Archive for September, 2007

Built on Iraq

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” Matt 7:22-25

Two thousand years ago Jesus predicted that there would be people who would claim to be acting in His name, but in fact had no idea what He was talking about.

The litmus test of fidelity and understanding is the works. If you hear AND do, then you have built your house on a rock.

What brings this thought to mind is the curious reaction around the world to Prime Minister Ahmadinejad’s visit to the United States. Here in the US we viewed him as a blustering clown. He was nearly hooted off the stage when he claimed that there are no homosexuals in Iran. He questioned the holocaust. He defended his country’s right to develop nuclear weapons.

In the Muslim world, however, he was viewed as hero. He stood up to the West in general and the United States in particular. The harsh treatment he received at the hands of Columbia President Lee Bollinger upset Muslim sensibilities regarding the treatment of guests and only confirmed that we are a boorish and uncultured people.

I suspect that there is a similar dichotomy regarding our own President. There are many in this country who feel that he has done an excellent job in protecting us and promoting our interests abroad. The Muslim world views him, though, in much the same way that we view Ahmadinejad – a dangerous fool.

So which house is built on the rock?

At the moment, I would say neither.

Ahmadinejad’s claims regarding the holocaust have root in the Arab rejection of Israel as a state. Israel was created after WWII by the Allies in reaction to the holocaust. The problem was that this state was created at the expense of the Palestinians. Questioning the holocaust is code for supporting the Palestinians and questioning the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Arabs understand this. American’s don’t.

Ahmadinejad’s claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran is based on his view that Iran is a devout Muslim nation and that Islam prohibits homosexuality. How different is that from Mr. Bush’s view that the US is a Christian nation and that the Bible prohibits homosexuality? Mr. Bush doesn’t claim that there aren’t homosexuals in this country, he just wants to label them as sinners so he can justify restricting their rights to marry, adopt, or serve in the military.

We think that Ahmadinejad is fanatical because he claims Iran has the right to develop a nuclear bomb. What we don’t say is that we have already helped Israel develop a nuclear weapon. Clearly we felt threatened enough when Russia put missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons in Cuba to go the brink of nuclear war with Russia. Why is Iran’s reaction to Israel so hard to understand? Also Iran is looking at the US, who claimed that Iran was part of an axis of evil, building what appear to be permanent military bases on its borders.

We don’t trust that Iran will use it’s nuclear power responsibly, and there is no indication that they will. However, the US is the only country who has actually used nuclear weapons. That’s what the Arab world sees.

Bush holds up violated UN resolutions as legal foundation for invading Iraq. Arabs look at all of the UN resolutions condemning Israel which the US has unilaterally blocked and questions our integrity.

Bush talks about democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Arabs look at Abu Ghraib and see only the eleven who appeared in the photos being convicted with sentences ranging from community service to 10 years in jail.

Arabs also look at the massacre at Haditha where 24 Iraqi civilians were killed including children shot in the head. They hear of our outrage and shock, but they see charges being dropped against all but one of the marines involved. In this case also charges are starting to be dropped against the officers supposed to be responsible for these men.

I submit that both our country and Iraq have leaders who have lost their way. The difference is that we have an opportunity to change that direction by selecting a new leader and rejecting the policies of the old. We have an opportunity to demonstrate that we expect our leaders to be accountable for their actions. We have also an opportunity to insist that our leaders are doers of the word, not just speakers.

I would also go further and assert that as long as we are in Iraq we will not be able to claim any high moral ground in discussions with any other country whether they are in the Middle East, Indonesia, or Africa.

The consequences of inaction for us and Iraq are clear.

“And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Matt 7: 26-27

People of the Book

Monday, September 24th, 2007

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Matt 5:44-45 

This is Jesus at His most radical and challenging.  It isn’t enough to love our neighbors as ourselves. We also have to love our enemies, those that actually seek to do us harm.  It is clearly only God’s job to figure out who is evil and who is good.  It is our job to be grateful to those we fear or hate because they are the ones who help us discover our bias and weakness.  If we strive to be perfect, this is how we’re going to get there. 

As far as our attitude to Muslims is concerned, we have a long way to go. 

I read a disturbing letter to the editor in the Toledo Blade.  It was in response to an column by a Toledo Muslim regarding the Christian myopia which seems to affect our foreign policy and re-enforce the notion that our Christian nation is really out to defeat Islam rather than just responding to attacks from bin Laden. 

There is a frightening ignorance in this country of Islam.  It is this ignorance which some politicians and fundamentalists have used to demonize all Muslims.  It is also this ignorance which causes fear in those who distrust what they don’t know.  This is just as wrong as when we try to blame illegal immigrants, African Americans, Japanese, Germans, Jews, or the Irish for all our problems. 

Islam is a beautiful religion of devotion and commitment.  If more Christians could get past their pride and self-righteousness, they would find this out on their own.  Islam means surrender.  Devout Muslims surrender their life to God in ways that Christians only imagine.  The daily prayer and prostration to Jerusalem is part of this process of demonstrating obedience as well as piety.  The only analogy I can come up with in Christianity is kneeling, but it is so much more than that.  I can tell you with no need to check the statistics, that there are way more Muslims on their knees in prayer every day than Christians, yet there is still the sense in this country that Muslims are primitive and violent. 

Much has been made of the position of women in some Muslim societies.  The reality is that both the Koran and the Bible have been used to subjugate women.  There are many Christian religions where women have an institutionalized subservient role.  There are also modern Muslim countries where women participate in all aspects of the economy in much the same ways as they do in this country.  I would submit that this is a cultural issue and not a religious one.   

Detroit has a large Muslim population.  Some cities and schools responding to that demand have added features to public facilities to wash hands and feet in preparation for prayer.  In my mind this is no different than adding changing tables or handicapped facilities to rest rooms.  It is the sort of loving response to individual needs that one would expect from a open free society.  It’s also a practical solution to the challenges posed by Muslims trying to use public sinks for this purpose.  Instead conservatives have latched onto this as just another example of soft-headed liberalism.  The thought goes, “How can we be accommodating Muslims in this country when we are waging a war against them in the Middle East?” or “Why are we spending money to make it easier for Muslims to pray when we can’t spend money to support Christian prayer in public schools?”

The Koran, on the other hand, teaches tolerance and respect for all of the world’s religions.  That respect includes prohibiting evangelizing those who already have committed to another religion.  Those that come to Islam, have to come of their own free will.  The Koran has a wonderful term for Jews and Christians.  We are “People of the Book”.  They have much more respect for the Bible than we do the Koran.  They view us brothers and sisters because we have the same father.  

Only argue with the People of the Book in the kindest way — except in the case of those of them who do wrong — saying, “We have faith in what has been sent down to us and what was sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and we submit to Him” (29:46).

The Koran also counsels against aggression of any sort.  Muslims are instructed to strike only after they have been struck.  Only when they are so threatened that their life may be at risk do they have the choice of being aggressive.  Then they are encouraged to fight whole heartedly.  When the opponent surrenders, however, Muslims are obliged to accept whatever terms are offered without negotiation, embrace their enemy, and seek as quickly as possible a return to peaceful existence. 

These basic Muslim teachings have obviously been perverted by fundamentalism.  So has Christianity.  All of the worlds great religions grew in response to violence and found their voice in offering people an alternative to the endless cycle of revenge and retaliation.  It was their intent to remove violence from society.  Fundamentalism, however, seeks to distort these teachings and divides the world between believers and non-believers.  This view justifies violence in the misguided cause of defending the faith.   

Just as no one person speaks for all Christians, no one person speaks for all Muslims.  One of the common myths is that Muslims have not condemned the excesses of extremism in their religion.  Just as Christian leaders have condemned violence at abortion clinics and gay bars, muslim leaders around the world have condemned the violence directed at the United Stated by bin Laden inspired forces.  

The sooner that we condemn this notion that we are engaged in a conflict between good and evil or Christianity and Islam, the sooner that we will be able to embrace the notion that the Koran and the Bible provide all of the guidance we need to solve this conflict.  All we are lacking is leaders with the humility and obedience to actually follow the teachings in the books they claim to defend.   

It may well be that God will restore the love between you and those of them who are now your enemies. God is All-Powerful. God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful (60:7).

Follow the Money

Friday, September 21st, 2007

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.” James 5:1-2

The Bible is filled with stories about those who lost their way and succumb to the temptations of material wealth.

We have a modern example in Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were able to unravel the threads of the Watergate cover-up by following the money. That remains good advice today. Regardless of what people say, how they spend their money is one of the most reliable indicators of what people are really thinking.

There is a wonderful cognitive dissonance in this country between the material and the spiritual. Though we idolize the rich, we hold our government to a higher standard. We expect our government to operate for the good of all the people, not just the rich. We punish those elected officials who use their office for personal gain. The majority of Americans, for example, would have rejected a plan to invade Iraq for oil regardless of how much money it could have saved us at the pumps. Unfortunately as all other excuses fall away, oil remains the one consistent element in the Iraq story.

Just so that we are all on the same page, our current stated strategy in Iraq is to use our military to suppress the insurgency long enough for the Iraq government to build the sorts of coalitions necessary to effectively govern the country. One of the key benchmarks of that coalition is an oil revenue sharing agreement. The main oil producing regions are in the south (Shia) and the north (Kurds).

Last week Paul Krugman published a column describing how Hunt Oil just signed an oil deal directly with the regional Kurdish government in the north of Iraq rather than the national government in Baghdad.

The implications are obvious. It is a clear signal to the Kurd and Shia factions in Iraq that they don’t have to make a deal with the Sunni’s in Baghdad. They can make their deals directly and not have to give up anything to any other region or ethic group.

When asked about that deal, President Bush appeared a little flustered and said it was news to him.

Now on the surface you might take the President at his word. Some rogue entrepreneur must be out there putting his own interests ahead of US policy. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. The person who signed this deal with Kurdistan is Ray Hunt. Mr. Hunt has been a significant financial supporter and close political ally of George Bush. He joined the Halliburton board when Dick Cheney was CEO. In 2001 President Bush appointed Mr. Hunt to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board where he had access to most all of the same briefings and classified intelligence as the President and Congress.

It is still hard to believe. Here is a person that Bush brought into the government. He knows what the government strategy is and what his role is in that strategy. He knew what he was doing. He is not interested in embarrassing Mr. Bush. He also probably required at least some level of government approval, if not also government assistance, before the deal could be signed. Do you think for a moment that Ray Hunt would even consider this move without first talking it over with Mr. Bush and getting his approval too? I don’t think so either.

What this deal says is that the Iraqis are not the only ones preparing for partitioning the country. If you follow the money, all the talk about staying until the mission is done and victory as the only plan is just that – talk. The smart money is clearly being placed on the country being partitioned, the Kurds emerging as the most stable of those regions, AND the Americans protecting the Kurds from any attack from any of its neighbors.

Former Fed Chairman and staunch Republican Alan Greenspan just published a book that said the real reason we invaded Iraq was oil. He lobbied for the war because of his fear that Iraq under Saddam would seek to control a vital waterway through which much of the Middle East’s oil flows.

The documented neocon plan for remaking Iraq in our image and likeness was all about securing a cheap friendly source for Mideast Oil. They even told us that oil revenue would finance Iraq reconstruction. In the wake of that failed plan, when you follow the money today, it is says loud and clear that it is still all about oil even as we prepare to leave.

Fortunately those who sow deceit always eventually reap what they sow.

Sounding Brass

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” I Cor 13:1

When I heard the President speak tonight, this bible quote came to mind. I have no doubt that he is sincere, but sincerity without love (charity) is hollow and self serving.

The President has confirmed in his speech tonight what we already knew. We are going to have pretty much the same number of troops in Iraq through the end of his Presidency as we had prior to the surge – whether we like it or not. What we also can surmise from the Democrats is that this is just fine with them. They would like to have this issue to run on in November, 2008.

As many have already said, the troop withdrawals are just a bit of kabuki theatre. We have to bring those troops home because we have already extended their deployments in order to create the troop surge. So whether things were getting better or not, they would be coming home.

It is certainly good news for those that are coming home and all of our prayers go with them for their safe return.

It is also good news for those areas of Iraq who are experiencing a short respite from the fighting.

As far as the strategy is concerned, there is really not a whole lot there.

What is happening on the ground is that Iraq is partitioning itself and preparing for the coming civil war. There are very few multi-ethnic areas of the country left. We and the British are helping in that process by turning over control to the local militias, paying the local leaders for their cooperation, and in some cases actually arming them. We are also bringing back those who were in positions of power during Saddam’s government because they know how to run the country. Unfortunately they also are hated by the Shia. If you are interested in more insight on this prediction, listen to the interview of Tom Ricks on Fresh Air. He has been one of the few who has been consistently right in predicting what is going to happen next.

The reason why the Iraq government hasn’t made much progress is because there is no progress to be made. They are positioning themselves for the day when the real fighting begins and everything else is just lip service to attempt to get the most money out us before we leave.

That fighting will begin sometime in 2009 as the new Democratic president begins to draw down our troops to a level where we can no longer effectively keep the factions apart. When the real fighting starts, we will be forced to remove the rest of our troops to keep them out of harms way. We will likely try to keep troops in the region in order to prevent the conflict from spreading, but our influence at that time will depend on what is going on in Iran, Syria, and Israel.  Since Israel just bombed Syria, it’s not looking real good for the home team right now.

Though this may seem frightening enough, what is really frightening is the suggestion that President Bush may also launch a strike against Iran before he leaves office. I know it sounds crazy, but there was a report to day of an Iranian supplied missile landing in the Green Zone in Baghdad. That’s the same sort of PR that led up the original invasion of Iraq. What would happen after that hit the fan is anyone’s guess.

Prayer is always an effective tool when faced with circumstances as bleak and hopeless as these seem. It is comforting to know that God is the only wisdom and power and that all creation including world leaders reflect that wisdom as part of their spiritual nature. That’s at least what I’m working on these days.

Strength in Numbers

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

“And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do? And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” II King 6:15-17

This is a great bible story. The king of Syria was trying to destroy Israel. But every time he felt he had the Jewish army cornered, they escaped. In his frustration, he asked his advisors to find out who the spy was in his midst because that was the only explanation he could come up with for the uncanny ability of Jews to anticipate his every move. What his advisors discovered is that the Jewish generals were depending on the advice of Elisha, who prayed to God for guidance. The Syrian king figured he could fix this problem in a hurry and sent an elite group of warriors to surround this Elisha guy and kill him. When Elisha’s servant woke to find them surrounded, he was concerned for his life. Elisha, however, knew that there was no material power that could oppose the spiritual power that protected him and demonstrated that to his fearful servant. Ultimately the powerful Syrian army was defeated.

Six years after the attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington, we’re in a similar situation. Unfortunately we seem to be in the role of the King of Syria with bin Laden in the role of Elisha.

I don’t want this to turn into a rant on God visiting punishment on sinners. That’s not the way that I look at the world.

What I do see, however, is that our leaders have used the fear of another attack to manipulate the American people into viewing ourselves as vulnerable. What that fear specifically suggests is that our values and our freedoms are what make us vulnerable. The convoluted argument suggests that in order to maintain our way of life, we have to give up our way of life.

For example, the fact that individuals have basic rights to privacy and the presumption of innocence in this country does in fact make it more difficult for government to identify those that may want to do us harm. As a result, we’ve agreed to allow our government to spy on our own citizens, ignore the basic principles of legal due process, and even use torture to coerce information from prisoners.

We are so fearful of our enemies that we have willingly abandoned many of the ideals of freedom and law that we claim our enemies are trying to take away from us. The result is wonderfully paradoxical because in the process of protecting ourselves from this chimera, we are in fact making our enemy stronger in the eyes of the world.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a threat in the world or that there aren’t people who wish to do us harm. What I am saying is that this threat is an ideological one and not a military one. We are losing the war against bin Ladenist Islam because we view it as a physical battlefield where those with the best bullets and soldiers will win. As many experts have already said, this is a conflict where we will not be able to kill our way to victory.

Just as Elisha knew that all power comes from God, we have to realize that this is still true today. This conflict is not about bullets, it is about culture and ideas and ultimately the ability to demonstrate that you can live up to your ideals.

The first step to victory is to recognize that we aren’t going win minds and hearts through force (this one is particularly hard for conservatives to grasp). The second is to realize that the Muslim world views this as a conflict between Christianity and Islam. It is actually a conflict between fundamentalism and modernism. Until we are able to alter that mindset, even our military presence in the Middle East that we feel sends a message of strength, actually re-enforces a deep seated fear in Muslims that is at least as powerful as our fear of terrorists. Before we can begin to correct this misconception in the Muslim world, we have to overcome the fundamentalist view in this country that this is a struggle between good and evil.
Christian and Islamic fundamentalists actually have a lot in common. Just like fundamentalists in this country yearn for a revisionist golden age of American piety, bin Ladenist Muslims aspire to a new golden age of Islamic empire. Both are dangerous fiction when allowed to drive public policy. We’ve already seen that fundamentalist Islamic states quickly erode into dictatorial prison camps, but we haven’t given the Islamic world a very attractive alternative. Our self righteous adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing to reassure Muslims that we can be trusted. Much to the contrary, we’ve demonstrated that we are the brutish, arrogant, morally corrupt thugs that bin Laden says we are.

Finally, the Muslim world is not going to take us or any other western nation seriously until we engage completely in solving the conflict over Israel.

Democratic pluralistic progressive open societies are the way forward. Countries where mutual respect, accommodation, and equal opportunity are the norms will ultimately starve terrorist movements of new recruits. Those countries attract investment and create hope in their populations. You don’t have to look any further than Northern Ireland to see the progression from stability, to investment, to economic prosperity, to reconciliation.

That’s where we have an opportunity to lead and that’s how we are going to win. In order to regain the world’s respect, however, we have to start walking the talk, just like Elisha did. We can win as long as we are true to our ideas and values and show the world that we will not waver even when we appear to be threatened. That’s because those ideas and values that we hold dear reflect those of our Creator who is the source of all power.


Monday, September 3rd, 2007

I love the old testament story of Nehemiah.  It occurs during a time when Israel was occupied by Babylonians.  Nehemiah was doing a good job for King Artaxerxes in Shushan.  When he heard that Jerusalem was in danger of being overrun by it’s neighbors, he asked for some time off to help them rebuild their fortifications.  The King agreed and gave Nehemiah some men to help him out.  Nehemiah had to deal with doubt, political intrigue, and even an attempt on his life by the neighbors.  What was most challenging, though, was the general skepticism of the Jews in Jerusalem who felt that the walls couldn’t be rebuilt.  They were also afraid that if they tried, they would only encourage their neighbors to attack and knock it back down again.  Nehemiah prayed for inspiration, saw through the lies, and was able to rebuild both the wall and the self-esteem of those who lived there.
We’re facing a similar situation today in New Orleans.  President Bush recently visited New Orleans on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  Recovery there is very slow.  Though it seems like we are spending huge amounts of money in the region, very little seems to be getting into the hands of those who need it most.  There is plenty of blame to go around for both the levees failing as well as the response to the tragedy.  Lately, however, some conservatives are starting to blame the victims for choosing to live in such a vulnerable place to begin with. 
New Orleans appears to be in the same situation that Jerusalem was almost three thousand years ago.  It is defeated, broken, and discouraged.  The rich parts of the city and the tourist areas have largely recovered.  For the poor, however, there is no work. There is no money.  They have lost their homes and their hope.  In this desperate atmosphere, the crime rate is soaring. 
Then there are those who sit on the sidelines at a safe distance and cluck that perhaps we should just let this city die so that we can build a cleaner, safer, better-run city somewhere else.  The smug racism that simmers not far underneath that position is even more disturbing than the palpable hypocrisy.
These are our brothers and sisters who suffered a terrible loss through no fault of their own.  They have come to our aid in terrorist attacks, tornadoes, and floods.  Our government has failed to come to their aid in their time of greatest need.  What has happened instead is a stream of volunteers from churches all over the country spending their own money to demonstrate their brotherly love.  They are rebuilding New Orleans house by house, but it is a painfully slow process while the people still suffer.
More than anything else, New Orleans is a failure in leadership at every level.
We need a modern-day Nehemiah who will lead this country into a new vision of itself – a vision that includes a commitment from all of our citizens to sacrifice for the greater good and accept nothing but the best from ourselves and our leaders.  Nehemiah was unwilling to allow Jerusalem to die because he loved the people.  We need leaders who feel the same way about every person in this country, regardless of their politics, race, creed, sexuality, economic, or legal status.