Enmity and the Syrian Ambassador

Imad Moustapha is the Syrian ambassador to the United States. He is Western-educated (Ph.D. from Surrey, United Kingdom), witty, and loves some of the greatest music ever composed in Europe: Bach’s cello suites; Mahler’s symphonies. He comes across as fair-minded (if understandably biased toward Syrian interests), proud of Arab (and particularly Syrian) culture, and passionate for learning and life.

He is also the official representative of a country that we officially consider an enemy, which, I suppose, makes the ambassador an enemy too.

Christian theology is, of its essence, about the relationship of Other to Self. Trinitarian theology (to rashly sum up 2000 years of conversation and debate in one sentence) understands the very nature of divinity as the participation of Persons one with another, in a unity that does not erase distinction. Christ on the Cross is the divine refusal to seek just revenge for having been wronged; put positively, Christ on the Cross (to paraphrase Miroslav Volf) is God’s act of making God’s very Self an open space that welcomes the Other, turning enmity into the possibility of embrace.

Christian discipleship– to be a follower of Jesus– means imitating Christ in this assertion of refusing to participate in cycles of revenge. (This assertion of refusing revenge can operate at all levels of human relationships: spousal, familial, communal, national, and international. For Christians, this refusal of revenge is the life-affirming, life-transforming power of God.)

All of which brings us back to the Syrian ambassador.

US policy toward Syria will be determined by the forces of politics. However, that is not– and never will be– the whole story. Additionally, thoughtful Christian theology reminds us of another power that is always at work, if mostly unnoticed– the power of seeing divinity in the Other, even in the midst of distrust and enmity. Jesus was shrewdly correct: we need to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, at one and the very same time.

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The Middle East, the End of History, and the God Who Makes All Things New

No one knows what will happen in Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain. Interested parties– in-country nationals, foreign governments, journalists and observers, international businesses, and non-governmental organizations (to name a few)– prepare for different scenarios, assess risks and opportunities, seek analogies to the past in order to make some sense of the present, and wait.

At a surface level it seems incongruous to bring what we know of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures to bear on the popular upheavals in these countries. The populations are predominately Arab and Muslim, not Jewish or Christian; current commentary on religion with regard to these uprisings is limited to the question of whether the overthrow of these authoritarian regimes will lead to Islamists obtaining power.

According to the Biblical account, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures acts in history. If that is so, how would we know today? Is it helpful to seek signs of God’s presence in events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the protests in Tahrir Square? What if God’s involvement in history is quiet and anonymous, undetectable by the daily reports of the  BBC or of Al Jazeera?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama advanced the idea of the “end of history”: with the fall of Soviet-style communism, obviously Western democracy was the final goal of the evolution of governance. That’s a quasi-theological notion, because it deals with ultimate outcomes– in this case, the ultimate outcome of the evolution of human arrangements of political power.

If it is too soon to discern whether, where, or how the God Who Makes All Things New is acting in the Middle East (and it is too soon), one thing that the Biblical account makes clear is that God’s involvement in history is surprising, disruptive of human totalistic schemes of domination and uniformity, and biased toward the weak and powerless.

We should watch for these things in the Arab world; we should watch for them in the United States, too, as history continues.

Anxiety and Change

Iranian authorities prepare to quell pro-Egyptian demonstrations. Bahraini police break up protests. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reshuffles his cabinet, in preparation for the possibility of new elections. And for his Fox News viewers (a highly anxious group), Glenn Beck diagrams  how the pan-Arab Muslim Caliphate soon will be knocking on Europe’s doorstep.

Precisely what kind of pressure we should place on the Iranian regime; or precisely what level of support we should give the Egyptian military–  these and other specific policy questions are not illuminated by thoughtful theology. However, particular attitudes and perspectives– attitudes and perspectives that increase the likelihood of forming successful policies– are the result of thoughtful theology. For example:

1. We should be suspicious of the notion that democracy is the perfect answer for every people, everywhere and at every time. Some of the rhetoric about democracy elevates it to the status of a quasi-religion, as though everyone can, and will, be saved once democracy is established in their land. While freedom and democracy are compelling ideas that share common ground with a theological/moral understanding of the intrinsic worth of each and every person qua person, democracy is not an unambiguous good in all times and in all contexts. Wise American leadership in support of democratic reform movements needs to be discerning, timely, crafty.

2. We– especially we “can-do” Americans– should be suspicious of the temptation to mistake being powerful, with having the ability to control outcomes. The first does not mean the second. We can bring power to bear– say, in Iran– but we cannot dictate that the reformers will overthrow the Iranian theocracy, or that, if they do, some unintended consequence then becomes even more threatening. Recognizing this kind of limit is the virtuous outcome of thoughtful theology, and is also hopefully the lesson of our hubris in Iraq. The world is not plastic, yielding to how we mold and shape.

Grasping at the perfect answer, and attempting to control outcomes, are stock responses to anxiety. Thoughtful theology– thoughtful grounding in the Transcendent One– guards us from over-reliance on our own frail human capabilities, guards us from over-reaction to events, and gives us patience for issues to ripen– so that our policies actually have a chance to fulfill their intent.

Good News: Israeli Gives Birth in Ramallah Hospital

This item made me smile. For our bloodthirsty and voyeuristic mainstream media, this doesn’t count as news. For those who are serious about hope, and realistic about the small but significant acts of faithfulness necessary for participation in God’s redemptive work, this is the news that counts.

While this story is from the Middle East, the same kinds of stories are happening even now, close to home– it’s just that we don’t hear about them. Redemption doesn’t do good ratings, nor does it sell advertising:

RAMALLAH (Ma’an) — “I was happily surprised at how well the Palestinian nurses and doctors treated me here, in fact I feel pampered,” new mother Nisreen, a Jewish citizen of Israel, told Ma’an Wednesday night after delivering her first child in a Ramallah hospital.

She had been out shopping with her husband, a Palestinian from the village of Sakhnain in Israel, when she felt intense labor pains. Rather than make the hours long trip back to Haifa through notorious checkpoints, Nisreen’s husband suggested they go to hospital in the West Bank.

Hours after the birth of a healthy 2.3 kg boy, the new mom received a bouquet of roses from President Mahmoud Abbas, who congratulated her on the delivery, and wished her and her son the best of health.

Officials reported to Israeli liaison officers that the woman had been admitted. Procedure appeared to dictate that Nisreen be taken and transferred to an Israeli hospital, but on her insistence she was permitted to stay.

“Nisreen is the first Jewish woman to be treated at Ramallah Hospital,” Abu Moghli [Palestinian Authority Minister of Health] said, recalling the Hippocratic Oath obliging doctors to treat every patient regardless of their religion, political beliefs or race. [emphasis added]

As an added bonus, he said Nisreen would not be asked to pay hospital fees, and would be treated as any Palestinian would be.

via Maan News Agency: Israeli gives birth in Ramallah hospital.

In Brief: An Old Story, the Prophets, and the Life of God

Here’s a real shocker (he says sarcastically) from Al Jazeera:

How did Egypt become so corrupt?

A picture is emerging of a state where wealth fuels political power and political power buys wealth.

(via How did Egypt become so corrupt? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English.)

The old story (as old as human civilization) is the self-reinforcing connection between wealth and this-worldly power. The prophetic voice of the Hebrew scriptures exposes this self-seeking aggrandizement as unjust: not simply as unfair, but even more, as an affront to God’s word that wise rulers– people with power– express their faithfulness by taking care of their poor, and their widows and orphans. In the prophetic understanding, such care is not merely ritual observance; nor is it the hollow and lifeless, going-through-the-motions obedience to a Divine Tyrant– far from it. On the contrary: such care takes part in– participates in– the very life of God.

Power and Change

The depth and texture of current events in Egypt seem best illuminated, to my mind, by the history of the Arab world since the late Ottoman Empire (say, the mid-19th-century). This history is shaped, in no small part, by the Arab world’s sometimes conciliatory, sometimes rejectionist, responses to European domination and Western ascendance, as well as the tensions and strains that have come with the presence of Israel in 1948, and the Zionist movement before then. In Egypt since 1952, it’s been Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. That’s it.

In a region where the political culture of  nation-states is still developing– in the midst of religious, cultural, economic, and geopolitical tensions and pressures– Egypt is attempting to find a way forward.

The theological category for this moment is possibility.

On the Lighter Side: Romania’s “Witch Tax” (and be careful if you are a soccer referee)

Bratara Buzea, a Romanian witch who was imprisoned under Ceausescu. Photo Vadim Ghirda

By Joseph Laycock, from Religion Dispatches

On January 1, Romania implemented new tax codes that, among other changes, added the occupation of “witch” to the nation’s labor codes. Those charging clients for tarot readings, curses, and blessings must now pay a 16 percent income tax and make contributions to health and pension programs. The ire of the witches, some of whom responded by performing rituals to hex the government, has become fodder for scores of offbeat news stories throughout the west.

Many witches see themselves as loyal Romanians and conduct rituals to protect their country from natural disasters. In 2004, a ritual was done to curse Swiss referee Urs Meier, whose decision had cost Romania a qualifying match against Denmark for the European Football Championship. The hex was not fatal, but was intended to cost Meier his ability to whistle.

via Romania’s “Witch Tax”: Magic Meets Bureaucracy | Culture | Religion Dispatches.