Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Body of Christ in Lebanon

by Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine

Like many of you, I have been glued to CNN and other cable news channels and feeling my heart broken by the vivid scenes of war's devastation and human suffering in the Middle East. We mourn this violence and, habitually, pray for peace. But what does that mean? What is the context and why is this happening?

Let me first say that I affirm Israel's existence and its right to live in peace and security. Let me also say that I believe Hezbollah has provoked this current crisis. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has built a stockpile of thousands of rockets, continued attacks on Israel, and then, recently, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

So we start by condemning kidnapping and Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli civilians. Hezbollah is a militant organization and movement that uses terrorism, i.e., it deliberately carries out lethal violence against innocent civilians. And no matter what the grievances or injustices, deliberate violence against civilians must be universally and unequivocally condemned as what a group of Palestinian intellectuals after 9/11 called a "short path to hell." Killing innocent civilians (often families and children) is evil and must be steadfastly opposed, and in response to such ugly violence we must draw a clear line in the sand. Further, Hezbollah is an organization that does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has vowed to destroy it. So let's be clear, by kidnapping Israeli soldiers and attacking Israeli cities with rocket attacks aimed directly at civilians, Hezbollah provoked this latest war.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, who has been critical of Israel's "disproportionate" response, has also assailed Hezbollah's tactics: "Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children."

Hezbollah's rocket attacks into northern Israel have killed 19 civilians and injured hundreds more. But the disproportionate Israeli air strikes in Lebanon, with their horrible death toll among civilians with nothing to do with Hezbollah must also be condemned. The latest estimate is more than 400 Lebanese civilians killed, with the needless destruction of the country's infrastructure, which took 15 years to rebuild after the devastating civil war. Israel has gone after Hezbollah, but is destroying Lebanon and, don't forget, its fledgling democracy. And let there be no double standards when it comes to how we label "terrorist" acts. When a nation state, such as Israel, carries out military policies which it knows will kill many civilians, including the use of cluster bombs, and deliberately targets civilian infrastructures and areas, does not the label also apply?

This week, Ze'ev Maoz, an Israeli professor, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "This war is not a just war. Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy ..." Another Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, wrote, "This war must be stopped now and immediately. From the start it was unnecessary, even if its excuse was justified, and now is the time to end it. Every day raises its price for no reason, taking a toll in blood that gives Israel nothing tangible in return."

The U.S. has provided no real leadership thus far, being unwilling to embrace the international call for a ceasefire. It has rather been Israel's major supporter and has expedited the shipment of additional weapons. I also believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has, inadvertently, contributed to the ascendancy of Iran and radical Islam in the region. Robert Kuttner, of The American Prospect magazine, who has been a constant critic of the U.S. war in Iraq, recently wrote: "Bush did not create radical Islamism, but he certainly gave it a boost. The point is not that the rulers of Iran, the Baghdad suicide bombers, and the fanatics of Hamas and Hezbollah are misunderstood good folks who need only a naïve olive branch from the west. On the contrary, these forces menace everything modern and democratic. They must be stopped, not appeased. The issue is the most practical and effective way of containing them." And that is indeed the issue.

Ultimately, the U.S. must take an active role in helping to negotiate a ceasefire and prisoner release, in the creation and deployment of an international force on the Israel-Lebanon border, and in aiding in the enormous humanitarian crisis that has resulted (the World Health Organization estimates 860,000 people have been displaced.) And, if the situation is not to spiral out of control in a wider regional war, the U.S. must also talk to Iran and Syria. The whole idea of diplomacy is trying to talk to your enemies and not just your friends.

For Christians there are also deeper issues involved regarding faith and the body of Christ. It's time for American Christians to start listening to Christians and churches in the Middle East, and Lebanon would be a good place to start. How many American Christians even know that Lebanon has had, for much of its history, a sizable number of Christians? Current estimates are 1.5 million Christians, or 40% of the population - which means there are fellow Christians potentially affected as casualties and refugees by the U.S. backed Israeli military attacks.

It's time to challenge the theology of Christian Zionism advanced by many of the American Religious Right who are completely uncritical of Israel's behavior and totally oblivious to the sufferings (or even the existence) of Arab Christians in the Middle East. These Arab Christians may not be sympathetic to the tactics of Hezbollah, but they are certainly not supportive of the highly disproportionate military responses of Israel which now target their own families and fellow Arab Christians. Where is the American church's solidarity with them? In the Middle East battles between Islamic terrorism and Israeli military attacks, the perspective of Middle Eastern churches might indeed provide a much needed third perspective.

The people of Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine have suffered enough. It's time for immediate action by the U.S. and the world community to achieve a situation in which Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine are secure and viable states living side-by-side in peace.