Religion Today

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Achieving Success in Iraq

Can the USA achieve success in Iraq? Can the Maliki unity government come to an agreement about sharing oil revenues and other benchmarks facing it? Yes, if . . . .

If, first, the United States recognizes that the government is a unity only in name; it is actually collection of enemies, two of which would sooner destroy each other than talk to each other, namely, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

If, second, the United States organizes negotiations and acts as a strong mediator to ensure the two sides talk seriously and come to an agreement.

The model for understanding the Middle East conflict of Iraq and its Sunni insurgency is that other Middle East hotspot Israel-Palestine. While not exactly the same, the two situations share certain features that enable lessons learned from one to be applied to the other.

Lesson one: the might of arms may bring about victory, but not the end of the conflict. The Israeli army has for decades been able to crush any armed organized Palestinian resistance. But that does mean not that the Palestinians have been pacified. From the PLO terrorist attacks in the 1970s to the Intifada in the 1980s and 1990s to the more recent spates of suicide-bomber attacks, the Palestinians have rejected the right of the Israelis to control them and have struggled for freedom. Military victories have not brought peace, but ongoing friction and hatred. The Israeli army is the focus of the problem, for it is bogged down in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Israeli army can control the Palestinians, but it cannot create a situation in which it can leave successfully.

The United States military finds itself in a similar situation in Iraq. Its army easily took control of Iraq, but there is no peace. The defeated citizens (and outsiders) are still able to mount disruptive bombings, kidnappings, and other activities which reveal that military control does not result in a peaceful society. The United States’ military presence has produced a situation in which the army that controls the country has become a target. Its presence provokes unrest, yet if it leaves then the little civil pacification that exists in Iraq will be lost.

Lesson two: peace agreements come about through negotiations, but enemies do not voluntarily talk to each other; there must be a strong mediator to guide the negotiations and keep the two parties talking until an agreement is reached. This has always been the case with Israel. Whether it was Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy under President Nixon, the Camp David Accords under President Carter, or the Oslo Accords guided by the Norwegian foreign secretary, peace agreements have come about only when outside nations took the lead in providing the setting for negotiations and played a strong mediating role.

It is not surprising then that there have been no agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the last six years, for neither the United States nor any other country has gotten involved in ongoing negotiations between the parties.

This is also the situation in Iraq. The Iraqis had elections and the elected leaders formed a government. But the government has not been able to make the necessary tough decisions because the two sides (leaving out the Kurds for the moment) remain enemies. This has enabled the insurgency to continue unabated. It is time that the United States learned these two lessons and stepped in to provide committed, ongoing mediation that would enable the two sides to reach the needed agreements.

Such negotiations cannot be accomplished by lightning visits from the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, or even the Vice President. Maliki, the leader of the Iraqi government cannot achieve the agreement because he remains a committed partisan of one of the sides; he is a negotiator rather than a mediator. The lessons of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict show that only with the serious, long-term involvement of a strong mediator can the necessary agreements be reached.

If an agreement could be reached by Shiites and Sunnis on the key issues, then the leaders of the communities could show the government is working and delivering results for their side. This would in turn provide leverage so that they would be able to restrain their members. In the end, this might be able to reduce the country’s violence and lead to the restoration of a civil society.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Morality: The Face of Public Christianity

A non-Christian who read recent newspapers to learn about Christianity might arrive at the following picture. Christianity believes that marriage is between a man and woman, so no marriage between members of the same sex. Christianity believes life begins at conception, so no abortion and no stem cell research. Christianity believes that that God created the universe, so evolution should not be taught. Sexual activity belongs in marriage, so no premarital sex. In this picture, Christianity is about actions that people should or should not do; it is about morality. What is missing from this public Christianity are the religion’s core features. Salvation, Scripture, faith and belief have disappeared from public view. How did this happen?

The story begins in the early 1500s, with the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the Christianity of Western Europe was Catholic and centered on community. Based on their doctrinal interpretation of Scripture, Catholicism raised a group of men out of the community to become priests. These priests then mediated between God and the people to bring salvation, forgiveness, and blessings from God to the people. The church stood with individuals before God, buffering them in his majestic presence.

Martin Luther changed all that, starting in 1517. Instead of the church standing with the individual, Luther held that individuals stood alone before God, with only their faith, based on their understanding of Scripture, alongside them.

Despite this theological change, the social reality altered surprisingly little. Individuals still lived in communities and these communities shared a single doctrinal interpretation of Scripture. Individuals did not interpret Scripture on their own, but rather followed their community’s understanding. Often these communities were formed around the teachings of influential theologians and leaders. Luther founded the Lutherans, John Calvin founded the Reformed Church and influenced the Puritans, while John Knox organized the Presbyterians. And these are just a couple of the communities, the churches if you will, created from the Reformation. So early forms of Protestantism took a similar structure to Catholicism: Each was a community who brought a common interpretation to Scripture, which in turn led to common social norms—i.e., morality.

The Puritans brought this communally-organized Christianity to America, where they established a new community that would help individuals lead moral lives in keeping with the Puritan interpretation of Scripture.

But Luther’s dictum of the individual alone still rang out. When Roger Williams interpreted Scripture for himself in the 1630s, the Massachusetts Puritans expelled him. Williams believed in a radical understanding of Luther’s dictum: The church should be separate from the government so that the church could not use government powers to enforce doctrine and interpretation on individuals.

Williams’s idea become the foundation of America’s religious freedom. By the 1680s, variety was the religious flavor of the era. Formulations of Christian beliefs called catechisms proliferated. Puritan preacher Increase Mather thought that “over 500” different catechisms were circulating at the time. Over the next century or more, European immigrants brought in new Protestant denominations and Americans created their own.

By the 1800s, Christians realized all this religious freedom fragmented Christianity and interfered with its ability to accomplish the great deeds needed. So they banded together into non-denominational organizations to take on moral projects. To accomplish this unity, they overlooked doctrinal features which divided them. Thus the great ethical movements of the century were founded: anti-slavery, temperance, women’s suffrage, and missionary projects to evangelize both foreign peoples and the USA’s “unchurched” masses. By the mid-twentieth century, new non-denominational groups joined with those of a more secular bent in the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements.

The lessons of these movements was that if the divided Christian populace overlooked matters of doctrine and Scripture interpretation, they could unify on moral issues. Towards the end of the twentieth century, a new alliance of Christians was formed. Since the great moral concerns of slavery and personal civil rights had been resolved (more or less), these groups took up new ones. Thus the Right to Life movement, for example, took up the cause of the unborn. This brought together an alliance of conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons, who were able to overlook their differences on doctrine and Scripture, to unite on what they saw as a great moral concern.

Morality is thus great religious unifier, where different religious groups can agree. They may arrive at those moral positions through different doctrinal interpretations of Scripture, even from different versions of Scripture. But to strengthen their unity, they ignore those differences. The public unity of Christianity, as apparent in American news coverage, comes from morality rather than doctrine.