In 1982, extremist rebels from the the city of Hama, Syria rose up in insurrection against the government of Hafez al-Assad, father to the current Syrian dictator. Sunni anger at the Alawite Muslim Assad regime had been raging for years with numerous violent incidents including an assassination attempt on the dictator in 1980. Islamism had become a unifying theme among dissidents who opposed the Assad regime’s secular government, as well as their socialist economic policies, which seized lands and businesses from wealthy Sunnis to be redistributed to political allies. These rebels in Hama, with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and wealthy Sunni land owners, murdered over seventy members of the ruling political party and their families in February 1982 and distributed thousands of weapons to fellow insurgents in the city as they quickly took control. Calls for jihad rang out from the mosques with the hopes that the rebellion would spread throughout Syria to take down the Assad regime.
The Assad regime’s response in 1982 mirrors the response of Syria’s current dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to the Arab Spring in 2011. The regime bombed the city of Hama from the air and shelled it with artillery for three weeks, indiscriminately killing insurgents, Islamists, Christians, and civilians in the city. An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people, overwhelmingly civilians, died as a result of the siege and subsequent executions. Starving civilians were forced to flee their homes as the military continued to shell the city. Hafez al-Assad was determined to end the uprising against his government that had been waging at low levels for years and was willing to kill tens of thousands of civilians to do it. His strategy worked. After 1982, Syrian Islamists never seriously challenged his rule again.
The last time I traveled home to the United States, I was stopped and questioned in the Paris airport by a representative of the US Embassy in France. She questioned me for nearly half an hour outside my gate. She was professional and courteous. But still, the whole thing was odd. “Have you ever traveled to Syria or Iraq?” “Do you have a Facebook account?” “Tell me about your work.” “Do you have friends or contacts from or in Syria?”
The questions don’t stop at foreign airports. Every time I go home, I am stopped, detained, and questioned by US Customs and Border Protection. When my information is printed out on the kiosks upon entry, my printout has a large “X” over it and I’m ushered into a separate line. After giving my information to the person at the desk, my passport is immediately taken away and I’m escorted to a holding area. This process can take 30 minutes. It can also take multiple hours. My name is called and I am escorted to a room for “additional screening” where a US Customs and Border Patrol agent asks me more questions. “What is life like in Jordan?” “What is your address?” “What do you mean you don’t really have an address in Jordan?” “Do you feel safe?” Do you have any Syrian friends?” “Do you travel to Israel? Why?”
The last time I was detained, I asked the agent if there was anything I could do to avoid this in the future. What if I applied for TSA pre-check or Global Entry? He laughed and said no. I was permanently flagged. This is just part of my travel routine now. I am detained. I am questioned. My bags and I go through extra screening. People who pick me up from the airport know to show up at least an hour late. I cannot book short or medium length layovers in the US when traveling from a foreign country. The US government considers me a security threat. This post will be read by them to analyze me (Hello!). That’s just the way it is now.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” –Voltaire
I didn’t plan on making a scene. All I wanted to do was to eat lunch with limited social interaction. The refectory, also known as a cafeteria to non-theological nerds, at Wesley Theological Seminary, was the center of social life on campus. It was there where we ate, studied, argued, and often slept. It was my favorite place on campus, but it was also the place that I most dreaded going. I planned on eating quickly and leaving without talking to anyone outside of a handful of friends. I ended up with an audience. As much as normal social interaction terrifies me, an audience I love. Arguments, I love. Being outnumbered, that’s even better. That day, I got all three.
I was quietly eating when someone casually mentioned their thoughts on a subject that had come up in class. The poor soul said, “I just don’t understand why anyone is against the minimum wage!” I misunderstood the statement completely. What was an expression of frustration made toward a group of people who the poor soul assumed were like-minded, I mistook for “I want someone to tell me why I should be against the minimum wage.” And I did. It involved graphs.
Years ago, I was in an argument with a friend about Jesus and evolution. It ended with him saying, “You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?” I did know. It was obvious. It was like a scene straight out of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.
The debate was pretty simple. I supported evolution. My friend supported creationism. I argued that the biological record showed no support for creationism in agreement with conclusions from a number of other established sciences. My friend argued against evolution through “irreducible complexity” or the argument that modern life is too complicated to have slowly evolved into its modern form. I had read extensively about this argument before and repeated responses from mainstream science educators. My friend abandoned his argument and declared that the Bible clearly detailed a creationist account. I argued that his position is a denial of the world that God actually created while attempting to build up a world of his own, and that his argument was nothing less than a rejection of what God had done and blasphemy to God’s work and plan for salvation.
In my mind, he couldn’t just be wrong. He had to be a blasphemer. And a heretic. He was rejecting God. Also, he had to be stupid. I was all too excited to let everyone know.
He attempted debate. I attempted humiliation. He didn’t succeed. I did.
“You know how badly I can kick your ass, right?”
For the first time in my life, I’ll be voting for a Democratic candidate for a major public office. I’m not happy to do so, nor I am I particularly excited about the public policy consequences if my chosen candidate is elected. I have been, and will remain, a libertarian who believes in open markets, a free society, a peaceful foreign policy, and good news for the poor. Oddly enough in this strangest of election seasons, the best way to advance such beliefs and to safeguard many of our hard-won liberties is to vote for Hillary Clinton for President.
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.
I had been on the phone for two hours with Social Security. I spoke to multiple different people, answered the same questions dozens of times, and was once again on hold waiting for someone to help. Our office manager at the church brought a chair for my friend, Anthony, as he was tired of standing. He was staring at the wall. He was afraid and ashamed. I didn’t know how to help him, but I was trying my best.
He had been in my office many times before looking for help. Sometimes I gave him some money, and other times I took him out to lunch, to the grocery store, or to the pharmacy. One day, he came into my office with light pants and only a thin windbreaker jacket on one of the coldest days of the year. He was sleeping outside. They didn’t let him stay at the shelter anymore, and even on these days where the city declared a weather emergency, he often did not go. I went home and brought back to him a jacket, a winter hat, some gloves, and a blanket. He was thrilled. I felt good, like I had done something right and these small victories were becoming rare. When he returned a few days later, the jacket, the hat, the gloves – they were all gone. Anthony sold them. He told me later that he spent the money on drugs and a prostitute. I wasn’t mad. I felt helpless. Both of us were helpless in the face of his problems.
On this particular day, Anthony needed to call Social Security to have his payee changed, but he wasn’t able to do so himself. Social Security did not pay him directly, but instead paid a second person as he was deemed unable to properly manage his own finances. His payee did not want to do it anymore. I asked a lot of questions, and thought I could help by talking to his payee directly to see if we could resolve the situation. I was a pastor. The payee would listen to a pastor, right?
Anthony gave me the number. I called. It was the number of a church in Baltimore. His payee turned out to be his brother who was the pastor of the church. The receptionist told me that the pastor didn’t want to speak to me. He didn’t want anything to do with his brother anymore. He had tried, for years. He just couldn’t do it. I told my friend. He wasn’t surprised, but he was ashamed. I felt guilty for even calling.