04 January 2007

To the person hanging in darkness

I hope nobody visits this page looking for something cheerful. I have nothing better to offer than the vision of a drop-in center for dead dictators. It seems like, um, overkill to repeat the righteous denunciations of the Saddam Hussein execution by others who are more famous than I am but who are equally unlikely to impact the dense smugness of the Saddam-haters. But let me stick my neck out with a few thoughts of my own.

(Partial list of those more famous: NYT editorialists; Thomas Friedman and John Simpson; Juan Cole; Rizgar Mohammed Amin, Saddam Hussein's first judge; Jim Hoagland; and one who outranks them all, Joan Chittister.)

(Added Friday: Shane Claiborne--thanks to Bob Ramsey.)

First: despite any idiotic implication to the contrary from Coulterites ("Fortunately for liberals, the Iraqis executed Saddam Hussein the exact same week that former President Ford died, so it didn't seem strange that Nancy Pelosi's flag was at half-staff"), opposition to lynching has nothing to do with the past record of the lynchee; even less when the lynching is performed under color of official power. Christians especially are (or should be) aware of this; the more conservative our theology, the more aware we must be of God's unlimited powers of grace and redemption. Neither justice nor mercy are optional--ever.

A few years ago, I wrote an end-of-year column for Quaker Life in which I laid out a few of my favorite fantasies. In an updated variation on one of those scenes, I have had this microscopic hope that the USA's christian-in-chief would argue that executing Saddam Hussein would not be consistent with a "culture of life" and that blood lust, a phenomenon that preceded Saddam Hussein and continued after his overthrow, had to end sometime. Aside from moderating the pathetic spectacle of Saturday's lynching, imagine the worldwide evangelistic power of such an act of leadership: proposing that mercy be extended to someone who did not apparently know the meaning of the word! But, no, we had to have our one-egg omelet, even though it turned out, as it inevitably would have, that our egg was not what the blood-lusters thought it was cracked up to be. It ended up on our face.

What is equally galling about the execution: It was a particularly horrible example of the strange dance being performed by the bumbling Iraqi government and the bumbling American overseers, the latter so eager to demonstrate the "sovereignty" of the nation they have fatally sabotaged, that they issue lists of conditions under which they will meekly hand over their death-row prisoner to the executioners. I feel for the American dancers--the officers and diplomats who are by and large decent and intelligent people. By all accounts, they urged delay and moderation in the final hours of Saddam's life. But what does incremental delay and moderation, the calm voice of Yankee reason, count for when the head Yankee has already put everyone, Iraqi pawns and American pawns alike, in a totally untenable position?

Thank God for the cell-phone video of the execution. I feel sad about the violence it sparked, but I also feel that it totally exposed the corruption of the Saddam Hussein trial. The sanctimonious pronouncements of our own government spokespeople--that we should pay more attention to Saddam's prior career prior than to his last two minutes of life--actually lead to a useful point. That career included a period where our country found him a useful ally, apparently no more obnoxious than any of the other cruel dictators who have been lucky enough to be found strategically useful to the USA. Under his rule, he certainly tested the coercive limits (to put it charitably) of absolute power.

As we now grade his evilness, do we take points away from him for each cruel and unwarranted execution? Do we give him points for success in maintaining civil order of a kind we can't seem to maintain now? Do we take away points for favoring Sunnis over Shiites? Do we give him points for relative religious liberty under his rule? (In contrast, say, with American ally Saudi Arabia.) Do we take away points for the weapons of mass destruction he was building prior to 1991, and give him some of those points back for apparently backing off those projects later? How much credit does he get for supplying a convenient villain to absorb the American outrage over September 11, 2001? Finally, does the application of these standards to other countries and potentates reflect a consistent, humble morality or does it vary with their distance from oilfields and with the persuasive power of our own ideologues?

But why worry our heads with such analyses? The dictator was rushed to the gallows on the basis of one specific set of charges, long before a full public, perhaps embarrassing examination of his career could take place. As a regional criminal, he could well have been brought to an international tribunal, but the USA was eager to make him a trophy for our democratization process in Iraq. Indeed, he did become a trophy, before our very eyes.

Over a century ago, Mark Twain wrote a powerful essay entitled "To the person sitting in darkness," challenging the hypocrisy of promoting democracy and Christianity while practicing a slyly selective violent and vindictive foreign policy, hoping always that our lofty ideals and good intentions will distract the observer from our shoddy tactics. The founding idea of America, the very reason we broke away from Europe, was precisely not to practice that hypocrisy, but given our present performance, "... perhaps he [the observer] is saying to himself: 'It is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other. Is there no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level?'"

Is this what Americans actually want as our international profile? Maybe not, argues Tom Engelhardt in his New Year's "sermon," but we have not been asked. The imperial impact we have on the world has been decided largely by processes outside our field of vision, with surprisingly bipartisan support, but they threaten to encumber a huge proportion of our national treasure and shape how we are perceived world-wide. And, more ominously, it shapes how other world actors organize themselves to meet the challenge we present.

Engelhardt's sermon begs for an explicitly Christian commentary (perhaps even a Quaker one!), but in the meantime, I'm remembering a warning given by missiologist Samuel Escobar that I've repeated more than once. He warned that the world might increasingly be crisscrossed by two kinds of roaming nomads: the affluent nomads ranging the world with their high technology, searching for information, goods, and sensations; and those people whom war and distress have forced to roam in search of safety and food. The affluent would use their technology to shield themselves from the poor, but their invitable clashes would be characterized by savage new forms of low-intensity warfare.

In such a world, where will the Christians be found? Where will I be? What can we be doing now to turn back this development?

I enjoyed this article by Tim Timmons on not being content with New Year's resolutions or with anything less than revolutions. (Thanks to assistnews.net for the referral.) I agree that "Jesus is and has always has been the greatest revolutionary--turning the world upside down by turning people inside out."

I find great inspirational power in this rhetoric, as long as we don't overspiritualize it. As I contemplate what it means to be turned inside out by God's searching love, I pray that in 2007 I can somehow be an instrument for that love to turn the world upside down. And may we Quakers do a little less of our parsimonious parsing of our internal grammar this year, and be part of a generous, sweet and subversive global revolution of love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another commenter on the execution: Brian McLaren.