Our guest pastor today made a bold statement. She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.
I wrinkled my brow when I heard it. She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house. How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?
Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts. Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy. We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.
Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army. I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”
He thought for a long moment.
“I can’t think of any,” he said.
Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. Let’s take Iran, for example. In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family. In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah. Thirty years of oppression followed. And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.
We still claim to support self-determination. Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.
Then there’s Iraq. Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:
U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.
Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran. Arms and aid flowed freely. George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.
Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy. As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence. It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.
Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years. Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?
Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka. People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive. The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government. And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government. Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation. Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up. He found desperate people to do it for him. The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.
There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism. But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree. Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists. It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.
Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.
Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.
Do you see the connection yet?
If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.
If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.
There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it. I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy. Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security. They will create even more enemies.
But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home. We can become a hospitable people. We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat. We can do it more than once. We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles. And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.
That’s a tall order. But how far would you go to stop the violence?