Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sharansky and Obama, 2009

I was a junior in college when Anatoly Shcharansky applied for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union and move to Israel. He was a mathematician and a chess prodigy. I didn’t hear of him until a few years after he had become involved in the Refusenik movement in Moscow. He became the spokesman of the Helsinki Watch Group and drew international attention to the failure of the Soviet Union to abide by the Helsinki Accords, which included relaxing travel restrictions on the signatories’ citizens. In 1978 he was convicted of treason and spying for the United States and began an imprisonment that lasted until 1986, much of it in a Siberian labor camp.

During the years of his imprisonment, I was involved in a church which focused much of its attention on Israel. Like many Bible-believing Christians, I felt I had a stake in that part of the world for several reasons. First, its towns and villages, its Jordan River and Galilee and Dead Sea were part of my mental geography from years of Sunday school and personal Bible study. They were more familiar and significant to me than the geography of my own country.

Second, its prophets were my prophets. Didn’t Martin Luther King move me when he declared, “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream”? (Amos 5:24) Wasn’t I thrilled to hear Commander Frank Borman read from the book of Genesis as Apollo 8 orbited the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968? The first words of scripture I ever took as a personal message of comfort from God were not from the New Testament. They came through the prophet Jeremiah in his Lamentations (3:22).

Third, I had come to understand that my faith was a mostly Jewish faith until Gentiles were ushered in through the work of a Jewish Roman citizen named Paul. My Messiah was Jewish, as were his twelve apostles and the vast majority of his followers until decades following his death and resurrection.

Still, the attention I paid to Israel was out of the ordinary, and led to many friendships with Jewish people, nine months spent living in Jerusalem, and seven trips to the country. I eventually also worked for eight years as executive assistant to the rabbis of a Reform Jewish congregation in Nashville, but that came later.

Thus it wasn’t surprising that I had heard of Shcharansky and the tireless international work of his wife Avital to get him freed from imprisonment. When the moment came in 1986, he was released in exchange for two Soviet spies, and was asked to walk across a bridge from East to West Berlin. I learned from Wikipedia that “famed for his resistance in the Gulag, he was told upon his release to walk straight towards his freedom; Sharansky instead walked in a zigzag in a final act of defiance.” He was finally free to make aliyah to Israel, where he adopted the Hebrew name Natan.

In the fall of 1986, I had just moved to Jerusalem, but I didn’t see Sharansky at that time. It wasn’t until 1989, when I had returned to sing at the bris of my friends’ baby boy, that I had the privilege of witnessing his dream come true. He was already rising in Israeli politics, and I heard a crowd, upon spotting him in a local bank, crying, “Sharansky! Sharansky!” Hail, the conquering hero! What a victory of persistence and hope. More information about Sharansky’s remarkable achievements and honors can be found at

I felt privileged to hear him speak in person this past March 18, 2009 when he participated in the Impact Forum at Vanderbilt University, where I work. The Forum has hosted many national figures, including some American presidents. The first of two evenings featured Madeleine Albright, focusing on the topic “Diplomacy in the New Millenium.” The packed audience was hoping for an encouraging word from a woman of such expertise, given the state of international events challenging our young president.

I mostly gleaned from her experience a sense of the humanity upon which world-changing decisions depends. Phone calls (sometimes daily calls), friendships, the fragile ability to communicate person to person, are often the only things keeping us from tripping over the edge of crisis into chaos. She was just one woman – certainly a very bright, capable, intelligent woman, but nevertheless operating with only the same set of skills and tools any other human comes equipped with – and yet she represented our nation on the international stage and made a difference.

The following evening belonged to Sharansky. I arrived early and expected the auditorium to fill close to the hour, as folks on “Nashville time” generally arrive a minute or two late. But the auditorium did not fill. I realized I should have taken it upon myself to do some publicity. I could have invited all four synagogues to advertise the event. I could have emailed all my acquaintances with a similar interest in things Israeli, and that network could have increased the audience size. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps Sharansky has not been enough in the news for this generation to find his appearance compelling.

When he was introducing Mr. Sharansky, the young Vanderbilt student warned us that we would have to listen carefully, but he assured us it would be worth the extra effort. Indeed, Sharansky speaks English like the Ukrainian he was. If one is accustomed to many accents it’s not so difficult to make the adjustment, but for some, especially the young people in the audience, it must have been a strain to get past the accent to the treasure of his thoughts.

It was awe-inspiring for me to sit and listen to this man about whom I had heard so much. In the brief time we had in his presence it became more evident to me the personal strengths with which he endured the extremities of his long imprisonment. Not only was he highly intelligent, determined and disciplined; he also has quite a sense of humor. His ability to see past externals into the meaning of the moment was deeply inspiring.

He admitted to us that it may have been “mean” of him (his word), but he often used humor to disarm his guards. He would be brought in from time to time for pointless interrogations. He would take the opportunity to tell jokes about Chairman Brezhnev, which, he noted, were easy to make as Brezhnev provided such great material. The guards, staunch representatives of the State, had to suppress their laughter, which they could scarcely do. He realized at such moments the beautiful irony that he, though a prisoner, was a free man, and his guards, though powerful officers of State-authorized terror, were not free even to laugh at a good joke.

Sharansky said so many memorable things that I was grateful I had bought his book (and had him sign it) prior to the talk. I can sum up his message, though, in just one major thought. Since the topic was “Diplomacy in the New Millenium,” of course he addressed the problem President Obama faces in dealing with so much unrest and long unresolved conflict in his own region of the Middle East as well as in many places around the globe.

Sharansky posited that there are three kinds of people in any totalitarian regime. There are those who are true believers, who fully agree with the regime. There are the dissidents who vocally and publicly stand against it. And the third group, the vast majority, are afflicted with what he calls doublespeak. They think one thing but say another. The internal conflict which this disconnect produces must be encouraged, ignited, and raised to a level where they begin to say what they truly feel.

Speaking from his own experience in the Gulag, as well as the years prior when he was an activist and still able to communicate internationally, Sharansky encouraged us to believe that our freedom is enticing. Our freedom to think and choose and speak and act on our convictions will ultimately strengthen freedom lovers in other countries to risk whatever it takes to gain those same freedoms. I wish I had taken notes that evening. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would see his hard-won wisdom lived out so quickly on the international stage.

Less than three months had passed when on June 4, 2009, President Obama went to Cairo to deliver a major address to the Muslim world. Being a Bible-believing Christian, as well as a person who has spent thirty years thinking about the Middle East, I certainly came to the moment with a full arsenal of opinions, but also with a great deal of hope. One of the campaign slogans last fall, “Choosing hope over fear for two thousand years,” spoke my heart. If we really believe our scriptures, we must take courage from verses like Proverbs 21:1, “The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Though constrained by wisdom, we must not succumb to fear and hopelessness in the face of tyranny and oppression.

I have an unpopular conviction which my liberal arts education did not provide. I was raised in a university atmosphere where Islam was always presented as one of the three monotheistic religions, as if Christians and Jews were at least its cousins if not its brothers. In academia one doesn’t regularly hear discussion of such concepts as “the demon” and “the spirit of anti-Christ.” Yet I had come to an understanding that, since Mohammed received his revelations (or, as I perceive it, cobbled together his new religion) after Jesus had come, the underlying spirit empowering his system could be none other than the spirit of anti-Christ.

This statement sounds like something from the Crusades, a rallying cry for the Knights Templar, a horrific and benighted belief that can lead to nothing but conflict and bloodshed. Let me be quick to distinguish between my rejection of Islam as a belief system and my concern and affection for those who embrace Islam. The much maligned dictum, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” is easily dismissed, yet it is precisely how I see this dilemma. I believe Islam is a tyrannical system which oppresses women, appeals to men’s baser natures, and ultimately is intent upon world domination. At the same time, I am personally acquainted with people who identify themselves with Islam who are respectable, honorable, loving people.

I have confessed my inner convictions about Islam in order to demonstrated that my hope for President Obama’s Cairo speech was not easily won or lightly held. I hoped in spite of deep distrust for the system which he was addressing. I hoped for the sake of the millions of individual hearts he was addressing. I won’t quote his speech here, as hundreds of pundits have already done so. I will simply register my amazement and gratitude that I had lived to see the day that an American president would do what my Refusenik hero Sharansky had recommended. President Obama reached over the heads of the hierarchies of the Middle East, the mullahs and sheiks and imams, the councils and Ayatollahs, to speak to the vast majority of people who have been thinking one thing and saying another.

He spoke of freedom, of change, of opportunity, of new, tentative attempts at relationship. He spoke of shared history, and honored their cherished scriptures, choosing to quote tenets upon which we can all agree. His very presence in the office of President of the United States spoke more strongly than any words, since his own family tree is one of such diversity that even people in our mongrel nation are amazed by it.

Still, in my admittedly fertile imagination, I could not have come up with the scenario that now plays itself out on in internet, through cell phones, on Twitter, and eventually to the 24-hour news programs. We may be seeing the first fruits of the President’s invitation. Iranians have taken to the streets declaring their desire for freedom. They are standing up to their Supreme Leader.

It remains to be seen how this unpredicted popular uprising will end, whether in a new government for Iran or in increased oppression. Nevertheless, I feel so grateful to have been a witness to the simple, humble wisdom of Natan Sharansky. And I am grateful, and amazed, to see that wisdom demonstrated by a President whose earnest desire is for civil discourse on the road toward peace.

Some of my co-religionists who have been watching Israel play its part in the apocalyptic drama will ask me, “How can you possibly hope for peace in the Middle East? There will be nothing but war and unrest until Jesus returns.” I would counter with the psalmist’s exhortation, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) And Isaiah 62:6,7 reminds us: “I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth.”

Though I’ve sung about it for decades, I haven’t yet been able to imagine what the peace of Jerusalem will really look like. I’ve only known it divided, at war, on constant vigilant alert. But surely in spite of current political realities we can’t shake off the vision of the prophet Micah who saw the day when “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.” (Micah 4:4)