I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary for my first year of grad school in the fall of 2007. It was only a few months prior that I decided to visit the school on a whim. I wasn’t seriously considering going there as I had known since I was a little kid where I would be attending seminary, but a free trip to DC to check out a grad school sounded like a good idea. Wesley wasn’t like the other schools that I had visited. Other places talked about how great their school was or how great their programs were. They talked about the quality of their library, their prestigious alumni, or their advantageous church connections. Not Wesley. Instead, its students, professors, and staff talked about something else. They talked ideas. They talked students. They talked politics. They talked DC. They were brash and idealistic, and they were not ashamed about it. At the end of my first day, it was over. That was my school. I accepted their offer as soon as it arrived.
(It also didn’t hurt that my girlfriend decided to move to DC, but whatever.)
Wesley also had something else to which I was attracted that was a bit muted during my visit but became apparent as soon as I became a full time student: Outrage. They called it “righteous anger”, but I still think “outrage” is a better description. The students, the faculty, and the staff were outraged at injustices throughout the world. Racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and greed were the main culprits. It wasn’t just during conversations or during political debates, outrage extended to the manner in which we interpreted the bible. It was present in our reading of history. Outrage poured out from our creation of church liturgy. It was broken and consumed during communion in our weekly chapel services. Outrage became a lens through which I would read and preach the biblical text and how I would approach ethical problems. I was a better preacher because of it, and I am still better person for it. After years of being away, I remain outraged, and I am grateful to Wesley.
At first, the amount of outrage left me with a strange feeling. I was intimidated. Intimidation over ideas or disagreement was a new feeling for me. I had never before backed down from an argument and I was never anxious about some disagreement, but at Wesley, especially my first year, it was a constant feeling. I could not escape a feeling of dread and fear so I addressed it by doing the only thing I knew to do. I read constantly. I studied more than everyone else. I studied subjects of which I wasn’t a student. The prayer room in our dorm became my personal reading room. Every bit of my anxiety was channeled into trying to prove myself or others wrong.
Outrage at Wesley in 2007-2008 was, like much of the country, centered on American foreign policy and the war in Iraq. Wesley was home to candle-light vigils and large displays of calls for peace. It was also home to clear and unequivocal accusations towards those who held political power for their participation in mass suffering. The students and staff were heavily involved in protests and peace movements in the church and in elsewhere in Washington. They preached overtly political sermons from our campus pulpit and in the pulpits in which they worked and worshiped. Republicans, Bush, and Halliburton quickly became associated with biblical rage against oppressive empire, the abuses of Herod, and Babylon. The school became increasingly polarized, although the majority of the students didn’t recognize it as majorities rarely do. One professor preached at chapel demanding that we be partisan – that God demands we choose a side. Which side we were supposed to choose was rather explicit. As the election of 2008 approached, the partisanship which we were taught was evident in the sociopolitical context of the Gospels had spread to the political life of our campus. We had a election watching party, but in reality it was a celebration. They cheered, worshiped, and prayed. I found the whole thing deeply unsettling. I was watching the religious right lavish praise on God’s anointed but this time in reverse.
Back when I was trying to figure out which grad school to go to, I asked my brother, Adam, for advice. To my family’s displeasure I took his advice and have kept applying it since. He told me that while he loved going to SMU for law school, while he loved his life in Dallas, and while he wouldn’t change anything, he still regretted not going far away or doing something crazy when deciding grad schools as this was a time when you could go anywhere and do anything. When I had a job and a family, I would be bound by too many restrictions to take big risks. He told me that at that moment, I could be different, I could go far away and have a wildly different experience with relatively little cost, and I would never get a chance like that again. Go, he told me, because you can.
I went to Wesley because it was so wildly different than anything than I had experienced before. DC wasn’t College Station, TX and the coursework was nothing like marketing classes at Texas A&M. The atmosphere and culture were different, and I wanted to challenge everything that I had been taught. The outrage over the biggest issue of our day, American foreign policy and the war in Iraq, was everywhere at Wesley where it never was in suburban Katy or small town College Station. I was drawn to this outrage because on this big issue, I believed that in the war’s lead up and early years, I had gotten it wrong, even when I prided myself on being thoughtful, curious, and skeptical. Why did I get it wrong, along with most people in the environment in which I had lived, and these people in this radical place had gotten it right? What made them different? Were they more intelligent? Were they better informed? Were they more ethical? Were they taught something about Christianity that I had clearly missed? I was intimidated because they had come to be correct on the most critical of issues, and I was not. I needed to know why.
It didn’t take long after the election in 2008 and into the spring semester of 2009 for there to be a clear change on campus. The annual candle-light demonstration on the grounds of our school overlooking busy Massachusetts Avenue, which marked the beginning of the war in Iraq, was sparsely attended. No one was interested anymore. I’m fairly certain it was discontinued after 2009. There were few sermons about peace and the ones that were about peace were general or looking towards the past. The outrage against war had almost disappeared. Perhaps this was due to outrage being shifted towards economics following the beginning of the Great Recession, but it didn’t add up. We were still at war. The American foreign policy machine was still rolling without a whole lot of change between Bush’s 2nd term and Obama’s 1st. Obama even kept the same Secretary of Defense and had a Secretary of State who was a supporter of the war with a track record of interventionism. No one seemed to mind. There were brand new things over which to be outraged.
As Obama’s term continued, and my days at Wesley Seminary drew to a close, new wars and interventions would spring up. The outrage was absent. Criticism of the president was virtually non-existent. We intervened in Libya leading to disaster. The students who I spoke to at Wesley at the time either supported the military intervention, didn’t care, or didn’t know. Air strikes and drone strikes, including those targeting American citizens abroad, caused no alarm on Massachusetts Avenue. The US expanded drone and air strikes to numerous countries without much notice and with little outrage either from the students or from the pulpits in churches now occupied by ordained pastors and certified church leaders who were once my classmates at Wesley. The UMC, which once made loud and targeted statements against particular policies and politicians, grew evermore silent. What little attention they did pay to continued violence and blood was generalized and directed towards broad groups rather than individuals. The “righteous anger” was gone. The national media likewise didn’t care. These people had converted me to being an advocate for peace. Where did they go?
Someone in the church who I was serving summarized the change aptly. “We don’t torture people anymore. We just kill’em.” Apparently, the social justice anti-war left who were once so angry about torture, was fine with just killing them. That was acceptable. There were no protests. There was no outrage. Maybe they were just tired of it all.
The Syrian refugee crisis brought a few of them back, but to resolve this problem, they’re voting for more military intervention anyway while still styling themselves as advocates for peace. While bemoaning a war that has increased sectarianism, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, devastated communities, and left hundreds of thousands dead and millions as refugees, the criticism from the Christian anti-war left has rarely been towards the policies of the current administration who has fed money and weapons towards overtly sectarian groups or who continues to choose sides in a larger sectarian conflict. Instead their ire is reserved for domestic Republicans who want to limit the number of refugees admitted into the United States. It doesn’t matter that the number advocated by their candidates of choice or the politicians they support is so low that it cannot alleviate suffering in any meaningful way. It doesn’t matter that the Obama administration made promises to refugee host nations regarding aid for the hundreds of thousands to millions of refugees that they host but has never actually gotten around to paying them the amount of money promised. It doesn’t matter because the issue is that Republicans hate refugees, not that the administration has failed to protect them or that its efforts in the war have made things worse.
As the anti-war left, particularly among Christians, has voiced outrage for those who suffer due to Russian or Syrian bombs in Aleppo, there is absolutely no concern or criticism for those who suffer from American made bombs in Sana’a, Yemen, dropped from American-made planes, refueled by American assistance, piloted by Saudi airmen with logistical support from Americans under the diplomatic protection of the United States. There’s no outrage over a lack of authorization or discussion in the US Congress or a lack of an endgame. Tens of millions of people are in need of food. Millions are at risk of famine. Thousands are dead. Millions are without access to basic assistance like fuel, medicine, and drinking water. All of this in a war of choice that’s lasted for a year and a half without debate, discussion or concern from those of us back home with no end in sight. Those who once could give incredible amounts of detail on deaths in Iraq and who would once tell harrowing stories of people’s suffering can now barely tell you who is fighting in Yemen or which people American-made bombs are killing and maiming.
The coalition has bombed 4 hospitals supported by M.S.F. (Doctors Without Borders) despite the fact that M.S.F. has given the coalition coordinates of all of its sites and despite the fact that the US assists the coalition with its operational targets. The Saudis destroyed the main access point to northern Yemen (where the rebels stronghold is) denying humanitarian assistance to the north even though the US declared this piece of infrastructure to be off limits as it is vital for humanitarian concerns – the Saudis bombed it once and didn’t destroy it so they came back a second time to finish it off. An estimated 90% of the food aid that goes to northern Yemen goes across this route. There is no attention to the refugee crisis because Yemeni neighbors have shut its people out on its land borders and have surrounded them with a massive naval blockade which also restricts access to basic necessities when 90% of its food and medicine are imported. The US supports this even though the targets of bombings, when they’re not innocent civilians and children, are bitter enemies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS and have been effective fighters against these radical groups in the past. The US supports this while AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIS have made massive gains since the war started and which only continues due to outside funding and support. The gains AQAP has made in Yemen now net the organization millions of dollars in funding to support its efforts. The US-supported coalition has committed egregious war crimes and the United States and Saudi Arabia have prevented the UN from calling them what they are and have prevented any UN investigation into its possibility.
The US is so worried about retaining the support of Saudi Arabia after it opposed our nuclear agreement with Iran that it is empowering, equipping and enabling the Saudis and its Sunni allies to devastate the poorest nation in the Middle East even though there is absolutely no US interest in doing so and despite the fact that the effect of the war has been the increase of power and influence of AQAP and ISIS in the region.
Daniel Larison of the American Conservative claims that our involvement makes us party to war crimes or as he writes, “war crimes from behind”.
The same people who I admired for being right about Iraq, who I thought were more ethical, more caring, or simply better people than me, do not care about what is happening in Yemen and do not and will not criticize the Obama administration for siding with the Saudi coalition in what is clearly a sectarian fight with absolutely no US interest other than the goodwill of Saudi Arabia, just as they have not cared for 8 years that the Obama administration has spread war and violence to numerous other countries. The US has essentially declared war in Yemen against enemies of Al-Qaeda and ISIS creating the largest humanitarian crisis in the world outside of the Syria and its diaspora. The Obama administration refuses to account for its actions and when it does answer, it blatantly lies. The anti-war left who was so outraged over Bush’s Iraq war offers no criticism and no objection over Obama’s “war crimes from behind” in Yemen. Simply, they do not care.
The only reason I can come up with as to why is because Obama is their man, because Republicans are bad, and being partisan, as my professor told me from the pulpit at Wesley, is demanded by God.
Perhaps it means nothing to you coming from me, an outsider. It may mean nothing to you because I was never really part of your anti-Iraq war left anyway. It may mean nothing because I haven’t and was never going to vote for or support your politicians. But still, I’m deeply disappointed in you. Your politics betray your idealism. Your pragmatism betrays your values. Your silence communicates assent. You haven’t beat your swords into plowshares. You’ve sold them to fellow murderers.
I used to be intimidated. I wanted to be like you. No more.
If you would like to know more about the current conflict in Yemen, you can find a number of articles at the following sites. I also recommend reading up generally on the history of Yemen, and it’s various groups, particularly the Houthis and Zaidism.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list. Please also check news outlets and sources which you regularly visit and trust.
- Larison has written more about Yemen over the last year and a half than any other commentator that I know. I recommend reading his recent entries along with what he wrote when hostilities broke out in March 2015.
- Cato has a number of good articles that have been critical of US involvement in the Yemen.
- For recent news articles and opinion on Yemen.
- Typical sober and skeptical commentary from The Economist.
- Interesting recent articles from The New York Times condemning US and Saudi actions in Yemen.
- USAID fact sheet for the crisis in Yemen
- An aid worker visits Yemen. “There are more people in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen than anywhere else in the world…”
- Rare coverage on CNN regarding Yemen. Includes a great interview with Senator Chris Murphy, one of the few Americans in Congress who is willing to say the word “Yemen”.
- Wait. Never mind. If you go here, you’ll only find this: