History’s Right Side?

Obama Oval Office ISIS speech

May the Lord protect our President, who addressed us last evening, on St.-Nicholas Day/the beginning of Hanukkah.

Am I the only one who thinks that history will look back on the United States in the first two decades of the 21st century and judge us a truly dunderheaded nation? Because we fought one war in Iraq that made no sense, and then proceeded not to fight the war that it would have made sense to fight.

Leaving that aside for a moment, I would like to focus on the idea of “religious freedom” (which phrase, as long-time readers know, I despise).

In his brief speech, President Obama insisted that we would do wrong to think of Muslims as our enemy. On that score, the Second Vatican Council got a jump on the president by fifty years. Holy Mother Church teaches us:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding. (Nostra Aetate 3)

So we applaud the President for urging us to agree with the Church and seek mutual understanding with Muslims. That said, when it comes to “religious freedom,” I found the following sentence in the President’s speech rather interesting:

Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda promote, to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.

The President of the United States has taken it upon himself to tell Muslim preachers what to say. Not that a reasonable person could quibble with this directive, in and of itself. “Don’t incite your people to kill our people.” Reasonable enough, albeit not exactly “separation of church and state.”

What about the command to preach “religious tolerance?” What exactly does that mean? In his peroration, President Obama went on to outline what he sees as true religion:

My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history. We were founded upon a belief in human dignity that no matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or what religion you practice, you are equal in the eyes of God and equal in the eyes of the law. [emphasis added]

“Equal in the eyes of God.” Yes: As Christians, Jews, and Muslims all believe, every human being comes into being because God wills it. And yes: as we Christians believe, every human being comes into being because God wills it, with love and a fatherly plan.

But God has revealed that He has criteria upon which He makes distinctions among people. He has left us in “the power of our own counsel” (Sirach 15:14), which produces moral and immoral people. In the end, God will separate sheep and goats. A lot more information about God’s criteria for distinguishing among men can be found in the Old and New Testaments and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Now, of course I am against ISIS. I think we should have given them everything we have back in July of 2014. A full-scale assault.

But isn’t this the $10,000 question right now: Why do they hate us so much? Enough to start shooting at a Christmas party in southern California? Isn’t their reasoning the really scary, apparently impenetrable mystery?

What I’m saying is: the idea that ‘religion doesn’t matter’ is itself an aggressive and dogmatic religion. And it is a false one.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to start shooting. But is being “radically” religious in-and-of-itself dangerous? Are you “radicalized” if you pray, “Please Lord give me the strength to die at the persecutor’s hands rather than renounce Christ!” Somehow St. Ignatius Loyola managed to radicalize St. Francis Xavier; he even radicalized St. John de Brebeuf and all the North-American martyrs, and a lot of other people, from beyond the grave.

If we Europeans and Americans were better Christians and Jews, then we would find ourselves in a much better position actually to follow Vatican II and seek mutual understanding with the Muslim world. We would also have the humility to admit that we invented terrorism (the anarchist terrorist acts of the early 20th century were never perpetrated by Muslims). We would face the fact that we have given the world the devices that make contemporary terrorism possible. And if we frankly admit to ourselves that we were fools to invade Iraq in 2003, maybe we could see clearly that we have been fools not to invade during the past year and a half.

But my main point is: the empty religion of “religion doesn’t matter” gets us nowhere. Because that simply isn’t true.

Quick War-Speech Dental Exam

Our jovial dentist used to glide in after the hygienist finished. With his metal pick, he would wiggle each tooth to determine the solidity of its foundation. He could tell by touch if a cavity had developed.

If I might, I would like to touch the teeth of our Islamic State strategy, as outlined by the president last night.

Tooth #1, the pre-eminent, most-important tooth: Having cause for war with the Islamic State. Do we?

Do they pose an immediate danger to our people? I don’t know, really. But it seems like they do, much more than any other terrorist organization ever has.

Flag_of_Islamic_State_of_Iraq.svgBut another legitimate question, by way of establishing casus belli might be: Is the Islamic state demonstrably guilty of crimes against humanity? If the decent people of the world tolerate these crimes, could we reasonably hope for peace in our time? Would not the innocent victims have legitimate cause to reproach us? Yes, no, and yes appear to be the answers to these questions.

The most solid grounds for war, then, are not necessarily the matter of a direct threat to U.S. citizens, even though that threat seems quite real. Rather, the unassailable cause, it seems to me, is the consensus among God-fearing people that to tolerate the crimes of these men would imply an abandonment of hope for a decent world to live in.

Now, I think this tooth would stand probing a little better if we explicitly listed the charges against al-Baghdadi and his collaborators. (I believe that the UN has done so already, at least in a preliminary fashion.) We should demand that the accused give themselves up and stand trial before a legitimate court of law, which could include Muslim judges. Then, when they fail to hand themselves over, we stipulate that our war aim is: To apprehend the criminals and their associates.

My quibbles notwithstanding, this tooth has no cavity. I am do dentist, no expert, but the crimes that have been committed—murder, enslavement, rape, attempted genocide, wholesale robbery of lands and goods—these crimes can be documented; they must be prosecuted; the guilty must be punished. If the defendants do not present themselves for trial, they forfeit the due protections of law and stand in peril of their lives. The decent people of the world would all agree on all this, I think it’s fair to say. We have proposed to go to war against genuine enemies of the human race. We have just cause.

Okay, tooth #2: “Iraqi partners.” The “inclusive” new Iraqi government. An effective Iraqi military.

The questions we need to ask in order to tap this tooth: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, at our hands, a decade ago, have the ‘Iraqi’ people acted in harmony as a nation? Has the Iraqi military shown genuine signs of decisive action, even at peril of life and limb, aimed at protecting all the people of the nation of Iraq?

That would be a negative, I think.

Can the blame for this be laid completely at the feet of Nouri al-Maliki’s choleric temperament?

Can a reasonable person expect the new, more phlegmatic Shia prime-minister, who has put together a government with Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in the same proportion as the old one (actually, there are apparently more Shias in the government now than there were under al-Maliki), who has yet to appoint a defense minister—can a reasonable individual expect Prime Minister Abadi to unify the nation of Iraq successfully and orient the military, in time to address the crimes that have been committed, before the victims of those crimes fall into despair?

This tooth has a very large cavity.

Tooth #3
. “Partners in Syria.” In an interview in early August, President Obama himself said that the moderate opposition in Syria had never really come together. He said that the idea that arming rebels in Syria could make a difference “has always been a fantasy.”

WeAreNWe have a policy of regarding Assad as an ‘illegitimate leader.’ Nonetheless, under international law, he has the right to refuse us access to Syrian airspace. Who has consistently championed President Assad’s prerogatives? Russia. Without Russia on our side in this war, we lose the diplomatic tool of the UN Security Council. (Not to mention all the constructive help which Russia could, and probably would, give us.) Without the UN endorsing our actions, we will have serious problems retaining allies. Fighting IS without Russia will make it much harder to win. Big, big cavity.

Tooth #4. “Partners in the region.” On August 15, the United Nations Security Council adopted a strongly worded, militarily toothless resolution against Islamic State. Today, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates agreed on the ‘Jeddah Communique,’ which confirmed their commitment to the UN resolution. The Jeddah communique includes no mention of military commitment. Turkey did not sign on. Syria, of course, was not invited.

This tooth appears to have a cavity. If the only fighting we need from our ‘partners in the region’ is the implementation of financial sanctions and travel restrictions, then we’re good. Maybe.

But: If we are not going to march—which the president says we won’t; only bombs from above—if we are not going to march; if we cannot reasonably expect Iraq to march anytime soon; if there really isn’t anyone in Syria who we could expect to march against IS in any kind of commensurate force; and if no one in the Gulf Cooperation Council, nor Lebanon, nor Jordan, nor Egypt, nor Turkey intends to march—then who is going to march? Who will march to apprehend the criminals in time to save the victims from despair?

st-augustineI do not think the plan, as it stands, has the prospect of success. The more I think about it, the more feckless it appears. Which renders it unjust, since a legitimate casus belli must be implemented with a war plan that enjoys the solid probability of success.

I think the plan as outlined by the president will lead to dangerous diplomatic strains and to the deaths and injuries of many innocent people. Our airstrikes will cause greater animosity against the U.S. and more terrorism.

The huge military elephant in the room is of course Israel, way too touchy a subject to be mentioned by the president or Secretary Kerry, I guess, at this point. But who can fail to imagine a scenario in which IS attacks Israel? Then we will have a wide Middle-East war, and we will inevitably lose ‘partners.’

Operating in Syria without authorization from Assad, coupled with all our saber-rattling over Ukraine, we could wind up at war with Russia.

Grim scenarios, indeed. I would welcome anyone with better information to talk me down off this particular ledge.

Anyway, it seems to me that it would be better to open our borders to the refugees who would prefer to come here, and welcome them in the U.S. Then await a more propitious moment for making war against IS—a moment when we have a genuine international military coalition organized and we are prepared to fight a real war with our own troops involved, so as to minimize airstrikes, which always cause unintended casualties and just make things worse.

Minding the Immigrants and Refugees

Blessed are you who suffer, who hunger, who mourn. Luke 6

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_AngelicoTackling the profound mystery of these statements requires much more wisdom than I possess. But one thing leaps right off the page, even for an obtuse person like myself.

The Lord Jesus thought about the suffering people, the hungry people, the people in mourning. And He spent time with them and talked with them.

Inhuman cruelty can and does sneak up while we have our noses buried in our smartphones.

Like our neighbors who have to live without the basic benefits of citizenship—benefits we take for granted. Like looking to police officers for help. Like having our children apply for scholarships to go to college. Like having some recourse if we are exploited in the workplace, or abused, or fired unjustly, or cheated in a business transaction. Like having the possibility of defending our rights and claims in a court of law.

Right here in the beautiful counties of our parish cluster, we have plenty of neighbors who do not enjoy these basic prerogatives. We know from interacting with them that they themselves are no lawbreakers. What kind of country has this become, when the arrival of thousands of innocent children at our border becomes a reason not to treat Latin Americans more fairly? The children came armed with their perfect innocence and desperation, and our reaction is: Well, now we know we need to build higher walls and deport more people?

obama-prayingOr, while we fiddle with getting our Netflix subscriptions, another inhuman cruelty sneaks up: a jihad that enforces its will with a reign of terror that would have made the Nazi high command blush. Somehow a million+ refugees from Islamic State, with no roof over their heads, no schools, no businesses, no churches—snuck up on us somehow.

Those who suffer and mourn, who hunger and thirst. The Lord Jesus paid attention to them. If the books of the four holy gospels smell of one thing, they smell of the poor and the desperate. Christ had them on His mind. He has them on His mind. If they are not on our minds, then we are not sharing in the mind of Christ.

A decade ago we launched a war against Saddam Hussein. We fought the war in an earnest manner, I guess, basically. But we fought it for a false reason.

Now the groaning of all the Syrian and Iraqi refugees gives us a compelling and just reason to launch a war. But, to my mind, we seem a million miles away from being prepared to fight it in an earnest manner, a just manner. The legitimate reason for taking up arms is totally out-of-focus—namely, addressing the wrongs done to the countless innocents. And we appear to be incapable of learning this simple lesson of history: We cannot engineer our will from the air. That does not work; it just makes things worse and more complicated, and innocent people die. “Boots on the ground” is a stupid euphemism for actually fighting a war.

Are we justified in attacking the Islamic State? Is the Pope Catholic? Are we justified in imagining totally unrealistic scenarios in which we don’t have to fight the war, but just have to drop bombs from a convenient distance? No way.

May God help the leaders of the world to do what is right and just, in an honest way. Our job is to keep the suffering in mind, and pray like mad.

My Iraq Thoughts

Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil.

Two alternate versions of reality: 1) the Iraq situation in current American discourse, and 2) the Iraq situation as described by the prelates of the Assyrian Christian churches.

1. The American media appears to be allergic to referring specifically to the Christian refugees. Perhaps for fear of painting a “Christians vs. Muslims” picture and provoking violence against innocent Muslims? If so, I don’t think that fear has a real basis. The American reportage leaves a person with some information from other sources wondering: What world do these journos live in? It ain’t the real one.

2. Some important things I myself learned in the past few days:

Consensus seems to be that ‘Assyrian’ is an ancient ethnicity, marked by the use of the Aramaic language. ‘Chaldean’ can refer to Catholic Christians with Assyrian usages.

The Assyrians have pressed for autonomy from the Baghdad regime for at least the past decade. For years the Assyrians have voiced their fears about the grave danger they face as a defenseless minority.

A decade ago, the U.S. painted the picture of Saddam Hussein as a menace to the world, basing the portrait on assertions that he had stockpiled dangerous weapons. Those assertions proved to be untrue. Now, a genuine danger has arisen, an epic catastrophe is underway, and we do not seem to have the intellectual and rhetorical resources needed to identify it and deal with it justly.

WeAreNIMHO, the theoretical construct of “a politically united Iraq” gets in the way of a realistic assessment of the situation. Whether or not Iraq endures as a nation-state is really not the issue. Also, the idea that more-local authorities should deal with this problem: that would be perfectly reasonable–if there were any real prospect of it. Will the Turkish or Saudi cavalries ride in? Who could expect that?

The real operative fact is: Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been forced from their homes and live on the edge of destruction. Cruel barbarians have savaged a peaceful people.

Is the Islamic State an enemy? Who could doubt it?

The civilized people of the world have no honest choice other than to work together to address the crimes against humanity that have been committed. This crisis has unified the Assyrian Christians, making Catholic vs. non-Catholic a non-issue for now. May it also unite the civilized people of the earth in co-ordinated action. We need a leader who can articulate both the reality of the situation and the goals that need to be achieved in order to defeat the enemy and restore justice.

Lord, please: Send us such a leader!

St. Ignatius Feastday and the Holy Land

At one point in his life, St. Ignatius Loyola wanted above all to live in the Middle East, in the land of Christ. Ignatius resolved to go to Palestine and never return home.

As things turned out, he had to return to Europe. The Franciscan superior ordered him to leave Palestine, because the situation had become perilous, due to a war.

Sound familiar?

It appears that the fighters who have taken over a lot of Syria and Iraq, who call themselves ‘Islamic State,’ have systematically sought to rid the land of Christians–and Shia Muslims, for that matter. The Islamic State fighters have committed obscene atrocities with spurious religious justifications, justifications which mainstream Muslim leaders have strenuously denounced.

ignatiuswritingFor a millennium and a half, the original Christian people, the Christians of the Levant, have lived at peace with Muslim neighbors. We recall how, eleven months ago, the church leaders of the Middle East, along with the Pope, begged the western military powers not to attack Syria and foment the civil war there. We recall how, over a decade ago, the same leaders, and Pope St. John Paul II, begged us not to invade Iraq.

Perhaps we can understand a little better now why the Christians of the Middle East made these pleas for peace. It was not simply a matter of naïve pacificism.

Our war in Iraq certainly looks like the fiasco of the 21st century at this point, but that’s not for me to say. What I do know is that we need to pray very hard for our suffering brothers and sisters who live in the land where the Lord called the patriarchs and prophets to Himself, and where He, in Person, walked the earth.