On May 1, the president of the National Clergy Council, the Rev. Bob Schenck, called for immediate action against the alleged assault of Iraqi detainees by American and British soldiers.
"If proven true, this criminal behavior demands swift and thunderous denunciation by the highest of military officials and the perpetrators must be severely punished. We call on the proper authorities to immediately investigate and if necessary to prosecute these actions, punish the guilty, and to offer to the victims, their families, all Iraqis and Arabs everywhere a complete and humble apology and restitution. This form of abuse is shameful and supremely immoral; it injures victims in particularly harmful ways and it irreparably damages the integrity of American and British culture,” he said.
According to news reports, several American and British soldiers not only insulted the detainees, but stripped them of their clothes and conducted “immoral acts that cannot be spoken of.”
On May 3, the Christian Post staff was able to speak to Dr. Schenck about the events taking place in the Arab world, and what Christians can do to become a reconciliatory voice in the midst of the tragic event.
Dr. Schenck, will you please first explain your group to the general Christian Audience?
We are a network of conservative and traditional Christian clergy in all the major denominational stream; we have Catholics, evangelicals, protestant and orthodox groups, but we are dominated by evangelicals. That is why we have Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans and Nazarenes among our council. However, other Christian clergy are invited to join with us. Our purpose is to bring classical Christian moral instruction social issues and to bring a biblical viewpoint in the discussion surrounding public policy.
How has the National Clergy Council been involved in Iraq?
We began by endorsing the military action in Iraq because of the egregious violation of human rights on the part of Hussein, and because there was no remedy for that other than military intervention. We’ve also held a number of panel presentations and symposiums on that subject, in which we tried to hear the voices of the most pacifist Christians who wanted peace, to the most aggressive, who had very militaristic opinions. But finally, we came down with the decision that the administration was correct in deposing Saddam and working toward an immediate democratic replacement government.
More importantly though, just back in March, I was part of a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders that traveled to Morocco with the purpose of beginning dialogues with the Arab-Muslim world. The visit was in the common interest of both Evangelical Christians and Muslims, and it was to begin a language of mutual respect and trust, rather than suspicion and hostility.
What came out of it was for the very first time, Christians were asked to bring a Christian event to Morocco, first through humanitarian relief then through the first Christian music event. They even invited me to return and teach on what evangelical Christians believe.
Now, this is not charity; Moroccan government is paying for this because this is the only way for them to defeat the violent Islamic extremism that destroys them as much as it threatens everyone in the West.
What was the effect of the alleged attacks by American and British soldiers?
All of this was very fresh when this terrible story surfaced. We have a second delegation returning to Morocco this week, and we have another delegation going there in the fall. We have the Christian music event scheduled for the Winter of 2005, and there is a lot of activity going on.
What I learned about the Arab world and the Muslim-Arab world in particular is that first of all, the language of dignity and respect is extremely important in their culture. The reason I said what I said, was that while we tend to look at the language of punishment or disassociation from particular actions as enough said on behalf of our fellow Americans, in the Arab world, that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that we affirm their dignity and that we show them respect. This would win great openness for dialogue and eventually for the Christian witness in the Arab world.
The insults that happened here have had a huge impact on the reception of the gospel into the Arab countries, because no matter what we say about ourselves, the Arab world views us as a Christian nation. We may try to convince them otherwise and explain to them that we are not a Christian nation: Some Americans may explain that we are a secular nation; others may say that we are an ungodly nation. But in the Arab world we are viewed as a Christian nation and what we do affects their views on Christians more so than on Westerners. That is why for the Christian-Muslim relation, it is crucial that we use the language they understand.
And this would mean humbling ourselves, but that is the biblical message. God rewards those who are humble, as opposed to those who are arrogant, and the language is a simple matter of humility. We simply need to say to them as a country, that our country committed a serious mistake to all Arabs.
The reason for this is that Americans think individualistically while Arabs think collectively. This event was not just an insult to a small number of detainees, but was an insult to every single Arab, and every single Arab man felt the dehumanizing experience collectively. So it will do no good for us to say that a few American soldiers did wrong to a few Arab men. Instead, we as Americans must say that we did wrong to all Arabs, we beg your pardon, this was a very serious indignity that was visited upon you, and we seek your forgiveness.
This wouldn’t be such a hard thing to say, but I’m not so naïve to think that the words should not be carefully and properly stated in the political context as well. However, I believe that there is a way for us to do this properly, and that we may even come out of this stronger than before.
I believe that the responsibility lies on the president - whom I support very strongly and whom the National Clergy Council supports very strongly. Now, this would scandalize some, but I think that in this instance, the President and the highest military officials including General Myers should use religious language. This is needed because in the Arab world, there is no such thing as separating religion from the state. Therefore, we need to employ these religious languages of humility, pardon, forgiveness, restoration and restitution. These are the kind of words that this culture understands, and we will have a much harder time resolving things in Iraq, the Arab world and among terrorist groups if we do otherwise. Even our own military personnel will be place in peril from this incident. So humbling ourselves will only help us but not injure us.
Do you fear that such actions may prompt not only anti-Western but also anti-Christian sentiments from Iraqis?
Unequivocally yes in both instances, and it will bring grave consequences. Number one; it will be a catalyst for al Queda to recruit young men who felt the same injury. These young men will want to take revenge on what has happened, and it would make them more vulnerable to join the terrorist groups. Number two; it compromises our integrity, because when we say that we want to help the Arab world, they can’t possibly believe that.
What a few soldiers do represent what every soldier does to them, and we are represented through these soldiers. Because the Arab world sees us as a Christian nation, every Christian now bears the burden of these very sinful and very inhuman actions.
As Christians, we have to be very careful that we are not seen as defending sinful and unholy behavior. We need to demonstrate a commitment to biblical standards on morality that is respected in the Muslim world. Although there is much tension, Christians who live holy lives in these nations are greatly respected. They are not allowed to evangelize, but they are still seen as people of the book who are holy.
Therefore, when they see these insults, and these are very hypocritical to our teachings, they will see Christians as hypocritical, because in the Arab world, it’s a reality that soldiers and westerners are seen as Christians. They see these soldiers as representing Christians, and while they know that some Arab Muslims, such as Saddam Hussein, perpetrated some of the same behavior, the proper response for us for them is to humble ourselves. This will buy us an enormous amount of favor in the Arab world.
So we are hoping that at the present time, we must act upon this matter with the appropriate context.
What could Christians do as a reconciliatory voice at this sensitive time?
Immediately, we must be careful not to be defensive. We can win nothing by trying to excuse, justify or explain what has happened. What we can do is simply say: what was done was wrong, it was sinful, it offends our God and it certainly has offended our Arab neighbors. We can only admit our fault, beg the pardon of our Arab neighbors and pray to god that such a thing will never happen again. We cannot go wrong with that kind of language.
We may look at that as admissions of weakness, as though we are saying we are Wrong and they are Right. But that’s not the case in the Arab world. To them, this is just the proper thing to do. It’s much like bowing in the Asian world; it’s a show of mutual respect, and after this, we can move on to communicate. However, if you rigidly refuse to acknowledge someone else’s culture of communication, you can’t expect to communicate with their culture. It’s hard for us, but it’s something we must do, as difficult as it is.
Should this be something Christians should have as a prayer topic?
Most definitely. Our relationship as Christians to the Muslim world, and as American Christians to the Arab World, is the most critical factor in terms of relationships between nations and world evangelism.
Let me give you an example. In Morocco, our entire delegation was taken to a special university where the children poor families from the rural areas that are particularly susceptible to Islamic Extremism are taught. These students are brought to the University, so that they can receive knowledge of a broader culture, because the Moroccan officials believe that once these students are taught, they would be less vulnerable to terrorist groups such as al queda. These officials are bringing in these students and giving them a free education, because terrorism has hit them as well as it has hit us. We were taken to this special university, and we were told ahead of time that these students view Americans with contempt and hatred. However, these officials said, “we want them to meet you and learn that you are not what they think you are.”
I prayed on this and asked God what we were to do in this situation. As sort of the spokesman for the group, I was asked to speak to the students. Here we were: six evangelicals looking out at 200 university students. And they are not happy we were there.
So I began by saying, “I first thank all of you for your hospitality, and secondly admit that we are ignorant Christians that are learning so much just by being with you. As Christians, we have learned so much from you just by this short time we were here, especially on how important family is. We’ve largely forgotten that family is important, and we’re learning from you, enriched by how your families are and we are bettered by learning from your community.”
When I said this, their eyes lit up; they were warm and friendly, and it was a change instantly, in front of our eyes. What I learned from this experience was that when we approach people with the humility of Christ, they are open to listen. I told them that we are here only offering the love for Jesus Christ, and that we do not represent ourselves. We told them that our faith is Christ is what is important and we represent the Christ that we serve because we ourselves have nothing to boast. This, they can respect.
When we left, the professor in charge told us that he believes the view of these students toward Christians and Americans will be changed forever.
Our whole delegation realized that we needed to convey the love of God in a humble way, and I think this is one way in which we can gain respect from the Muslim world, and when you gain respect, you gain a hearing.
Therefore, while I’m very concerned about what has happened recently, I’m also encouraged on the new opportunities to build new relationships. I believe, actually, that we could come out of this experience with a stronger relationship, if we are able to humble ourselves.