Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Post #123 - Theodicy

"...for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:45)

North Korean troops pass in review
How do we square a duty not to “resist one who is evil” with the idea of threatening first-strike annihilation of people halfway around the world who may be no more evil than you and I? Thousands of innocents are this moment targeted on computer screens in the conning towers of our American aircraft carriers, though we have seen no solid evidence they are of any serious threat to us -- Russia has 8,000 nuclear warheads, we have 3,000, Israel has 200, India and Pakistan 100 each, North Korea a half-dozen (a scary thought) and Iran has ZIP. In social psychology, one talks of allopathic and autopathic approaches to a dysfunctional dynamic. Essentially, the essence of the first is "change the world" -- the others with whom one must relate, the institutions, the system -- while the latter means "change oneself." The first has a hallowed history. Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying, "Don't think that a small group of dedicated individuals cannot change the world; indeed, that is the only thing that has." But Gandhi said, "Be the change in the world you wish to see." This approach seems closer to what Jesus is suggesting as our starting point, than do our recent attempts to remake the world in our image.

Confronting the age-old question of the justice of God, Jeph Holloway, professor of theology and ethics at East Texas Baptist University, says we should not shy away from asking, “What is God Doing about Evil?” In an essay on that question, Holloway says, “God, through His redemptive work, is creating a people whose lives, sustained in worship, bear witness to His purposes for creation.” We, in other words, are ourselves what God is doing about evil. Singing star Lionel Ritchie once said, in a hearing on world hunger at the U.S. Senate, “I heard a young man speak of his screaming at God for allowing children to starve...until he realized the starving children were God screaming at him.”

Some of my students, 1968, Firuzkuh, Iran
To be the change we seek, we must know what needs changing -- in ourselves as well as in the world. Mark Twain (in Innocents Abroad) wrote, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” Living in a rural town in Iran during my Peace Corps service certainly "changed my life." Stated that way I suppose it sounds very cliché -- that phrase is used to describe the impact of a new hairdo or two days at a bootcamp fitness program. But changes like those that resulted from my Peace Corps stint take a while to reveal themselves, and even a longer time to be fully realized. Change like that takes the rest of your life. Even being born again has to happen every day anew if we wish truly to live in Christ. My time in Iran was a chance to begin to learn humility. I don’t know why I had to go half-way around the world to learn it, but I'm sure that God knows. 

When I found myself dropped in a remote Iranian town without my usual props and creature comforts – the mall and the movie theater, the comfort of family and easy freedom of movement – I had to rely on my Iranian friends for everything. I needed help to find food or to buy a postage stamp. Forced to trust that I would be safe and cared-for despite my new helplessness, I started to understand Chapter 12 of the Book of Luke: “do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about your body, what you will put on...consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The more I allowed myself to be known and cared for by my Iranian hosts, the less far from home I felt.

Finally resting place of United 93, Shanksville, PA
If we actively work to create avenues for dialogue, we might be surprised whom we find to talk with. What do you remember of September 11th? Few recall (or even realized back then) that the streets of Tehran were among the first places – as early as the 12th of September, 2001 -- where people demonstrated to show sympathy for us Americans in our time of shock and grief. Less than a week after 9/11, a group of Palestinians – artists, politicians and academics – released a statement that read, in part: "No cause, not even a just cause, can make legitimate the killing of innocent civilians, no matter how long the list of accusations and the register of grievances. Terror never paves the way to justice, but leads down a short path to hell." (When the Council on American-Islamic Relations launched a petition condemning the 9/11 violence, over 600,000 Muslims signed it to express their grief and sympathy; yet many of us see Muslims as inherently violent.)

A young Iranian engineer told an American visitor (Network 2020, Reframing Iran: Views from the Field February 2007 report): "When 9/11 happened, many Iranians felt profound sadness and unity with the American people. Like everyone else in the world, we viewed that day as a horrible tragedy that affected the whole world. Young people all over Iran – in Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd – shed tears and even expressed themselves in public by holding candlelight vigils in public squares. They condemned the senseless acts of the terrorists and demanded justice. Many chanted, 'Death to the terrorists!' ” All this, of course, gained Iranians no special consideration when President rose before the Congress and talked about the “Axis of Evil” a few short weeks later. A former hostage-taker who now is in the reformist camp told American visitors in the fall of 2006 that “the surge in support of democratic reform…was ‘stopped in its tracks’ by President Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech” (in the same 2020 report).

Barbara Slavin, addressing a NIAC hearing
In fact, we now know from Barbara Slavin (the veteran diplomatic correspondent, now with the Atlantic Council of the United States who has talked personally with more of the principals in both countries than nearly anyone) that secret and serious talks were actually taking place in Europe during the early years of Bush II between U.S. officials (including the current and former U.S. ambassadors to Iraq, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad) with their Iranian opposite numbers. (The title of her book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, speaks for itself.)

Moreover, the Iranian government gave tactical support to the United States dealing with the Taliban and U.S. operations in the border area between Iran and Afghanistan. Newsweek of January 17, 2007 reported (in an article by Michael Hirsh, Maziar Bahari, et al):

"American and Iranian officials met repeatedly in Geneva in the days before the October 7 U.S. invasion. The Iranians were more than supportive. 'In fact, they were impatient,' says a U.S. official involved in the talks, who asked not to be named speaking about topics that remain sensitive. 'They'd ask, 'When's the military action going to start? Let's get going!'”
"Opinions differ wildly over how much help the Iranians actually were on the ground. But what is beyond doubt is how critical they were to stabilizing the country [Afghanistan] after the fall of Kabul...In late November 2001, the leaders of Afghanistan's triumphant anti-Taliban factions flew to Bonn, Germany, to map out an interim Afghan government with the help of representatives from 18 Coalition countries...
"The Iranian team's leader, Javad Zarif, was a good-humored University of Denver alumnus with a deep, measured voice, who would later become U.N. Ambassador. Jim Dobbins, Bush's first envoy to the Afghans, recalls sharing coffee with Zarif in one of the sitting rooms, poring over a draft of the agreement laying out the new Afghan government. 'Zarif asked me, "Have you looked at it?" I said, "Yes, I read it over once," Dobbins recalls. 'Then he said, with a certain twinkle in his eye: "I don't think there's anything it it that mentions democracy. Don't you think there could be some commitment to democratization?" This was before the Bush administration had discovered democracy as a panacea for the Middle East. I said that's a good idea.'...
"Tehran backed up the political support with financial muscle: at a donor's conference in Tokyo, Iran pledged $500 million (at the time, more than double the Americans') to help rebuild Afghanistan."

(to be continued)

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