The Saudi-Arabia-Iran Cold War and the Looming Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

by Angelo Olayvar

“While recognizing our limitations in fully perceiving the complexities and ambiguities pertinent to the Middle East conflict, we feel compelled to articulate our concerns on matters which are critical in modifying tensions in the area and moving toward a solution.” – Church of the Brethren 1975 Resolution: Concern for Peace in the Middle East.

The Church of the Brethren has long been concerned with issues of war as it goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ. The adherence of the Church to pacifism and promoting non-violent means of resolving conflicts is driven by its faith in the love of Christ. The instability of the Middle Eastern region greatly concerns the Church of the Brethren due to the immoral and unethical engagement of the United States military in the past decades. It is just and right to analyze and scrutinize all of the factors that exacerbate the conflict. The main focus of this blog would be the rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran and the looming nuclear arms race between the two states.

75 years ago — June 15, 1946: the United States presented the ‘Baruch Plan’ to the United Nations as an effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world. The ‘Baruch Plan’ would require an immediate halt to the development of nuclear weapons by all countries, followed by the close monitoring of peaceful nuclear programs. In exchange for this proposal, the United States promised to turn over all its nuclear weapons to the agency — at a time when the United States possessed a monopoly on these destructive weapons. This plan, however, was rejected by the Soviet Union due to its fear and distrust of the United Nations – which was dominated by the United States and its Western allies. In turn, the Soviet Union presented their counterproposal, however, it was rejected by their American counterparts as expected. The series of events that followed the rejection of the plans both presented by the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the inexorable collapse of negotiations between the states, which eventually led to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race. Today, the world faces a similar dilemma. The rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran is stirring up events that could lead to a nuclear arms race between the two countries. Furthermore, US involvement in the Middle East via military engagement, weapons sales, defense transfers, and security assistance are fueling the instability of the already volatile region.

The rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the many factors that has destabilized the Middle East. It has plunged the region into a cold-war style conflict that is complex, fueled not only by political differences but

religious ones. It elicited events that casted the region into a state of geopolitical instability defined by despair, countless deaths, endless wars, worsening humanitarian crises, and a looming nuclear arms race between the Saudis and Iran. The effects of the instability of the Middle Eastern region can be felt all over the globe due to the far-reaching negative implications it presents to global peace and security, global economy, and promotion of human rights.

How did the rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran come about? After the 1979 Iranian revolution the last Shah of Iran was overthrown, ending the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy. It resulted in the establishment of the Islamic theocratic state of Iran with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. He reinvisioned the purpose of Iran: establish Iran as a Middle East regional power through Shia Islam. Today, Iran strongly believes that the dynamic political climate of the Muslim world is needed to be seen as forces of change in the Middle East, a region which is long exploited by the US and other Western powers. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim state, which had seen itself as the long-established leader of the Muslim world and guardian of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest place in Islam, is threatened by the rise of Iran and its idea of how the Muslim world should be.

Throughout the years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in conflicts all over North Africa and the Middle East, even extending their competition in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Both countries have funded, trained, and armed opposing groups in the Middle East in order to establish power and dominance in the region. The involvement of the two Islamic states in conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have resulted in disastrous humanitarian crises. It is important to note that these two Muslim countries would have not been able to successfully compete with each other without the support of powerful countries such as the United States, China, and Russia. With the United States backing Saudi Arabia and Russia and China supporting the Iranian cause, the complexity of the Middle Eastern cold war makes the region more volatile and prone to prolonged and intense conflict.

Although Iran’s nuclear program is not specifically aimed at Saudi Arabia, it stokes fear and distrust among its neighbors, especially to the Kingdom. Currently, Saudi Arabia does not possess any nuclear weapons and is a party to most relevant nonproliferation treaties and agreements. However, as mentioned by the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman on CBS program 60 Minutes in March 2018, “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran develops a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”. The rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran exacerbates the potential for a nuclear arms race between the two countries.

Countries rely on weaponries to protect their sovereignty, preserve national security, and ensure their survival. Oftentimes, some countries pursue the production and/or acquisition of weapons that would give them an advantage over their competitor. In the context of the Saudi Arabia-Iranian rivalry, both states want to protect their sovereignty and national interests. The Iranian nuclear program greatly concerns the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia due to the threats it poses to their national security and interests. This compels the Kingdom to pursue policies that will address the issues posed by the Iranian nuclear program. Recently published reports declare that Saudi Arabia is working with China to build industrial capacity to produce nuclear fuel. The analysis of the report has alarmed many experts and American lawmakers because there might be a hidden agenda behind the cooperation between the two countries,which may allow the Kingdom to process raw uranium into a form that could be enriched into a fuel for a nuclear weapon. If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully produces its own nuclear weapon, it may result in the nuclear arms race with its rival, Iran. The United States along with it Western allies and its unlikely ally — Russia — need to ensure that no other countries obtain nuclear weapons, especially in the volatile region of the Middle East.

Producing weapons that are capable of causing cataclysmic events that can result in the extinction of the human race is ludicrous. If the United States and the world is bent on preserving global peace and stability and ensuring the survival of the human race, they would provide mechanisms that would prohibit the proliferation and eliminate nuclear weapons. In the context of the Middle Eastern Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Iran need to step and pursue diplomatic measures before adopting irrational decisions and repeat the same mistakes that the United States and Soviet Union did before. They need to set aside their differences, political and religious, to ensure that they would not obliterate each other and cause irreversible consequences.

US Militarism and Climate Change

by Angelo Olayvar

Earth Day is an annual one-day event on April 22 that seeks to show support for the protection of the environment. According to the official website, the 2021 Earth Day theme is ‘Restore Our Earth’, which focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. Events like Earth Day give hope for the future of our home planet.

Weeks after President Joe Biden signed an executive order that made the United States a part of the Paris Climate Accord again, he indicated that he is looking at the possibilities of increasing US military spending by 1.7%. The United States of America had already spent approximately $721.5 billion on its military in the fiscal year 2020. This colossal spending is made possible through the political will of American policymakers who intend to protect American national and security interests. But what does this mean in terms of protecting our environment and averting the catastrophic consequences of climate change? Obviously, increasing military spending means allowing the continuation of military activities and operations that are environmental stressors. The activities and operations of the US military are evidently unsustainable because of the tremendous amounts of carbon emissions these release to the atmosphere. Thus, it is without doubt that scientists and climate activists recognize the far-reaching impacts of the US military and its activities on the environment. If the United States is really serious about addressing climate change, it needs to recognize the fact that its own military is considered to be the top climate polluter in history and a bigger polluter than the next 140 countries combined.

A report published by the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding affairs concludes that the far-reaching consequences of climate change, such as drought and rising sea level, have the potential to foster conditions that can result in violence, instability, climate displacement, and forced migrations. Moreover, recent historical events demonstrate that large-scale human migrations increase the chance for conflict and turmoil as new populations attempt to intermingle and compete for resources against established populations. These kinds of scenarios, produced by changing and extreme weather patterns, greatly affect regional and global peace and security. Thus, if the world fails to fundamentally address climate change soon, armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, and instability, brought by climate change, could be on the horizon. If the United States wants to protect its reputation as a reliable global leader, it needs to spearhead the creation of solutions that will address the root cause of these impending disastrous and catastrophic scenarios events — climate change.

As mentioned earlier, the US military is the world’s biggest polluter. The wide array of activities that the United States conducts during peacetime and wartime has substantial effects on the environment — from the amount of hazardous wastes it produces to the number of its nuclear tests to the wartime activities and operations it conducts. The activities and operations of the US military have contaminated large swaths of lands of Indian reservations, resulted in the desertification of 90% of Iraqi territory, contributed to the continued high levels of radiation in many islands in the Pacific Ocean, and so much more. It is no surprise that the continued and increasing militarism of the United States can be linked to the changing and extreme weather patterns. Furthermore, The past environmental record of the US military shows that its current policies are unsustainable. However, this did not discourage many American policymakers and top pentagon officials from blatantly planning future contamination of the environment through increased military activities.

Proponents of US militarism argue that a strong and well-funded military is necessary for protecting American national interests and preserving global peace and stability. For decades, the US military has been called to play an active role in humanitarian aid and disaster relief around the globe to preserve peace and stability. However, is a militarized response or the utilization of the US military really effective in maintaining regional peace and stability? Many would argue that the humanitarian interventions authorized by the United States are counterproductive and oftentimes resulted in disastrous results. For example, the response of the United States to the conflicts and crises in the countries in the Middle East, Central and South America, and Africa resulted in a disaster and worsened the situation. Given the fact that the US military and its activities contribute greatly to climate change that produce situations and conditions that will necessarily require a more robust US military activities, is it logical to support the idea of relying on the US military in addressing humanitarian crises and conflicts instead of diplomacy? Moreover, does it make sense to continue on sustaining and expanding military activities and operations that fuels climate change and its consequences?

This piece briefly explored the implications of the activities and operations of the US military on the environment. It is right to ethically and morally question various human activities that fuel inequality and perpetuate a cycle that unnecessarily causes people to suffer. As indicated, the US military budget is a whopping $721.5 billion, and many American policymakers are wanting to add more. This large sum of money will allow the US military to continue and expand  its unsustainable practices that can put more stressors on the environment. It is time that American lawmakers and top officials recognize that the United States needs funding for education, health, and renewable energies, not funding for more nuclear bombs and chemical weapons. The world needs peace which can be fully achieved if we pursue environmental justice.

References:

https://dppa.un.org/en/addressing-impact-of-climate-change-peace-and-security

https://www.ipb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/briefing-paper.pdf

https://www.ecowatch.com/military-largest-polluter-2408760609.html

https://www.telesurenglish.net/news/5-Disatrous-US-Led-Humanitarian-Interventions-20190219-0024.html

The war on terrorism and the erosion of human rights

By Angelo Olayvar

It is exactly one month before the impending May 1 deadline to pull out all US troops in Afghanistan. The destruction brought by the wars waged by the United States in the Middle East against terrorism along with the counterterror measures it curated have had far-reaching consequences that resulted in countless loss of human lives and hampered the promotion of human rights all over the globe.

The US-led global effort to counter terrorism and contain violent extremism has resulted in the death of at least 800,000 people due to direct war violence. This absurd number does not include the people who suffer and continue to suffer from physical, emotional, and/or mental trauma from the war. The destruction and instability resulting from the global war on terror has forced at least 21 million people in the Middle East to live as refugees and internally displaced persons, in extremely inadequate conditions. The never-ending wars on terror have cost US taxpayers at least $5.4 trillion and an additional $1 trillion for veteran care. These numbers are ridiculously excessive and it could have been avoided if the United States had adopted more responsible and peaceful methods in addressing terrorism and violent extremism.

The war has also created significant ripple effects on the economy of the United States that include job loss and an increase in interest rates. The federal government’s investment in military assets, in the duration of the wars, has made the United States lose the opportunity to fundamentally advance capital investments in core infrastructure such as roads and public transit. Given the fact that military spending creates fewer jobs, the United States should have just invested in clean energy, public education, and health care which could have resulted in the creation of millions of jobs for Americans and create a sector that can fundamentally address climate change. Even more, it is important to note that war spending is entirely financed by borrowing. The debt accrued from military spending has contributed to higher interest rates that basically charged borrowers such as new homeowners.

Reviewing the overview of the financial and human cost of the global war on terror does not shed light in discerning the full extent of the impact of the US-led global effort to counter terrorism and violent extremism. The global war on terror and the counterterror measures have resulted in gross human rights violations and obscured the promotion of human rights all over the globe.

The response to terrorism and violent extremism by the United States, along with the response of the United Nations, has been immoral, unethical, undemocratic, illiberal, and counterproductive. Instead of curbing terrorism and violent extremism, it has brought destruction, instability, seemingly endless wars, humanitarian crises, deaths, and loss of human rights of many people around the globe. It is apparent that the counterterror practices curated by the United States and the United Nations are being exploited by authoritarian regimes to legitimize their repressive and oftentimes violent acts towards their own population to maintain their grip on power. It is disheartening to learn that there has been an erosion of civil and political liberties in many democratic societies because their governments adopted authoritarian practices to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Since terrorism is a scourge of all modern civilized societies, state governments should and must not misuse counterterror measures and violate fundamental human rights to advance political gains.

Counterterror measures by democratic and authoritarian states necessitate the use of rhetoric to legitimize their anti-terrorism campaign. Oftentimes, these rhetoric results in the increase of anti-muslim sentiment. The rise of Islamophobia has detrimental effects on the basic human rights and dignity of Muslims and people of Middle-Eastern descent in many countries. Although Islamophobia existed even before 9/11, its frequency and notoriety increased dramatically during the past decade. In many western societies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, many people with Islamic background and Middle-Eastern descent are victims of discrimination, hate crimes, and racist acts due to the rhetoric adopted by the US government and political leaders.

Autocratic states such as China and Myanmar exploited counterterror measures and the global war on terror to strengthen their hold on power. In these autocratic regimes, Muslim ethnic groups lost their fundamental human rights due to the states’ paranoia in preserving territorial integrity, which is crucial in securing their regimes’ legitimacy. Millions of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province are subject to human rights abuses and genocidal acts. The Chinese Communist Party links the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (a separatist group that operates in Xinjiang and uses Uighur dissent to attract members) to the Taliban and Al-Qeada groups to justify their so-called ‘counterterror measures’ against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw (military of Myanmar) adopted the language of counterterror measures to justify their military operations against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. The Tatmadaw created a narrative linking the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (an insurgent group that aims to defend, salvage, and protect Rohingya Muslims) to Taliban groups. The military operations have resulted in ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide of the Rohingya Muslims, producing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in modern times. The lethargic provisions and vague language of the counterterror measures that the United States have curated and advocated for in the United Nations Security Council have far-reaching consequences in the promotion of human rights around the world. It is with great sadness to hear that 71 years after the holocaust, genocides are still happening.

It is important to note that many autocratic regimes and illiberal democracies have capitalized and exploited the global war on terror and various counterterror measures laid out by the United Nations Security Council to secure the legitimacy of their regimes. Countries such as Poland, Hungary, Russia, and the Philippines have implemented counterterror measures in order to silence political opponents and the civil society. The leaders of these countries have no respect for fundamental democratic principles. They create an enemy out of the civil society to justify their use of oppressive and repressive measures. The actions of these regimes have resulted in the dramatic erosion of civil and political rights.

The global war on terror, counterterrorism campaign, and the fight against violent extremism have had counterproductive and adverse results that culminated in the erosion of basic human rights. The United States along with the United Nations should design more comprehensive and humane counterterror measures so that authoritarian regimes would not exploit it to advance their political gains. The temptation to adopt autocratic practices in fighting terrorism and violent extremism is strong, but it is paramount that democratic states should maintain their adherence to liberal values and establish human rights as the bedrock of its campaign against terrorism and violent extremism. Furthermore, state governments and political leaders should be careful in using rhetoric that can incite paranoia and hatred towards religious and ethnic minorities and other traditionally disfavored groups.

Angelo Olayvar is an intern with the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.

Taking Nature Black

by Susu Lassa

I was opportune to attend the 2021 Taking Nature Black Virtual Conference, which took place from Tuesday, February 23rd to Saturday, February 27th. It was put on by the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) as a Black history month celebration, with the theme being “Call and Response: Elevating Our Stories, Naturally.” Between classes this semester and work obligations, I was able to attend at least one panel a day. The panels I attended were: Living On and Off the Land; The Politics of the Environment; Breaking Decolonization’s Hold on the Environment; and Minding the Gap: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Agricultural and EJ Activists. I intend to share some of my outtakes from these panels in this blog post, and I hope that the insights gleaned from this experience will foster a nuanced understanding of the experience of Black people in nature and ecological justice spaces.

How is the understanding of Black people in nature framed?

As this conference was intended as a space for healing, learning, dialogue, and organizing, an understanding of how the issue of black people in ecological and ecological justice (EJ) spaces is framed is essential to this endeavor. The issue is usually framed as “Black people are not in nature because they do not like nature/don’t want to be in nature.” However, the issue actually includes the centering of whiteness as normative or even aspirational and the reception of black people in these spaces, as well as the very real history of racism and segregation that deters black people from feeling safe in urban park and agricultural spaces. To that second point, I know the tangible hesitation that I personally felt being in public lands and parks in Washington D.C. after participating in the protests at the White House following the murder of George Floyd and various other people at the hands of the police. Seeing the highly militarized park police in riot gear brutalizing people and recognizing that such a militarized presence is present in public parks around the city and country make me weary of utilizing those spaces, and I do not think that I am alone in this sentiment.

What then is the experience of Black people in nature and in ecological justice spaces?

During the Living On and Off the Land panel, which was a conversation engaging Black farmers, the biggest issue experienced by Black people engaging with urban agriculture is access to land, so there not being enough land to feed entire communities. Throw in issues of soil quality in predominantly Black communities, and the issue gains more nuance. Militarized public spaces, issues around access to public lands, and hesitation to engage due to the legacy of slavery are also reasons that can help us develop an understanding of the experience of Black people in nature. During the Breaking Decolonization’s Hold on the Environment panel, the issue of ‘diversity and inclusion’ in ecological/ecological justice spaces came up, illumining an aversion to encouraging Black people -collapsed into ‘diversity’- into these white-centric spaces, when focus and effort should be geared towards interrogating the ownership of these spaces that see Black people as having to be ‘invited-in’. Thus, this perception of Black People as ‘diversity’ and not as stakeholders in these spaces forces Black people to pull back and invest in movements that do not pigeonhole them.

How and why is the environment political?

The environment is political by virtue of the inequitable nature of land use. Thus, the salient interest is proprietorship, and politics in an adversarial context elevates economic gain and profit at the expense of the environment. It is key to remember that the health and well-being of the environment is a political fight in a political space because it is less about the land itself and more about wealth.

Knowing what we know, how can we move forward?

A good first step would be encouraging a reorientation of minds from a consumption mindset to a mindset that encourages growth for both the land and the people. This insight was shared by a Black farmer in the south with the aim of shedding the reputation of sharecroppers imposed on black landowners and farmworkers in the south. A second step is to encourage an understanding of public land as a necessary component of Black healthy living. We can also find and support individual efforts geared at urban agriculture -if you live in an urban setting- as there is funding available for agricultural communities that are disbursed by NGOs which do not often trickle down to these efforts.

What can we do politically?

We should encourage and emphasize the interconnected nature of land stewardship issues taking place in various communities nationwide based on geographical location, while understanding that there is no one fix. We should also tie urban agriculture to bigger initiatives of the Biden administration’s climate initiatives, i.e.: growing food near to communities, which cuts down on carbon emissions. Lastly, we should make sure to always connect domestic EJ work to global issues. In the words of one of the panelists, “we can’t play whack-a-mole with these issues, as a solutions pop-up here and more issues there.”

What can we do educationally?

We should encourage environmental literacy, especially in young POC as young people live at the forefront of civil rights and social justice spaces. By providing youth with the tools for advocacy and empowerment regarding EJ issues, we will be able to utilize this current time in history and mobilize young people around EJ issues and natural science/agriculture fields. During the Minding the Gap: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Agricultural and EJ Activists panel, I learned that some of the barriers to underrepresented youth pursuing natural science and agricultural fields include a deep stigma related to environmental/agricultural fields due to the history of racism, as well as a misunderstanding of the diversity of careers in these fields and a lack of representation (seeing people who look like they do). Thus, by creating channels for kids to foster relationships with people in these fields and nurturing the sense of agency and efficacy in young people, youth will be enabled to know their worth and value in community spaces addressing these issues and have the confidence to take on roadblocks.

In parting, those of us in EJ movement spaces and organizations must understand that it is not about being Black in movements, it is about changing the norm that centers and elevates whiteness in these spaces so that everyone can bring their talents and skills, regardless of social location, because in the words of Ella Baker, contact with all people, if you are interested in people, can be valuable.

This blog post was written by Susu Lassa, former BVSer, presently BTS and studying with OPP focusing on Ecological Justice.

Economic peace

by Nathan Hosler

Jesus had much to say about the use and distribution of material resources as well as issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation. From loving enemies and confronting for reconciliation in Matthew 5 and 18, to the “rich young ruler” and not being able to “serve God and wealth” in Matthew 10 and 6.  

In this piece, I make the case that issues of economics/economic justice are part of a vision of peace and the work of peacemaking. This includes addressing economic systems and practices as a form of peacemaking as well as identifying the presence of economic grievance or lack of economic opportunity as a driver of many violent conflicts. Versions of this are often discussed in our work at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy; international migration caused by lack of jobs and violence which is caused by collapsed economy. Conflict caused by some mixture of politics, economic strain, environmental degradation, injustice, and identity.  

The biblical understanding of shalom keeps all parts of life in view, and is not simply the absence of violence or conflict. Elsewhere, I have defined peace in the following way, 

Peace is the presence of wholeness in relationships that are characterized by justice, mutuality, and wellbeing. Peace is not a universal or homogenous experience but is experienced in the appreciation and celebration of diversity and between individuals, communities, nations, and with the environment (non-human world). (Hosler, Hauerwas the Peacemaker?, 20) 

In the Ecumenical Call to Just Peace of the World Council of Churches there is a section on “For Peace in the Marketplace.” This also recognizes that peace is wholeness. And that economic realities are part of this. Additionally, the WCC statement asserts that, “Over-consumption and deprivation are forms of violence (13).” And frames a positive vision as well, “Peace in the marketplace is nurtured by creating “economies of life”. Their essential foundations are equitable socio-economic relationships, respect for workers’ rights, the just sharing and sustainable use of resources, healthy and affordable food for all, and broad participation in economic decision-making (13).1” Such thinking prioritizes the well-being of all over the profits of a few.  

Should, however, Christians or the Church have a defined economic theory or position on policy details? Should we, as was discussed on a webinar on the global economy this morning, support the movement of percentage rates by the Federal Reserve from X% to Y%? While we may not have theory based on abstraction—say a mathematically beautiful symmetry (not of course discounting aesthetic value in general)—we may have a position based on developing concrete steps to address a lack of economic peace. For those of us not mathematically inclined, the terms and numbers and percentages are quite difficult to manage. However, the impacts of these are real.  

So-

We are concerned about economic peace.

  • Racialized economic inequality is one instance of a lack of economic peace
    • This exists due to policies (explicit and implicit) 
      • While disagreement will occur on the best policy to address inequality,
        • Concrete decisions must be made

While churches may not have economists on staff, it is within the purview and appropriate for churches and Christians to have and express an opinion on how to move toward more just and peaceful communities, society, and world. There are many complicated theological, ethical, and philosophical questions about the role of religious institutions in relation to the state; is it or should it be subservient, dominating, acquiescing; it is “just another” civil-society organization or something more (or less), and many others. Despite these complicated questions, the Church of the Brethren has long affirmed engagement in such matters.

Economic policy and practice, like all others, is not neutral. The economic system and policies embody particular values as well as have specific impacts on individuals, communities, and nation-states. We are called to the work of peacemaking, justice, and caring for all. Seeking economic peace is one important facet of well-being for all.  

Climate justice is economic justice, and economic justice is racial justice.

“Poverty, peace, justice, and climate change are inexorably linked. There can be no hope for justice, no hope for an end to poverty, and no hope for peace if we continue on our present path. We must confront inequality while weaning ourselves from the very fossil fuels that built our economic wealth. We must work to build peace while reducing air pollution. This new path for us leads to God’s plan for a new creation.

To walk this path, we must first accept that climate change is a moral, spiritual, and human issue, and not a political debate. We must confess our role in the problem and be willing to reflect, pray, and have loving conversations about these complex challenges. We must seek and support solutions that restore dignity to the underprivileged, promote peace, and protect God’s earth.” Creation Care. 2018 Church of the Brethren Statement

So far in our exploration of economic justice and economic peacemaking in this pandemic, we have looked at simple living in a time of consumerism and racial justice as it relates to economic justice. In this third blog, former BVSer and OPP associate Susu Lassa dives into the interconnectedness of creation care, racial justice, and economic justice.

By Susu Lassa

Economic justice is not attainable without climate justice. Patterns of institutionalized environmental racism within the U.S. has shown us the ways in which communities doing the least to contribute to the rise in greenhouse gases bear the brunt of climate fall out on their bodies and on their livelihoods. University of Michigan Sustainability highlights that more than 50% of people living within two miles of toxic waste facilities are people of color. Degradation of the land from toxins leads to lower land value, which hinders upward mobility and the ability to build wealth for members of those communities. In the face of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, both domestically and internationally, black and brown communities and countries are disproportionately impacted, remaining most vulnerable physically, financially, and mentally. From Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where the majority black population impacted were permanently displaced, to the flooding taking place in countries such as Pakistan, Uganda, and Kenya, black and brown bodies remain at risk, their bodies and livelihood bearing the brunt of a climate crises that they contribute least to.

A brief interrogation of capitalism can highlight the interconnected nature of various forms of oppression, namely the intersection between climate justice, economic justice, and racial justice. The nature of accruing wealth in a capitalist economy privileges profit -even profit gained via exploitation of land, people, etc.- over the wellbeing of communities affected by the ramifications of this economic system. Wealthy corporations often invade communities for natural resources or cheap labor, grabbing what they can at the expense of these communities. With little to no accountability for corporations existing within a capitalist political economy, these plundered communities are left doubly vulnerable: first susceptible to plundering by wealthy corporations and nations, and then left to bare the fallout from the poisoning of the land, air, and/or water around them, which impacts their bodies, health, and livelihood.

The intersection between environmental racism and healthcare has been magnified in the wake of the COVID-19 crises, as have various other injustices in existence before the pandemic. Black and brown communities remain hardest hit by the pandemic, both contracting and dying from the virus disproportionately. Reasons include enduring disparities in wealth and income that see black and brown bodies overrepresented on the frontlines as “essential” workers, and residential segregation, which sees the concentration of people of color in disempowered neighborhoods with low property values, freeways, and shipping centers. The effects of residential segregation on air pollution with regard to toxins such as PM 2.5 , a known carcinogen emitted from car engines and power plants, put folks in these communities at a higher chance of impaired heart and lung function, leaving them susceptible and highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Climate justice is economic justice, and economic justice is racial justice. The sooner we re-orient our understanding of the different structures of oppression as interconnected, the sooner we can address the environmental harms that have for decades disproportionately harmed brown and black bodies in the U.S. and all over the world.

Racial Inequality, Economic Injustice, and the Pandemic.

It feels like the past few months of the pandemic have been a slew of shocking numbers thrown at me. Like the number 7.3 million- the number of COVID infections in the US. 200,000- the number of COVID deaths in the US as of September 30th. But COVID-19 is not only a health problem. It is an economic problem with consequences that are expected to far outlast the pandemic. 40,000,000- the number of people who filed for unemployment since the pandemic. 637,000,000,000- the dollar amount that billionaires added to their wealth since the pandemic. As we journey to explore and reaffirm simple living, stewardship, just dealings, and mutuality in relation to economic justice and economic peacemaking in this pandemic, this second post in a series of four, looks at the need to address economic injustice through a racial equity lens. 

Addressing Racial Inequalities to Fight Economic Injustice. 

The deeply rooted racial inequality in the United States presents itself in disparities in income, wealth, access to education, housing, access to healthcare, and other economic indicators. Inequality.org defines income inequality as “the extent to which income is distributed in an uneven manner among a population”, and income as, “the revenue streams from wages, salaries, interest on a savings account, dividends from shares of stock, rent, and profits from selling something for more than you paid for it.” According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the last quarter of 2019, the median White worker made 28% and 35% more than the median Black and Latino workers respectively. Systemic racism and inequalities in the distribution of income present a hurdle in the accumulation of the generational wealth that is essential for economic security. (Inequality.org) Consequentially, racially minoritized populations do not enjoy the security blanket that generational wealth provides their white counterparts and are at risk of financial fallout from changes in economic conditions. 

COVID 19 has exacerbated these inequalities. 

In one way or the other, this pandemic has transformed all our lives. However, it is essential to note the magnitude of its impact on different racial and economic demographics. According to the Washington Post, “The economic collapse sparked by the pandemic is triggering the most unequal recession in modern U.S. history, delivering a mild setback for those at or near the top and a depression-like blow for those at the bottom.” “Historically, people of color and Americans with less education have been overrepresented in low-paying service jobs.” This overrepresentation in low-paying service jobs not only puts these groups at a disproportionately high risk of being exposed to the virus but also forces them to bear the brunt of its economic consequences. For example, Black women have only recovered 34% of the jobs they lost compared to White women who have recovered 61%. This is a major setback as it took Black Women up until 2018 to recover from the Great Recession.

Representation matters! 

The Post also found that “White Americans have recovered more than half of their jobs lost between April and February. Meanwhile, Black Americans have recovered just over a third of employment lost in the pandemic.”  

If the bodies making decisions on how to respond to the economic consequences of COVID-19 are those that have suffered least and are recovering the fastest, it is difficult to imagine the responses will be equitable. In our path to recovery, the goal should not be to return to normal. Instead, the goal should be to create systems that prioritize equity for minoritized populations. We must be proactive in advocating for COVID-19 response policies that apply a racial lens when addressing issues. We must educate ourselves about systemic racism and be aware that it can present itself in subtle, seemingly unrecognizable ways. We must try to use our voices to amplify and build up minoritized voices in the fight to dismantle oppressive systems. We must be mindful that the policies we support, or not, have life-changing impacts on many others. As such, we must be more intentional than ever in how we use our voices. 

Sources 

“Applying a Racial Equity Lens to End Hunger.” Bread for the World, 1 July 2020, www.bread.org/library/applying-racial-equity-lens-end-hunger.  

“Coronavirus Cases:” Worldometerwww.worldometers.info/coronavirus/.  

“Racial Economic Inequality.” Inequality.org, 25 Sept. 2020, inequality.org/facts/racial-inequality/.  

Report • By Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson • June 1. “Black Workers Face Two of the Most Lethal Preexisting Conditions for Coronavirus-Racism and Economic Inequality.” Economic Policy Institutewww.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/.  

Van Dam, Andrew, et al. The Covid-19 Recession Is the Most Unequal in Modern U.S. History. 30 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/business/coronavirus-recession-equality/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most

Simple Living and Consumer Culture

As the pandemic brings to light the injustices that were for so long swept under the rugs, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Perhaps these injustices were always there in broad daylight- but the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day lives gave us an excuse to avoid thinking about things much further. In a blog earlier this summer, Susu Lassa wrote, “COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the various systemic problems in the U.S and worldwide, and police brutality and racial injustice were once again cast into the limelight…” This pandemic has also pulled back the curtains on the economic injustices as while over 40 million Americans filled for unemployment over the past couple of months, billionaires added a staggering $637 billion to their wealth. Looking at figures like these it seems more necessary than ever to reflect and reassess the choices we make with regards to how we live and how we consume. Over the next few blog posts, we will explore and reaffirm simple living, stewardship, just dealings, and mutuality as they relate to economic justice and economic peacemaking; especially as we go forward during this pandemic. This first post in a series of four, explores simple living in a time of consumerism and consumer culture.

Simple Living

Over the years there have been numerous Annual Conference Statements on Christian living, stewardship, and creation care -all of which, I believe, point to the importance of simple living. A 1980 annual conference statement emphasizes simplicity as a Christian way of life. But what is simple living?

Not to be confused with minimalism, which often refers to simplicity as it pertains to physical possessions; Simple living refers to a mindset focused on reduced consumption, with value placed on essentials and things that bring us joy. (Babauta) Simple living is more than just a cleared-out closet and rejection of luxury goods. It is a mindset in which value is placed on finding joy in our human connections, our community, and nature. In his book Freedom of Simplicity, Richard J. Foster argues that simplicity is “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.”

By choosing to live simply, we make mental and financial space to develop our spiritual life. We shift our focus from finding ways to preserve our affluent lifestyles, to working to grow our understanding of God and all creation.

Consumer Culture and Consumerism

“Consumer culture denotes a social arrangement in which the relations between lived culture and social resources, and between meaningful ways of life and the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, are mediated through markets.” (Arnould and Thompson, 869) Rather than being a means of reflecting cultural values, consumption has become a culture value, contributing to the ever-expanding list of our needs and desires. (Goodman and Cohen)

Be aware of Consumer Culture and intentional in how you navigate through it.

Most things we do are a matter of habit, conditioning, training, and unconscious imitation. We are programmed by culture, family, and media, seldom questioning why we act as we do, or whether we are doing the things we value most. Many of the Influences which shape our behavior – hedonism, triumphalism, cynicism, legalism – run counter to the lifestyle of the kingdom of God which Jesus lived and proclaimed. (AC 1980, Christian Lifestyle)

Author Kit Yarrow in her book Decoding The New Consumer Mind writes that studies show that hidden, unconscious cues such as scents, colors, product placement, and how words sound, are now more influential to our purchase decision process than ever before. We are told what we need and increasingly our ability to discern our needs from our wants is fading -or at least it seems to be. As such, there is great power in awareness because only when people become aware of a habit are they able to make intentional decisions to combat it.

As I finish up writing this piece, I realize just how all over the place it is. But isn’t that more telling of the interwoven nature of our lives? How our choice to live simply will not only benefit us spiritually and financially, but can also benefit the community, the environment, and the next generation. For a BVS’er like me, on a tight budget, practicing simple living is the only choice. But I hope I develop a way of living that extends beyond my year here. I want to make sure that I do not take up more space and resources in this world than what was allotted for me; so that others who share this Earth with me and those coming after me can enjoy it as I have.

Suggested Reading: Consumer Culture by Goodman and Cohen

Sources

The masterpiece of a simple life | Maura Malloy | TEDxIndianapolis

Babauta, Leo. “The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life.” Amazon, Publisher Not Identified, 2009, www.amazon.com/Simple-Guide-Minimalist-Life/dp/1455831972.

Eric J. Arnould, Craig J. Thompson, Consumer Culture Theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 31, Issue 4, March 2005, Pages 868–882, https://doi.org/10.1086/426626

Goodman, Douglas J., and Mirelle Cohen. Consumer Culture: a Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Yarrow, Kit. Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2014.

On Growing Pains

I have done a lot of growing in this year of service.

And no, it’s not the kind of growth that takes place with a background of sunshine and rainbows and peppy music, but the hard, achy kind of growth. Still I walk around with these growing pains, sitting with questions that push at my own personal perceptions of peacebuilding, service, and what it means to actively build the kind of peace that mandates liberation for all.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the struggle of maintaining resolve in the face of what seems like a stagnant, and in some cases regressive, time in our political climate. In the time that since that piece, I know that my resolve has weakened, and naturally, anger was poised to take its place. COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the various systemic problems  in the U.S and worldwide, and police brutality and racial injustice were once again cast into the limelight (with the help of live social media documentation of a phenomenon that is as old as the institution of policing itself).

In bearing cognizance of my anger and the ire that burns hot in my belly, I wondered what to do with this fire. After getting tired of letting it burn me out and leaving me weak, through the help of Audre Lorde, I came to realize its refining power. Through her words, I came to see the malleability of anger and its ability to be used as a powerful source of energy, and I utilized its energy for reflection.

Left to focus on the intent and motivation behind my work as opposed to the outcome -because the outcomes were increasingly unfavorable- I became aware of how little time and reflection I had devoted to this endeavor. As the observatory lens turned away from what change we could effect and towards the why and the how, I was awash in the light of the selfishness of my approach to service. There I sat, questioning why I was doing this work, and not being thrilled with the answers.

I noticed that my approach to this work centered the things I thought would be beneficial to the demographics that I was advocating for; it didn’t center their own needs, wants, and aspirations, and this was a glaring problem. This was something that I also noticed in various of the spaces that I interacted with while in this position, and I felt comfortable in my criticism of these spaces but remained oblivious to my complicit conceptualization of the very same service that I was engaged in.

It soon became obvious that I needed to look at my motivations for service, first and foremost, as an act of service to those that I am in-service of. I needed to make “basic and radical alterations in those assumptions underlining” why I serve as a peacebuilder, and in utilizing the refining fire of anger, I called out my own biases and began the process of reconstructing my perceptions and motivation around service and peacebuilding. This is an ongoing process, and I hope that it only ends with a world where ALL can grow, because we are not free until the most marginalized within our world is free.

This year has been one of learning and aching, and I gleefully rejoice for the work that I have been able to do on myself while actively in service of others. I came into this position with a reservoir of resolve and energy, and that reservoir has been severely depleted. However, I see this not as a bad thing, but as a necessary pre-condition to the work of understanding the assumptions around why I serve, and what the larger implications of my actions are for the well-being of demographics in which I have an active interest.

I know that in what should be a blog post about the work done in service of others this year, I have spoken more so about myself.

I think that is the point.

Service is a necessary, worthwhile, and laudable endeavor, but doing the work of examining why we serve is an act of service in and of itself. This year has helped to clarify my hazy assumptions and preconceived notions about what it means to truly be in service of others, and in that way has strengthened me as a peacebuilder. This work, for me, took place within my year of service, and while I am thankful that working at OPP provided me the conditions to come to this realization, I am cognizant that this is work that should be intentionally done by all who serve others, in all avenues and capacities.

I am better peacebuilder for working at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy; its been a tumultuous year, but I believe that this refining process has instigated in me a process of discernment that is of paramount importance when working in service of others. I plan to head to Bethany Theological Seminary in the Fall to gain a Masters in Peacebuilding, and I hope to tailor my projects and reading materials to study theology from the perspective of African American Liberation Theology. Afterwards, I intend to continue in the vein of peacebuilding, because this is necessary work.

*Quote from Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”

Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit: Equal in God’s Eyes: Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel/Palestine

OPP Report on the Churches for Middle East Peace Annual Advocacy Summit by Galen Fitzkee

Representatives of the Brethren Office of Peacebuilding and Policy (OPP) tuned in to the annual Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) Advocacy Summit on Monday, June 22, to become more educated about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and advocacy efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. We were soon reminded that a virtual conference is not a perfect substitute for meeting together on Capitol Hill, however technical difficulties were resolved in short order and the program commenced. The theme of the webinar was Equal in God’s Eyes, Human Rights and Dignity for all in Israel and Palestine and focused heavily on the efforts we can all take to promote a peaceful and holistic solution to the fraught situation between Israel and Palestine.
Jeremey Ben Ami of J Street oriented those of us who were less knowledgeable with a brief summary of the human and political considerations involved in the fight against annexation of Palestine. He shared a message of optimism and encouraged each of us to get involved to change the course of American policy and thus the future of the Palestinian and Israeli people who both deserve a right to control their own futures. Ben Ami answered some questions about the immediate future of the region and layed out points of action that the US can take including clearly defining purposes for financial aid and making fair and balanced criticism of Israeli actions in international bodies.

COVID, Middle East, and Intersectionality

Next, we quickly transitioned into a panel of speakers from all over the world including Jerusalem, Gaza, Geneva, and the United States to talk about the human rights work of their various organizations. COVID-19 is making a tough situation worse throughout the Middle East and all around the world, according to World Council of Churches rep Carla Khijoyan. Jessica Montell, executive director of Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, reminded us that restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus are necessary but can be used as a pretext for human rights abuses and actually exacerbate other injustices. Bassam Nasser of CRS informed us about the current reality of life in Gaza, which has been defined by intense restrictions since before the pandemic. He noted new restrictions particularly affect access to education, which is usually a source of hope for Palestinians looking for a way to overcome their oppression. Overall, they encouraged us to get our information directly from the source and to focus on people rather than politics to both solve a humanitarian crisis and address the systems of power that undermine sovereignty and contribute to instability for all parties.

CMEP Overview

After a break for lunch, CMEP provided us an overview of their mission and programs that work to Educate, Elevate, and Advocate for the Middle East. Initiatives such as Pilgrimage to Peace Tours offer a first-hand look at the conditions in Israel/Palestine and help build relationships with local peacebuilders. CMEP also has made an effort to bring marginalized women’s voices to the forefront in the peace movement. Conflict resolution, even between extreme ideological groups. CMEP demonstrated that they have meaningful connections with faith leaders all across the region in places like Egypt and Iraq, and our very own Nathan Hosler made an appearance in a picture with members of CMEP and the Assyrian Church in Erbil. CMEP offers a wealth of video resources on their website as well as educational literature and ways to get involved with advocacy for peace. They often use the hashtag #ChurchesAgainstAnnexation on social media.

Protecting our Right to Stand for Palestinian Freedom

In light of the current unrest due to racial injustice in the United States, CMEP welcomed Dima Khalidi of Palestinian Legal Aid to draw parallels between the plight of Black Americans and Palestinians. “We are all held captive by a global system that prioritizes profit over people” she said as she encouraged us to hold fast to the truth about inequality and systemic realities that affect our neighbors here at home and abroad. Once we understand our origins, there is a responsibility to finally react to the work of black artists and organizers that implore us to act. We must follow their lead and listen to the solutions that they require in order to imagine an alternative society that is free of oppression. The response to movements against oppression such as the Black Lives Matter coalition has been and will continue to be repression and mislabeling, which we have seen first-hand in the United States. Palestinians face repression in the fight for their rights too. Leader reputations take a serious hit from smear campaigns and intense legal scrutiny in Palestine just because they speak out in favor of Palestinian rights. These threats and mischaracterizations of Palestine as terroristic or anti-Semitic have increased as grassroots support has grown. Pro-Israel groups have unleashed an assault on peaceful advocacy by bogging down efforts toward progress in legislation and seeking to criminalize and intimidate dissent strategies such as boycotting. While Khalidi wanted to make clear that the root causes of the situations in the US and Palestine are fundamentally different, it is amazing that we are witnessing similar strategies from the US and Israeli governments play out in real time. So, what can we do to stand with those fighting the uphill battle against oppression and subsequently repression? First, we must protect the right of advocacy and free speech rights as ways to dissent and fight for social justice. We should recognize that bold demands will not be easily accepted by the powers that be in either case because they have a stake in the oppression of minorities and the status quo. Finally, we must go back to the roots of the injustice in Palestine and the US so that reform and redevelopment can result in holistic and lasting changes. Khalidi left us to ponder a variation of the following question: Are we willing to listen to the oppressed and give up comfortability in order to finally achieve the worldly embodiment of Equality in God’s Eyes?

Foreign Policy and Election Panel

Since 2020 is an election year and the presidential election is fast-approaching, CMEP Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations Kyle Cristofalo hosted a panel of experts to address United States foreign policy. The consensus of these experts was that the current administration and ambassador to Israel David Friedman have been enabling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s far right policies by encouraging de jure annexation and other illicit activities. They encouraged us to take a look at writings and actions that began at the outset of the administration’s term which include: recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, discontinuing aid to UNRWA and consequently Palestinian refugees, closing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, D.C., allowing incremental annexation of the Golan heights, failing to recognize violations of international law, and pushing a one-sided peace plan. The pattern of action in US foreign policy has been blatantly pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people and hope for a two-state solution. Going forward, policy considerations should seek to reverse this steep trend towards the annexation of Palestinian territory and depoliticize the policies themselves. We were encouraged to maintain awareness of the human rights abuses occurring in the middle east. We can expect more of the same from a second term of a Trump administration who will likely continue to move the goalposts when it comes to opposing annexation as they seek to make changes irreversible. The speculation is that a Biden administration would not take a firm pro-Palestinian stance but may reengage with multilateral organizations and reverse extreme policy shifts that have occurred. It is likely that if Palestinians were able to vote in the US election that they would support a changing of the guard, however the unfortunately reality on the ground is that the Palestinian people continue to lose freedoms and the sovereignty of their own nation every day.

Closing

In closing, Grace Al-Zoughbi Arteen, a Palestinian Christian and accomplished instructor at Bethlehem Bible College, offered us a moving prayer in both English and Arabic. She reminded us of the meaning of the beatitudes for the oppressed, of our shared humanity and experiences, and of our hope in Jesus who offers us help, peace, and love.