I have been immensely saddened these past two weeks by the news from Palestine, Israel and Lebanon. The violence there seems to know no ending. And here in the United States where so much of the responsibility lies for action and inaction both, the cold and watchful eye of empire looks on, and our government views the violence as a necessary evil or as a corrective on the way to a “lasting peace.” The voice of protest is unheard or unheaded.
We liturgically oriented Christians, particularly in the Northern hemisphere, are given these days to calling this period of the Church year “ordinary time,” an awful phrase meshing with the long slow days of summer and vacation and lack of direction. At least the season of Pentecost or Trinity gave it some focus. But the phrase “ordinary time” lulls us to inattention. The world, even the church world, is not sleeping at all. There is no ordinary time, for every moment is filled, and the cup overflows. Events are crowding in, and no more so than in the violence of the last two weeks.
It is time to wake up. What is happening in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and in the whole of the Middle East, is no “ordinary time” matter.
Some international violence takes place, to my great shame, without my having any personal stake in the matter. The election process, or lack thereof, in Congo, for example, concerns me, but only at a distance. I know no one from Congo. I have never been there. The people are real, but distantly there. But about many places – Haiti, Romania, The Philippines, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda and so many others the distance is lessened by the memory and presence of friends and the memories of place. Sitting in Lewes, Delaware, by the sea, I am transported by the heart and mind to some more essential dread on hearing the news of turmoil and violence and death. I am remembering the death of people in places I know.
On two occasions in the past weeks good friends have been unable to contain their emotions on matters concerning Palestine and Israel and Lebanon and in moments they bolted from conversation with others to yelling at them, faces contorted with pain and anger. These were friends who have stood out for peace and against the war in Iraq, who have wanted a way out of the violence of our times. And they became what they despised, angry shells the violence itself. I found it hard to know what to do, except just be there with them.
In 1979 I went to Lebanon to visit refugee camps in Beirut and near Tyre and Sidon. I saw the results of earlier Israeli bombing raids. Those places have been bombed again in recent days. Photos of bomb casings and burnt out buildings look the same this year as they did twenty-seven years ago. While in the South of Lebanon those many years ago I was in a camp and looked across to the buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel. That camp may have been hit this week. I don’k know.
I knew then that the camp and the area we were in was a place of anger and frustration, and considerable political turmoil. There were the same factions operating in the area then as now, and the same problem of the camps being used as pawns in the terrible political dances being played out. But no one could solve the problem of the camps, except to say that the camps were the microcosm of the larger conflicts, with outside players pulling the strings and the majority of the refugees trapped in place.
I have met and know people of very many opinions about the complex matters of Middle East conflict and have heard arguments of all sorts. I have been in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Egypt. Everyone had a piece of the story of the violence and its effect. But in the end I continue to be struck by the extent to which the carving up of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was done without consulting, much less following, the will of any of the peoples in the area. What emerged as Iran,Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the British Mandate in Palestine, and later Israel, Gaza and the West Bank (aka the trans-Jordan) and finally an emerging state of Palestine, were all carved out of the area by outside forces working with inside forces using various peoples to ends not entirely of their own making.
The end result, more or less a hundred years later, is a political quagmire so intensely confused as to make any sort of solution almost impossible. The impossibility quotient is greatly provoked by the continued intervention by major outside powers, notably the United States of America.
Every Sunday afternoon that I can I stand in Lewes on a street corner for 45 minutes with a group of people in a silent vigil. We are there to remember the human costs of war. And we carry signs naming the number of Americans dead and wounded, and the number of Iraqi civilians killed.
When will we have to start widening the numbers? More American military are being put at risk, some who were to return home are not able to do so, and more reservists are being called up. The number of Iraqi civilians being killed by the results of the imbalance brought on by this war grows at a frightening rate. It is hard to know if what is going on is a civil war, a factional dispute, gang violence by other names, or tribal conflicts. But whatever it is, the numbers of dead are growing. And what of the deaths that arise elsewhere, seemingly from other conflicts? Are they related?
The destruction of the cruelly imposed balance in Iraq has led to a different sort of imbalance, one that involves not members of a given state, but members of peoples who flow over into other states. Now the imbalance is seen even more strongly on a regional level, involving religious and tribal loyalties that trickle out to the edges of Lebanon and its camps, and into the workings of Iran as a power against Israel, and to Israel and its relation to the Palestinian people. And through all of it can be seen the hand of the United States.
We are now supporting Israel and Iraq with huge grants, defense packages, and in Iraq with troops on the ground. At various times we have made grants to the Palestinian Authority as well. We no doubt will again. We are going to have to anti-up on reconstruction of Lebanon and the toughing of its abilities to control Hezbollah. It is impossible to tell at the moment what all this will mean regarding Iran, but President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are pushing Iran pretty hard.
At some point an awful variant of the domino effect seems likely. The very fragile and unpleasant status quo has been disrupted by the War in Iraq. It may be that the US Government planners, along with British counterparts, knew this would happen. But it seems clear they don’t now know what to do with the melt down of peace processes all across the region. We will be fortunate indeed if we don’t end up in a region wide set of wars and conflicts all working for realignment, but none with the same focus or purpose.
What are we as church people here in America supposed to do? Pray, of course. Pray for peace. Remember before God those who have died, and those who live. Yes, of course.
But what else?
The General Convention “Summary of Actions” stated that regarding the War in Iraq, it “Reiterated opposition to the war in Iraq and called on Congress and the president to immediately develop a plan to stabilize Iraq that will allow U.S. troops to come home, called on all Episcopalians "as an act of penitence, to oppose and resist through advocacy, protest and electoral action the continuation of the war in Iraq," asked the (SCLM) to commission prayers and liturgies for use in the time of war and asked the church to pray for and help the wounded and those who have died (D020)”
So we can “as an act of penitence, oppose and resist through advocacy, protest and electoral action the continuation of the war in Iraq.” So keep on resisting. But what else?
It is perhaps time to bring the war home. Surrogate warriors in invented countries fighting each other so that no power exists that can keep the oil from flowing, and support for the State of Israel so we in the US can feel alright about having been anti-Semitic in the past and in the present, and bringing democracy in on the coattails of imperialistic arrogance, in which we “take out” dictators when it serves our agendas – all these need to be brought home.
Perhaps the church needs to begin, as an act of penitence, to call the people of this wonderful nation to account: We arrogantly consume everything in the world and we have no right to do so. We arrogantly claim to be a Christian nation, when we have no right to do so. We arrogantly exercise judgment on other nation states, executing our will on them, when we have no right to do so.
The Church needs to call the Nation to account. We cannot continue to expect the world to be at our beck and call, or expect our own people to conform to a religious vison never envisioned as part of the civic order.
Perhaps no one will listen. But God will.