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How A Visit To Iraq Can Change

How A Visit To Iraq Can Change

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10, Jesus responded by making it clear that when Christians see a stranger who has been robbed and injured, they respond with generous assistance. What is far less clear is what to do when we encounter the victim a few minutes earlier—while they are in the process of being robbed and beaten. Are we to hide until the beating is over and then care for the victim? Or do we join the victim by offering to be robbed ourselves? Do we yell, from a distance, for the robbers to stop, while doing nothing to impede them? Or do we threaten to use force to stop the violence? Do we threaten to call the police to use force on our behalf? What would Jesus do?

I pondered these questions as I spent four weeks in Iraq immediately following the last Gulf War. For two weeks, I worked with Médecins Sans Frontières assisting the Kurdish refugees of Iraq’s civil war. In the following two weeks, I traveled throughout Iraq as a humanitarian pacifist with the Gulf Peace Team. I can assure you, it was easy to see that the vast majority of the Iraqi people are in the process of being oppressed and beaten everyday. I can also assure you that the majority of the Iraqi people will be the severely disappointed if there is no change of leadership in Iraq. This begs the question: Are the Iraqi people our neighbors?

I am troubled by the prospect of war, even as I am troubled by the prospect of law-enforcement in general (particularly given the record of many inner-city police forces). Yet both seem, at times, to be necessary. It appears there are some people for whom the threat of force is a deterrent, and actual force seems necessary at times to ensure these people don’t gain the power to cause greater harm. Is anyone such a committed pacifist that they would not have called the police if they had known how to find the Washington snipers? And if the snipers possessed weapons of mass destruction—and had used these weapons to coerce the people of Maryland into protecting them—would anyone object to calling in the national police—the military—rather than the local police? Is anyone such a committed pacifist that, despite gaining advance evidence of the 9/11 plot, they would not have reported the hijackers to the police because they knew lethal force would possibly be necessary to arrest these men?

If one believes that the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq was a good thing, it seems appropriate to offer due credit to those who used the threat of force to bring this attempt to pass. Almost everyone acknowledges that without the threat of force—by both the U.N. and the Bush administration—the weapons inspectors would not have been readmitted to Iraq, and the partial compliance of Saddam would never have occurred. Without the “bad cop” threat of force by the U.N. and the Bush administration, there could be no “good cop” of the inspectors. Therefore, the position of those calling for ongoing inspections relies entirely on the unwavering position of the Bush administration they decry.

Yet many anti-war protestors rise up to wash their hands of the very “warmongers” who have taken the necessary steps to assure the return of the inspectors and potentially strengthen the United Nations. Do those protesting expect the Bush administration to acknowledge openly that they are only posing as the world’s “bad cop” because, at this moment, no one else is willing to shoulder that necessary burden? If the Bush administration were to state their threat of force was actually a bluff, does anyone doubt that Saddam would immediately throw out the inspectors?

My commitment to pacifism was profoundly challenged by the reality of Saddam’s Iraq—which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t profoundly respect, and even be tempted to join, a pacifist army willing to march on Saddam and demand an end to his injustice through nonviolent resistance. Their imprisonment (or worse) would likely serve as the tripwire for violent conflict, but at least the pacifists would have made an effort to confront the oppression in Iraq.

Yet the careful use of force seems necessary at times. How long would anyone choose to live in a city where the local police publicly promise they will not use force to arrest anyone? Sadly, “bad cops” seem necessary in the world, and inspections “work” only because troops are massed on the borders of Iraq.

I arrived in Iraq a pacifist Christian and left Iraq as a Bonhoeffer Christian. During World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved in a plan to assassinate Hitler and was killed by the Nazis upon discovery of the plot. His books, particularly The Cost of Discipleship, are considered classics of Christian literature. I’m not comfortable with his willingness to embrace the use of force, but I tend to be less comfortable with the alternatives, particularly the alternative of doing nothing, or worse yet, protesting against the “bad cops” before they have clearly abused their power. Jesus only modeled the use of a weapon and the threat of force once in his ministry—when he used a whip and turned over tables in the process of clearing the temple—yet I believe that one day Jesus will come in power to liberate this world—and that will be one joy-filled day indeed.

I’m not suggesting that the U.S. use of force can be compared to God’s use of force. As a nation, we’re prone to make mistakes that God wouldn’t make (although I’d still like to ask God about the Uzzah [getting killed for the steadying the ark] thing). However, our democratic traditions, including the protesters in the street, tend to make us less prone to error than many nations, or at least help us to learn from our mistakes. Our democratic freedoms, when mixed with our cultural diversity, have equipped us with economic, military and political strength for sacrificial service as the best “bad cop” on the world’s block.

One of the New Testament passages that I think best exemplifies Christian aspirations in international relations is in Philippians 2: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” As I seek to discern my response in this conflict, I use this passage to illuminate my way. The primary interests I’m concerned about are the interests of the Iraqi people, as well as the interests of all the people of the world who will benefit from effective international law.

The person on the world stage who I think most embodies the Philippians passage at this moment is Tony Blair. He seems to be looking to the interests of the Iraqi people and the long-term security of the world with near disregard for his personal political fortunes. I have little doubt that whatever humanitarian impulses there are in the Bush administration, the self-interest also runs deep. Control of oil resources, prospects for future military campaigns, muscle flexing and revenge for the assassination plot against Bush Sr. may all factor into the legitimate humanitarian and national defense reasons for the campaign. I have no doubt that ongoing American comfort plays a big factor in the thinking within the White House—the comfort of living in big houses and driving gas-guzzling cars in particular. Sadly, for the sake of that comfort, many members of the Bush administration would be happy to have a new, disarmed, pro-western, oppressive dictator in Iraq.

While I am not naïve about the mixed motives of the Bush administration, I am profoundly concerned about the isolationist messages from many on the left. The left I have loved is profoundly committed to human rights—often embodying the call to look to the interests of others. The left I have loved is more committed to justice than to being anti-war and crying “peace” when there is no peace. The left I have loved marched for sanctions and U.S. intervention against an oppressive minority government in South Africa, rather than against sanctions and intervention. The left I have loved would have been just as vocal about the sudden unilateral bombing by the Clinton administration as they are about the extensively discussed considerations of the Bush administration. The left I have loved would not be content with non-intervention in the affairs of countries intent on engaging in the nuclear arms race or the use of the MAD doctrine (Mutually Assured [nuclear] Destruction) of national defense. The left I have loved would at least consider sanctioning the use of force in the name of human rights, rather than only sanctioning the use force by I.R.S. tax collectors in the name of government social programs. The left I have loved would have been more concerned about the mistreatment of the Iraqi people than about the comfort of claiming to be “anti-war.”

This new left seems to be profoundly committed to its own comfort. This, for me, is the most troubling aspect of the current world dialogue. This new left, rather than take seriously its need to play “good cop” while being appreciative of the administration’s “bad cop,” seems to be determined to embrace the illusion that no cops are necessary. As such, they absolve themselves of the responsibility to be a neighbor to the Iraqi people or to uphold the U.N. as an arbiter of international law. I am increasingly doubtful this new left would have fought to save the Jews in Europe or to free the slaves in America, to say nothing of resisting the truly evil empire of the former Soviet Union. While the Christians among the new left claim to be acting like Jesus, I find them sounding more like Pilate—seeking to wash their hands of the difficult decisions that face us in Iraq and around the world.

This desire for the comfort of clean hands is understandable. However, it will not help the Iraqi people. Moreover, it is not as concerned with the interests of others as much as with the personal comfort of clean hands. At the moment, I generally find more willingness among those on the right to get their hands dirty by making the hard decisions and short-term sacrifices necessary to create a more just world. Among the mainstream left, I increasingly hear those who are embracing the desire of the extreme right to isolate ourselves within our own borders and care only about our domestic interests. I see the “No Blood for Oil” stickers on gas-guzzling vehicles in my neighborhood but apparently, the hidden message is “No American Blood for Oil”—the blood of the oppressed Iraqis is not a major source of concern.

This quest for comfort is unsurprising among those who are not people of faith. I don’t expect those who are not committed to a biblical worldview to act out of biblical impulses. But for those on the left and the right who are people of faith, comfortable self-interest cannot be our first option. For some, the necessary sacrifices may come in the nonviolent action by going to Iraq to demand the end of oppression by Saddam, or it may come, as it did for Bonhoeffer, in some form of military service. To stay at home and scapegoat the Bush administration for rising to its obligations to both defend the oppressed Iraqi people and to limit future threats of mass destruction can hardly be seen as a fulfillment of Christian aspirations.

Victor Eremita is an obedient hound living in Copenhagen, NY.
Email: [email protected]




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