No Protagonists in War on Terror: Washington, ISIS, Israel, Hamas all antagonists

A memorial scene for slain American journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on Aug. 19, 2014.

On cue the feigned shock, manly thumping of chests and tribal war dance began anew.

The videotaped beheading of another U.S. journalist, this time Florida’s Steven Sotloff, two weeks after the execution of New Hampshire’s James Foley, predictably sent the White House’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate onto Washington’s moral perch and Israel’s propagandists into overdrive.

We know the script and its actors well by now.

Protagonists live in the West, or at least resemble Westerners in general skin tone and/or style of dress. They deploy working class soldiers and use expensive weaponry to shear, shred, pulverize, burn, incinerate and decapitate heads, flesh, bone, bridges, roads, electrical grids, mosques, schools, bunkers, homes, hospitals, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers. In other words, to kill en masse all enemy combatants and unfortunate civilians.* The latter is a well-documented result of dropping bombs into heavily populated areas, but it gets dismissed with a common impersonal euphemism: collateral damage. The good guys, Americans and Israelis, know full well that the “War on Terror” kills at least tens of thousands of civilians, injures and maims hundreds of thousands, and displaces families from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Guinea. But, since the protagonists know what’s best and they have us glued to CNN and Fox News, we view collateral damage as a penny-ante expense.

Not so for the antagonists. In the Middle East the penny ante has become heavy and unforgivable. So the antagonists kill up close and in our faces; close enough to get our attention, so close they hide their despicable faces. Cloaked in black and wearing a robber’s mask, they crave the media attention and villainous role. Since they lack the West’s crazy expensive, imprecise “precision bombs” they can’t generate mass destruction. Instead, they kill in fewer numbers and exploit each for mass effect. Their psychological warfare is less about collateral damage, more about disturbing our sleep.

The protagonists curse them, threaten them, promise to hunt them and eliminate them, yet without the antihero we wouldn’t be fooled by the heroic costume of our protagonists. You see, ISIS (stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” but its Hebrew pronunciation is, apparently, “Hamas”), similar to Al-Qaeda and Cold War Communists, etc., plays the foil to the West and its heroic allies. These days, Israel.

So, same as last time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu will declare the villainous ISIS to be no different than Hamas, and then he’ll imply that black-clad killers are par for the course in Gaza and Israeli-occupied West Bank. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used the threat of ISIS to justify Israel’s arrogant theft this week of 990 Palestinian acres near Bethlehem. Evidently, heroes and their allies operate outside international law, accountable to no one.

Meanwhile, the Washington-Wall Street Military Industrial Complex will be doubling down on its Middle East expansion (aka imperialism). On Tuesday, President Obama approved the deployment of 350 more American troops to Iraq. Soon after the video of Sotloff’s murder was deemed authentic, Obama gave a stern message to ISIS, sounding very much like he was guarding Gotham.

“We will not be intimidated,” he declared, then warned Americans to brace for another long (read: costly) fight. These “horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight (to) these terrorists. … Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”**

In that way he has begun to sound like his predecessor “protagonist” and war industry pitchman, George W. Bush. Beheadings, after all, are good for business, all the more if they are captured on film. American outrage is a commodity famously leveraged for financial gain.***

Surely, ISIS knew this. Right? It had the script.

Last month, on cue after the beheading of Foley, Israel’s conservative English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, stretched this headline across five columns of its front page:

“Obama calls Islamic State a ‘cancer’ after graphic beheading.”

In words measured and (self) righteous, Obama presumably spoke for Americans – and common decency — when he said that he and “all of humanity” were appalled by Foley’s murder. Later in the story, Secretary of State John Kerry played the role of a Judeo-Christian politician rushing off to do battle with Old Testament darkness:

“There is evil in this world, and we have all come face-to-face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.”

This was the same day the Twitter account of the Israeli Prime Minister posted a still photo of Foley’s execution, as if it justified bombing the bejesus out of Gaza. “RT THIS: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They’re enemies of Peace. They’re enemies of all civilized countries.”

Followers did as ordered and retweeted Netanyahu’s propaganda 889 times before the post was deleted for its questionable use of Foley’s image.

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

Hours later it resurfaced with Foley’s picture replaced by the Arabic logo for ISIS. This tweet included an additional outrageous claim for any politician — Middle Eastern or Western — to make. It said the truth was simple (never the case in Jerusalem or Washington) and implied that Israel was on the side of it.

“The simple truth: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas.”

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

The following day Israel resumed bombing a dispossessed Muslim people with $110,000 American-made, American-bought Hellfire missiles fired from $20 million American-made, American-bought Apache helicopters. The casualties in Gaza had already exceeded 2,000, the majority of the dead civilian.

A week later, with Israel’s stock of American-made whoop-ass apparently running low and its Iron Dome draining military coffers, Washington routed a boatload of Hellfire missiles to its shore and put a rush on an extra $225 million for its Iron Dome missile defense. Just a little bump to cushion Israel’s annual $3.1 billion American allowance. (Another $126 million bump is due in November.)

Anything, it seems, for Washington’s heroic sidekick.

Or is that backward?

Is Washington the sidekick?

The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, in an article aptly titled “Friends of Israel,” dissects the influence that Israel lobbyists exact on Washington. In the Sept. 1, 2014 story she describes a tail-wagging-the-dog scene where an influential cadre of senators — Democrats Harry Reid and Tim Kaine; Republicans Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham — work overtime in late August to ensure Israel is well stocked with U.S. money and missiles. Graham, a hawkish senator from South Carolina and a major recipient of pro-Israel campaign donations, was jubilant after the 11th-hour triumph. Speaking to reporters, he made the extra hundreds of millions of American tax dollars sound like a game of penny ante.

“Not only are we going to give you (Israel) more missiles, we’re going to be a better friend. We’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion. We’re going to fight for you in the United Nations.”

 

 

* If you count just the civilian deaths in Iraq, included in the field reports of U.S. soldiers dated 2004 to 2009, more than half (66,081) of the killed Iraqis were civilian. The dead do not include Iraqis killed during the war’s heaviest fighting in 2003 (when, for example, the U.S. dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq) or by most coalition forces other than the U.S. military. Iraq Body Count, the British-based nongovernment project that began tracking Iraqi deaths in March 2003, estimates that between 128,431-143,705 civilians in Iraq were killed from the ongoing violence that began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. A database of the deaths is available at Iraq Body Count.

** Lest we count, say, Israel’s attack by air and sea on the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967, killing 34 U.S. crew members and injuring 171. Or, maybe, Rachel Corrie, run over and killed by an armored Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer on March 16, 2003 in the Gaza Strip. She was attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian home. Eye witnesses say the IDF crushed her on purpose; Israel disputes the claim.

*** For example, if you track the stock dividends of just the perennial top five “defense contractors” based on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) you find dizzying increases in the decade that followed September 11, 2011: Lockheed Martin (LMT) equals 680 percent increase in per-share stock dividends or 161 percent increase in Earnings Per Share (EPS); Boeing (BA) +250 percent or +635 percent EPS; Northrop Grumman (NOC) +250 percent or +187 percent EPS; General Dynamics (GD) +336 percent or +191 percent EPS; Raytheon (RTN) +190 percent or +400 percent EPS. Source: The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq

In God (and Winnie the Pooh) I trust…

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

UFC champ Jon Jones (R) defeats Glover Teixeira (L) in Baltimore on Saturday, April 26, 2014

Immediately after UFC champ Jon Jones defended his light heavyweight title last Saturday in Baltimore, Jones, a Christian with a tattoo on his chest reading “Philippians 4:13″ (I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me) kissed a forefinger and pointed toward heaven — or, depending on your secular versus religious leanings, toward the incandescent arc of the cage’s klieg lights.

“All glory be to God,” he told the pay-per-view audience. “Forever and forever, he reigns forever.”

Moments later, before answering questions from UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan, Jones gave Christianity its usual post-fight shout out: “First and foremost I want to thank Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior. Without him I would be nothing.”

Great athletes — and Jones is without question a remarkable MMA fighter — frequently give credit to God or Allah. On Saturday’s pay-per-view main card three of the five winners (Jones, Anthony Johnson and Max Holloway) immediately credited God or “my Lord and Savior” for the victory.

Although I feel certain that neither the Christian God nor his son aka Savior favored any one fighter in Saturday’s various beat downs, I believe that Jones is absolutely correct. Without his belief in a personal connection to a higher and omnipotent power, Jones, as well as other superstar athletes who say they are anointed with God’s blessing, would not perform in ways that appear otherworldly.

However, the same might be said of my devout belief in Winnie the Pooh. I was born the same year (1961) that the rights to Winnie the Pooh were licensed to Walt Disney Productions and, in no time, Disney had worked its magic. I became a believer. Chubby, benevolent Pooh, always dressed in a preshrunk red shirt (or was it an ill-advised midriff?), battled an insatiable appetite for honey. With my weakness for peanut butter fudge and my mom’s early attempts at sewing our clothes, I related. Like our refrigerator door, Pooh was a light in the dark. Even though he had it far rougher than I did, god bless him, he maintained a sunny disposition. He could be naive (I just thought of him as innocent) or slow-witted (understated and modest, I suspected) he developed a massive following, earned billions of dollars for Disney, and, unlike the most heavily perfumed girls in high school, he attracted more friends than bees. Tigger stalked him; Piglet adored him; Christopher Robin was loyal and steadfast.

Yeah, yeah, I know: What in God’s name does this have to do with Jon Jones kicking Glover Teixeira’s butt?

Wow, really? Pooh was also patient. He taught me to listen without interrupting. And if, say, my parents had dragged me to a sanctuary every Sunday where we sang hymns in praise of Pooh and listened to robed men yammer on and on about Pooh’s miracles and Pooh’s wisdom (“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though”) and Pooh’s unconditional love for humanity, I might also believe in Pooh’s omniscience, omnipotence and benevolence.

If, then, I believed that this same power were in me as sure as the blood coursing my veins, I might be able to relax to the point where I could compete with no self-doubt and no fear — utterly comfortable in the belief that the almighty Pooh is in me and will watch over me even as the heavy fisted Teixeira is trying to separate me from consciousness. As long as I am living by the lessons of Pooh and treating others as he did — e.g., as I would want to be treated myself — then maybe the Power of Pooh would be mine.

And it is. It always was, no matter if I pledged Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Atheist, Agnostic or Pooh. When I truly believe that the power of the universe resides within me (this belief waxes and wanes apparently) I act in such a way that I am able to tap it. Jesus or the Buddha or Winnie the Pooh, these are merely conduits for the almighty energy that lies in wait.

Yes, Jon Jones, all glory be to (insert empowering role model/teacher here).


Read Huffington Post version HERE

 

Weapons of Mass Construction: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic

[This week every year Graduation Day reverberates through the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok for hundreds of poor students (nearly 1,000 this year) who are completing the Mercy Centre's three-year preschool program. Several years ago I attended the ceremonies. That experience became Chapter 1 in The Gospel of Father Joe. In honor of Father Joe Maier and Mercy it is excerpted below. The world remains indebted to Father Joe's wisdom and his peaceful way of combating poverty, terrorism, and human trafficking.]

Father Joe delivering the commencement address to Mercy’s preschoolers, March 2007.

[For the Huffington Post version click HERE]

The story begins like the parable it’s become, in a no-man’s-land with the seed of dreams strewn in the most foolish of places: slum rubbish. This was the 1970s when few people believed anything good could grow from the backwater of the undeveloped world. There were no official addresses or property deeds in the cordoned-off corners of Bangkok, nothing much for the municipal books, just putrid ground so primal and bleak that land was free for the staking. It’s where squatters pretended to own real houses and children made do with make-believe.

But these seeds were sown by an angry young Catholic chased from finer society. A priest, stubborn and cursing. The local Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians nurtured that seed, and in time the people and the priest, the abbot and the imam, worked together, as though the Buddha, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ were brothers and best friends. No doctrine, dogma, or creed was lorded. No growth tethered chapter to verse. The only belief that mattered was the one they shared. In the children. That was common, sacred ground.

Nourished like this, the seeds exploded with growth. There was a harvest, then another and another. The seeds grow still today, more than three decades later, a genus of hope thriving in the muck, as if it had been indigenous to the slums all along. Tales of it grow too, spreading from those roots in Thailand to the media of North America and Europe, and in the retelling, it can begin to sound legendary. How in Gideon’s name does something grow from nothing and multiply like New Testament fishes and loaves? But nothing about it is myth. Every tale is true.

You can see for yourself when a new crop is gathered each year just before the yearly monsoons. For two, three, and often four days, a cordoned-off corner of the world blossoms in a brilliant hue of graduation gowns.

So it was on the sun struck first week of March 2007– thirty-three years after the first seeds were planted.

The Mercy Centre preschool graduation was standing-room-only; moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, the neighbor next door and next door to that one. Seven commencements stretched half the week and through a half dozen slums in celebration of seven hundred graduates from thirty-two schools built “officially illegally,” as the priest says, on the Thai government’s squatter land. Children six and seven years old accustomed to flip-flops and hand-me-downs strutted around in black mortarboard caps and matching silk gowns trimmed in a shade of blue my folk back home call Carolina. And while girls and their mothers and aunts fussed with lipstick and rouge, the boys did what boys do: swirl their heads until the tassels on their caps whir like the blades of a helicopter. Dizzy, they fall to the ground.

The priest was there, of course, more bald with each and every harvest. He conferred the diplomas and delivered the commencement address wearing the black and burgundy of Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. Draped across his left shoulder was a velvet sash with white stripes of cotton, thick enough to brush and braid: three stripes in front, three in back representing the honorary rank of a Thammasat Ph.D. If you were new to the slums or to their graduation rituals, a sash like that in a place like that might stop you. It might even if you weren’t.

Arriving at each school, the American known by tens of thousands of Thai as simply Khun Phaw Joe (“Mister Father Joe”) would park down a ways and out of sight. He’d pull on the gown, fix the sash just so, and then begin “the Walk”– a purposeful stride intended to put education on parade. Each route was different but familiar: past walls of plywood, lopsided floors, rusty tin roofs, and bare-bottomed babies; through humidity flavored by garbage and a subsistence watched over by sun-wrinkled village matriarchs who smiled even as they spit pinpoint tobacco-brown streams of betel nut juice. Heads turned to watch. Motorbikes slowed in deference. Cars stopped to let him pass. Old and young joined in, falling in behind or alongside, knowing full well where he was headed, knowing it was time.

In a backwater where nothing good was supposed to grow, graduation today is a rite of passage.

Some of the hardiest seed will scatter and continue maturing. There are graduates thriving now in the high school and college classrooms of North America with majors in economics, business, biology, computer science, and neuroscience. It’s why Khun Phaw Joe gave the Class of ’07 the same speech he has given every class since the Class of ’95 , the same he will give the Class of ’08. Something about it seems to work.

As the Walk approached the first podium, the room fell silent. Pigeons gurgled their Rs, a mobile phone tweeted, somewhere a baby shrieked. Khun Phaw Joe waited. A small, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary sat in a May altar (on cloth surrounded by flowers) next to a Buddhist shrine of joss sticks and a portrait of the Thai monarch (Massachusetts native King Bhumibol Adulyadej) framed in gold leaf.

Fitted for kid-sized attention spans but fired like buckshot, the commencement address was aimed at everyone crowded into the ceremony.

Khun Phaw cleared his throat.

“If you don’t have anything to eat in the morning,” he began, speaking Thai and scanning his attentive audience of children, then go to school!”

Most of the students sat erect or leaned slightly forward on the edge of their benches or chairs.

“If you don’t have any shoes to wear … ,” he continued, pausing for effect, “go to school!”

“If Mommy or Daddy says you can stay home … go to school!

“If your friends want you to sell drugs … go to school!

“If Mommy gambles and Daddy’s a drunk … go to school!

“If all the money is gone and you can’t buy lunch … go to school!

“If your house burns down and you don’t have anything or anywhere to sleep … go to school!

“Go to school! Go to school! Go to school!”

Children joined in, louder and louder, chanting what sounded to me like “Tong by wrong rain high die!”

Go to school! Dhong bai rong Tien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and the neighbor next door joined in.

Khun Phaw Joe directed the burgeoning chorus, his Thammasat gown waving until the bell sleeves billowed.

Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai! Dhong bai rong rien hai dai!

And that’s the sprint from beginning to now, three decades of harvests. But in the journey, as in the parable, lie the lessons and wisdom of a social revolutionary who bucks convention, the law, and what the rest of us might consider common sense or self preservation.

Father Joe Maier

The Reverend Joseph H. Maier, the eldest child of a philandering Lutheran father and pious Catholic mother, survived his own poverty and dysfunction to become a throwback of sorts: the durable, American-made export. It should be no surprise, then, that he settled on the wrong side of our economic divide and discovered a comfortable fit.

The neglected children of Klong Toey (three hard syllables sounding like a curse but meaning “canal of the pandanus,” a plant growing near the water and cultivated for its flavorful leaves) would put a nice sheen of perspective on his own welfare beginnings.

Today, whenever Khun Phaw Joe feels a pang of self-pity, and often when he sees it rising in others, he quashes it with self-mockery and echoes of an earlier time: “Yeah, yeah, everybody hates me, nobody loves me, all I’m ever fed is worms. That’s my life story. Blah, blah, blah…. Well, guess what? The sun is rising, the rooster is calling, and another day is here. I guess ol’ Joe better get his ass out of bed and get going.”

 

One Texan’s remedy for War: ‘Preemptive Love’

Jeremy Courtney, Author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time" and cofounder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Howard Books.)

Jeremy Courtney, Author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and co-founder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo by Abigail Criner.)

When a native Texan named Jeremy Courtney took the stage at the 2012 Q Conference he had no idea he would, in effect, be pitching his 2013 memoir, “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”

Q conferences are progressive yet evangelical (yes, both) Christian forums, similar in format to the more secular TED talks. This particular Q (stands for Question) occurred in April 2012 in Washington, D.C., seven months before President Obama was reelected. More than 30 speakers ranging from a peacemaking Palestinian Christian (yes, both) to a hawkish Southern Baptist firebrand descended on Washington to inform, influence and otherwise inspire the nation’s sagging Christian majority (not to be confused with Moral Majority). In talks scaled to fit the capital’s rushed schedule and attention span, each speaker was allotted slots of three, nine or 18 minutes.

Courtney, a slender, shaved-headed humanitarian who looks more like a Buddhist than his native Baptist, had scored one of the conference’s grande sizes. Nine minutes. He’d fly six thousand miles from his home in Iraq to speak for less time than it took to board any of his connections. In the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, three blocks south of the White House, he paced on the stage in front of 700 Q “participants,” as the conference refers to its influential attendees. Nine minutes gave Courtney no time for colorful narratives, long anecdotes or drawn-out punchlines. He hardly had time to clear his throat. He got straight to the point.

“It wasn’t an easy morning,” he began, “when I woke up in Iraq with my wife and kids and found out that a fatwa had been issued against us calling for our death(s).”

You could have heard a phone vibrate inside the palatial seven-story auditorium. If he didn’t have them at fatwa (an official ruling given by Islamic clerics) he had them at death.  

It was an evocative beginning to an amazing story (and now book) about a modern-day Gospel. Courtney’s memoir is the Good News of how mending the bodies of children restores hearts— literally and figuratively; theirs, ours and across “enemy” lines. In a blurb I wrote months ago for “Preemptive Love” (Howard Books, Oct. 1, 2013) I describe how the work of Courtney and his upstart international charity could “rewrite the hard wiring that holds humanity hostage.”

The hard wiring, in this case, is the fear that fractures humanity and keeps us locked in our comfort zones. It poses as pride, prejudice, and, often, as absolute faith. It can pit nation against nation, religion against religion, and, ultimately, it’s what drove an Iraqi mullah to order the death of Americans who were saving the lives of Iraqi children.

Preemptive, what I mean by that is this act when we jump to help someone else, to serve another before they’ve done anything for us,” Courtney told to the Q audience. Early in his book he explains it this way:

“I had not named it yet— that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six’ and ‘Shoot first; ask questions later.’ But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: ‘Love first; ask questions later.’ Today I call it preemptive love.”

Without any medical training and very little prep, he helped start an Iraq-based international development organization, Preemptive Love Coalition, which facilitates the heart surgeries needed for a massive backlog of sick Iraqi children. Iraqis have suffered three decades of war (beginning in 1980 with Iran), Saddam’s chemical weapons, 13 years of economic sanctions (1990-2003), and countless tons of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used in U.S. munitions. Its healthcare system is decimated, and, contrary to the controversial findings in a recent World Health Organization study, doctors from across Iraq report alarming increases in cancer rates and congenital birth defects.

Not long after moving to Iraq in 2006 to help rebuild it, Courtney, who’d earned a masters degree in international studies from Baylor University, heard about tens of thousands of Iraqi children suffering from heart defects. On average there are 30 new cases every day in Iraq, he said at the sixth annual Q Conference. But to get the children to surgery, he and his Preemptive Love cohorts took a road less (read: dared not) traveled. At the time, they had no other choice.

They sent Iraqi children to doctors in Israel. In other words, American Christians sent Iraq’s Muslim children to the Jewish state. To be saved. Literally.

In the fatwa, an Iraqi religious leader, or mullah, had used a phrase that immediately resonated with Courtney. “We must stop this treatment lest it lead our children to learn to love their enemies,” he recalled loudly at the Q Conference.

He paused, allowed the revelation to sink in.

“I was scared,’ he continued. “But I was thrilled by the mullah’s conclusion. We were saying the same thing: Be careful, preemptive love works.”

This threat from a high-ranking mullah was definitive evidence for him. It proved the efficacy of preemptive love. Hate could be recast by persistent, selfless acts of charity. War’s barbaric diplomacy could be repaired. Maybe, some day, an enlightened generation of Arab children would bridge the Middle East’s vast divide and make the region whole. Maybe the entire world could evolve.

“Every day in Iraq there seems to be an occasion to wake up again and make the decision to love indiscriminately,” Courtney said, describing for Q participants how his office had almost been blown up, his home broken into and bugged, his staff arrested on trumped-up charges. “Through these postures of preemptive love we’ve been able to go on and earn the trust of Muslims leaders across the country. We’ve made friends out of enemies.”

Eventually, a Muslim friend and sheikh in Iraq intervened on Courtney’s behalf and Preemptive Love continues its work in Iraq today. Better, it no longer needs to choose the road less traveled. Today it is helping to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system by bringing surgeons into the country and training local doctors to perform the heart surgeries.

“I don’t have time to tell you all of the amazing things God is doing in the lives (of people) across Iraq,” he said, concluding his nine-minute talk, “but I’ll just tell you this: Violence unmakes the world but preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world.”

As he exited the Q stage and spoke with participants, a woman asked if she could buy a copy of his book in the store there in the Mellon Auditorium.

“I’ve not written a book,” he said. “I don’t have one in the store.”

She smiled confidently. “Would you like to have one in it?”

Turns out she was an acquisitions editor for a publishing house. That conversation led to others, which soon led to a top-tier literary agent (Chris Ferebee) and, several months later, Courtney signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint, Howard Books. He was given five months to write the manuscript’s first draft.

Between frequent trips to his home near Lubbock, Texas and Preemptive Love’s work in Iraq, Courtney, now 34, expounded on his theology of preemptive love. His nine-minute Q talk quickly blossomed into an inspiring 230-page memoir. At its conclusion, near the end of the Afterword, he writes:

“Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own.

 

Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it— the one to whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all ostensibly pointing— is the first and the last enemy lover.”

 

See video: JEREMY COURTNEY at 2012 Q CONFERENCE

Americanized Democracy: Independence or Dependence?

Egyptians message to Americans during military coup.

On Facebook this sign is generating a lot of shock and awe from Americans. There is “Wow” and “Wow. Just Wow” and other expressions of speechless wonder. In light of Washington’s longtime backing of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and this week’s military coup, which keeps Egyptian “democracy” in limbo indefinitely, any show of Egyptian grace is, indeed, surprising.

But I’m not shocked or awed, just grateful. I’m grateful that Egyptian wisdom, grace and insight endures. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed their good character.

About eight months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I was dispatched to Egypt to report a series of stories about the view of Americans from the perspective of the Arab world. My “fixer” (translator, adviser, a journalist’s all-around go-to) and I came across a massive anti-American, anti-Israeli protest in downtown Cairo. There were hundreds of protesters and twice as many riot police.

Egyptian riot police by GNS photographer Heather Martin Morrissey, May 15, 2002

It was a strange sight because then-Egyptian President Mubarak did not allow public protests in “democratic” Egypt. My fixer, a wonderful Egyptian man who’s a Facebook friend but doesn’t like to be named much less tagged, said to me, “We have to get you inside of there.” He was referring to the protest and the bullring of police. I stared at him, unconvinced. I insisted that I could see things just fine from inside his Jeep Cherokee. He was persistent, with both me and the riot police, and within minutes we were in the bullring of Egyptian protests. Hundreds of angry Egyptians were burning flags of the U.S. and Israel, and, moments earlier, President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been burned in effigy.

As soon as protesters saw an American reporter with a notepad, they’d approach and ask me to put “facts to paper.” In other words, they wanted a genuine no spin zone. (Paying attention Bill O’Reilly?) Over and over again, in similar words and phrases, one Egyptian or another would say, “We love Americans but we hate your politics.” Among the grievances, they hated the way Washington propped up Mubarak’s regime in defense of Israel, and how it facilitated the spread of Wall Street franchises (Hardee’s, Radio Shack, Subway, KFC, etc.) through the Islamic world.

But “we love Americans.”

Maybe they loved Hollywood and Motown and Michael Jordan, but I thought it was strange for them to say they loved the U.S. electorate since Americans vote Washington politicians into office. But then I thought about Mubarak’s two-decade reign (it would last almost another decade) over a false democracy and realized that Egyptians understood American politics better than Americans did. Like Egypt’s, our democracy is not entirely genuine. It’s has never been as fake as Egypt’s was under Mubarak, but Washington politicians, to a large degree, are bought and packaged by Wall Street. The Egyptians didn’t hold us accountable for Washington because they knew we weren’t entirely accountable.

I’ve told this anecdote in a lot of my talks and wondered aloud: If I were in Cairo would Egyptians still give the American electorate such an easy pass.

I guess I have my answer.

A ‘Partnership with the Poor’ Turns Forty-Eight Years Old

photo by Nitaya Pakkeyaka

Father Joe Maier photographed 29 June 2013 at the Mercy Centre

This weekend Father Joe celebrates 48 years as a Redemptorist Catholic priest. More than 40 of those years have been spent living and working “in partnership” with the poorest of the poor in the port slums of Bangkok. Here’s a few paragraphs from my book explaining what happened when Mother Teresa crossed paths with Father Joe forty-two years ago:

Not long after Father Joe began sleeping on a Slaughterhouse cot, Mother Teresa visited Bangkok and ventured into Klong Toey’s hard middle. It was soon after the 1971 release of her biography, Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge, but before she was a holy icon. Had she already been famous, chances are that the elders of Holy Redeemer would not have risked putting her in the unedited company of Father Joe.

 

Together, kindred spirits in poverty, slum nun and slum priest toured Father Joe’s portside ghetto for three days, walking some of the same planks and catwalks I would walk with him a quarter of a century later. This was long before AIDS and yaba would mix and combust, and still, Mother Teresa pronounced the Slaughterhouse as sorrowful as anything in the gutters of Calcutta.

 

“Spend your life working with these poor … if you can,” she told Father Joe.

 

And with that simple, direct charge, it was as if he’d been anointed.

 

“I remember thinking to myself that if this is what a Christian-Catholic saint is all about,” Father Joe said of Mother Teresa, “I could and would spend all my life trying to imitate her.”

Gay marriage issue is ‘manini’

Hawaiians have a great word for the gay marriage debate, a word I still use 14 years after moving from Oahu. Manini. In the Native Hawaiian language it means “small, insignificant.” Relative to trillion-dollar wars, untold civilian and military casualties, illegal drone attacks, the Israeli strangling of Gaza and occupation of Palestinians, a global economic divide that results daily in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of “the least of these,” gay marriage is manini.

So why is this — THIS —  issue so important? Why does it get so many Christian churches and their pastors riled up? It allows churches and pastors to armchair quarterback something and pretend to be doing the work of “God” — for which congregants tithe handsomely. Meanwhile, priests like Father Joe Maier and holy women like Kathy Kelly (another Catholic, by the way) are in life’s trenches doing all of the heavy lifting.

The only thing that upsets me about the gay marriage issue is that it’s an issue. Churches, media, etc., are lazily distracted by it at the cost of matters that are truly critical. And for what reason? Because of a sentence in a chapter of a book (Leviticus 18:22) that Moses may or may not have written? Same chapter that tells me in all seriousness to skip the whole kid-sacrifice thing because it shows contempt of God?

Oy vey.

Let’s please put this issue to bed. No pun intended.

As bombs fell, Iraqi Good Samaritans rescued American Christians


At the rebuilt Rutba General Hospital in January, 2010. Back row, left to right, nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq and physician’s assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil, Rutba local, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, and the rest are Rutba locals. Front row, kneeling left to right, Rev. Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy, and Shane Claiborne.  

The synopsis below was published by The Albany Times-Union in advance of an event where I’m speaking on Saturday, March 16. The event, hosted by the Capital Region Theological Center, is titled, “Finding Your Calcutta: Where Does God Call You.” You can register and/or read more about it HERE.


On a sunny Saturday 10 years ago this month three Christian peacemakers from the United States were injured in a car accident that ended violently in a remote desert ditch of war-torn Iraq. It was March 29, 2003, nine days into the Pentagon’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The U.S. Air Force was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on a sovereign Islamic nation, according to data I gleaned from an April 30, 2003, military report titled, “Operation Iraqi Freedom: By the Numbers.” Those numbers don’t even include ordnance fired by ground troops or allied air forces.

The Christian peacemakers squeezed into a taxi that morning had chosen to reside in this bombardment with the war’s most obvious victims— everyday Iraqis caught in the cross fire between a dictator and history’s most powerful military. Some labeled the peacemakers “human shields.” Others wrote them off as suicidal. They were neither. Simply, their profound spirituality would not allow them to sit idly while their government killed innocent people. In the purest (read: apolitical) sense of the word, they were diplomats. For Christ.

Before going to Baghdad in March 2003, Philadelphia peacemaker Shane Claiborne had explained his motivation in a letter penned like a last testament. In part, he wrote:

“I am going to Iraq to stop terrorism. There are Muslim and Christian extremists who kill in the name of their gods. Their leaders are millionaires who live in comfort while their citizens die neglected in the streets. I believe in another kingdom that belongs to the poor and to the peacemakers. I believe in a safe world, and I know this world will never be safe as long as the masses live in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. … May we stand by those who face the impending wrath of empire and whisper, ‘God loves you, I love you, and if my country bombs your country, I will be right here with you.’”

Weeks later, the Americans found themselves stranded and bloodied in a highway ditch. Indiana organic farmer Cliff Kindy’s scalp was split open and gushing blood. Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly from Seattle had a fractured sternum, shoulder, ribs and thumb. Claiborne, with a separated shoulder, was the least injured. But he felt sick with dread. In the Pentagon’s War on Terror, he feared that Iraqis would see the Americans as the terrorists.

When three Iraqi men in the first vehicle that came to the scene helped the Americans into their truck, Claiborne couldn’t decide if he was being rescued or kidnapped.

A half-dozen miles southeast of that hard ditch, 270 miles west of Baghdad, is a desert town named Rutba. It was the westernmost outpost for Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. Three days earlier, on March 26, 2003, a Special Forces unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., had bombed a suspected ammo depot adjacent to the region’s only hospital. Rutba General Hospital had burned to the ground. So the Americans were taken to a squat building with no electricity and no running water. It’s where Rutba General Director Dr. Farouq Al-Dulaimi, physician assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil and nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq were treating Rutba’s sick and wounded, and where they would patch up the Americans.

Hearing that the Americans were similar to the Rutba townspeople —peaceful and unarmed — Dr. Farouq told Claiborne, “You are safe in Rutba. We will take care of you. We take care of everyone — Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”

Seven years later, when the peacemakers returned to Rutba to find the Good Samaritans and medical staff who had saved them, Jassim told them that when he heard they had returned, he thought they had left something and wanted to reclaim it.

“I never thought that you came back to say thank you,” he said. “Is it possible that you came back for a simple service [we] provided?”

He later remarked at how the American Christians were behaving like good Muslims, only without the daily prayers.

When the peacemakers left Rutba and the reunion in 2010, they promised to keep telling the story of Rutba’s Good Samaritans. Hearing this, Tarik and Jassim offered to also do their part to bring peace and reconciliation.

“As you do when you go back and you tell your people about Rutba,” Tarik said, “we also are committed to tell our people about your visit and your noble mission.”

Greg Barrett traveled to Iraq in 2003 as a correspondent for Gannett News Service and is the author of “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.” He is speaking Saturday, March 16, at the Capital Region Theological Center’s event, “Finding Your Calcutta” at Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church, 2131 Central Ave., Schenectady. For more information go to http://www.capitalrtc.org.

Hey, Middle East! Are you listening?

Here’s hoping/praying that the Middle East and all of its violent players (e.g., Israel, the United States, Iran, the Taliban, Palestine, Egypt, etc.) will someday grow the heck up and absorb life’s lessons.

For example, Ubuntu.

Ubuntu (“OO-boon-too”) is something Desmond Tutu preaches: “It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”

Of course we see a living example of this in Father Joe Maier in The Gospel of Father Joe. It’s the same sort of oneness that he discusses in James Lingwood’s documentary, “Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.”

So, yo, Netanyahu! Are you taking notes? Please, for the love of God, Allah, the Buddah and all of humanity, grow up.

Evolve.

Priest walks the talk in Bangkok slums— lives to write about it

New collection of stories by Father Joe Maier

First, full disclosure. I wrote the book on Father Joe Maier, the cursing, curmudgeon, can-do priest of Bangkok. Literally. The Gospel of Father Joe, it was titled. But that 315-page effort doesn’t preclude me from being honest with you about his latest book, The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum. Frankly, if I didn’t keep it real he’d probably break my kneecaps. (That part is figurative. I think.)

Father Joe, who turns 73 on Halloween, is a native of working-class Longview, Washington, but he has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand for some forty years. In 1971, long before Mother Teresa was a holy icon and eight years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the great nun of Calcutta visited with Father Joe in Bangkok’s flood-prone shantytowns. Father Joe showed her the Klong Toey slums that house tens of thousands of homeless families, and as they walked the rickety catwalks that hold the poor aloft (barely) over dung-brown lakes of sewage, Mother Teresa fell quiet. Seeing mile upon soggy mile of the desperate poor she declared Bangkok’s abyss to be every bit as sorrowful as the squatter camps in Calcutta. Leaving, she made one request of Father Joe. It was a doozy.

“Spend your life working with these poor,” she told him. “If you can.”

For the most part, occasional churchgoers like myself and holy, holy praise the Lord types stay far away from any place where rats the size of house cats squat alongside  squatters. We stay even further away if snakes large enough to eat those rats loiter there. Instead, we pray on bended knee for the deity’s hand to knead the bread that feeds the poor. We tithe in the hope that our godly administrators will do the right thing and invest in people rather than church infrastructure. We might even (wo)man up and go on annual mission trips to the reeking other side of the economic divide, as if two weeks of sweat equity and the Good News of Jesus raises all boats. But these well-intentioned efforts, even when added all together, are relatively lightweight when you consider poverty’s toll and grueling duration.

In Thailand, a hub of global sex trade (“human trafficking” in politer circles), a majority of residents have long worked in the “informal sector” or black market, according to Kasikorn Research Centre, the economic analyst for Bangkok’s large Kasikorn Bank Group. That’s roughly twenty-two million people (about two-thirds of Thailand’s adult workforce) toiling in the black market without retirement plans, health insurance, and other social security benefits found in “formal sector” jobs such as doctor, lawyer, banker, bellhop, bartender, waitress, McDonald’s cashier. These “casual laborers,” as Kasikorn refers to them, include curbside food vendors, garland makers, fortune-tellers, card dealers, drug dealers, and the wretched dealers of flesh. The twenty-two million doesn’t include the nearly 2.5 million children listed by Thailand’s Office of the National Education Commission as absent from school; kids missing the roll call but not exactly missing in action.

In 2000, the first year I visited Father Joe’s Mercy Centre schools and orphanages in Klong Toey, nearly seventy percent of Thai children ages 11 to 14 were not enrolled in school. Then, like now, they were being educated in the street rather than the classroom. They earned their keep in Thailand’s underground economy, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization; and, more convincingly, according to Father Joe. With the help of Klong Toey’s Buddhists and Muslims, Father Joe and his Human Development Foundation had built thirty-two slum preschools in an effort to break the obvious cycle of poverty. Living in the abyss Father Joe had seen firsthand the root causes and consequences of economic injustice. Illiterate parents with no job or steady income would sell themselves or their children to the flesh traders. More often than not, the kids showing up at Mercy had been neglected, abandoned, abused and/or HIV-infected.

“It’s a totally different world where all the kids get hurt and no one gives a shit!” Father Joe had barked to me one day outside a catwalk shanty. We were standing in the gaping divide of our economy— two feet above floating raw sewage.

If, like Father Joe, you dare to reside in Bangkok’s port slums there is nothing underground about the economy. It’s right there; in your face, in the massage parlors, in the alleyways, and on Klong Toey’s hip-wide catwalks. Father Joe absorbed it like a daily beating. Living like this in the stories and their visceral consequences, downstream from downstream, he had to tell others. Had to. Upstream Christians needed to know. But writing for him was something more than a means to raise attention and charity funds. It was and is cathartic; a finger on the valve of his frustration.

Similar to his first book, Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse (Hong Kong: Periplus, March 2005), The Open Gate of Mercy (Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, August 2012) is a collection of these real-life stories reported from inside Klong Toey’s inner sanctum. They were gleaned the only way possible. By living in the grind of it. Most of the forty stories were written initially for the English-language Bangkok Post, and, like the subject of my favorite piece in the book, “The Left-Handed Artist of Kong Toey,” Father Joe proves ambidextrous in his skills as both a priest and a writer.

For example, in a story titled “Miss Pim Gets Second and Third Chances,” he recounts the struggles and ultimate triumph of a Mercy Centre child with whom I’m familiar from my own book’s research. He writes:

Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was sixteen, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand. Pim’s note and her story are important because she is a “throwaway” orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these so-called throwaways, need to be walked through the bad patches, not just once but many times before they reach adulthood.

Although I’d told the story about Pim and her miraculous niece, Miss Grasshopper, in The Gospel of Father Joe, my version doesn’t compare to Father Joe’s. His is better. He lived it.

On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you’ve seen it once, you never forget it.

I’ve never met a preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who’s not also a good writer. The talent comes with the trade. Or is it vice versa? Before most sermons are delivered they are reported, written, edited, and rewritten. And then, often, rewritten again. But Father Joe’s prose and preaching are notches above anything so rehearsed, edited and practiced. Exactly like his loaded cannon of a personality, his writing sounds candid never canned.  It’s as if he’s locked us into a conversation, and together we explore the nooks and crannies of slum life. Readers like myself, living on the consumption side of the economic divide, are taken on a tour of Klong Toey’s underbelly without having to assume any of its dangers and deprivation.

This is where Father Joe’s writing is both a blessing and a curse.

Reading about the slums of Klong Toey is a good start to understanding what life is like in third-world slums. But that’s all it is. A start, a glimpse, and maybe a nudge or shove to learn more. If we close the book or flick off our Kindles and Nooks, and then all we do is return to our iPhone lives, nothing much is achieved. To really understand the deep-rooted miseries caused by economic imbalances we have to go further along the journey. The start that Father Joe gives us needs to startle us awake.

So, at its worst, The Open Gate of Mercy, could serve as an enabler. Its stories allow us to stand off at a distance believing we see, hear, smell, touch, taste the slum life. Father Joe’s writing is that good. But we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, taste. We really don’t have even the first clue.

At its best, the book awakens us to that fact— and arouses our empathy. So in this election season when we American voters demand to know how Washington and Wall Street will improve our standard of living, let Father Joe show us the bigger picture. These stories filed from the other side should serve as an antidote to our myopia.

Through him, and through the people who spring to life in The Open Gate of Mercy, we can point to something far larger than ourselves.

For more on Father Joe and his charity visit www.mercycentre.org.

A younger Father Joe standing outside one of his first homes in the Slaughterhouse district of the Klong Toey slums in Bangkok. Photo by Jim Coyne, 1983.