Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More of Omar's Story

Last summer my older cousin Ali was able to come in from Ohio to be at our wedding. I think it was really good for my dad to have someone from back home who was able to be there, and he filled in as my grandmother’s escort, sitting with her on the front row.

Ali was forced to serve in the Iraqi Army in the first Gulf War. Other cousins were also conscripted, stationed on the front lines and in Kuwait City. Some of them were rounded up in the mass-surrenders after the ground war began, and they all made it home. But Ali had a different story. He was a field surgeon on the front lines with the Republican Guard. Sadaam thought that if he placed the medical units close enough to the rest of the soldiers then the Americans wouldn’t bomb and shell them. He was wrong.

Somehow the Iraqis knew when the American ground troops would be coming over the dunes, and so they were given a five-day pass to go home to Baghdad and say their goodbyes. Ali knew it would be a meat-grinder, and he knew that under Sadaam desertion meant death and trouble for your family. So while he was in Baghdad he had another surgeon friend take out his perfectly good appendix. While he was in the hospital, his entire unit was annihilated.

Around that same time a Marine friend of mine named Nelson had been part of an artillery outfit that was shelling Iraqi positions inside Kuwait. Suddenly an Iraqi artillery shell slammed into the hood of the truck Nelson was standing next to, but it was a dud and didn’t go off. He lived to come home and tell me that story.

Also at our wedding, only four rows back from Ali, was my friend Joe, who is an Army Ranger veteran. On the other side of the isle from Ali was one of my two mother in laws, whose stepbrother was part of the Army forces that moved through the same area of Kuwait where Ali had been. On another pew was my friend Johanna, whose husband has served in Afghanistan and is now training for Special Forces duty in the Middle East.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The best phrase came from a taxi driver in Cairo, right after the invasion of Iraq three years ago, who upon finding out that my brother was half Iraqi and half American said, “Ahhh… is funny. Your country is attacking your country.”

I have often become frustrated when I have heard people in my church make statements like, “Remember who we’re fighting here,” before they lead prayers for our military victory. A professor here once said that the only two choices we have is to either “convert them or keep them from hurting us.”

Well… first of all you can’t fight and win a “war on terror.” Terrorism is a method, not a country or ideology. I once heard it said that fighting a war on terror is like having the flu and declaring a war on sneezing: you’re only attacking the symptoms. As long as there have been people, there has been terrorism.

But what frightens me is the mindset in this country, and in the church, that seems to think terrorism was born and raised in the Middle East, and if we can take out the Muslim Arabs then the world will be a safer place. Put this idea up against the ideas in large parts of the Arab world that America has, in a sense, been a terror herself with her policies toward the Middle East. So you get what we had last week. The cycle continues, and we have “become a monster to defeat a monster.”

So who is the enemy? I believe that on this side of the Cross, according to the Scriptures, that “we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12)

If you track through the entire story of Scripture, you see that while God may have fought battles on Israel’s behalf in the Old Testament, the trajectory was always towards the Cross, which redeemed the Creation intent. Jesus set for us an example of living and witnessing that intent through loving, serving and forgiving our enemies. The way of Christ was not to kill and destory those who had abused and killed Him. But for some reason we still say, “in God we trust” while we drop the bombs (just in case God doesn't come through, I suppose).

Imagine what would have happened if the entire mass community of Christians who prayed so fervently for our troops to “defeat the enemy” would have instead prayed against the real Enemy and for peace between humanity.

So who is the enemy? Well, I have Iraqi Army veteran family and U.S. Army veteran friends. I have been raised by Southern Methodists and Shiite Muslims. I cannot abdicate the gospel message of Christ to a bomb, but can only bear the Cross, the ultimate battlefield victory over the Enemy.



Jonathan Marlowe said...

Wow, thanks for sharing Omar's story in this post and in the post from a few months ago. It is so important to humanize the events that have become so depersonalized by the mass media. It is sometiems unclear whether CNN is covering a war or a video game. Thanks for reminding us that behind the headlines and political posturing, there are real people, many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ. It reminds me of something Bishop Peter Storey once said, that from a Christian perspective, all war is civil war.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks Omar, and Dr. Witherington, for sharing this story.

It gets to the heart for part of the reason I see war as so untenable, and especially evangelicals' propensity to rubberstamp war, even more than the American general populace.

Gordon Tisher said...

There are plenty of precedents for fighting an idea like "terrorism". The US fought and won a "war on piracy" in the early 19th century. Britain fought and won a "war on slavery" around the same time. The Cold War was a "war on Communism" that was won in large part by explicitly Christian (the Polish Solidarity movement encouraged by Pope John Paul II, for instance) movements.

It is true that as long as there have been people there have been piracy and slavery, and they continue today. But the free world can make those things dangerous enough for the perpetrators that piracy and slavery are relatively minor threats to the civilized world.

In the same way, the "war on terrorism" is a war on those who indiscrimitately target civilians.

Saying things like "depersonalized" is really a slander on the US forces (and forces of many other countries) who have been building thousands of schools, hospitals, power plants, sewage plants and soccer fields in Iraq and Afghanistan (http://goodnewsfromthefront.com/) for the past three or four years.

I would say that the dual fight of stamping out terrorism (= defending the powerless, in my opinion), and rebuilding countries devastated by decades of opression, is one well worthy of invoking God's blessing.

Scott said...

omar, that's a terrific testimony. i think the subtle point that you make most powerfully is that we are not fundamentally citizens of one country or another. as believers, we are in fact citizens of a transcendent family that has very little invested in the machinations, collaborations, or divinations of the political world that we live in. placing stock in my identity as a Westerner or as an American only has value insofar as i can establish common ground with other Westerners or Americans in ministry. beyond this, one's nationality ought to be a superficial ascription, though in practice it has proven to be a potentially dangerous aspect of identity--one which demagogues have used to mobilize darker sentiments for dubious and collective ends.

delineating who is right or wrong in any international conflict is an exercise fraught with confusion because it paints in absolutes that which is necessarily the culmination of infinite and complex human realities. one can always be as simple-minded as he likes and blame one side or the other in the ostensible cause of justice. how much applause your stance receives from your contemporaries simply depends on the context--more than the substance--of your discourse. in the israeli-palestinian conflict for example, a Christian pundit might have pointed a fat finger at the PLO following the Munich attack or the El Al hijacking in '68 and curried a lot of support for Israel's cause. nowadays, a Christian can point at the Gaza incursion and shift culpability to the Israelis. who's really to blame? i agree with omar; picking a side and making a grievance seems not only ignorant but also pointless.

political entities don't deserve our sympathy or our justification. they are rooted in political causes and interests that are sinful. when our governments directly impede our ministry to the lost then there is perhaps good reason to resist their authority, but in general we tolerate their fallacies because we know that there is no enduring hope or promise in their redemption. our rhetoric should be reserved for the individuals caught in the webs of intrigue, who do not know the truth of their identities, who have been led to believe in the justice of retribution.

Charlene Amsden said...

As Christians we are charged to be salt and light. I don’t believe that means rubbing salt in wounds or lighting bombs under people who’s political or religious outlook disagrees with our own.

As Christians we are called to pray for everyone…:
…all of God’s children – all -- not just the ones who play nice with our toys,
…all the world’s leaders, not just those we agree with;.
…all the soldiers on both sides of every armed conflict; and –
…all the innocent bystanders who suffer the repercussions of war.

From our highest levels of government to the lowest gutters in our city we are called to pray without ceasing. Pray for our brother’s and sisters in Christ, but pray even harder for those who do not know him.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks one and all for these posts. You are getting to the heart of the matter--- a worldwide fellowship of believers throughout the earth. The ambition of every Christian should be to be a world Christain not a partisan of any particular natio for "our commonwealth and citizendship is in heaven" not on earth.



yuckabuck said...

"war on terror"
I think the problem here is that our current generation has been influenced by a cynical post-modernism, so that an idealogical crusade against certain global terrorist groups cannot be sold with such a phrase (unlike the past examples that Gordon provided). Perhaps W. Bush has realized this, for he has switched from denouncing "terror" (who?), to denouncing "Islamic Jihadis." Right or wrong, it is at least more accurate.

"world Christian"
For American Christians to gain a sense that we're a "worldwide fellowship of believers throughout the earth" would be awesome. When I did a study of some of the 18th century religious "communes" and compared it to the "communism" of the early church (Acts 2:44-45), it seemed that whenever the community gave way to individualism (losing its sense of a groupp identity), it would break apart and lose momentum. I think the American church's lack of a group identity in Christ is one reason for its general anemia. (We're Republican or Democrat first, then Christians.)

So if the worldwide church recognized its essential unity in the body of Christ, would there be more Christians in Israel and Palestine working to get both sides to shun violence as an answer?

brandon33 said...

"The way of Christ was not to kill and destory those who had abused and killed Him. But for some reason we still say, “in God we trust” while we drop the bombs (just in case God doesn't come through, I suppose)."

Omar, thank you for this liberating insight. Tonight I am going to unlock all my doors and windows, although I live in a high-crime district to show everyone that "in God I trust." Tomorrow I will allow my children to play next to our busy street unsupervised, because "in God I trust." And I guess Jesus was wrong for taking the stairs down the temple, if he really trusted God, he would have just jumped.

We drop bombs, because here in the real world there are very evil people. People who murder innocent civilians as they are peacefully working at thier jobs, boarding an airplane to visit thier grandparents, or simply sitting down for a quiet lunch with their family.

I believe the words of G.K. Chesterton are appropriate and much more sound and down to earth than Omar's observation. "War is not the best way of settling differences it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you." This comment is worthy of our reflection as we celebrate our independence day.

Ben Witherington said...

Chesterton's comment needs to be read in context, and the context is this--- using violence to solve problems must always be a last resort, not something we do at the drop of a hat or just because some soldier is taken prisoner. And above all we do not target civilians or essential life services--- say like the power plant in Gaza, because if we do that we've not only violated the Geneva convention we've abdicated any claim to being humane much less Jewish or Christian. We do indeed live in an evil world, but if we respond to that evil by doing more evil then we've simply become what we despise. And while we're at it, what does it really mean to say 'Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world'. When you abdicate the moral high ground and you ignore Jesus' command to love your enemies you become what you despise.


Scott said...

nicely put Ben.

Brandon, you suggest that omar is equating trust in God with deliberating placing oneself in harm's way. yet the subject he's implicitly dealing is the war in Iraq--an issue which most Americans do not believe directly impacts our own national security. the analogies you are employing would thus seem extreme to most Americans and thus can only be construed as deliberately provocative.

but what if Omar had suggested that our nation place itself in harm's way for the sake of the Gospel? or more cogently, what if Omar had suggested that you place yourself in harm's way for the sake of Christ? do you dismiss this offhand as something irrational and ridiculous? yet Christ allowed Himself to be unjustly beaten and murdered when all he had to do was lift a finger in His own defense. the early disciples were unjustly persecuted--as were their families and friends--yet they persevered and actually refused relief so as to magnify their resurrection. the world was not worthy of them, it says in Hebrews, because they suffered for Christ.

you and I don't expect this sort of selfless behavior from our government, and why should we? our government--like every government--has a prevailing self-interest which has little to do with the kingdom of God. yet, we should still seek this selfless love in everyone and everything because it is beautiful to us, a perfect reflection of God's nature. one might consider the consequences of opening oneself to such abuse; but until one is willing to do such a thing, he is incapable of witnessing the miracle that can ensue.

Unknown said...

We must remember that we are to love our neighbor as much as we love our enemies. If our enemies pose a mortal danger to our neighbors, we have a duty as Christians to protect them, even unto our death or the death of our enemies.

Kevin Rosero said...

A wise and challenging post. Thank you, Omar.

Matt said...

Interesting post from Omar.

A couple of anecdotes come to my mind that could perhaps be understood as "bad" and "good" examples: responses to evil and violence as people of Christ:

In 1988, an American Navy ship mistakenly fired a missle at and destroyed an Iran Air passenger jet en route from Iran to Dubai, killing some 290 people on board. It happened on a Sunday, and when the news came out, , one pastor in the US was reported to have read out the news to his congregation, looked up, and said, "Praise the Lord! 'Vengence is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay!' " That was obviously a bad, even extreme example.

At the same time, one of the best examples I can think of is that of the great Chinese evangelist and teacher Watchman Nee. After the Japanese invaded his homeland, he managed to escape, and went to England (among other places). At the Keswick meeting, sitting on the platform with others including a Japanese gentleman, he prayed the following:

"The Lord reigns; we affirm it boldly. Our Lord Jesus Christ is reigning, and he is Lord of all; nothing can touch his authority It is spiritual forces that are out to destroy his interests in China and Japan. Therefore we do not pray for China, we do not pray for Japan, but we pray for the interests of thy Son in China and Japan. We do not blame any men, for they only tools of thine enemy. We stand for thy will. Shatter, O Lord, the kingdom of darkness, for the persectuions of thy Church are wounding thee. Amen."(Angus I. Kinnear, The Story of Watchman Nee: Against the Tide, Tyndale House, Wheaton, Il. 1973.)

Shalom and Salaam to all,


see-through faith said...

Thanks for this.

Omar said...

Great stories. Thanks for sharing.