Nearly four out of five folks in this country self-identify as Christian. And (to understate widly) there are very few political issues that 80 percent of the country agree on. The war in Iraq certainly is not one of them. Many of the soldiers fighting the war are Christian. Many of the people opposing the war are Christian. Christian lawmakers voted for the war. Some Christian lawmakers voted against the war. One Christian voted for the war before he voted against it.
I bring this up to point out one of the weaknesses in coverage this past week of the four Christian anti-war activists who were kidnapped at gunpoint by Muslim militants in Iraq. It’s a horribly sad, if not altogether surprising, story. The Muslim Swords of Righteousness Brigade threatened to kill the men if their demand that the United States release all prisoners in Iraqi and U.S.-run detention centers was not met by Saturday, Dec. 10th. They accused the four of being coalition spies.
Concern for the group grew over the weekend as the deadline for their execution Saturday passed. The four men — Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Virginia; Norman Kember, 74, of London, England; James Loney, 41, of Toronto, Canada; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a former Montreal resident living in Auckland, New Zealand — were affiliated with Christian Peacemaker Teams a pacifist group of Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. The group sends teams of workers to intervene in war zones and other dangerous areas. Their motto is “committed to reducing violence by getting in the way.”
The Christian Peacemakers require its corps members to be “deeply grounded in Christian faith.” So you have a group of peace activists who may have already lost their lives because of their interpretation of the Bible. Leaving apart the possible merit or naivete in their political understanding, why aren’t reporters teaching us more about their Quaker-infused theology? Even after reading through dozens of accounts of the hostage situation, including a BBC profile of Christian Peacemaker Teams that was anything but, the religious motivation angle was only mentioned in passing. The best I could find was this story in the Buffalo News that used quotes from Kathleen Kern, an acquaintance of the hostages:
Kern described Christian Peacemakers Team as committed to peace and human rights. In Iraq, the group initially sent members ahead of the U.S. invasion to protest the war. Later, it focused on detainees, collecting stories about their disappearances and treatment.
The activists don’t engage in proselytizing overseas, she said.
But, she added, “We are not ashamed to say we are doing this, that we are doing human rights work, because Jesus is on the side of the marginalized.”
Christians have been struggling with how to live simultaneously in secular and spiritual realms for millennia. The media tend to see this conflict on the right very easily when they cover conservative Christian battles in the public square. But it seems harder for them to look critically at the equivalent struggles among liberal Christians. In defense of the media, their poor coverage of religious attitudes toward war might be a reflection of the complete lack of debate on the issue in most American denominations.
In any case, are there different standards for justice in the church and in the world? Have Christians discussed this issue before? Does this play into separation of church and state? If there are different standards for how to handle conflict in the church and in the world, what does that say about current hot-button political issues? I hate it when I have nothing but questions after reading two dozen articles from different perspectives about the same situation.
If these four hostages are going to die at the hands of their captors, one of the few things we might expect from reporters covering the saga is an exploration of the hostages’ motivations.