Good guy or bad?

The challenge at home highlights the challenge abroad

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

Jonas Savimbi: Good guy or bad guy?

The death a couple of weeks ago of the Angolan military rebel raised the hard issues all over again. Was he, as journalist Janet Chismar of Crosswalk.com put the question, a Christian patriot or an African warlord? Or might he have been both at the same time?

How are we supposed to characterize people halfway around the world when we really don't know them? What are we supposed to believe when we hear rumors that a particular person is a stalwart Christian-or that he is a persecutor of believers? Is the enemy of my enemy always my friend?

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Jonas Savimbi has long been an enigmatic figure-even for those who were diligent students and observers of Africa. So when he was killed in a late February shootout between his rebel forces and soldiers of the Angolan government that had finally cornered him, the arguments began all over again.

Mr. Savimbi was "a heroic Christian leader who relied on his faith for strength, courage, and wisdom to wage a lifelong struggle for the freedom of the Angolan people," said Brad Phillips, president of the Persecution Project, in an interview with Ms. Chismar. I have come to trust Mr. Phillips's reports in recent years-so I take him seriously when he claims, after knowing and working with Mr. Savimbi for two decades, that he was a true-blue sort of fellow.

But what do I do then with an analysis by Radek Sikorski of the American Enterprise Institute, who has also spent years in Angola and who wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal: "In the U.S., Savimbi portrayed himself as a devout Christian and a pro-market anti-Communist. He was neither. In one of his wittier moments, he declared that when Christian missionaries arrived in Angola they had the Bible, but the Africans had the land. After 500 years of pastoral work, he said, the Africans had the Bible but the missionaries had the land. His true ideology was not Christian; rather it was a homespun philosophy he called 'negritude,' a unique mixture of black consciousness, Maoism, and voodoo superstition."

Now there's a choice for you!

Part of our task at WORLD every week is to sort through such conflicting evidence, decide which arguments make the most sense, and pass on to you the distillation of our best efforts. Sometimes-as in the case of Mr. Savimbi-we find ourselves unable to come down firmly on one side or the other. The facts are murky. Even people we have come to trust hold different interpretations.

But here's my main point: It's not just with reference to stories from Angola and other countries halfway around the world that we run into such ambiguities. Sometimes, we're confused interpreting stories right under our own noses.

I will never forget having a Christian friend of mine, a fireman with the local fire department, plunk down in the chair in my office to tell me with great disgust that our city's fire and police departments were totally corrupt. "You want a promotion? I can tell you the office you go to to buy a copy of the test. You pay a hundred bucks for the test, you study it, you get your promotion. Makes me sick to my stomach!" he told me. I was stunned. But his report was convincing.

So I checked it out with another Christian friend who was an officer with the police department. "Lee," I asked, "could this possibly be true? Are things really that bad? Is the deck stacked that profoundly against honest people?" "No way!" he said, and I could tell he was both shocked and angry that such a report had been seriously proposed.

I made it a point over the next few weeks and months to keep asking questions on both sides of the issue. But 15 years later, I've still never resolved the matter. Even though city hall is less than a mile from my office, the answers I get are dusky and cloudy. The reality, I've concluded, is somewhere between what my two friends hold to be the truth.

Compared to the Savimbi story, the local corruption story should be easy. No distance, no foreign language to contend with, nobody with a gun to anybody's head. But even then it's hard.

No wonder, then, that it's so much harder smoking out the truth in Angola or Chile or North Korea or Yemen or Bosnia. And no wonder that the Apostle Paul warned believers in 1 Thessalonians to "test everything."

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