Former things, new things

Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 21, 2010)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126, Phil. 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

While Iraq has largely fallen out of the news in the West, this week marks seven years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Daryl fasted in the 40 days leading up to the war, sending daily letters to then President George W. Bush and urging him to seek alternatives to war. On the eve of the war, Daryl also sent an open letter to our three children, noting that war was imminent:

Under the “best case” scenario, the war will be quick, there will be minimal loss of life, Iraqi people will welcome positive changes in their lives, the Middle East will grow more stable, and the nations of the world will forgive the United States for rushing to war without their blessing. But rarely, if ever, does war produce “best case” scenarios. The more sobering possibilities are that this war will kill or injure tens of thousands of children, civilians and troops; millions of Iraqis will be left homeless; the Middle East will become even more unstable; anti-U.S. feelings around the world will grow stronger; and terror attacks on U.S. soil will increase. – Letter dated 3/18/2003

Indeed, the human toll of the war has been staggering. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths range from a low of 95,642 to hundreds of thousands. Some 9,515 Iraqi security forces have also been killed.

An Iraqi woman from Baghdad speaks with Cindy and Evanna Hess, at an IDP camp in northern Iraq

The U.S.-led coalition death toll stands at 4,703, including 4,385 U.S. soldiers.

These numbers do not include other human costs – the more than 4.0 million Iraqis who have been uprooted from their homes and the millions of soldiers and civilians who will forever carry the physical and psychological scars of war.

The U.S. financial cost of the war in Iraq already exceeds $712 billion. It could easily reach $1.0 trillion before a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces — about the same amount as the proposed health care reform bill that will provide medical care to 32 million Americans during the next 10 years.

A small Kurdish village where MCC is helping to address food security issues

We have traveled to Iraq many times in the past 2½ years – but only to the Kurdish areas in the north. It is still considered too dangerous for westerners to travel to Baghdad, although we hope to do so later this spring. Many Iraqis (at least those in the north) tell us that they are glad that Saddam Hussein no longer controls Iraq. But they also express lament about the way the U.S. has mistreated ordinary Iraqis, the fact that violence continues (including violence against Christians), the lack of electricity and clean water, and the high number of refugees and internally displaced persons.

First grade students at a school in northern Iraq, which received MCC school kits

The Common Lectionary readings for the fifth Sunday in Lent reflect on former things and new things.

In the Old Testament reading, God speaks words of promise through the prophet Isaiah — at a time when God’s people are facing exile: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:18-19). God has previously delivered the people from slavery in Egypt and from wandering in the wilderness. Again, God will do a new thing.

The psalmist echoes the same theme. Those who have gone into exile with weeping and tears will return with shouts of joy (Ps. 126:5-6). God will restore their fortunes.

In the Epistle reading, Paul acknowledges his past as one who persecuted the church and sought to gain favor with God on his own merits (Phil. 3:6-9). All that is now rubbish, say Paul. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (v.13b-14)

In the Gospel reading, Mary also puts away former things and focuses her attention wholly on Jesus. She anoints his feet with expensive perfume in preparation for his upcoming crucifixion, burial and resurrection (John 12:1-8).

For many years, Iraqis have known precious little beside colonial powers that interfere, wars that uproot and economic sanctions that squeeze daily life. It is time for something new.

Teacher and principal at a two-room school in northern Iraq

And there are hopeful signs. National elections were held in early March. Refugees and internally displaced persons are slowly beginning to return home (albeit to difficult circumstances).

A Muslim partner based in Baghdad recently shared a shipment of MCC material resources with Christian families who had been displaced in pre-election violence in Mosul. Their organization’s director issued a strong statement: “We should raise our voice high as civil society representatives against such crimes against humanity,” she wrote, “ we hold the Iraqi government and local government responsible to save and keep safe the lives of all Christians, and other ethnic (and) minorities.”

Amidst the tragedy of human conflict and sin, God is doing a new thing. Do we have eyes to perceive it?

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