Sunday, November 20, 2011

Post #86 - God and Country

I plead with you...that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together.”  (I Corinthians 1:10)

In looking over the biographies of those who took part in a February 2007 delegation of religious leaders to Iran, I was struck by how many of them had in-depth exposure to diverse cultures as a part of their life experience:
  • Rev. Ronald Flaming, director of International Programs, Mennonite Central Committee, not only represents a traditional “peace church,” he has served as principal of the prestigious Woodstock International School, which has educated generations of young people from many countries at its campus nestled in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
  • Maureen Shea, Director of Government Relations for The Episcopal Church, has traveled to China, the Holy Land, Syria and Tanzania, and serves as chair for Churches for Middle East Peace.
  • Patricia Shelly, a professor at Bethel College with a PhD. in biblical interpretation has studied and led seminars to Israel/Palestine for years and teaches courses Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA for Interfaith Relations, was born in Sri Lanka, educated in India and the United States, and has led groups to Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
  • Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Roman Catholic peace and justice movement, has led or participated in delegations to Iraq, El Salvador, Colombia, Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan and (with me) to Iran.
I was reminded of some words inscribed high up on the white Vermont granite façade of Union Station, Washington, D.C.’s great railway terminus. They cite a Spanish proverb: "He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him." Samuel Johnson went on to say “So it is in traveling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge." These devout American travelers, in their lifetimes of communicating across differences, were vastly better qualified to develop rapport and understanding with their Iranian interlocutors than most of those in our government who have been making and implementing U.S. policy regarding Iran. Perhaps one must deeply understand diversity before one can comprehend true, all-encompassing unity.

It was Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, its capital Providence and the first Baptist church in the New World, who likened our national saga to that of a ship at sea:

Roger Williams
“...It hath fallen out sometimes that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks/ May be embarked in one ship/ Upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges:  That none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews or Turks be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they have any./ What God hath put asunder, let no man join.”

National versus Universal

Bill Moyers
“Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes. But we carry two passports: One stamped American, the other stamped human being. We are facing a mighty multicultural future, and to help us live peacefully in it is our mandate. This, I think, is the beginning of knowledge and the gathering of courage.”  (Bill Moyers, “A Journalist Looks at the Politics of Peace,” speaking at the College of William & Mary, 1989)

Bonnie Block, a past national coordinator of the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, went to Iran under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in December of 2005. Upon her return she wrote in Fellowship magazine (Fall 2006) that five contentious issues are at the heart of the current impasse:
  1. U.S. foreign policy
  2. Oil economics
  3. Nuclear proliferation
  4. U.S. support of Israel
  5. The role of religion in government/politics
Block’s categories capture the most important aspects of what stands between us and the Iranians. They are apt ways to think about of what divides our countries, as well as what needs to be addressed if we are to have lasting peace. Let us examine in some detail the topics that have not yet been discussed fully:

U.S. foreign policy

John Quincy Adams said that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." As Dr. Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee May 18, 2006: “We must recognize that regime change is the prerogative of the Iranian people, not [to be] the policy of the United States.”

President James Madison
Foreign policy is ostensibly all about preserving and protecting America, but this does not mean that military might is always – even most of the time – the key to our security. In recent years, our reliance on military dominance has reminded me of the famous quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” As it was in the beginning of our republic, so is it now. James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution, noted the danger in 1795: "Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few.... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

Similarly, in 1821 John Quincy Adams stated about his then-45-year-old country:

“She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart...Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue...which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.... [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.”

A Washington Post article of March 5, 2007 reported a study done by Jason Lyall at Princeton University and Lt. Col. Isaiah Wilson III at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Their research compared numerous asymmetrical wars waged between 1800 and the present. For each successive half-century, the percentage of victory for the “big power” grew less – from an average 85% in the earliest period to only 21% for the second half of the 20th century. The writer noted:

“Essentially, what Lyall and Wilson are saying is that if you want to catch a mouse you need a cat. If you hire a lion to do the job because it is bigger and stronger, the very strength and size of the lion can get in the way of getting the job done.A lion is built for different prey,’ Lyall said. ‘A lion is built to take down an antelope, and a cat is designed to take down a mouse. Now [in Iraq] we are a lion trying to take down a mouse...’ The researchers also posited that nationalism plays a role, the article points out: ‘The French and the Russians, for example, won asymmetrical wars in Algeria and Chechnya in the 19th century, but lost asymmetrical wars in those same places in the 20th century. In the 19th century, there was not a literacy for nationalism. You look at a lot of these colonial wars. The great powers could play off tribes against each other. By the 1960's, you cannot do that anymore.’”

Middle Eastern correspondent David Hirst wrote:

“In a brilliant study, [US strategic analyst Mark] Gaffney warned that for technical and geographical reasons a US assault on Iran could end in a catastrophe comparable to the massacre of Roman legions... by the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s greatly inferior army. For in one field of military technology – anti-ship cruise missiles – Russia is streets ahead of the US. Iran’s possession of the fearsome 3M-82 Moskit could turn the Persian Gulf into a death trap for the US fleet, causing its confined, shallow, manoeuvre-impeding waters to ‘run red with American blood.’”

Another factor, elucidated by new research done by a University of Minnesota sociologist, Ann Hironaka, is the new longevity of civil wars. In recent history (say, mid-20th-century to the present), civil wars tend to occur in areas where there is no strong central government apparatus. “We assume,” says Hironaka in a recent University publication, “a prototypical war is like one of the French civil wars – there are rebels and there is the government, and whoever takes Paris takes over and that's it. It's decisive and short. But that's not how they work in the developing world.” In Iraq, the United States replaced a strong government (albeit tyrannical) with a weak government, one that is attempting to weld a governing coalition out of previously-unaligned forces.

In fact, the past few years have seen an erosion of America’s security in real terms, as non-state actors become more powerful, vast publics in all parts of the globe become less and less admiring of U.S. policies and other world leaders recognize that our loyalty is to national self-interest, rather than to multi-lateral consensus or formal agreements. The country that helped form the League of Nations and the United Nations now works to hamstring the International Court of Justice. The country that uses more energy per capita and produces more pollution per capita than any other ignores the Kyoto Protocol, despite widespread popular support among Americans for it. The country that helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and used to tout the Geneva Convention as one of civilization’s finest accomplishments now seeks to avoid or subvert its provisions to advance our “war on terror.”

One my U.S. senators from Maryland, Benjamin Cardin, has said about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, "These abuses have damaged our mission in Iraq and put our military personnel overseas at greater risk...we must speak out and take action against torture everywhere in the world, even if it occurs under our own watch."

Our national stance during much of the past decade has seemed to illustrate these lines from the Old Testament: “...they are a law unto themselves and promote their own honor...Their own strength is their god.” (Habakkuk 1:7, 11), as quoted by members of a small congregation in North Carolina in a statement they adopted on the subject a few years ago.  They went on to say:

“As with the ancient empire described in the Prophet Habakkuk's oracle, our government is setting its 'national interests' above international norms of justice, usurping all authority to itself. With an escalating military budget – already larger than that of all other nations combined – we seem to have established our own destructive threat as the source of national glory and honor.

And again, they turned to scripture:

“’Pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness, their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.’  (Psalm 73: 6,9)  It is not our habit to engage in partisanship on any political party's agenda. We believe in the separation of church and state. But not in the separation of values from public policy….In the Reformed legacy of the Christian community (toward which some in our congregation lean) there is a tradition of invoking a status confessionis, of declaring that some moments in history require the church to refuse neutrality and abandon silence. And in the Anabaptist tradition (toward which others of us lean), Jesus' insistence on loving enemies precludes the willingness to kill them.

“Not only are these religious convictions suffering scandal; so, too, are the core values of this Republic's founding. It was Thomas Jefferson, in 1807, who asserted, 'The spirit of this country is totally adverse to a large military force.' Now, with the administration's 2002 National Security Strategy document, the U.S. claims (for the first time) justification for waging preemptive war. This policy undermines our democratic traditions, any and every theory of when war is ‘just,’ and the very foundation of international law itself. The contradiction is staggering.

“Accordingly, should the U.S. preemptively attack Iran, we shall vigorously protest. For some of us, this commitment includes the willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“In the same way, we also pledge vigourous support for any leaders willing to consider Iran's security concerns and national interests alongside those of the United States. Competition in belligerent behavior carries catastrophic risks. The only enduring security is mutual security.

“Another way is possible. Waging peace will require at least as much commitment – as much courage, pride, honor and ingenuity – as the pursuit of war.

“We say no to war against Iran. It is both a contradiction to the Way of the Cross and a defamation of national honor. We say yes to the strategics of multilateral diplomacy and other nonviolent initiatives. We invite other Christians, other people of faith, and other people of conscience to deliberate these convictions and consider similar commitments.

They concluded with a postscript:

“’You have sown much and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you put the wages you earn in a bag full of holes.’ (Haggai 1:6)

We make this statement in the midst of Lent, the Christian season leading up to Easter. The traditional emphases of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving, all of which focus the mind and heart on the way gluttony corrupts our personal and common life. Appetites have a way of overwhelming wisdom. Righteousness is pursued by a commitment to clarifying disciplines: prayer, to calm the heart's fretfulness; fasting, to purge the body's toxic buildup; almsgiving, to recall God's bias on behalf of those denied access to the earth's bountiful table of provision.

“Sisters and brothers, especially in the household of faith: the Apostle Paul's instruction overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21b) is both a spiritual truth and the foundation for politically realistic strategies to transform conflict. The Way of the Cross leads home. Perhaps the simplest formulation of all is that of the Prophet Micah:

‘Has it [not] been told thee, O man, what [is] good? Or what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, and love mercy, and be ready to walk with the Lord thy God?’ (Micah 6:8)

This implies to me that the role of the Christian can never be defined fully in terms of his or her support of any one country. While identification with the worldwide Body of Christ is more desirable than narrow nationalism, there is also a place for individual conscience, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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