Thursday, August 7, 2014

Threat Never Greater for Baghdad's Vicar

Pastors in the United States are worried about the shrinking of our church membership rolls.

In Iraq, Christianity itself appears near extinction.

Witness the surge of ISIS across such ancient regions as Nineveh, as the ultra-ferocious terrorists force ethnic Christians from parts of Iraq that their ancestors inhabited long before Islam ever existed.  It's a scenario that people like Canon Andrew White likely couldn't have imagined, even in the darkest days following America's invasion of his adopted land.

White, you may recall, is called "the Vicar of Baghdad," a pastor with the Church of England who has been shepherding the lone Anglican outpost of St. George's Church in Iraq's capital city since 1997.  When he arrived, the church had sat unused for a number of years, and his first service at St. George's was attended by his minders from Saddam Hussein's spy department, a handful of religious officials from the Church of England, and the church's Catholic caretaker.  It wasn't until after the American invasion in 2003 that the congregation really grew, eventually numbering over 6,000 Iraqis, most of whom are poor and unable to flee the peril that is a daily part of life in their country.

None of them are truly Anglicans, and many of them are Chaldean Catholics in the Roman Catholic tradition, but they love White's charisma, his ardent concern for them, and the reputation he's created for himself as a seeker of peace across the Middle East.

I've just finished reading White's second book, an autobiography entitled The Vicar of Baghdad, and I have to admit that the guy has a ton more optimism, altruism, and energy than I do.  He's been able to forge some downright amazing interpersonal connections between Muslims, Jews, and gentiles, from Israel and the West Bank to Egypt and, now, Iraq.  Although none of them have been very effective in the long run, he's brokered several high-level peace treaties, and done so with support from Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, Yasser Arafat, General David Petraeus, and other major world figures.  The fact that the Middle East remains a volatile powder keg is almost beside the point, considering that he's been one of the rare Westerners to bring groups of formerly hostile factions together in the same conference room and talk through heady issues without World War III breaking out.

ISIS, however, may be the death of White, in more ways than one.

In The Vicar of Baghdad, White writes about a couple of his dealings with known terrorists, and admits that they're people with whom he can't effectively work.  For decades, White has cajoled, indulged, and pacified a cavalcade of Muslim politicians, tribal leaders, mullahs, confidantes, royalty, and imams, which itself stands as bizarre testament to the number of factions, sects, and personalities involved in appeasing Middle East leaders.  And these are the leaders who are willing to give peace a chance!  But even though these leaders are legion, they're not enough.

Too many others want to kill, destroy, and deny.

Ever since the American invasion, White has spent a considerable amount of his time negotiating with kidnappers, extortionists, and other terrorists who can usually be placated with money.  He thinks his success rate is pretty good, but I doubt the many victims of cases that didn't work out would agree.  It would all be immensely discouraging if you aren't as headstrong and optimistic as White continues to be.

However, when it comes to groups like al Qaeda, even White turns grim and foreboding, writing that such extremists really want war more than anything else.

What he would dare write about ISIS, were he to update his book today, would probably be even more bleak.

Being a white, male, moderately conservative American evangelical who's never been to the Middle East, my views on Iraq pale in comparison White's, as far as their credibility is concerned.  Or... do they?  White writes that he believes Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD's), and that Hussein shipped them to Syria before the United Nations inspectors could locate them.  That narrative doesn't jive with other documented accounts of the WMD debate which precipitated America's invasion of Iraq, and is likely based on White's off-the-record conversations with Saddam's deputies both before and after the invasion.  My question would be how reliable those deputies were, and how eager may they have been to try and use any opportunity they thought they had - including White, a Westerner - to deflect attention from their government?

White recounts some of the atrocities some of his Iraqi friends have told him about life under Saddam, and uses that legacy of oppression as justification for the invasion, but he can't reconcile life in pre-invasion Iraq with post-invasion Iraq, and the corresponding difference in religious freedoms (which are non-existent now), the reliability of utilities like electricity and water (which is mostly nil now), and the freedoms of women (which, again, is mostly nil today).  White himself admits to being constantly on the go, moving from country to country like the bona-fide world citizen that he's become, and apparently he didn't spend nearly as much time in Iraq pre-invasion as he has post-invasion.  So, his guess may be better than mine, but probably not as valid as the experiences of Iraq's ethnic Christians, who never faced the slaughter under Saddam that they face today.

And speaking of traveling, the amount of time White admits to spending away from his wife and two sons back in England seems rather troubling to me, if the role of a father is to be the spiritual leader of his home.  While I recognize that some type-A men consider their extensive absences from home to be the price their family pays for him doing "the Lord's work," I've yet to find an exclusion clause or a special dispensation in the Bible for men to blame God for making them travel so much at the expense of the family over which they're supposed to be serving.  Whether it's Billy Graham, who's had his own doubts in later years regarding the amount of time he spent away from his young family, or a pastor who finds the attention and responsibilities of preaching in the world's most dangerous city oddly invigorating, I find myself wondering how much of this career-building for the cause of Christ honors God more than it honors the man.

The pastor of my church, before he was voted into that position by our congregation, told us that he was hoping to work no more than a 50-hour week, because he believed God did not place the pastorate over being a husband and father.  And I applauded his integrity for making that an issue.  When White writes about all of the time he spends away from home, however, I can't tell if he's grieving or bragging.

Then there's the key factor which has facilitated much of White's success as a negotiator between Muslims and Jews.  He seems to be one of those Christians who's under the impression that all three religions - Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - worship the same god.  But we don't, do we?  Jews and Christians worship the God of the universe, even if Jews don't recognize that Jesus is His crucified and risen Son.  But the god Muslims worship is not tripartite, and Jesus is merely a prophet.  Isn't being ambivalent about the nature of God and His holy Paternity being ambivalent about salvation, grace, and God's love?  Isn't that utterly incompatible with Biblical orthodoxy?

Unfortunately, more than once, White rhapsodizes about the deific unity between the world's three largest monotheistic religions, and even helped to craft one of his landmark multi-faith documents, "The First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land," under the pretense that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity worship the same deity.  That may have been a convenient ploy to get representatives from each of these faiths to agree, but that doesn't mean they're correct, does it?

Nevertheless, the advocacy for peace White has singularly displayed during his decades in working in the Middle East may ultimately be facing its most critical test in these, the dog days of summer, 2014.  With ISIS appearing to be unstoppable in its rampage through Iraq, even Canon White, of the Church of England, with supporters from the Pentagon to the Vatican and beyond, is staring down the barrel of a new, unholy chapter of atrocious religious-based inhumanity.

Parts of The Vicar of Baghdad make me think White may indeed be a true follower of Jesus Christ, and parts of it make me wonder, but as he stands with his congregation in Iraq's capitol city, I pray for their safety.  I don't just pray for the preservation of Christianity as a culture or religion in Iraq, but I pray for souls to be redeemed, for hearts in love with Christ to be protected, and for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to indwell God's people.  In addition, I hope that any individual in Iraq who desires to worship the religion of their choice will be allowed to do so, whether that religion is Christianity, or Judaism, or the many factions of Islam, or any other religion.  At this point, it's not about politics, or whether White has spent too much of his religious career away from his family, or whether he wants to believe that WMD's really did exist.

It's about human dignity.

By all accounts, things are coming to the wire in Iraq.  I don't know if America should re-assert itself militarily, or anything else about the methods ready and waiting at the world's disposal to protect the people of Iraq.  But it seems as though White is right:  some terrorists simply want to fight.

It's not that I'm hawkish for war, or looking for any excuse to build up our military might, but after reading The Vicar of Baghdad, it sounds like we have a lot more reasons to do something now than the Bush administration had back in 2003.

Weapons of mass destruction?  ISIS is a WMD, isn't it?

OPPORTUNITY:  St. George's Church sponsors relief ministries for the residents of Baghdad, regardless of religious affiliation.  To donate, please click here.

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