Columnists > Voices

Half full or half empty?

In Iraq as elsewhere, God's realism is the only outlook that matters

Issue: "2004 Election: Dubyafest," Sept. 11, 2004

Here's a little news to cheer you up, something else to worry you silly, and then a final encouragement.

A little cheer. The news from Iraq is not all bad. It's just that the bad news dominates the mainstream media.

But when I had the opportunity last week to listen to a man who had spent the last year in Iraq-and not just in the hot spots of Najaf and Fallujah, but all over the country-I was reminded how much good has happened in a very short time. The Iraqi experiment, of course, could still end up in total failure-but dire media reports are only the worst of the story.

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You've heard this before, but let this checklist sink in:

(1) A countrywide civil war, widely predicted by the skeptics, has not occurred.

(2) The oil wells that were all to be set on fire are, for the most part, pumping new wealth into the Iraqi economy. They are a picture of an economic infrastructure that picks up momentum every day.

(3) A new government is in place in Iraq. It's a transitional group, but it's working-and largely surviving the threats of the insurgents who have said, "We've got four months to destroy this government. After that, they may be too powerful." That four-month window is half gone.

(4) The nation's children are mostly in school. Mail and e-mail are being delivered. More than 200 newspapers are being published and circulated robustly throughout the country. The experiment in representative government is being reported throughout the Middle East even by anti-American TV outlets.

So is the Iraqi glass half full or half empty? Take your pick. But don't let the mainstream media decide the issue all by themselves.

Worrisome issues. I am less worried by the "bad guys" in Iraq than I am by the "good guys." So long as the United States continues to deploy 130,000 troops over there, the insurgents are not likely to win any tactical battles-much less to gain any long-term strategic advantage. The insurgents' days are almost certainly numbered.

The bigger question, however, is whether a culture rooted in historic Islam will follow the lead of so-called moderates. These moderates may mean well; we don't need to (and shouldn't) assume that they're just being devious. But the reality is that they still have millennia of ugly teaching and tradition to set aside. Can they rise to that challenge? The reported persecution of Christians in the new Iraq is a troubling sign.

Nor is it just long-term history the Iraqis must deal with. Only a few of them remember anything but Saddam Hussein's brutality as that which should be expected from a government. Germans at the end of World War II had endured less than 15 years of Hitler's dictatorial style, and most could compare that to what had been before. Most Iraqis today have nothing to compare their recent history to; they have no cultural memory to guide them in the construction of their new society.

Long-term realism. Yet neither positive indicators in the short term nor worries rooted deep in history should shape our ultimate outlook. Thoughtful Christians ask instead: "What is the God of all history doing? Where is His purpose heading?"

As Christians have pondered those questions with their Bibles in one hand and their newspapers in the other, they've disagreed on what to expect. All of them look for God's ultimate triumph. But some think that victory will come gradually, while others think things will have to get really bad before God makes things right.

I think a sovereign God might well choose to do it either way-and still properly claim all the credit. But however it happens, I think God wants His people to show their optimism, and to exercise what I heard someone describe last week as "moral imagination." Moral imagination is the kind of confidence Ronald Reagan demonstrated when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin, saying: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

That challenge in 1988-physically, militarily, morally, and spiritually-was daunting on every front. Who could argue that the challenges today in Iraq and the whole Middle East are any worse?

Might God be changing the course of history in what has almost always been the most troubled part of the world? Could He be planting truly representative government in an Islamic nation? Could He use such government to help long-oppressed people discover what freedom is all about? And could He even introduce them in such ways to the ultimate freedom of His good news in Christ?

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