Targeting Cultural Sites for Destruction

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Remember the Buddhas of Bamiyan?  These were two 6th century enormous statues of the Buddha that were carved into giant niches in Central Afghanistan, in the Bamiyan valley.  They became national news when they were destroyed  by dynamite by the Taliban in 2001, and while there continue to be talks about possible rebuilding, currently the empty niches stand as a monument to political and religious extremism, and the utter lack of respect for—and indeed violence toward—the precious cultural heritage of those who are different from oneself.

Can you guess why I am bringing this up now?  Of course, it is in response to the president’s wild and impulsive threat to destroy Iranian cultural and religious sites.  His own Defense Secretary has since ruled out that possibility, given that such an action is actually a war crime–something the president either doesn’t care about or doesn’t know [Read the story here: Pentagon Rules out Cultural Strikes].  So, while I am feeling more confident that such a wanton act of destruction will not take place at the hands of the US military, I am still uneasy about the fact that the president of our country has so little respect for the cultural heritage of a place that already has seen such destruction.

Now, please don’t tell me that the threat of such an action—let alone the action itself—is justified because of who “they” are or what “they” have done; in this case, the Iranian government.  This is about “us”—who we are, and who we choose to be.  The point is that I hope we (and I guess now I am speaking not only about this country as a whole but also about us as individuals, particularly the individual who is the president) want to be the kind of people who act justly, even mercifully, even when we are not treated that way ourselves.  Remember Michelle Obama saying “When they go low, we go high”?  I have thought about that so often these past years, and I think it is such a great expression of choosing to be a person of integrity and respect regardless of the circumstances.  Anyone can do that when the going is good—but what about in the face of challenges and opposition?

In the Western Christian Church, we just celebrated Epiphany; and in the Eastern Christian Church, today is Christmas.  (Someday I am going to visit an Eastern Orthodox country in early January so I can celebrate Christmas twice—wouldn’t that be the best?!)  So, today, like all days, it is good time to remember the wonder of Jesus coming into the world, incarnating in a poor infant the power and majesty of God, and living out a life characterized by concern for the needs of others, work of healing and transformation of individuals and societies, and of course, love for the enemy.

Christian love is lavish and indiscriminate.  To be clear, it does not just accept all actions as OK—this isn’t about lack of accountability or a call to some kind of wishy-washy doormat indifference; Christian love is always informed by justice. But it does mean that a knee-jerk, violent response to others’ injustice is ruled out—because that is not who we are, it’s not who we are called to be.

I have been fortunate enough to be in Kyoto several times, and each time, I have taken a moment of gratitude for Truman’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson.  In 1945, Stimson persuaded the president to take Kyoto off the list of possible targets for the atomic bomb, due to its cultural significance, even though the military was pushing to keep it as a possibility. In a time when restraint wasn’t exactly the watchword of the day, he showed incredible foresight and concern—not only for the city itself but for the hopes of rebuilding international trust and relationships after the war.  He knew what it would mean to the Japanese people if that city were destroyed.  The entire world owes him a debt of gratitude.

I don’t know what is going to happen in Iran in the days ahead.  Tensions are escalating, and we clearly have a president who is entirely unacquainted with the principle of “going high.”  Nonetheless, the Christian call to love—to respect and to compassion—remains.  The world, and especially the Middle East, doesn’t need another Bamiyan.

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