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Dealing with Middle Eastern fantasies, and our own

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

WHEN BISHOP BERKELEY IN THE MID-EIGHTEENTH century proposed that matter is an illusion, Samuel Johnson was not impressed. Asked how he would refute the argument, he kicked a rock so hard his foot bounced off, saying, "I refute it thus." Very Johnsonian, and so pithy the same point could be made in a single word: Ouch! Yet Berkeley was onto something. Christians speak rightly of objective truth, meaning first God's revelation in Scripture, and second what we often call "reality." But reality is not totally separate from us. In a way, it is us-a rock firmly planted in a swirl of perception. The present war (not just in Iraq but against terrorism generally) is, more than any previous war, a conflict of perceptions. Some are realistic, and some are delusional.

Lee Harris, in a recent online article titled "Our World-Historical Gamble," makes a convincing argument that the modern Middle East (some nations more than others) is in the grip of a fantasy. The main reason is that those countries are the first world players that did not earn their position. Western companies developed and marketed their one valuable commodity, and when that commodity was nationalized (i.e., seized) Western nations refused to take it back by force. A triumph of Western liberalism, except for the unintended consequence of leaving the oil dominions with a sense of unrealistic expectation.

Those who work for what they have-even if brutality is part of their work ethic-acquire a certain prudence with their power, a more or less rational view of what they may reasonably accomplish with it. The Soviet Union collapsed because enough of its leaders recognized reality when they saw it.

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But oil has poured wealth into the laps of people who did nothing to earn it; like Aladdin, they stumbled upon a magic lamp and only have to summon the genie to grant their wishes. Radical Islam flourishes, in part, because it can. The money has magically appeared to grant its desires. And the chief desire of radical Islam is the overthrow of the West. Delusional? Of course. Saddam himself, though no religious fanatic, is deeply delusional: Surrounded by yes-men and isolated within bunkers and palaces, he fancies himself as the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. But his dream is as perilous for the world as it is for Iraq, because his genie can supply weapons without prudence.

The West has certain delusions too, like a kid cruising around in the new Mustang his parents gave him for his 16th birthday. Life is good; we can eat whatever and whenever, control our personal climate and space, choose any kind of entertainment or religion, and trade one for the other frequently. We can call evil good and good evil without immediate consequence. Our fairy tale is not Aladdin but Beauty and the Beast, where the monsters are perhaps less monstrous than misunderstood, and love (or "dialogue") will eventually bring them around. As Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." If we all get together in a great global wish-in and imagine there's no war, conflict, hatred, or jealousy, all those blights of mankind will melt away.

But while Western dreamers think sweet and squishy like marshmallows, Saddam is thinking like a rock (no pun intended).

In the first giddy hours, when it seemed possible that he and his henchmen might have been taken out in the first strike, I wondered if God had not willed to bring down Babylon in one stroke. But while God deals common grace bountifully, we usually have to work for common justice. Saddam's delusions are backed up by 24 years of ruthlessly consolidated power, and resources yet unknown. That increases our risk, but also our necessity. In a world of free-market WMDs, where Armageddon can conceivably be packed in a suitcase, the perilous dreams of mullahs and madmen must not be allowed to fester.

So expect more bad news, confusing news, infuriating news, for that's the kind of world we live in. That's reality, and it bites. But while crashing against it, dizzy with perception, get a toe-hold on the solid and unshakable bedrock: our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. He who allowed Nebuchadnezzar to flourish also reduced him, soon enough, to eating grass and twigs. He who brings desolations on the earth also makes wars to cease: "He breaks the bow and shatters the spear and burns the chariots with fire" (Psalm 46:9). That's ultimate reality: the God we serve.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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