Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Post #9 - Theodicy and the Theocracy

"...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)

American peace activists questioning Iranian clerics
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 -- most of whom are 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. 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 is "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 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.”

To be the change we seek, we must know what needs changing -- in ourselves and 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 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 long time to reveal themselves, and even a longer time to be fully realized. Change like that takes the rest of your life. My time in Iran was a chance to begin to learn humility. I don’t know why one would have to go half-way around the world to learn it, but it seems to have been true in my case.

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 nurtured by my Iranian hosts, the less far from home I felt.

If we actively work to create avenues for dialogue, we might be surprised whom we find to talk with. Few remember (or even were aware 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 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 Bush 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).

In fact, we now know from Barbara Slavin, the veteran USA Today diplomatic correspondent who has talked personally with more of the principals in both countries than nearly anyone, 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 new book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, is self-explanatory.)

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.

As recently as August 5, 2007, Afghan President Mohammad Karzai affirmed that this continues, with Iranian support of Afghanistan's development and in combating terrorism and the rampant narcotics trade:

Wolf Blitzer (in a live interview on CNN): President Karzai, is Iran now more helping or hurting? Is it a problem, or a solution?

Karzai: We consider Iran to be a helper, part of the solution.

He reiterated this in late January, 2008: "We have had a particularly good relationship with Iran for the past six years. It's a relationship that I hope will continue. We have opened our doors to them. They have been helping us in Afghanistan."

Indeed, an Iraqi president (post-Saddam) has echoed this same sentiment, despite the fact that his government has been dependent our own for its day-to-day survival. Indian defense minister A. K. Antony, too, said September 20, "India has very friendly relations with Iran. It will continue to do so. India's friendship will not come in the way of good relations with any other country [in an obvious reference to our own government]." In October 2007, at a meeting of the five countries that border the Caspian Sea (Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran), there was agreement that a military attack on Iran should be opposed. None of the Caspian nations, said Vladimir Putin, should allow themselves to be used as staging areas for "aggressive or military operations against another Caspian State." (As reported in the Washington Post of October 16).

Blogger (and retired Army sergeant) Timothy Gatto has pointed out that the people of the neighboring countries Pakistan, Turkey Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – though not on good terms with Iran – do not favor a military solution, as “the blowback from an attack on Iran would be devastating.” The Chinese, too, have urged "strategic patience" in dealing with Iran; according to Zbigniew Brzezinski they favor a focus on "jointly negotiating a formula" that avoids the weapons option, without challenging Iran's honor. Late in 2007, Iranian senior officials met with leaders from the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and Ahmadinezhad became the first Iranian president to be invited to visit Mecca as a pilgrim for the haj (though relations between the two countries has since cooled, as the Arab Spring has unfolded).

According to a Christian Science Monitor report, "Arab League chief Amr Moussa bluntly state that there was no point in Arabs treating Iran as an enemy." Though concerned about both human rights abuses and nuclear programs, the parliament of the European Union, in January 2008, passed a resolution calling on the United States "to renounce all rhetoric on military options and regime change policies against Iran," and "participate directly in negotiations with Iran along with the EU" (according to the EU's United Nations delegation website). Moreover, the head of the nuclear watchdog agency, IAEA, said in February 2008 that they were making "good progress" in resolving the outstanding issues with Iran and "confidence-building can only be achieved with direct negotiations." Then-President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said in January 2008 (in an interview with Italy's La Repubblica), "This is not the time for resorting to threats or to the use of force. That would serve solely to set the Gulf, the Middle East, and the whole world on fire. What is needed, rather, are dialogue and diplomacy."
Dialoguing over dinner with Islamic scholars, Qom, Iran
Apparently, it is largely the current U.S. administration that finds communication and cooperation with Iran anathema, even if we risk war. And what have we gained with our reticence? In early January 2008, Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian journalist who was awarded a National Endowment for Democracy award from President Bush in 2007, said, "America's neither feared nor loved. It's [not] feared by the [Middle Eastern] regimes anymore, and it's hated by the people of the Middle East...That's the Bush legacy." Between then and now, several of those Middle Eastern regimes have themselves been overturned; it remains to be seen whether their successors will be more open to Western concerns -- or, quite conceivably -- even less receptive than the dictators they replaced.

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