For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what was planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
I often don’t sleep well. Many nights, I sleep very little at all. The problem is in my head. The problem is the presence of vivid images – some that I’ve seen, some that I imagine – that set my brain on an active course that his hard to terminate. Many times, those images are from past experiences – from things witnessed with my own eyes, from actions taken by my own hands and feet (or, quite frequently, from actions not taken by my hands and feet that I wish had been taken). Lately, the images that have kept me awake are images from things presently occurring, though things that I have neither personally witnessed nor experienced, but still things that are as vividly real to me as those things that were once tangible, visceral events of my life.
The central, unifying context of these images – past and present, personally known and unknown – is a place called “Iraq.”
Iraq. The name is arbitrary, as is the geo-political demarcation. Indeed, the nation (if it can be called a “nation”) has only existed for about 100 years. Much like every other country in that part of the world, Iraq was carved out of eastern desert by the western victors of a world war against western losers. Much like every other international ill that has plagued the people of this world for the last hundred years, the present-day problems in Iraq have their deepest roots in the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. But before that, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. And before that, it was part of an Islamic caliphate in the middle ages. And before that, it was part of the Persian Empire, and home of the Babylonian Empire before that. Before that, it was known as Assyria, after it was called Mesopotamia. Throughout all, it has been known as “the Fertile Crescent,” the place where the Tigris River and the Euphrates River meet. In the beginning, it was called “the Garden of Eden.” The names of those who have ruled there are famous and infamous: Saddam Hussein; Saladin; Cyrus; Nebuchadnezzar; Eve; Adam. It is the place where evil first reared its head, where sin first entered the world, and likely the place (or vicinity) where the first murder occurred.
And evil, and sin, and murder reign there today from a brutal throne.
The images from Iraq that keep me awake now are these, courtesy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL”):
Men, women, and children crucified, beheaded, or buried alive. Children. Do you understand? Children. In 2014.
Hostages beheaded with a 3-inch knife. Not a swift sword or an instant guillotine: a knife.
Hundreds of men shoved into a ditch just to be shot wholesale at point-blank range.
Gunmen entering a place of worship to massacre all those in attendance.
And thousands of other images. Many that are just images in my mind’s eye, products of reading far too much, or maybe far too little, from the events that are happening in that part of the world.
These people – the soldiers slaughtered, the civilians murdered in their churches and mosques, the children crucified for the faith of their fathers and mothers – they all had names. These people had families, and dreams, and homes, and joys, and pains. They once laughed; they once cried. At times they mourned, and at times they rejoiced. Some of these people knew and worshipped Jesus. Most of them at least believed that Jesus was dearly loved by God, even those that worship “Allah.”
Odds are, I probably knew some of these people, and my heart is absolutely broken for them. This is why I lately don’t sleep.
In the midst of (appropriate) recent national anguish over events in Missouri where one man killed one man – variously described as a problem of race, as a matter of national policy of sin and guilt, and as a question of justice and injustice – thousands of men are now slaughtering tens of thousands of other men, and women, and children. And the problems and questions and matters of race, and policy, and sin and guilt, and justice and injustice are nakedly, violently, and bloodily obvious. Where is the national anguish?
I know this is not a moral equivalency game, but I must ask: Why don’t we care? Is it because, as has been discussed on this very site, we are racist at our core? I guess I can believe that. After all, the people in Iraq obviously don’t look like us. They don’t talk like us. They clearly don’t worship like us. Or is it because we choose to ignore the pain that is too closely linked to the events and decisions of our recent past? I can certainly believe this, too. We Americans are great at self-anesthesiology – I mean, while losing sleep over Iraq, I have also lost productivity at work caring whether “this guy” or “that guy” plays quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. It helps me not think about Iraq.
We can argue and debate and wring our hands over painful questions of our own culpability in Iraq: Should we (i.e., the United States of America) have gone to war in Iraq in 2003 in pursuit of national political expediency? Conversely, should we have arbitrarily withdrawn from Iraq in 2010 in the name of personal political expediency?
These are important questions, and perhaps we do need to wrestle with them. In case you wonder, I have come to believe that fighting the war in Iraq in 2003 was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have come to believe that the national impetus to go to war in the Fertile Crescent in 2003 was likely a politically unjust act, regardless of the “just” intention and although “justifiable” under “international law.” As such, I do believe that we are largely and undeniably responsible for what occurred in the time that we were fighting there. Moreover, or maybe accordingly, I also firmly believe that the national impetus to simply “end the war” in 2010 – particularly in the name of one man and his party’s political victory over another man and political party – was an equally (or greater) unjust act, though done and justifiable in the name of “peace.” As such, I believe that we are largely and unquestionably responsible for what has occurred in Iraq since that time.
Not to deviate too far from the point at hand – though maybe it is precisely the point, I also believe that God sees and deals with nations, and that God, in the process, primarily judges the leaders of nations. Although the results and effects of His judgment fall on all citizens and inhabitants of those nations, I believe that He holds the leaders primarily responsible. Lest we think this absolves the American citizenry of guilt because we are not those leaders, it is important to note that we demanded the ability to lead ourselves – and God granted that demand. This is a topic that is worthy of and deserves a separate conversation. But the critical point is this: while two American presidents inarguably have much to answer for (to God) when it comes to the events in Iraq over the last decade, we citizens are not absolved – particularly if we, individually or collectively, ever took a stance or claimed a conviction on these questions and/or cemented those stances and convictions with our assent, dissent, affirmation, or condemnation (aka, “vote” or “free speech”).
Regardless, the key concept here is “responsible.” I do not desire or intend to heap shame on America, and cling desperately to the grace of the One who sees us better than we do ourselves. Rather, I simply want to note that WE ARE RESPONSIBLE, and desire that we undertake an examination of this responsibility seriously.
What does that mean? I submit that this responsibility is not just a rear-view-mirror responsibility, which is naked shame, but is also a forward-looking responsibility, which can lead to redemption. Can we redeem the situation in Iraq? I don’t know. I know that redemption only truly comes through Jesus, but I know that we are still responsible. We can and should trust and implore Christ to redeem Iraq and believe that he will do so, but I also know that faith without works is dead – particularly for those with responsibility.
So I pose these questions in closing (for now): What work should we be called to engage? In the face of pure, stark-raving, ruthless evil, what should we do?
Is Ecclesiastes correct? Is there ever a time for war?