Sunday, March 29, 2009

Change a Heart, Change a Nation


A favorite slogan during any election campaign, change is a word we dread as much as desire. We long for change to make things better. We fear change will make things worse. And too often, even when we get the change we've fought for, whether geographical, political, economic, or social, we find ourselves disappointed. Why? Because though our circumstances may be changed, we ourselves are still the same and so are those around us.

Which is why we find ourselves so disappointed when billions are poured into places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, only to see the continuation of violence and hate and cruelty. You see, change that truly transforms society comes through changed hearts, not circumstances. And hearts change when they are restored to personal relationship with their Creator and heavenly Father through the transforming love of Jesus Christ.

When God promised restoration to an idolatrous, wicked Israel, He described it this way: "I will give you a new heart . . . I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). When enough individual hearts change from hate to love, cruelty to kindness, greed to selflessness, their society will never be the same.

These thoughts come to mind as I have been putting together the most recent issue of our ministry magazine. One article comes from the Congo. If you've followed events of recent years there, the violence and chaos make Afghanistan and Somalia seem like Paradise. Africa’s second largest country after Sudan, roughly one-quarter the size of the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, is one of the most naturally wealthy regions on Earth with rubber, diamonds, gold, oil and numerous other mineral reserves.
As memorialized in the Joseph Conrad classic 'Heart of Darkness', human greed and brutality has kept its people among the planet's poorest from the days of slave raids and a colonial era characterized by forced labor and horrific working conditions to the vicious dictators and rebel fighting of its independence era. All-out civil war in recent years has resulted in more than five million dead. News headlines are a constant succession of atrocities, 'boy soldiers' now a dictionary entry. Most foreign ministry and aid organizations have been forced out of the country. Christian hospitals, printing presses, church buildings and schools were largely destroyed.
But though buildings will burn, a changed heart is unstoppable. In the midst of horror and darkness, Congolese Christians are still holding high the light of Christ's love and hope. Which brings me to that article I was editing. A friend, the subject of the article, spent many years in DRC with our ministry organization before having to leave for health reasons. A few months ago she received a letter from Congolese churches she'd worked with, asking for 15,000 sets of teaching material covering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--in Bengala and Swahili!
It seemed a tall order. How to get it published, much less into a country where travel was still almost at a stand-still. But God began to open doors. A Kenyan Christian publishing house took on the project. $10,000 were donated for printing costs. An African ministry that uses 4-wheel-drive vehicles to carry aid and the Good News to more inaccessible regions of Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, and DRC agreed to transport the materials for no cost.

It gives me goose-bumps to think that right now those 15,000 series on the life of Christ are flowing into the Congo. Children and adults are learning of a God who loved them so much He left the splendor of heaven to walk the dusty streets of a war-torn world. To set an example of how to love each other and forgive enemies. To give His own life on a cross to take our sins on Himself and pay the price for our redemption and restoration to our Creator.
If those children and adults will but listen, it just might do more to change the Congo than all the guns and U.N. peacekeepers and aid packages. And so I pause to pray for the impact of those small, simply-printed green volumes--and a people crying out for a hope of change.

Change a heart, change a nation.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Afghanistan's Upcoming Elections--Do They Matter?

Can you believe it's been five years already? This August, bumped up from its original schedule of April, 2009, the world will get to watch Afghanistan go through the motions of another presidential election. An estimated 140 million dollars is expected to come out of the pockets of American taxpayers to cover the cost. With Afghanistan falling increasingly into anarchy and violence, the current administration wracked with corruption and ineptitude, will a new go-around make any difference? Well, let's take a little history lesson.

Anyone who followed the news in 2004 remembers Afghanistan's triumphant first run at democratic elections. TV footage of Western favorite Hamid Karzai campaigning with his foreign bodyguards behind him. Voters waving purple thumbs. Women in burqas casting ballots. An easy win with the interim president sweeping more than 50% of the vote against a field of twenty-two opponents.

Here's what you may not know--and I don't mean that purple ink turning out not to be indelible after all! Exactly who thought up Afghanistan's presidential election code seems to be a mystery. Certainly Karzai's foreign backers signed on to it, though it bears no resemblance to their own election rituals. But who drafted and signed it into law is undisputed. Then interim president Hamid Karzai. Among minor red flags, such as that only Muslims can run for any office in Afghanistan, several more controversial provisions stand out.

1) Campaigning is only permitted for thirty days before an election. This, of course, guarantees a huge advantage to any incumbent already known to the people, especially in a country where mass communication is still at a premium. Picture Obama getting elected with a thirty-day window for a campaign.

2) Any would-be candidate serving in government, military, or law enforcement office must resign position at least two months ahead of said campaigning. In other words, are you willing to risk your livelihood on the outside chance you can beat said incumbent?

3) No government resources or connections may be used by candidates in pursuing their campaign.

Not that these sound so bad, if applied equally to all. Now granted, I had not in 2004 done enough research into Afghanistan to be aware of the provisions of their electoral campaign. But since it's on their government website and widely available on the internet, surely Western media as well as occupants of the White House and Capitol Hill were aware of Karzai's check list. His opponents certainly protested at the stacked deck. So why was it never pointed out that the only candidate not required to obey the rules Karzai imposed on his opponents was--Karzai himself?

Not only was Afghanistan's top government official allowed to stay in office through the campaign, we all watched him using the full apparatus of his own government as well as the willing and eager support of his foreign allies in that hugely-televised campaign. Maybe because back in 2004, Karzai's winning was a given to the Western coalition as well as the Afghan people themselves, the election little more than a formality. Bottom line, we didn't want to question the fairy-tale ending.

Five years later, no one is expecting a fairy tale anymore. With approval rating for the 'Mayor of Kabul' (so called because, one, his control only minimally extends beyond the capital and, two, because Karzai rarely leaves home to visit any of the country he rules) at an all-time low, neither Afghanis nor his former Western allies are showing much enthusiasm for another five years of Karzai. The difficulty is finding any alternatives.

At the moment, proposed candidates include any number of former warlords, now cabinet ministers and parliament members. And even some relatively decent possibilities. One contender, the Minister of Finance, has already stepped down from office in order to begin his campaign. But even the most wishful Western experts concede it is unlikely any of them will muster up support in such a short time frame to overcome the advantage of the incumbent. Especially since once again that election code doesn't seem to apply to the man who wrote it. Far from a 'thirty day window', Karzai has already announced his own rebid and is campaigning actively with no intentions of stepping down from office in the process.

The big question is how much difference it makes who occupies Kabul's Gul Khana Palace. As I've mentioned in another blog, elections don't equate with freedom. The United States recently finished one of its more hotly contested election campaigns (no thirty days, but closer to two years!). Were there disappointed people on election night when the final vote came in? Of course, there always is, no matter which side wins. But Americans don't go to bed on election eve scared to death the other party is taking over the next day.

Why? Because while we enjoy the democracy of choosing our leaders, we do so within a framework of law that does not change according to who scares up the majority vote. Win Democrat or Republican, the next day we can still worship God as we choose. We can still voice our opinions. We can still read, dress, eat, drink, move, work as we choose. We are still innocent until proven guilty, protected against unlawful search and seizure.

In a hideous reversal of that, whether Karzai wins out again or some new contender, Afghanis will wake up the next day under sharia law. Just this month, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan ended the last hope of reversing that 23-year-old journalist's twenty-year sentence for printing an article off the internet. Since in Afghanistan, the accused don't get to defend themselves, he didn't even find out the case had gone to the Supreme Court until he was informed they'd confirmed his sentence. Karzai has shrugged off any suggestion of a pardon. Ditto for the two journalists condemned to death for wanting to give Afghanis the Koran in their own language. The TV producer mullahs decided was blaspheming Islam with those uncovered female faces. And so on. And those offenders were all Muslim. Things like freedom of worship are so far under the table, we can't discuss them here.

Still, if Karzai makes no pretence of human rights, not a single alternative candidate has even suggested moderating Islamic law for little issues like freedom of worship, speech, association, or anything else. One might even ask in all the talk of 'American values', which is really more valuable to the average American. The 'democracy' of choosing which leader to administrate unjust and oppressive law. Or a governing framework that offers protection and freedom to every one of its citizens, winner or loser in the last election.
When we trumpet 'democracy' around the world as a prerequisite for global peace and freedom, but whimper apologetically that the framework of law and justice that makes our democracy work is just a personal opinion issue we'd hate to impose on anyone else, we might as well pick up our ballot boxes and go home.

All to say that this time around, let's not get quite so excited at those purple thumbs the media love to show us. As long as Afghanistan's upcoming elections are being held within a governing framework of sharia law and Islamic totalitarianism, we might as well be pouring those one hundred and forty million dollars straight into a hole in the ground.