Some seven years ago, I was visiting Mosul, in Iraq. Mosul is the site of ancient Nineveh, where Jonah went into his famous snit in disgust with a God whose anger, to quote John Thomas, cannot be trusted. The purpose for my visit to Mosul was participation in a conference, convened by the Iraqi churches, about the effects of international economic sanctions on the populace of Iraq, particularly the children.
During the course of the meeting, a young Syrian Orthodox priest indicated that he would like to talk with me in private. "In private" is an elusive concept in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's visage and, more importantly, his minions, are omnipresent. Eventually, the priest and I met in the hotel parking lot between two buses, motors running. The priest told me that his sister, age 32, had recently died on the operating table as doctors were trying to repair an abdominal hernia. I'm told that this is not normally a complicated procedure, but it is complicated when neither antibiotics nor anaesthesia are available.
"Why," the priest asked me, "do you punish the Iraqi people when they are already being punished by this terrible regime? Are we nothing but pawns in your big game?"
As I am writing this column, there seems to be a strong likelihood that the United States will declare war against Iraq. Despite the predictable bravado of Iraqi officials, this undertaking would stretch our normal concept of war. Given the gross imbalance of the alleged combatants, this would be more like a hunt, in an enclosed park like those enjoyed by Middle Eastern despots of old, than a war.
We are entering our 40 days of coming to terms with temptation, a pale reflection of Jesus' grappling with Satan in the wilderness. If we are to face honestly our temptations as a nation, among them is the temptation posed to Jesus by Satan as Jesus was conducted to a high mountain where he was presented with a vista of all the kingdoms of the world. "All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me."
Such a temptation! A new world order! Oil (our oil)! Security (for us, of course)! Jesus' answer, the hard answer, is "Worship the Lord your God and serve only God." During this season of temptation and atonement, are we ready to submit ourselves to a God whose anger cannot be trusted, but whose grace extends even to the most despised of our enemies?
Dale Bishop is Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries and one of the UCC's fivemember Collegium of Officers.