war in Lebanon.  Already, 500,000 people have flooded into Lebanon from Syria to escape the fighting.  This, in a country of four million.

Among the refugees are two families I know from my time in Damascus.  On this trip, I get to see them again.  It is the greatest encouragement I’ve had in a while.  It proves to me that my time in Syria wasn’t a dream, and that this terrible war hasn’t destroyed everything I knew there.  Life is going on, at least for these people.

The first is an Iraqi Christian family who fled to Syria from Baghdad when their father was kidnapped by al Qaeda in 2007. “I think I might be the only Iraqi kidnapping victim who was released,” he tells me.

His captors tortured him for four days, and called his wife, telling her that she would have to pay $200,000 to get him back.  This, they said, would be their payment for living as Christians in a Muslim country.

My friend told them that they should go ahead and kill him, because “this is the short life, and the long life is still ahead.  But when we stand together before God, I will get my rights from you and your children.”

At last, the kidnappers let my friend go.  They said, “You can live, but we will take your house.  That will be your payment.”

The family fled to Syria after that, as did close to a million other Iraqi Christians fearing abductions, church attacks and massacres.  Iraq's pre-U.S. invasion Christian population was 1.4 million.  My friends settled in a Christian neighborhood of Damascus called Jaramana.  They tell me that it is Jaramana, and Syria, that they remember most fondly.

Starting last August, Jaramana was rocked by several huge car bomb attacks, and countless smaller explosions, despite its lack of military targets.  Scores of civilians were massacred.  My friends decided to leave after the first one.  Their youngest son, just 9, was suffering from psychological trauma, and the father was spooked by the large numbers of armed men walking the streets. “People knew me in Iraq, and I was still kidnapped,” he tells me. “Anyone could have kidnapped me there.  I decided not to wait.”     

I ask their son what he remembers from Iraq.  He remembers their house, and the giant toy car he had, and that his grandma’s house was right next door, and she would call to him and his brothers through the window whenever she made sweets.

The family now lives in a rough-and-tumble Christian neighborhood in Beirut.  The main street is dominated by an outpost of the Christian Lebanese Forces Militia, which announces its presence with a large wooden cross and two dozen posters of Pierre Amin Gemayal, a Christian anti-Syrian politician who was assassinated seven years ago.

The family is not registered with the Lebanese government.  The father apologizes for not seeing me off to the airport when I leave Lebanon; he doesn’t want to risk any contact with military or police personnel, who might deport them back to Iraq.

My friend, being a good host, tries to find a taxi for me to the airport, but after absorbing a million refugees from Palestine and Syria, the Lebanese have become perhaps understandably (if not justifiably) hostile to foreigners.  The cab drivers hear my friend's Iraqi accent, and give him terrible prices.  He sarcastically shouts "Shokran!" (thank you!) and walks away from each one.  One man drives after him, offering to bring his price down, but my friend will have none of it. "I don't deal with bastards," he tells me.

"Michael" was 15 when I last saw him in Damascus.  We agree to meet at an ancient church along the Dog River, where millennia of invading armies, starting with the ancient Egyptians, have carved their names into a cliffside as they passed through Lebanon.

Michael is taller now, and his voice is deeper, but he's still the thoroughly kind, gentle-hearted, completely sincere young man I remember being so out of place among his coarse classmates.  Sometimes he jokes: "I used to like the color orange, but General Aoun ruined it for me." Sometimes he is deadly serious. "I hate Lebanon," he tells me as we sit on the rocky shorefront, the glistening sea in front of us, the great peninsula of Beirut to our left, the beautiful green hills of Mount Lebanon to our backs. "I want to leave.  I want to go anywhere else but here and Syria."

Michael's family is from Aleppo, from a Christian neighborhood that became a frontline in the battle between regime forces and rebels.  Michael never saw the fighting, but he heard the explosions and felt the high-rise where he and his family lived shake.  After four days without electricity or water, they decided to leave for Turkey.  Their only real scare was when they saw the "terrorist" (rebel) flag flying in a town their bus was passing through, and realized the rebels had seized it.  Men with large guns approached the bus before their commander realized they were just refugees, and waved them through after checking their ID cards.  Michael's older brother was asleep at the time, and his nervous mother told the guards he didn't have an ID card.  Amazingly, the guards accepted this preposterous story. "They are so much stupid!" Michael's brother tells me, laughing.

I want to see where he's living now, so Michael takes me by bus high up into the mountains, a third of the way to the Syrian border, to a region dotted by churches and statues of a sword-wielding prophet Elijah.  Michael lives with his older brother and older sister in a flat in a dank, cold apartment building with a breathtaking view of a green valley stretching all the way down to the sea.  Electricity and water are only on for a few hours a day.  Black, angry mold grows on all the walls.  I'm frightened by it, but I don't know how to tell them that.

It's safe here, he and his older brother explain, because it's a Christian area, and the Christian Lebanese know what it's like to be at war with Muslims, so they are taking care of Christians who come from Syria.  Michael, his older brother and his older sister all have jobs - a rarity for refugees in Lebanon.  But Michael has had to drop out of school, because the Lebanese curriculum is too French-centric.  Michael's English is beautiful, but French, with its all of 110 million native speakers, is keeping him from getting an education.

Michael's parents, meanwhile, have returned to Aleppo to continue their jobs in government banks while their younger son completes his crucial 9th grade year at his school there.  Regime forces have decided to set up a military outpost right next to the school, which means the area is often the scene of fighting.

I also meet with some Syrian Christian refugees with my boss, as part of our efforts to find ways to help Christians fleeing the conflict.  One of them, "Basel," arrives at the monastery before my boss comes down from his room.  I introduce myself to him, and we exchange pleasantries in Arabic. "Where are you from?" he asks. 

"I'm from America," I respond.

Immediately, Basel tenses up. "What are your goals here?" he asks.

Later, after trust has been won, he confides in me that I made him nervous when I told him my nationality.  From the perspective of Syrian Christians, America's role in their country's civil war is so destructive that merely meeting an American inspires fear.  But after speaking with me and my boss for a few hours, Basel's natural Syrian hospitality takes over again, and he insists that I visit his temporary home for tea and cookies (which I do.)

Basel is from Homs.  He provides me with a straightforward map of the conflict.  For the first six months of the uprising, the revolution was largely peaceful, with only light arms being used on occasion.  After the sustained government violence against protestors, the revolutionaries began to arm themselves, and Islamic fighters flooded into the country to join the fight.  The Christian neighborhood of Hamidiyye in Homs became a frontline in the fighting, and most of the Christians fled.  Their homes were subsequently occupied by the rebels, who refused to allow them to return.  Today, the entire neighborhood has been laid waste in the fighting.

Basel and his friends tell me that many Syrian Christian men, including them, have sought refuge in Lebanon, not because the conflict directly threatened them, but because the Syrian government has begun selectively drafting Christian men into the army.  Unlike Muslims, the reasoning goes, Christians can be counted on not to defect and join the rebels.  The government is also organizing Christians and other religious minorities threatened by Islamist rebels into a "national defense army," a network of local militias loyal to the government.

Michael's brother also tells me that the government has been handing out weapons to Christians in Aleppo, and that some have accepted them.  The church, however, opposes this.  Michael's family is Orthodox, and his brother tells me that the Orthodox Church forbids carrying weapons, even for self-defense. "Killing is killing," he says.

This is a hard word, and not all Middle Eastern Christians can accept it.  During the 19th century, tens of thousands of Lebanese Christians were massacred by Muslims and Druze, and during World War I, 120,000 Lebanese died in a famine perpetuated by the Ottoman Muslim rulers of Lebanon.  The French carved out Lebanon as a safe space for Christians in the region, much as the British helped the Zionists establish Palestine as a safe haven for world Jewry.  When Lebanon's growing Muslim population, fueled by an influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Palestinian refugees, tried to overturn this arrangement, Lebanon's Christian government and militia movements responded with extreme violence.

The civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990, featured invasions from Israel, Syria, and the U.S., and killed nearly 120,000 people.  Both sides committed horrendous atrocities: Christians point to the village of Damour, where Palestinian militiamen massacred the Christian population, and Muslims point to Sabra and Chatila, Palestinian refugee camps where Christian militias conducted a similar massacre seven years later, after the assassination of Lebanon's Christian president-elect.

Beirut, once known as the "Paris of the Middle East," was a center of the civil war's violence.  Today, Beirut is running from that history.  Scores of giant construction cranes dot the skyline, busily building depressingly-modern hotels and shopping malls on the ruins of millennia of history wiped out in the war.  I have two encounters with the Lebanese military in Beirut while walking about on my free day.  The first comes when I take a picture of the Holiday Inn, a giant structure completed just before the civil war started which soon became a prime sniping post.  Its empty, bombed-out hulk still looms over the city.  The soldiers scold me for taking a picture of it.  This is forbidden.

The second comes when I try to find Beirut's last surviving Jewish synagogue, whose location is marked in my tourist handbook.  I arrive at the entrance to the road the synagogue is located on, only to find it blocked by a gate and an Army checkpoint. "Can I walk this way?" I ask one of the soldiers. "No, it is closed," comes the curt reply. "What are you looking for?"

"Oh nothing."

Apparently the one thing a country divided between Christians, Sunnis and Shiites can't handle is a publicly-accessible synagogue.

Despite this vigilance, the leftovers of the war are impossible to miss.  The Green Line, which separated Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut, is a massive wasteland in the heart of an otherwise packed metropolis.  The buildings along the Green Line that were destroyed in the fighting have been bulldozed, but nothing has yet taken their place.  The headquarters of the Christian Phalange party, set in a beautiful 19th-century French mansion on the east border of the Green Line, are completely surrounded by giant cement blast walls, giving the whole mansion the appearance of a giant cement box.  The rival militias, still active, still armed, mark their territory with posters, flags and graffiti.  Do you see green cedar trees, red crosses, posters of Pierre Gemayal, graffiti that reads "Fuck Turkey"?  You must be in a Christian neighborhood.  Green flags, posters of Mousa Sadr or Hassan Nasrallah, pictures of the Dome of the Rock?  Shiite terrority.  Hammers, sickles and mustachioed men?  A Communist neighborhood.  "There is no god but God" in white Arabic letters on black background?  Hide.

Nearly everyone I speak to is convinced that war is coming to Lebanon again.  The country's balance of power is too tenuous, and the Syrian conflict too overwhelming.  The same sectarian groupings that define the Syrian war - Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Alawite, Druze - exist in Lebanon, and already, Lebanese militias are crossing the border to fight for their respective allies.  Violent clashes between Sunni, Shiite and Alawite forces have already taken place in Beirut and Tripoli.  The flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon helped trigger the last civil war.  500,000 Syrian refugees have already entered Lebanon, and if Syria's Sunni rebels take power in the Alawite heartland north of Lebanon, that number could increase by millions as Alawites flee the takeover. "Lebanon is close to the breaking point," the director of a Christian NGO in Beirut tells me.

But the cause of the coming new Lebanon war could be darker than a mere refugee influx.  Al Qaeda and like-minded Salafist groups are on the rise across the region.  Once viewed as a collection of psychopaths bringing destruction on the whole Muslim world, Al Qaeda has now become the leading name in Sunni Arab nationalism from Iraq to Lebanon.  In Iraq, Al Qaeda is the leader of the resistance against the near-dictatorship of the U.S.-installed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  In Syria, Al Qaeda's affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra is by far the most effective and (among Sunnis) most popular rebel group fighting the Alawite regime.  In Lebanon, the al Qaeda flag has begun making appearances at Sunni anti-government protests.

Lebanon's peace, when it has existed, has always been rooted in a balance of power between Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.  They comprise relatively equal proportions of the population, and none can dominate the other.  Cooperation is essential to governance.

If Lebanon is considered together with Syria, however - as most Muslims consider them - Sunnis comprise an overwhelming majority in the region.  If Sunni Salafist rebels succeed in overthrowing the Syrian regime, is it believable that they will stop there, and respect the borders drawn up by Christian imperialists 100 years ago?  Jubhat al-Nusra has already proclaimed the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." How hard would it be to add Lebanon to that list?

As all the Syrian Christians we speak to on this trip recount, the slogan, "Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave!" has been heard chanted in the streets of Syria since the earliest days of the revolution.  As chilling as it is, it also strikes me as deeply disingenuous.  Christians to Beirut?  Guys, we’ve been over this.  120,000 people died in the 1980s over the question of whether or not the Christians could have Beirut all to themselves – and the answer you settled on was a decided no.

This is Lebanon today - a heartbreakingly beautiful country, where all you can see in every direction is signs of war past and the war to come.  "If Lebanon is in danger, we will be there," proclaims a giant poster of Pierre Amine Gemayal hanging on the side of the Phalange bunker.  Pierre has been dead now for seven years.

"The people of this region have good hearts, but that's not enough," a Syrian Christian nun who's taking care of 400 Christian refugee families on the Syrian coast tells me. "Their minds must be changed as well."

What can we do when we see a man-made disaster approaching so clearly, and so unavoidably?

We pray.  We feed the hungry and homeless.  We preach the gospel of peace and justice to our neighbors and our government.

And we wait.
Christian Solidarity International is providing aid to displaced and suffering Christians inside Syria, where the church is being targeted for religious cleansing by Islamic extremists.  You can donate to these efforts at our website: