Rupen Das

On Killing Civilians

On Nov. 18th, just as another round of bloodletting between the Israeli’s and Palestinians got underway, twelve members of the Dalu family (seven of them children) in the Al Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City were killed by an Israeli artillery strike. While the Israeli military initially insisted that it was a targeted strike against a Hamas leader, investigations by the military themselves showed that it was not, and Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces admitted that it was an accident. Other officials speaking anonymously told the press that there was a “targeting error” and technical problems related to the strike. The next day Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz admonished division commanders to “pay attention not to just take random houses and fire at them unnecessarily”.

The horror of this incident was not that Mohammed Dalu, his wife and their four children, four other members of his family and two neighbors were caught in a crossfire, but were casually killed because of unnecessary firing on random houses.

I find it very disturbing that we have a hypocritical double standard when it comes to the rightness or wrongness of actions during war. Other than a brief mention in some press, the story disappeared. This is the reality of war and such deaths are referred to as collateral damage when inflicted by western militaries and their allies. I cannot imagine if the reverse had happened, if an Arab, African or Asian army or militia had equally casually killed twelve western civilians. It would have been deemed a war crime as per the articles of the Geneva Convention. There would have been global outrage at such a barbaric act. Yet thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistani, Libyan and Syrian civilians have died as collateral damage and our silence is deafening.

This reality is described by Chris Hedges, a writer on conflict and security issues, who uses the term total war when describing both the ancient and modern ways of battle. There is absolutely nothing sacred or noble about war, especially what we Christians refer to as just wars. The reasons for war are far more complex than merely seeking justice. Hedges writes, “The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and death of innocents.” So we are forced to create noble causes and narratives to hide the absolute brutality of war.

So is there a difference between a targeting error and a war crime. According to military doctrine and international law, the difference is one of intentionality. Was there an intention to kill the civilians? While there are legal methods to determine intentionality, the cold reality is that civilians are indiscriminately killed. In a murder trial where intentions are weighed, a distinction is made between homicide (intentional killing) and manslaughter (unintentional death). Regardless of which it is, there are penalties. Would not a targeting error then be considered manslaughter?

There will be no penalties for collateral damage and targeting errors. The reason the killing of innocent civilians by powerful armies is not considered evil is because we demonize all civilians and combatants on the other side as evil. This then justifies total war and it becomes easy to kill them without remorse or guilt because we are ridding the world of evil. Theologian N.T Wright reflecting on Sept 11th and the subsequent events writes, “The thousands of innocent victims whose death we mourned met, of course, a tragic, horrible and totally undeserved death. The terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda were and are unmitigatedly evil. But the astonishing naivety which decreed that the USA as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former…”

Therein lies the problem. We consider ourselves as being innocent, pure and having the moral high ground. This then allows us to be god and seek vengeance and through it, justice. We would be wise to pay heed to the prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

When the Victory of God seems a Distant Dream

As violence rocked the center of Beirut again and as I have watched the crisis in Syria unfold with all its horrors, I’ve wondered where does God fit into all of this? The fear and anxiety is palpable. The political narrative has changed from a people genuinely desiring freedom, to one of a battle for dominance between the regional powers backed by their international supporters.

Yet in the middle of all this there is a different reality – one of a church and community of faith trapped in between, and anguished about its future. This is best portrayed by very different stories of two Syrian pastors.

As the intense fighting and shelling inched closer to his home, a pastor in one of the besieged cities talked about his struggle– as to whether he should stay to continue ministering, or whether he should take his family and flee. It is so easy for us to judge what he should do from the comforts of where we are – but we have no idea of the terror and fear from the fighting that is engulfing these cities. At the same time, I hear stories from another pastor in a different city who visits displaced families who spend their day begging for food. At night he goes to the park to find families who are sleeping under the trees, whose children have barely eaten for days. He recounts how the children hungrily devour the food that he brings. He talks about the brokenness and desperation he encounters when he asks if he can pray for them, and about the demand for Bibles from the majority community that he is unable to keep up with.

Is there a theology, an understanding of God that ties the two stories together – that a church under siege can make sense of? Our Creeds and teaching focus on the triumphant victory of God and the blessings on those who follow Him. Yet these ring hollow and are so far removed from what the church in the region is experiencing, as the Creeds have nothing to say of how to live in the midst of darkness and oppression. Philip Jenkins reminds us in The Lost History of Christianity that churches sometimes die and communities of faith are decimated.

On one occasion when the people of God had rebelled, God sought to destroy them completely. Moses reminds God that they are His people, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” Ex 33:15-16 (ESV). It was the presence of God that was central in Moses’ theology.

For a besieged church, anguished and uncertain about its future, it is this understanding of Immanuel, God with us, that is so unique and distinct from all the other faiths. The very presence of the living God comforts and sustains them. Yet it is also this very Presence that draws others to know and experience such a God.

The German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, writes about the crucified God. He refers to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God, a pathos that is not what he calls the “irrational human emotions”, but about a God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people…” This pathos is contrasted with the apatheiaof the gods, their inability to feel or their incapability of being influenced, that Judaism and early Christianity encountered in the religions of the ancient world. Centuries later the Church encountered Islam, where God was not one who suffers and therefore could not deal with the problem of human suffering. For most people God remains distant and uncaring.

The first understanding of Immanuel is that God is not distant but comforts us in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23). He calls Himself the God of all comfort (II Cor. 1: 3-5). The pastor and his church who wonder whether they should flee or not, need to know that whatever their decision, God is present and walks with them.

The second implication is that the Church needs to live out the reality of the living God in their midst. Unfortunately, throughout history the besieged church has tended to withdraw into itself during times of crisis. Bishop Kenneth Cragg tells the story of Robert Curzon, the English traveler, who while visiting a monastery in Lebanon in 1849 looking for ancient manuscripts recalls a meal with the monks. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.” The massive walls kept out the world and its violence, and the Faith and the faithful were preserved.

Miroslav Volf instead writes from his experience in the Balkans, where the neutrality of the international community removed any moral restraint that there may have been, resulting in the massacres that ensued. While there may be a place for political neutrality, there is no excuse for being morally neutral. He writes, “Is neutrality the proper stance, however? For those who stand in the prophetic and apostolic traditions of the Scriptures, no neutrality is in fact admissible. These people hear the groans of the suffering, take a stance, and act”. The church in the midst of oppression has to be a voice for justice and a channel of compassion.

The strange paradox on this side of eternity is that the victory of God is not that the Church is triumphant, but that God enters into the darkness and walks with His people.

I’ve Got a Name…Too

On March 2nd 2012 The Guardian Newspaper reported that two French journalists who had been wounded in Homs, Syria had been safely evacuated to Beirut. The article stated in detail their activities in the line of fire and the harrowing escape, but tucked away towards the end of the article was a one-line statement that said that 13 Syrians (activists) had been killed in the rescue attempt. None of them were named.

Two weeks ago as the US Ambassador in Libya and three other American colleagues were killed in tragic circumstances, the media was filled with praise and eulogies for Ambassador Stevens, much of it well deserved for a man who loved the Arab world.[2]Lost in the entire flurry was a statement by the Libyan Government that ten Libyan security personnel were either killed or injured in the first part of the attack while defending the consulate. Also mentioned in passing was the fact that it was Libyans, who recovered the Ambassador from the charred ruins of the building and carried him to a hospital hoping to save his life. None of them were named.

A few days ago, eight Afghan women were mistakenly killed by an airstrike. The major international media barely covered the story, and those who did, focused on President Karzai’s anger. The Coalition forces after having been in the country for 11 years, claimed that they did not know that local women went to the forest in the mornings to collect firewood in order to cook breakfast. None of the women were identified or named.

I have found myself deeply troubled by the fact that we value the lives of Syrians, Afghans and Libyans so cheaply, and those who sacrifice their lives to save foreigners in their midst are ignored and dismissed so crassly. They remain an anonymous byline to the heroic exploits of others. By their radical acts of generosity and compassion, some are in their own ways trying to counter what they feel is wrong with their society. But no one is listening – definitely not the international or Arab media, and neither are we.

Why is it that in our desperate need for heroes that we are unable to acknowledge the contribution of others? In our own huge need for affirmation to believe that we are doing the right thing in a broken world, we seem to ignore the efforts that others are making. At a time when the western media paints the Islamic world with the broad brushstrokes of rage (http://tinyurl.com/dyktzos), we seem to have bought into their caricature of Arabs and Islam. Why is it that we are unable to acknowledge that there are Muslims who care about human life in the midst of the violence and confusion that is engulfing their own lives?

A century ago, at the height of another empire, the British author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who has sometimes been referred to as the “interpreter of how empire was experienced”, wrote about an Indian water bearer in the British army who continually faced physical and racial verbal abuse but always responded without a word to the urgent demands for water from the troops in the sweltering Indian heat, often at the middle of a battle. One day his British officer was severely wounded, and the water bearer carried him to safety and saved his life. In a tragic turn of events, the water bearer at that very moment was shot and killed. Kipling ends his narrative poem with, “Though I have belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ [God] that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Whether this was fiction or reality, Kipling at least acknowledged that this humble water bearer had a name – the uneducated local, the uncivilized native, the lowly national is now honored and immortalized in his poetry.

God speaking to His people says, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1 NIV). Later He adds, “I have written your name in the palm of my hands” (Isa. 49:16 NLV). Jesus speaking to His followers says, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20 NIV). His relationship with us is not defined by “Hey you humans” or“Yo! Created being”. Rather His use of our names is an acknowledgement of our uniqueness and incredible value in His eyes. When God called people, he used their names – Abram, Abraham, Samuel, Paul, Joseph son of David, Peter, Mary, Martha, and Zacchaeus.

As a believer in and a follower of Christ, is there an alternative perspective to the one that is fed to us by the media? Is there another way of relating to those who are different than me – who, because of their difference, seem threatening? The Libyans, Syrians and Afghans have names. Their names have stories that go with them. Some are heroic; others seem mundane, as they are caring mothers and hard working fathers; others are children confused and terrified by the violence around them; most are concerned about work, family and their dreams. I wonder how radical it would be if we could acknowledge them by name. If by doing so we affirm their individuality and treat them as human beings, we would have taken the first step in demonstrating that there is a God who loves them and sees them as unique and of incredible value.

[1] In due acknowledgement to songwriter and balladeer Jim Croce and his song I’ve got a name. (I’m now betraying my age)

[2] The three Americans killed, Sean Smith, Gen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, though named by a few media, were barely mentioned in passing.

Human Rights versus Obligations: Conversation with a Muslim Sheikh

A couple of months ago, during an extended conversation with our friend the Chief Judge of the Sunni Court in Saida about a rights-based approach to addressing poverty, he said, “Islam does not believe in human rights”. After a long pause, during which my mind conjured up all the worst prejudices about Islam that I had ever heard, he went on to say, “Instead we believe we have an obligation to the poor”; he used the word ‘duty’.

The conversation of course did not end there. But I have since thought much about his observations. His comments reflect the Islamic perspective on the obligations that the individual, the community, its leadership (government), and God have to each other.

The responsibility for the welfare of the individual is very different in the West versus in more traditional societies. In the West the individual has rights and has to fight for them because society may or may not recognize these rights to the basics of life and ensure access to them, even though these rights are enshrined in international legal frameworks.

In the more traditional societies, the community recognizes the reality of the poor and vulnerable in society and knows it has an obligation to them. This is a moral obligation that is often rooted in the tenets of one’s faith or worldview. So if poverty exists it is because the community has failed in its obligations. The Islamic perspective of obligation and duty is rooted in its origins among the Bedouin tribes of the desert. Ibn Khaldun the 14th century North African historian wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it.

So was the Sheikh from Saida wrong in saying that Islam does not believe in human rights? Interestingly, Abdulaziz Sachedina writes that during the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there had been extensive consultation to ensure that the proposed rights and their underlying morality reflected universal values – including those of the major religions. However the representatives from participating Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria were secular educated Muslims who had almost no training in the key Islamic texts and thinking with regards to human rights in order to be able to articulate the “universal impulse of Islamic doctrines”.[i] In fact, Jamil Baroody, the Saudi representative on the drafting committee was a Lebanese Christian. There was no effort to engage traditional Islamic scholars on the universality of the status of the individual and of some of the obligations under Islamic law. As a result most traditional Islamic jurists never accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as valid or relevant. However, the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in 1981 and the Cairo Declaration adopted by the Organization of Islamic States in 1990 rectify this by showing that human rights were always a part of Shari’a. The challenge within Islam has been to broaden the application of human rights beyond the Muslim community and to have an appreciation of the value and worth of the individual.

So do the two concepts of human rights and obligations ever converge? Interestingly, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament and the Arabic word in Islam for charity are the same, tzedakah or sedaquah and sadaqa. While in Islam sadaqa is a term for charitable and voluntary gifts, in Judaism “the most frequent word used by the rabbis to express charity, sedaquah, meaning ‘righteousness’ or justice, reveals a basic attitude, namely that of the donor’s obligation and the poor’s right”.[ii]

Human rights and obligations are inherently connected and neither can have an impact without the other. Interestingly, societies that focus only on obligations never see beyond their own community and are only concerned about the well being of their own. Maybe this has something to do with our fallen nature. Human rights are a reminder of the fact that we are all created beings and have needs pertaining to life and dignity. Human rights force us to look beyond our immediate family and community.

The comments of our friend from Saida forced me to find balance in my thinking with regards to the poor. I am amazed how often I see the poor as an irritation, an embarrassment, or as someone who is a leech on society preying on the goodness of people. Of course they may have a right to the basics of life, but they need to work for it. “There are no free lunches in life”. There are genuine concerns about creating dependency. Yet Scripture is clear that we are responsible for and have an obligation to the most vulnerable in society.

Paul writing about the first theological controversy that almost split the early Church concludes in Galatians (2:8-9) that Peter was to be the apostle to the Jews while he (Paul) and Barnabas were to be the apostles to the Gentiles. The thought process in chapter 2 should have ended there. However Paul recounts a strange request, which seems completely out of place in the theological discussion that had just taken place. He writes, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (vs.10).[iii] The obligation to the poor was so important that everyone needed to be reminded of it even in the midst of a theological argument.

Does our vision for our community and the world beyond bear the hallmarks of compassion or do we believe in a Darwinian survival of the fittest? As followers of Christ how seriously do we take our obligation to the poor, or do they have to fight for and earn their right to be able to live life with dignity?


[i] Sachedina, Abdulaziz, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[ii] Hamel, Gildas, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine: First Three Centuries CE, Near Eastern Studies 23, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990, p. 216

[iii] For a more in-depth discussion of Gal. 2:10 and who the “poor” referred to could have been, read Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

The Poor at the Border – Why should we care?

As the reports have trickled out of Syria of the horrific torture, abuse and indiscriminate killing by all sides in the conflict, it has been easy to sit in the safety of the sidelines in Lebanon and damn those who perpetuate evil. The luxury of distance and separation that the border between the two countries provides, hides a sickening reality.

Over the past week the following news items were broadcast here on several news outlets consecutively:

1. As the latest group of the 18-20,000 newly displaced from Syria crossed the border, this time because of the escalating violence in Damascus, we learnt that armed men on the Lebanese side were only allowing Syrians with cars to cross the border. Those on foot were not allowed through, because it was blatantly stated they were “poor”.

2. Then we were given a statement by the Minister of Tourism explaining, how the influx of refugees was really good for our economy in this tourist season that has otherwise been dead, because now the hotels everywhere are full! Then, as if to make his statement more palatable, he assured us that the hotel industry was offering special discounts for Syrians.[1]

Some in the Government made the case that Lebanon does not have the capacity anymore to house and feed the poorer refugees, while those who were better off could take care of themselves.

We as a society seem to have lost our moral bearings when we decide who can flee to safety on the basis of wealth, and then reduce the wretchedness of human displacement and suffering to an economic indicator. Have we lost our God-given humanity when we cease to see the poor as people needing protection just like anyone else?

Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani slammed the Government for such callous attitudes and demanded action.[2] He reflected the ideal within Islamic tradition in that every person is treated with dignity. Ibn Majaah quotes Muhammad the prophet of Islam; “God has not made anything sinful except that a person violates the honour/rights of his fellow man. This is (a greater) sin.” (Sunan of Ibn Majaah). Interestingly, there were no other voices that spoke up against this abuse of the poor.

Why should this latest incident of discrimination against the poor surprise those of us who live in this region? 28.56% of Lebanese live below the poverty line, out of which 7.9% live in extreme poverty, meaning they have enough food for one day. These numbers do not include the refugees and migrant workers who live either in abject poverty, or on its margins. Yet the country prides itself with its rebuilt downtown, the revived nightlife and party scene, and a vibrant hospitality industry. Poverty is not part of the national dialogue even though the poor are so pervasive throughout society, yet are somehow  hidden. Poverty in Lebanon is a human rights issue and yet it’s not part of its conscience.

Latin American theologians, struggling with brutal dictatorships that concentrated power to a select elite, coined the much-misunderstood term, “God’s preferential option for the poor”.  It would seem that God’s value system is very different than that which most of the world lives by.

Human beings are unique in all of creation, as only they bear the image of God. They embody the mystery of a God, who said “let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1: 26).  Inspite of our fallen sinful nature, traces of it are still evident in each person. They have the capacity of being holy (set apart for service and to be able to worship; belong to God; of divine origin; the root word implies “wholeness”).

When we abuse, destroy, disfigure, dehumanize, discriminate against, torture and kill human beings, we blaspheme (showing irreverence towards things that are holy) against God. James 2: 9 takes this further and says that if we show favoritism we sin. If we prefer one human being to the other on the basis of wealth, culture, creed, race, nationality, gender, ability or talent we break God’s law – we sin. Every person is to be valued and treated as having worth.

Are we not as a community, who worship the living God in Jesus Christ, asked to be a people living by different values? James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphan and widows in their distress…” (1: 27). Their neglect represents the fact that the Church and Christians have forgotten to fulfill their responsibility towards the most vulnerable in society.

So how are we as a community of Christ followers to respond? First and foremost, we need to get beyond political and religious interpretations of the crisis in this region. While part of the Arab Spring is about democracy, there are religious and ethnic fault lines that are fracturing with horrific consequences. It is easy to take sides with who we think are the “good guys”. Instead, as followers of Christ we are called to walk with those who have lost homes and families, who live in terror of the next bombardment. We also need to recognize that one of the roots of the present crisis is that large segments of various populations are marginalized from the mainstreams of society and pushed to the edges of poverty. As followers of Christ we need to be a prophetic voice and be prophetic in our actions.

[1] Both these items were reported by local TV media.

[2] Naharnet News Desk, 20 July 2012, http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/47246.

The Forgotten Faithful – Arab Christians in the Arab Spring

Robert Curzon, the English traveler, diplomat and author, while visiting a monastery in Lebanon in 1849 looking for ancient manuscripts for British museums, writes about a meal with the monks. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.”

The Lebanon, Greater Syria and Palestine of Curzon’s time was embroiled with violence and communal strive as the Ottoman Empire started its death spiral and western powers with arrogance and deceit carved up the region for their own national strategic interests. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the veteran missionary and scholar, reflecting on Robert Curzon’s experience, writes of “Chrysostom [an early Church Father] of golden tongue, of Antioch and the fourth century”, still exhorting his listeners through his preserved sermons; listeners whose ancestors had survived the armies and empires of the Persians and Byzantines, Arabs and Turks, crusaders and Europeans through thousands of years. Bishop Cragg describes the times as “religions indulged and entrenched, immunities prized and threatened, liturgies and weapons, traditions and encounters, partisans and aliens, devotions and shouts, walls under siege.”

It would seems as if time has stood still and the turmoil that Curzon witnessed and recorded could well have been the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Yet that graphic verbal picture of a mundane meal eaten by candlelight in an ancient monastery, of violence and gunshots which could not penetrate the thick high walls, while all along the words of St. Chrysostom encouraged the faithful – is iconic and describes Middle Eastern Christianity. It has survived wars, rumors of wars and conquering armies. It has lived under emperors and dictators, some of whom saw Christians as threats while others protected them. Most of the time, the faithful were respected for their devotion, and often for their scholarship. They kept the faith when Europe struggled during the Middle Ages. They were vibrant in their witnessing; Marco Polo was to find Christians in the court of the great Kublai Khan in China. One of the largest churches in the then known world was in what is now modern day Yemen.

Yet time seems to have erased all of this from our collective memory. The veteran missionary, Ken Bailey, describes the Arab speaking Christians of the Middle East as the “forgotten faithful”. The 2003 invasion of Iraq forced an exodus of Christians from Iraq; the community of the faithful in that country went from over a million to less than 300,000 today. We are seeing something similar happen in Syria today.

The Christians in Syria number about 10% of the population and have along with the other minorities in the country enjoyed the protection of the regime. As the civil war has escalated, the Christian have been caught in the middle – torn between the supposed protection the regime offers versus an unknown future. While many of the Muslim moderates and secular elements in the Syrian opposition promise a pluralistic society if they come to power, the radical al Qaeda type groups which are growing in influence, want the Christians out.

While thousands have fled into Lebanon and Jordan, many have stayed and have opened their villages and churches to the thousands that have been displaced. There are reports of this happening in the outskirts of Damascus and even in parts of the city. There are other reports from the towns and villages around Homs and Hama and other town across the north. The stories of those who have stayed are one of remarkable courage – yet it does not make the media. They remain the forgotten faithful.

This time it is not the thick walls of their monasteries that will protect them, but their acts of indiscriminate compassion, which will enable them to find a place in Syrian society regardless of the outcome.