Condoleezza Rice: From Bethlehem to Annapolis
Last Friday, I joined five other evangelical Protestant leaders for an intense and rewarding half-hour conversation with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Our goal was to assure her of our support as she navigates the treacherous waters of Middle East politics - particularly as she arm-wrestles the various parties toward the summit planned for the beginning of December in Annapolis. The Bush Administration is hoping that foundations can be laid for an enduring, peaceful two-state solution in Israel-Palestine conflict.
The others in our delegation included three megachurch pastors - Bob Roberts of Northwood Church near Dallas, Joel Hunter of Northland Church near Orlando, and John Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glen Arden near Washington, DC. Also part of the group were foreign policy guru Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement and Ron Sider of Palmer Theological Seminary.
Secretary Rice is an intelligent, calm, well-spoken person whose social skills are clearly meant for diplomacy. (Click here , here , and here for CT's 2003 cover essay about Condi Rice.) But she also radiates strength - which is what it takes to go head-to-head with the antagonists in a protracted conflict.
Here are a few highlights from our conversation:
? She is a "fundamental defender of Israel's security and its right to defend itself." She will not abandon Israel's security needs.
? She also doesn't believe that you can excuse any terrorist activity by calling people "freedom fighters." There is no such thing. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist.
? Although there are absolutist factions on both sides, she believes that the leadership on both sides now understands that the window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution is very limited, and that this will require them to abandon absolutist claims for practical possibilities. This could open up political space in both societies for moderates to function.
? Resolving this conflict is important both regionally and locally. More than just Palestinians and Israelis have a stake in this. Responsible Muslim allies in, for example, Indonesia would discover that a fair and peaceful resolution would reduce the pressures from fundamentalist groups. And in the region itself, the Arab states are quite nervous about the activities of an Iran-backed Hamas that wants to exploit tensions with Israel.
? She sees herself as a facilitator. The US is not imposing a solution on Israelis and Palestinians, but it is helping leaders who want to move their people toward increasing peace and economic stability to reach their goals.
? She is realistic. In the 14 months the Bush Administration has left, there is no way to accomplish everything that needs to be done. But strong foundations can be laid. And this is a moment of opportunity.
The pastors in our group are interested in more than diplomacy. While they prayed for Secretary Rice, that God would strengthen her to accomplish her mission, they also spoke of people-to-people development projects they envisioned to help impoverished Palestinians to a better life. If Palestinian civil society is going to recover from its current chaos, it will require some serious attention to local economies. That's something that individual American Christians can be part of.
On her October 17 visit to Bethlehem, Secretary Rice observed first-hand the devastated economy of that traditionally Christian city. With tourism as the lifeblood of the local economy, occupancy in the main hotel is down to 20%. This fact was repeatedly reported in the press after her visit, and Secretary Rice referred to it again in our conversation. She was obviously glad to hear of the hopes these pastors had for reaching out to fellow Christians in the birthplace of Jesus. Stay tuned for an announcement of specific church-based projects in the near future.
Several years ago, I heard Secretary Rice give her testimony at the National Prayer Breakfast. She talked about the African-American spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." There is a paradox in that spiritual. One line talks plaintively of trouble, suffering, and sorrow. The next exclaims, "Glory, Hallelujah!" Secretary Rice, as a Christian believer, sees that the path to "Glory, Hallelujah!" lies through tribulation - but only if one lets go of the pain and the preoccupation with victim status and uses it for the good of others. That kind of faith may fit her well for taking on the monumental challenges of the Middle East.