2 Samuel 11-12: A Contemporary Reading

After a long campaign in which David’s reign had been threatened, and his people had been subject to attack, David had finally consolidated his power. He took land from neighboring countries in order to provide a buffer between Israel and its enemies. He developed military technologies that dwarfed that of his neighbors. But still, he felt threatened. So it happened, late one afternoon, when King David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he could see a land just beyond the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel; his army had already occupied the land, but non-Israeli’s continued to live there. David sent someone to inquire about the land. It was reported, ‘this is Palestinian territory, the land of the Palestinians.’ So David sent Israelis to settle in the land, and built a wall for the security of Israel that encompassed much of what was previously Palestinians territory, and because the Palestinians were without military might or powerful supporters, the land quickly fell to David.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and, he was fearful of thinning his flock lest he be without sufficient meat at some point in the future, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon; I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; in the face of previous conflicts with the Palestinians I have given you military superiority and American power to support you. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down the Palestinians with the sword, and have taken Palestinian territory to be your land, you have deprived a people of the right to self-rule, robbed from the West Bank and have overseen the development of humanitarian crises in Gaza.’ David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’

Is there Hope for Israel/Palsetine?

Hope is not drawn from the world-that-is.  Hope is grounded in perceptions of the world-that-ought-to-be.  It arises from the power of the world-that-ought-to-be.  For Christians, the world-that-ought-to-be is the eschatological Kingdom of God.  It is expected in the future, in God’s time.  But, it is also in the present, which is God’s time.  The Kingdom is a perpetual possibility, even as its realization must be perpetually deferred in its fullness.

For the Christian, then, hope is always present.  But this does not mean that we can always see a path to the realization of our hope, or even what exactly our hope would look like in its fulfillment.  One of the central questions of Christian politics is how to act in the light of our hope, but also in the light of the entrenched reality of sinful rebellion and injustice in the world-that-is.  How do we act out of our hope even as we refuse to look away from the power of entrenched conceptions of human interest, especially in nationalist, racist, and tribalistic formulations?  How does hope manifest itself in a world where a tension-filled balance of power is usually closer to justice than peaceful domination by any one party?  There are times when waiting upon God’s action is the only viable manifestation of such hope, but there are other times when such hope must be manifest in our own action.  Determining what is called for requires discerning the signs of the times.

In recent decades, active hope has been near the bounds of unrealism as regards Israel/Palestine.  This is because of the asymmetry of power in the relationship between Israel and Palestine.  Israel is empowered by its relation with the superpower of the United States, by its possession of advanced technology (especially nuclear weapons), and by its tradition of military victories in the region.  Palestine is disempowered by its lack of political unity, its historical occupation by its Arab neighbors, and its current occupation (and in the case of Gaza, isolation) at the hands of Israeli forces.  This power imbalance has allowed Israel to calculate that, despite the crisis of human and civil rights that it creates, the perpetual occupation of Palestine and the expansion of Israel into Palestinian territory is in Israel’s best interests.

Throughout this time, the strongest card that Palestine has had to play concerned demographics.  Due to greater birth rates, Palestinians will eventually outnumber the Israelis in Israeli occupied territories (including the state of Israel).  As such, the world would surely, eventually demand the recognition of this majority, even as it eventually recognized the rights of native Africans in South Africa.

This argument had influenced a wide range of Israeli politicians, including Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the withdrawal of all Israelis from Gaza in 2005.  The program was a diplomatic failure due to the unilateral nature of Israel’s actions, but it did signal some modicum of realism in Israel’s leadership.  Unfortunately, this argument did not seem to impress Benjamin Netanyahu, the present prime minister of Israel.

In early November, Hamas, who is in charge of the Gaza strip, along with other militant organizations in Gaza, participated in an offensive against Israel.  Many, including myself, wondered what was to be gained by such an offensive.  Gaza attempted a similar offensive in 2009.  I was in Israel at the time, and can still remember watching footage of the Israeli strikes on television while much of the Palestinian portions of Jerusalem closed in protest over Israel’s activities.  Hamas and its allies were soundly routed in that campaign, and Gaza is still severely outgunned by Israel.  The current conflict produced to over 160 Gazan casualties (with as many as half civilian and near 40 children included) in comparison to 6 Israeli casualties.

In retrospect however, what may seem significant is Hamas’ insight in escalating the current conflict.  Two aspects, at least, distinguished this instance of conflict from the last.  First was the advanced range of Hamas’ reach.  In previous efforts, the militants in Gaza have been greatly limited in range and targeting capability when firing their rockets.  This time, Gazans showed their ability to reach Tel Aviv, far beyond their previous capability, even while targeting effectiveness was quite limited.  The expansion in range was countered with Israel’s development of its “Iron Dome,” an anti-missile system, but it points toward the failure of Israel in restricting the influx of more developed weaponry into Gaza, thus suggesting the possibility of overcoming Israel’s defenses in the future.

Second, and more substantively, the outcome of the current conflict reveals the significance of the Arab Spring.  During the conflict, diplomats from around the Sunni Arab world made it a point to appear in Gaza.  This complicated Israel’s military strikes, but also signaled a new willingness to become involved in the conflict at a more significant level.  More significant than this symbolism, however was the power shift that the Arab Spring has brought in the relation between Egypt and Israel.  With Israel concerned about instability in Syria and Jordan, maintaining workable relations with Egypt has become even more important for Israel.  At the same time, the demise of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of Mohammed Morsi has made Egypt more sympathetic to Hamas than it has been in the last half century, and more interest in the establishment of a long term two state solution.  As such, Egypt is more willing to open itself to the responsibility of overseeing Gaza, and provides a less enthusiastic partner for Israel in maintaining the isolation of Gaza.

Whatever the culminating reasons, Israel was forced to agree to a ceasefire that appears to be moderately more conciliatory toward Gaza than previous agreements have been.  While vague, the ceasefire agreement  indicates that the future will improve the lives of those in Gaza.  In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, steps have already been taken to ease the almost total isolation of Gaza that Israel and Egypt had previously maintained.

None of this is to say that progress is a foregone conclusion.  As recent internal conflict has shown, while Egypt has an important regional role to play, the country is still extremely fragile.  The rise of Hamas’ power produces more problems vis-á-vis its relation with Fatah, the current governing faction in the West Bank, and the de facto central party in the Palestinian Authority.  Hamas also continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.  In addition to being morally unsustainable, this position provides a moral alibi for those who wish to avoid diplomatic engagement with Hamas and Palestine.   Hamas has gained a number of short term victories due to its aggressive militant stance, the most recent being the current ceasefire agreement.  Hamas must now realize that, with the power shifting in the region, long term progress will only be gained by showing that it is open to compromise, provided that the compromise establishes the conditions for the development of a workable Palestinian State.  Finally, it is unclear whether Palestine, under the guidance of any political party, is ready to govern itself.  This is, in part, due to Israel’s fomenting partisan division in Palestinian society, and its inhibition of the development of adequate institutions.  Still, these are problems that ultimately Palestinians must face.

Within this mix, America has a key role to play.  Barack Obama came out strong in the early months of his first term in favor of resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Later, however, with the erosion of political capital that came with domestic policy battles, he moved the issue to the back burner.  Eventually, in the effort to gain re-election, he came to as much of a publicly pro-Israel stance as any other modern president.  Since the current outbreak of fighting, Obama has been, unsuccessfully, attempting to play the middle ground: defending Israel’s almost unqualified “right to defense” while eventually praising Morsi for his role in resolving the conflict.  If, for his legacy, Obama wishes to make progress on Israel/Palestine, he would do well to take advantage of the emerging power situation in the Middle East to pressure Israel into negotiations more serious than Clinton was able to manage.  This would require more imagination and will than any recent American administration has mustered.  Still, the beginning of one’s last term in office is the most opportune time for exhibiting such will.

So, is there hope for Palestine/Israel?  In the light of the coming and present Kingdom of God, there is always hope.  But there is also reason to think that this hope may be more fertile ground for action than has been the case in the recent past.  There is much work to be done, but hope must carry us on to the effort that is required.  We have seen enough of the world-that-is, and must yearn, and now act for a greater approximation of the world-that-ought-to-be.

Originally posted at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/hope-israelpalsetine/

The Devil You Know? Christianity and the Crisis in Syria

The New York Times recently ran a story highlighting the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church opposes any international intervention in Syria to overthrow the current regime there.  This news may have surprised many Western Christians who have viewed events in Syria as a conflict between forces of democracy and a military authoritarian dictatorship.  After all, the Assad regime has revealed its lack of legitimacy by responding to the popular and largely peaceful uprising in its country with violence – most recently allowing the horrific massacre of children in Houla.  How could Christians lend aid to such a regime?

As I shall suggest below, in the final analysis I do not find the position of the Russian Orthodox Church viable.  The publication of its position, however, offers an opportunity for western Christians to stop for a moment and reflect upon the ambiguities of all political action in the world.

First, as Reinhold Niebuhr would remind us, all particular political conflicts must be understood within a broader story of the struggle for power.  In this case, the roots of the contemporary struggle lay centuries in the past.   For our purposes, the story begins in the coastal mountains of present day Syria, where a relatively small ethnic group took on its own distinctive form of Islam sometime in the ninth century.  Though the full shape of this religious tradition is still not clear, the Alawites practice a form of Shi’a Islam which has always appeared heterodox to the Sunni majority that surrounds them.  The famed medieval Sunni scholar Ibn Taimiyya called for jihad against this group for their heresy.  Despite consistent animosity from Sunni rulers, the Alawites managed to survive by isolating themselves and by developing superior martial skills to thwart aggression from outside force.  Alawite identity was formed in the crucible of threats brought by majority Sunni regimes.

When the French imperialism arrived in Syria, the Alawites saw the French as yet another oppressive external force.  The French, however, came to see something valuable in the Alawites.  Imperial politics always ran more smoothly if the Empire could keep indigenous populations fighting each other rather than focusing on the Empire itself.    The empowerment of minorities thus became an important element in the imperial strategy of keeping the majority off balance.  It was here that the odd alliance between Christians and Alawites began.  Drawing on the services of Alawites, Druze, Christians and other minorities, the French began to build the infrastructure of a modern state.  Many Alawites found that participating in military service on behalf of the French was better than the bleak alternatives they faced.   Thus, the official military of Syria came to be populated primarily by this ethnic and religious minority.

Independence led, as it almost always did, to a series of military coups.  Ultimately, it was the Alawites who were ideally located to take control, and much of the chaos in this period concerned exactly which Alawites would emerge triumphant.  By the end of 1970, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite, emerged as the leader of the Ba’ath party and the Syrian state.

Assad was well aware of his position.  His strength did not rest primarily in popular legitimacy.  Assad’s government continued to run on the infrastructure built by the French.  As such, it was a government of the minorities.  Alawites, Druze, and Christians maintained power disproportionate to their share of the populace.  On the positive side, the Syrian government became an advocate for “minority rights,” even extending equal status to women.  On the negative site, the majority of the populace was disempowered, and chafed under the power of the often heavy-handed minority.  Human rights such as the right to free speech were often quashed to prevent the organization of opposition to the government.

Machiavelli once wrote that for the ruler “it is better to be feared than loved.”  Given the structure of his government, it may never have been a viable option for Assad to woo the populace.  In any case, the Alawite majority in the military made it much easier to be feared.  In 1982, Assad ended a rebellious campaign by Sunni Islamists by razing the city of Hama.  Tens of thousands were killed, the majority civilians.  While it was morally reprehensible, the Hama massacre was a strategic success.  Sunni militancy was largely eradicated in Syria, and the majority accepted their position under Assad’s rule.

Many had high hopes that when Bashar, Hafez’ son, came to power in 2000 there would be a new day in Syria.  Early on Bashar freed many political prisoners and pursued more liberal economic policies.  By the end of the first year of his reign, however, liberalization was replaced with a new military crackdown.  Whether it was Bashar himself or the Alawite infrastructure that drew back the reigns of liberalization has never been clear.  What is clear is that the minority’s fear of majority power trumped the desire for democratization.

It was in this context that the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in early 2011.  Protests in Syria followed on the heels of other populist uprisings that were toppling autocrats throughout the region.  Those in the west saw this as yet another stop in a great wave of democratizing power.  The Assad regime saw the rise of an Islamist Sunni threat.  In an attempt to return to the strategic success of 1982, the regime turned to overwhelming violence.  Even now, the regime continues to contend that it is in a pitched battle primarily against Islamic terrorists.

In drawing on the example of 1982, the Assad regime misunderstood the situation.  The Arab Spring, though it has opened the way for various populist forms of Islamism in some countries, was broader than Islamism.  It was grounded in grievances concerning economic and social justice that were not exclusively Islamic, and certainly not exclusive to militant Islam.  Against a movement with such broad appeal, the Assad regime’s reaction tended to strengthen rather than weaken the opposition.

Contradictory interpretations of the situation continue to play havoc in international society.  As the Russian Orthodox Church looks over the situation it does so with one eye on the Christian minority in the country and another on the long history of conflict on the region.  The Patriarch of Antioch (which is based in Damascus, not Antioch, Turkey) is responsible for a large portion of the Christian minority who have benefited from participation in the minority rule in Syria.  These Christians see their future as tied to the fortunes of the Alawite minority.  Alawites and Christians are driven by fear of the return of Sunni majority rule in Syria, not seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Such a shift would necessarily lead to an erosion of the power of Christians in the state, and may lead to violent reprisals from the long oppressed majority.

The calculation of the Orthodox Church, then, is that the devil that they know is better than the one which would come if the current regime is toppled.  There is much truth in their analysis.  Choices within human politics are always choices between imperfect options.  As Augustine reminds us, whoever imposes peace in the saeculum, it pales in comparison to the peace of God.  This does not, however, alleviate our responsibility in choosing.

As I see things, the concerns of the Orthodox, and the Alawites need to be taken seriously by the international community as it moves forward.  Promises of protection for minorities in Syria in any coming transition of power are necessary in order to sooth the fears that aggravate the conflict.  Robust efforts to provide such protection are a requirement of justice.

Beyond this, however, I would call my Orthodox brethren to hope in what can happen when we leave the devil we know.  “Hope” as Charles Mathewes writes, “is surprising – indeed it is the capacity to be joyfully surprised.”  In politics, hope should not be deployed blindly.  Given the moderate Islamist regime that has evolved in Turkey, and the shape of regimes that seem to be emerging in many other post-Arab Spring States, there is reason to think that it is possible to enter into a period where new relations might emerge between Islam and minorities across the Middle East.  There is, however, no certainty that such relations will emerge, and even less reason to think that these new relations will be established and secured quickly or without intervening conflict.

Hope, even when it is not blind, is always a risk.  Short of the eschaton, there are no guarantees.  For this reason, I do not call for hope lightly.  It is all too easy for one far away to call for such hope from those whose power and lives are more immediately on the line.  But the devil we know appears to be getting worse by the minute, and opening ourselves to the possibilities of the unknown future is quickly becoming the only moral option.

Originally posted at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-devil-you-know-christianity-and-the-crisis-in-syria/


Regarding Glenn Hannigan’s commentary (“Tebow’s faith-sharing breaks unofficial rules,” Dec. 23 Reporter): I appreciate that Tim Tebow appears to have a strong personal faith and is willing to speak publically about his faith.

At the same time, I find that it is important to remember that Jesus spoke about the dangers of prayer constructed for public consumption (Matt. 6:5-8). It represents a temptation both for the one doing the praying and for those observing it. Sinful humans are able to corrupt even the most sacred of acts, making it about ourselves rather than God.

It especially concerns me that a particular posture for prayer has come to be known as “Tebowing.” Who is it that is truly being honored when one takes such a posture? If we were to start labeling Christian activities after compelling exemplars, I would be more excited to see people today “Martin Luther KingKing-ing” or “Mother Teresaing.” Imitating these exemplars may make fewer headlines, but it would more clearly reflect God’s self-giving love into the world.

Originally published in The United Methodist Reporter, January 13, 2012

United Methodism on War and Peace: Embracing the Tension between Optimism and Pessimism

United Methodism embraces an internal tension in its official statements on war.  The United Methodist Discipline both teaches that war is “incompatible with the teachings of Christ” (¶165.C) and professes respect for “those who support the use of force” under limiting conditions (¶164.I).  Such tensions are an outcome of United Methodism’s democratic polity, but they also reflect deeper sources of denominational identity.  To fill out this claim, it is helpful to locate United Methodism on a continuum of denominational optimism and pessimism concerning Christian interactions with “the world.”

Despite their differences in practice, Lutheran and Mennonite positions overlap in their dour views of the world.  Both agree in emphasizing the intractable nature of sin in the world.  Lutherans then accept their responsibility in the divine order to restrain evil in the world by use of the sword.  Mennonites relinquish responsibility for the world and focus upon manifesting the non-violent Kingdom of God in the social life of the church.

Occupying the middle ground on the continuum of Christian optimism and pessimism, the Roman Catholic position accepts that the world is corrupted by sin, but maintains that human reason has only been injured and not fundamentally corrupted by sin.  As such, it is possible in many situations to think through how to deal with entrenched sin.  This tradition has been the driving force behind most just-war thinking.

On the more optimistic side of the spectrum, we find the Quakers.  Quakers are buoyed by belief in the “inner light” of the spirit in every human being.  This light leads the Christian to the imitation of Christ in non-resistant witness.  This witness can be the mechanism for awakening the light in other persons, and thus bringing transformation to the world.  As such, Quakers share optimism both about the inherent quality of humanity and about the possibilities of bringing justice to the world, but only by non-violent action.

Where then should United Methodism be located in this scheme?  While John Wesley thought of himself as an Augustinian, his emphasis upon God’s grace led to a non-Augustinian optimism about humanity.  All of the world, Wesley taught, was caught up in prevenient grace; that grace which returns to humanity the ability to choose against its sinful inclinations and move toward God.  The upshot is that United Methodism is left with a deep sense of optimism about the possibilities for individual and social perfection, and a correlative sense of responsibility for bringing such perfection about.

Methodism does not have the realism of either the Mennonite or Lutheran position.  It does not expect the world to be fundamentally resistant to justice.  Methodism also lacks the rationalism of the Roman Catholic position.  United Methodists tend not to want to think through engagement with evil lest the compromises of perfection required by such engagement come to appear to be rules rather than exceptions.  Of the denominations treated here, Methodism has most in common with the Quaker tradition.  But Methodism lacks the peace church tradition which absolutely prevents recourse to violence.  The upshot is that the Methodist position rapturously embraces “justice with peace” and then, very-reluctantly, accepts violence when it turns out that justice cannot be achieved by other means.

Given this location, it is not surprising that in the 1980s, when the United Methodist Bishops went to address the crisis of nuclear war, they found the most palatable just-war approach to be grounded in “a strong presumption against violence.”  This position was in large part the product of the work of James Childress, the Quaker moral theologian who had been converted from pacifism by the (more Lutheran) work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

It is also not surprising that United Methodists produce tensions in their own denominational statements on war.  These reflect the underlying tension between Methodism’s optimism about what can be achieved through universally grace-touched human nature, and its correlated feeling of responsibility for bringing about justice in the world.

So, what shall United Methodists do?  I will close with two pieces of advice.

First, be good United Methodists.  The impulse to bring justice by peaceful means is a powerful one.  It is this impulse that leads Methodists to take to just-peacemaking practices like ducks to water.  The world needs people with the motivation and the means to advocate and act for justice prior to the outbreak of conflict.  United Methodists are built for this, and should throw themselves into the work of spreading social holiness to avoid conflict.

Second, United Methodists should learn something from the realism and rationalism of their more pessimistic brethren.  Too many Methodists begin their ministry with grand hopes to change the world only to be crushed when the world resists their efforts.  Methodism must maintain its passion for progressive justice, but it must do so while recognizing that it must steel itself for frequent failure and must think through long term engagement with recalcitrant evil.

Originally Posted at: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/united-methodism-on-war-and-peace-embracing-the-tension-between-optimism-and-pessimism/