Gingrich and those invented Palestinians. (Fill in the blanks: Pot. Kettle. Black.)

I read another commentary this morning about Newt Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are “an invented people.” Here’s his original quote:

“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places.”

It occurred to me that the issue might be framed differently if we make a few substitutions: “America/n” for “Palestine/ian”; “British” for “Ottoman”; “European” for “Arab.” That is, Americans are an invented people, maybe more so than most other nations. We just have the advantage of 235 years.

So my question for Mr. Gingrich is: how much time does it take for an “invention” to be legitimate? Or is it just a matter of who wins their independence? (We win = we’re not invented. You lose or haven’t won yet = you are invented.)

Please understand I’m not forgetting about all the many differences and problems in the Middle East, many of the Palestinians’ own making. Right now I’m thinking here only about the issue of legitimacy v. “inventedness.” If the Palestinians are merely “invented,” then so are Americans and probably most other nations.

The cost of liberty and the price of oil


Those were the days: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, now under siege, (left) and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in happier times.

What’s the price of liberty?


It spiked to about $100 per barrel on Wednesday. (The cost of crude oil in the U.S. settled down by the end of the day, closing at $98.) The average price for a gallon of gasoline in the U.S. has climbed to $3.19 in the last few weeks, and it’s likely to go still higher.

The revolutions in the Middle East make oil production and delivery uncertain, which makes commodity markets nervous. Libya, the most recent and so far most dangerous scene of popular uprising, produces only about 2 percent of the world’s oil supply, but its high quality makes it particularly valuable, according to analysts quoted in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Several large oil companies, such as France’s Total, have already started reducing their output from Libya.

Some analysts predict the price of oil could climb to $150 per barrel if Libyan production is entirely shut down, and maybe $220 if another major oil-producing nation in the region shuts down too.

Developed nations and particularly democracies like the U.S. may soon face a crisis — or actually two crises. There’s the potential economic crisis as the price of oil pushes up the cost of virtually everything: manufacturing, agriculture (compounding a growing food-cost problem that already haunts most of the world), distribution and so on. Virtually every segment of the economy may be touched. A more expensive tank of gas for the car is only the beginning and might be the least of our worries in the U.S. All of this, of course, would be just piling on, severely slowing down if not stalling the world’s recovery from the so-called Great Recession that’s dogged us since 2008.

But there’s another kind of crisis — more philosophical or ideological — if we take the word literally, back to its Greek root of krinein: “to separate, decide, judge.” We face some serious decisions, we who (a) live in democracies and think other people should live in democracies too, and (b) depend on oil for our way of life. We could start by asking this question: How much are we willing to alter our “way of life” and even sacrifice for the sake of others’ political freedom?

Or to put it roughly: When will the drive for liberty and justice for all in oil-producing nations get too rich for our blood? Is there a point — a price point, that is — when we might decide that we can live with repressive regimes like Qaddafi’s in Libya after all, and choose to not support democratic movements? We haven’t reached that point this time around — and I hope we don’t — but the temptation certainly exists and is no doubt being argued in offices around Washington, Geneva and New York.

American foreign policy is built first and foremost on keeping the U.S. “secure” economically, politically and militarily. The Middle East regimes teetering and falling like dominoes almost weekly are creating complicated and unpredictable scenarios. None of this is easy or simple.

But taking the long view, the U.S. may gain greater security if we help people in other nations gain the liberty we say we value so much, and choose to not literally sell them out over the cost of oil. (It wouldn’t hurt our national security to push harder to develop alternative forms of energy either, but that’s another post.)

Resisting the temptation to sell out will be hard to resist, even at the most basic level. So far most Americans haven’t felt the impact of the events in the Middle East and North Africa, but who knows? Some people on Main Street, not to mention Wall Street, are already getting nervous and maybe even a little impatient.

I was chatting on Tuesday with a self-employed guy whose job puts him on the road literally hundreds of miles each week. We talked a little while about the day’s headlines, including the news coming out of Libya, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s amazing what’s happening over there,” he said. Then he shook his head and added, “But, man, these gas prices are starting to kill me. I hope we can do something about that pretty soon.”

In Egypt: So many questions, so few answers — and so little time

I was working on a post that would ask a couple of questions that I haven’t seen addressed much, if at all, about the likely outcome of the drive for democracy in Egypt. Several commentators fear that Egypt 2011 will become another Iran 1979, which started out as a democratic movement but then metastasized into a hard-line theocracy.

I was wondering if (a) will it make a difference that Iran is mostly Shi’ite while Egypt, by far, is predominantly Sunni, and (b) will it make a difference that, compared to Iran, Egypt has been much more cosmopolitan, with closer ties to other nations (including the West), more tourism and more accessibility to international travel. Some friends who lived in Egypt for five years in the late 1990s think those cultural (and economic) differences are deeply rooted enough to keep a  post-Mubarak Egypt from becoming another Iran, even with Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in the mix.

I had some ideas about this, but today’s (Thursday’s) remarkable and disturbing events shelved them for now. I don’t have a clue where to begin. Today has raised other, more immediate questions, including urgent ones about the military: what will the army do?  Answers may start emerging tomorrow — or even by the time I publish this. Despite Mubarak’s best efforts to slow down the train, it’s still moving fast.

Even so, if you have ideas or good answers for either of those questions above, please share them in the comments section.

Postscript, Friday, Feb. 11: President Mubarak has stepped down and the Egyptian military council is reportedly taking over.

Coincidentally, on this date in 1979, the Iranian revolution won control of that country when prime minister went into hiding, effectively ceding power to Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned to Iran from exile 10 days earlier.

Egypt: The police, the army and the people

All eyes are on Egypt today, and by the time I post this note, the political situation may have radically changed. Tens of thousands of protesters are pressing President Mubarak to leave office, not satisfied by his half-hearted stalling tactic of firing his cabinet. As Saturday ticks away (Cairo is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time), the wind seems to be blowing against his staying for long. Only a handful of people know what’s being said behind closed doors in government offices in Cairo, Washington, the U.N., Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The street battles between protesters and police have been well documented and shown around the globe, especially on Friday, despite the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the Internet, cell-phone service and social media in an attempt to cut off communication between groups of protesters and between Egypt and the rest of the world. By contrast, the protesters are welcoming the Egyptian army when soldiers are dispatched to Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Compare and contrast this image, taken  yesterday, with this one, from today. (Hover over the links to see photo credits.)

I’ve been wondering why the difference: Why welcome the soldiers and fight the police since they are both controlled by the same government, at least in theory? It turns out, not surprisingly, that there’s a history. Thanks to Wikileaks‘ release of diplomatic cables, we can get a sense of what the Egyptian people have had to deal with during Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule.

First, the Egyptian police. A cable from the American embassy in Cairo to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 15, 2009 summarized:

Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have criticized GOE (Government of Egypt)-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution.

The cable provided numerous examples, including this and this.

The Egyptian military, by contrast, has been more benign or at least less terrifying to its own people. The army lost some stature after the Arabs’ failed 1967 war with Israel, but in the time since then, the military has re-fashioned itself in other ways, possibly being overlooked because of its diminished role. Whatever the reason, to put it roughly, it looks like the military has been going along to get along with the Mubarak regime (and profiting handsomely as they did so) — and biding its time. This week, maybe, its time has come. The Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are certainly acting as if the army is on their side.

From a Sept. 23, 2008 cable from the American embassy:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises.

Later in the same cable:

The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s (Ministry of Defense’s) considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council (upper house of Parliament) fire in August (2008) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and  operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a  “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are  economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial.

As of Saturday morning in the U.S., at least for amateurs like me it’s too early to know how things will go in Egypt, but the military is the big wild card. For the time being, however, it’s clear that the Egyptian protesters — and probably most Egyptians — know who are their internal institutional enemies and who, they hope, may turn out to be their best friends.

Photo: Gallo/Getty image, via Al Jazeera (English).

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Are we fighting a just war? I’m just asking.

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, which laid out his plans for Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, left me feeling conflicted, uncertain, even a little queasy. Apparently I’m not alone.

There’s only marginal agreement among Americans about the military buildup, with 51 percent supporting Obama’s plan, according to a USA Today-Gallup survey taken the day after his speech. But almost all of us are fretful. By an almost three-to-one margin (73 percent to 26 percent), Americans said they are worried that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. That is besides the normal anxiety that comes with any major conflict.

In making his case, Obama declared that “in the midst of these storms … our cause is just,” echoing words from last year’s campaign, when he said that destroying al Qaeda is “a cause that could not be more just.” (Anyone who is surprised that Obama is focusing on Afghanistan hasn’t been paying attention.)

“Just” is a significant word when talking about war, hearkening to a way of thinking that dates back to the Romans and found its most enduring expression through Christianity. When we talk about a “just war,” we’re talking ethics and theology.

There’s irony here, since Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies and “turn the other cheek” when insulted. For the first three centuries after he walked the earth, most Christian teachers steered followers away from military service.

But this pacifist position softened as the Christian faith gained respectability in the Roman Empire, especially after it was legalized in the early 300s and made the official state religion in 380.

The question was how Jesus’ instructions to his followers applied in a wider society. Christ taught peace, the reasoning goes, but people and nations – sinners all – must still deal with the world as it is. Part of that challenge is to determine what conditions must be met for a war to be justifiable, even while recognizing that war is a result of sin.

Augustine, a North African bishop and considered one of the church’s greatest teachers, framed a “just war” doctrine through his writings in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the collapsing Roman Empire was coming under siege from northern European “barbarians.” His teaching has formed the basis for most Christian thinking about war ever since.

In its current Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church summarizes just-war doctrine, saying that, “at one and the same time,

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking about the war in Afghanistan at West Point on Dec. 1.

Those who govern, “those who have responsibility for the common good,” are burdened with evaluating “these conditions for moral legitimacy,” the catechism says. In other words, war must be declared by legitimate authorities.

This being theology, of course, the answers aren’t as simple as this list suggests. Libraries are full of books that tease out various interpretations.

So does the war against al Qaeda via Afghanistan qualify as a just war? I’m no theologian and even less of a military expert, but a few answers seem clear.

It’s obvious that al Qaeda inflicted “lasting, grave and certain” damage on the U.S. and other places. (But how lasting?) Also, while success is never guaranteed – Vietnam is a harsh reminder – there seems to be “serious prospects” of success. The government has indeed approved the use of force. (An interesting footnote: Americans have not engaged in an officially declared war since 1945.)

When we beyond these few certainties, however, the answers grow murky.

For now, maybe it’s enough to make sure we ask ourselves questions like these – ethical and theological questions – if only to remind ourselves of what is at stake, even more than economics, politics or national security. As we should know by now and as Augustine and other theologians knew a long time ago, we don’t risk only the lives of soldiers when we go to war. We risk our souls.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Dec 2009.

Still troubled after all these years: The messy history of Israel and Palestine

A Jerusalem newspaper on May 14, 1948, announcing the modern state of Israel.

Israel was a nation full of heroes.

That’s what I concluded as a teenager when I nurtured a fascination with the new nation of Israel. The nation seemed to be a modern miracle brought into existence by faith, ingenuity and courage.

A lot of history has passed since then. May 15 was the anniversary of the nation’s founding in 1948, when Britain ended its post-World War I “mandate” as Middle East caretaker, in theory leaving Arabs and Israelis to sort out their own problems. It hasn’t worked very well.

Israel through adolescent eyes

My interest in Israel sprang partly from family: my father was Jewish. But long after my parents divorced and I had converted to Christianity, I clung to a thin claim to Judaism. As the Yom Kippur War raged in 1973, my brother and I even discussed the merits of fighting for Israel, should the war last several more years. (Our Israel-loving pastor assured me that we could be good Christians if we fought for love of Israel, but not if we hated Arabs.)

My early adolescent eyes saw an idealized story, enhanced by biblical quotations: A long struggle to gain a Jewish homeland, historically justified after the Holocaust. A bold underdog fighting for survival against the surrounding Arab foes. A new community carved from a sliver of land, finding a noble form in the kibbutz. The new Israel was transforming Palestine from a chaotic, barren desert into a fertile, blossoming society.

This straightforward reading was inspiring to a sort-of-Jewish boy whose own country was militarily and morally bogged down in Vietnam.

Winners get to write history

But as the cliché says, the winners get to write the history, and my lopsided view of Israel omitted the plight of the Palestinians. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago, during a conversation with Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. (See last week’s column.)

Massad’s parents were Palestinian, living in Jaffa in 1948. Overnight they became refugees, forced from their homes along with 700,000 other Gazans, including more than 50,000 Christians. Many of their ancestors had lived in the same places a thousand years earlier. Masses of displaced people scattered around the region, landing in camps in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank or beyond.

All this was part of a maze of political dealing and double dealing that started as the old Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the region for centuries, was defeated by the Allies during World War I.

During the next 30 years, declarations and agreements among European powers, Arab leaders and Zionist organizations – Jewish groups committed to establishing a national homeland in Palestine – tried to balance their various interests. Religion, ethnicity, economics and property claims only complicated matters, as both Jews and Muslims cited Scripture and history.

The British, given control of the region in 1922, sometimes favored Arab interests, sometimes Zionist. Zionists and Arabs occasionally appealed to their common heritage and tried to cooperate and make room for each other. But those times grew less frequent as time passed, as frustrations grew and as sometimes deadly violence flared among both Palestinians and Zionists, usually in reaction to changes in British policy.

By 1947, when the British government referred the matter to the newly formed United Nations, reconciliation seemed impossible. The UN finally recommended forming two states, Arab and Israeli, with Jerusalem designated as an international city.

After the British left on May 14, 1948 – a day earlier than scheduled, which caused chaos – the tensions erupted into war. But Israel secured its foothold and took over most of Palestine. The 61 years since have spiraled into bigotry, terror and vengeance, occasionally punctuated by hopeful attempts at peace.

No one is clean

My first inclination still is to sympathize with Israel. Given the history of the Jews – repeatedly driven from place to place over three thousand years – it’s easy to understand their sense of insecurity even as they established a modern homeland.

But if I take a step back, I can begin to see more of the Palestinian complaints, how their own claims to law, history and religion were set aside 61 years ago. I can see past the stereotypes and meet real people in this story, such as Hanna Massad and his family.

I can see that my adolescent view, with its easy heroism and uncomplicated morality, isn’t adequate. I can see, as the Scripture says, that no one is clean. No, not one.

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 May 2009.

Palestinian Christians stand ‘between two fires’


Here’s one measure of just how heated the subject of Israel and Palestine can be. When the Christianity Today Web site reported in January that the Palestinian Bible Society, located in Gaza City, may have been hit by an Israeli missile during the brief but intense winter war, some readers were anything but sensitive.

“And my response is … so what?” wrote one. “Lots of buildings have been hit. Is this an attempt to move Christian sympathy for Hamas?”

“If I choose to live among the enemies of freedom,” added another, “I shouldn’t be surprised that I might be destroyed when the friends of freedom respond to threats.”

One reader took offense at this remark, calling it “sickening” because it ignored the fact that Palestinian Christians were living in their own homes. No one said “amen.” When another commenter criticized Israel, however, others piled on.

“Your what happens when dumb liberals think they understand Christanity,” one grammar-challenged reader replied.

No matter what someone thinks about the Israel-Palestine morass, this wasn’t a high-water mark for Christian solidarity.

Hanna Massad (center) with members of the Gaza Baptist Church (date unknown).
Hanna Massad (center) with members of the Gaza Baptist Church (date unknown).

Hanna Massad was not part of that discussion – it’s doubtful he’d want to be – but he knows Gaza better than any of those readers. Gaza is his home.

Massad is the pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, the region’s only evangelical congregation. His wife managed the Palestinian Bible Society – that is, until they, their two young daughters and several extended family members left Gaza for the West Bank in 2007.

They departed literally to save their lives, thinking they would be gone for a matter of weeks instead of almost two years.

The Bible Society building was firebombed at least twice, a repeated target of Palestinian extremists. The worst moment came in October 2007, when a close friend and colleague, 29-year-old Rami Ayyad, who managed the Bible Society bookstore, was kidnapped in broad daylight and later shot to death. Gazan authorities condemned the murder and promised an investigation, but without results.

Massad and his family came to the U.S. last August for a one-year sabbatical, so he could study at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in Connecticut. He visited East Tennessee last week, speaking at Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.

Massad, who received a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, chooses his words carefully as he describes life for Palestinian Christians. His voice is sad, not angry.

“We are caught between two fires,” Massad said last week during a lull in his speaking schedule. “On one hand there’s the fire of the Israel occupation. Then there’s the fire of militant Muslims, who are not happy with us.” Massad, 49, is a master of understatement.

Since the Hamas party gained control of Gaza in the 2006 elections, the already stressed Christian community has become a more frequent target of Muslim extremists. Hamas officials condemn attacks but take no effective action. The entire Christian population of Gaza has dwindled to about 2,000 believers, living among a population of 1.5 million.

For its part, Israel doesn’t seem interested in a real solution, Massad said. The infamous 432-mile security wall, severe travel restrictions (which separated Massad and his wife for almost a year), the continuing construction of settlements – all stir up Palestinian resentments. Last winter’s conflict cost 13 Israeli lives, compared to 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians.

Against that backdrop, Massad stands in an awkward and dangerous place. As a Palestinian, he is suspect to the Israelis. As a pastor, he makes himself a target for Palestinian extremists who hate Christians and think he may be aligned with the U.S. because the word “Baptist” is on the church building and he won’t call Israel his enemy.

“Humanly speaking, it’s easy to be depressed,” he said. “There are militants on both sides. But you cannot live without hope. With good intentions, all things are possible.”

When Massad and his family return to Gaza this summer, he anticipates “a lot of rebuilding of souls” in the congregation and community. They plan to restart the library and school, and to open a health clinic. The role of the church, he said, is to help create a culture of peace.

“We’ll do work to reflect God’s love,” he explained. “We can continue to have love for Israel and for the Palestinians. Love for one should not make you hate the other.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 May 2009.