A Modest Proposal for Mideast Peace

All right, at the risk of stepping way, way outside my bounds, I'm going to offer today what seem to me like fairly obvious steps the U.S. could take to change its perceptions in the Middle East, and, more broadly, the Muslim world. I write these in response to an unclassifed briefing I read recently, one given to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military. In this briefing on the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the presenter was showing the outspoken, determined, and above all, persistent aims of radical Islam: to establish a global caliphate to recapture and extend the Muslim empire beyond its 17th century borders. Al Qaeda and its associates aim at nothing less than the establishment of Islamic sharia law on a global scale. If you thought Afghanistan under the Taliban was bad, multiply that by a factor of a 1000. The main points of the presentation seem to be to alert the U.S. leadership to this widescale vision of Islamism, their decades-long timetable for implementation, and the need to combat these aims on several fronts: diplomatic and military. To be honest, the presentation was chilling. As with Hitler's Mein Kampf, these Islamic radicals are signalling well in advance of making a turn; their aspirations are there in bold print for all of us to read, if we're willing.

Anyway, my modest proposal goes like this:

1) I think we've lost the moral edge in the GWOT. If our aspirations as a nation are honorable (and this is debatable, I realize), we've done a very poor job in getting the word out. Somehow our values and aims, which used to be the envy of the world, have slipped from view. In the Middle Eastern perspective, framed by history, their feelings of inferiority as a result, and by the downright manipulation of despotic leaders, many in the Muslim world today see America's intentions in the Middle East solely in terms of the Crusades: we are, to them, at least, a Christian nation which has invaded some of their holiest territories. We are an unwelcome foreign presence, a country whose arrogance, unbridled wealth, immorality and corruption, not to mention overwhelming militarism, are direct threats to their personhood, security, and religion. Our political and military support of Israel (did you know we support Israel to the tune of $15 million a day?!) is seen as blatant endorsement of what, to many in that area, is at best unlawful Zionism and at worst, human injustice. Remember: when Palestinians see armed Israeli military in their territories, they cannot see beyond the "Made in the USA" label on their M-16s, Apache helicoptors, and F-16s. What I propose is a fresh commitment to a peace and propaganda offensive that depicts the best of American ideals and values. I'd love to see us set foot on this peace offensive with tangible steps: first, the appointment of someone to head a philanthropic effort to bolster U.S. support of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working in areas of human relief in the Middle East. What if we were known more and more for our support of hospitals, clinics, food distribution, schools, water purification, and the financing of micro-enterprise? Right now, the groups supporting these efforts are Hamas and Hezbollah. Why do you think they've won popular support? If we led with compassion and publicized these commitments widely, it might shift Muslim perceptions. We don't need to wait until a tsunami (Indonesia) or an earthquake (Pakistan) strike Muslim countries in order to lend them aid. We can do it now. Money spent in proactive relief efforts and the building of helpful infrastructure would be a good investment and might save us a whole lot more money down the road in military spending.

2) I think we need to strive for a more outspoken (and balanced) foreign policy that gives prominence to our support of justice for all peoples. We should stand against indiscriminate violence, whether fomented by terrorist cells or by elected governments. We need to champion those causes for which we've been known in the past: freedom for all peoples, individual worth, justice, human rights, equal opportunity, mutual respect and religious tolerance. I'm afraid we're seen abroad as hypocrites: by our interrogations which cross the line, Abu Ghraib scandals, abuses at Guantanamo, suspension of rights and freedoms at home--we're becoming known for what we've destroyed recently, not for what we've supported historically.

3) I think we need to initiate and commit ourselves to international conversation. We need to be willing to talk, even to our enemies or those in the "Axis of Evil." Reagan spoke with Gorbachev, after all. Not talking does nothing except alienate and antagonize. One of the areas in which we've shot ourselves in the foot worst of all seems to be our unilateralism. Granted, the UN has been disappointing and ineffective in many cases, but going it alone has only hurt us as a nation recently. We've lost our standing and our role as leader, particularly morally. In all other areas of the global economy, there is a flattening and mutual partnership of leadership and ideas--why not in our case internationally, in terms of diplomacy? Can we be builders of consensus, creating healthy process as well as strategic outcomes?

4) We must call for an international conference of moderate Muslims, both those within our country and those abroad. Moderate Islam is the best way to confront radical Islam. What can we do to foster helpful dialog and problem-solving here? Symbolic gestures (like Pope Benedict's trip to Turkey right now) need to be multiplied. Can we reach out a hand of friendship to moderate Muslims everywhere and look for points of common concern and endeavor? Can we make a long-term commitment to such helpful dialog, beginning with listening and empathy?

5) We need to do a much, much better job publicizing the friendly, helpful side of the U.S. military abroad. Can we lead not only with our military technology, but with personal diplomacy--of our soldiers assisting civilians in need? Wouldn't it be interesting if the nightly news (and I'm not talking about Fox) highlighted daily acts of compassion by U.S. military (and not just body counts)?!

So there you have it: a modest proposal for Mideast Peace. I think a lot of these suggestions could begin in the Palestinian territories, honestly. In the last few days, Israel's Ehud Olmert seems to want to move quickly toward a two-state solution and with Condoleeza Rice's aggressive support (and most importantly, with the Palestinian leadership's agreement), we could see some positive things unfold. If we can get in the mix and support both the cause of the Palestinian as well as the Israeli, this could ripple out into the greater Arab world with favorable consequences.

Naturally, it will take a while to undo much suspicion and hostility. But couldn't these steps lead in the right direction?

Am I preachin' or just meddlin'? Let me hear your thoughts!

Truly Homesick

Right now I'm reading Randy Alcorn's Heaven, a popular Christian book about the life to come. Unlike many such popular books, Alcorn's has a bit more thoughtfulness and depth--and cannot be dismissed easily by us snooty theological types. I'm only about eight chapters into the book, but already its effects on me are significant: he's getting me to exercise what I hope is sanctified imagination--helping me to reflect more about our future hope. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to promote in me a form of pious denial of the complexities and suffering in this world, but rather it inspires me to a deeper and more profound engagement in this world, motivated and strengthened by an emergent hope in the world to come. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: if I fix my gaze only on this world I'm usually frustrated and disappointed; but if I fix my gaze on the next world, I'm freed up to engage, enjoy, and serve this current world, while not mistaking it for the world to come. Put succinctly: if you and I aim at this world alone, we'll miss it; but if we aim at the world to come, we'll get this world thrown in.

Alcorn's big points so far seem to be:
1) In the Bible, "Heaven" actually describes two states and stages: first, the intermediate state, into which believers in Jesus enter upon their death; and, secondly, the final state, which believers enjoy after Christ's Second Coming and Judgment Day. This second state is more aptly described as "the new heaven and the new earth" (Revelation 21);
2) Heaven, especially this second aspect or state, has physical attributes and cannot be wholly spiritualized (as the Platonic tradition has tempted us Christians to do). All that we enjoy in this world, those vestiges and remnants of original goodness which are not altogether obscured by sin, death, and evil, are reliable pointers to their ultimate fulfillment in the world to come.

Point #1 involves two truths, which we often wrongly combine simultaneously: 1) upon their deaths, Christians do indeed "go to be with Jesus" (see Philippians 1:23), but 2) this is not their final state, for their bodies have not yet been raised and the new Creation has not been spoken into being by the One who makes all things new. We can confidently maintain that death ushers us out of the pain and strife of this life and into the restful presence of Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). There, conscious of his love, we await the end of history as we know it, when he returns to earth, all bodies are raised, reunited with their souls and judged, and the final state for all is determined.

Point #2 sharpens my appetite for the afterlife. It also lights a fire beneath my soggy imagination. I want to extrapolate: if I enjoy certain good things now, how much better will they be later? Think of it: what would it be like to live in a body which didn't age, get injured, sick, or die? What would it be like to relate to people purely, freely, and in love? What would it be like to not awake daily to reports of bodycounts, abductions, starvation, disease, and natural disasters? What would it be like to walk in woods and next to streams untrammeled by pollution? What would it be like to relate to people from other cultures and races with mutual respect and admiration, untainted by suspicion, prejudice, and fear? What would it be like to amble through life with a light step, unburdened by guilt, shame, and regret? It would be like heaven; that's what it would be like.

"We are homesick for Eden," writes Alcorn, for that prehistoric state of grace and peace, which characterizes true human life--and the life to come. A beautiful piece of music, a moment of delicious joy at a spectacular sunset, a lovely interlude with someone we care about--these are whispers of the world to come. Do we have ears to hear? Are our hearts awake? Do our imaginations stir?

Walls, Walls, Walls

Recently, I've been teaching an adult Sunday School class on the Holy Land. Entitled, "The Fifth Gospel," the class has focused on the geography, climate, topography, history, and spiritual significance of Palestine/Israel. For me as the teacher, preparing for the class has been both overwhelming and deeply rewarding. As I mentioned to someone this fall, it feels to me like I've been living in the Holy Land for several weeks now.

As I've taken the class into the modern period and explored with them some of the complicated and painful issues in the current Arab-Israeli crisis, I've found myself standing on the edge of a swirling vortex, which threatens to suck me deeper and deeper. As I get closer to the chaotic arguments, the swirling currents of rhetoric and politics, the pain and confusion at every twist and turn, my mind reels; I get dizzy with the details and contradictions. I admit I sometimes long for the quiet comfort of ignorance, of living distant from the vortex and its pull. How easy it is to settle for stereotypes on all sides, for half-truths which offer the illusion of a calm eddy.

I could write reams about what I'm learning. I could also share with you some growing passions I feel about biblical justice and some suspicions I have about a few of our foreign policies regarding the Middle East. I'll save that for another time. Besides, as a pastor, sometimes it's risky speaking your mind in things "political" (though I'm finding that biblical convictions, when they affect real life, have an inevitable "political" component, especially as they speak to circumstances in the public square).

But I will tell you of one insight I've had recently about Israel and walls. Most of you know that there's a security wall being built by the Israeli government, ostensibly to protext its citizens from further suicide bombings. What most people don't know is that in many cases, the wall has been built well within Palestinian lands inside the West Bank. It's like your neighbor deciding to build a barbed wire fence--ten feet into your property! When it cuts through your orchards and groves, when it abuts your apartment or cuts off your storefront, when it (and the security checkpoint) prevents you from going to your doctor or hospital or job or relatives in nearby Jerusalem, it's a pretty dehumanizing experience. Walls can be very painful, even as they seek to be protective.

In a recent trip to Washington D.C., I attended a conference on the Holy Land Christian Church (yes, there is an ancient Arab Christian Church in the Holy Land!). We heard about this Israeli security wall and its demoralizing effects on the Palestinian people (and especially on the Arab Christians in the vicinity of Bethlehem). It was very sad. At the end of our trip, I took my oldest son to the National Holocaust Museum. I really want to be attentive to the painful stories of both Jew and Arab and this seemed like a good balance. One exhibit in the museum stayed with me: it was the wall erected by the Nazis to create the Warsaw ghetto. It penned in a people the Nazis suspected of undermining their way of life. It was a prelude to ethnic cleansing. It was a violation of human rights and international law. It was a cruel despicable act.

Walls--in Warsaw, in Bethlehem, along the U.S. border with Mexico. Walls reveal a lot, don't they? They're a sign of suspicion, fear, and hostility. I'm so grateful that Jesus has come to break down the walls that divide us and that in him we can find justice, peace, and reconciliation for all peoples.

At the Crossroads...Literally

I thought the day would never come. Okay, I'll be the first to admit it: in some ways, my wait has a pathetic quality to it. Four years of longing. Four years of mail-ordered coffee, jeopardizing freshness. Mine is likely a passion out of proportion to its cause. Maybe.

But the day did come. The old Crossroads Mall in Boulder was demolished and in its place the new 29th Street Mall has arrived. And one of its new denizens is none other than...Peet's Coffee and Tea! An embassy of California's Bay Area has arrived. I walk in there, inhale the deep-roasted aromas of newly arrived beans, and I'm home.

It's been a joy to celebrate the arrival of Peet's with my new friends in Boulder. I find we have a new connection. I'm struck by how many members of First Presbyterian seem to frequent the place.

Recently, the Saturday morning bike group I'm part of did a "Peet's Ride". As you can see, we snapped a picture of the event. It captures the "Crossroads" experience for me, the alignment of many of the loves in my life: for cycling, for good coffee, for meaningful connections in the context of Christian community, and for a non-threatening bridge to reach out to others beyond the church context. Fun!