Christianity and the Middle East: Kimball Tackles "Volatile Mix" of Religion, Politics and Oil in Mideast

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Christianity and the Middle East: Kimball Tackles "Volatile Mix" of Religion, Politics and Oil in Mideast

George Bush has declared that "no one will work harder than we for the peace and stability of the region" where the Gulf war was waged.

Americans who realize that such sweeping presidential pledges are ineffective without informed public support will welcome the opportunity to study and recommend Charles Kimball's newest book, Religion, Politics and Oil: The Volatile Mix in the Middle East. Published by Abingdon, it provides a lucid, compact introduction to the peoples, problems and potentials surrounding the world's richest petroleum reserves. The frequent and extensive civil strife and international warfare that have involved them are all too familiar. The author's overriding concern, therefore, is to offer information and sensitivity that may help us help peace to prosper there. As listeners to his October Voice of America readings already know, his approach is to deal successively and interrelatedly with the three topics that dominate his title.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his March 8, 1991, farewell to homeward-bound U.S. Desert Storm veterans, charged them to "take home with you some free lessons that your family, friends and the world can learn. You're going to take home the fact that the word `Arab' isn't a bad word" but includes many "close, warm, wonderful people. . . And you're going to take back the fact that `Islam' is not a word to be feared, but it is a religion to be respected."

Baptist Professor Kimball, a former head of the Middle East department of the National Council of Churches, has written abundantly elsewhere of other Middle Eastern faiths, especially the Christian. Still, for the predominantly Western Christian readership his Methodist publishers chiefly reach, he has felt it pertinent in the Gulf setting to join "Stormin' Norman" in stressing Islam and the Muslims. He gives especially helpful sketches of Islamic regard for the uniquely sinless prophethood of Jesus, for Jews and Christians as "People of the Book," and for the God of justice and mercy whom they approach through disciplined prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

He is also disconcertingly aware of the almost universal temptation among military, political and commercial leaders to appeal to religious sentiments and loyalties to gain support for their special agenda. He gives illuminating backgrounds for the ayatollahs' successful--and Saddam's unsuccessful-- presentation of their wars as "holy." Nor does he avoid the allied promotion of their warfare as a "just" one, for victory in which President Bush could request that "in churches around the country prayers be said."

Sweeping presidential pledges are ineffective without informed public support.

Intermingled with such attitudes were individual and organizational pleas, also religious, that those in power delay any open declaration of war until every possible resource, including the U.N., could be brought into a peacemaking process. Widespread public uneasiness, too, in many lands over the increasing momentum toward war had religious roots.

Although such factors led journalists to tag the Gulf war as the top "religion" news story of 1991, the roots of that event, Kimball reminds us, were primarily political and economic. These include some of the region's persistent deficiencies: General instability, the dearth of participatory democracy, the mixture of dire poverty and abounding wealth in adjacent countries and societies, and the ongoing vitality of certain age-old conflicts, of which the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglios are relative newcomers.

Kimball presents these in a context that challenges outsiders to recognize--and, one hopes, reduce--their own complicity in significant aspects of those internal problems. His accounts of harm done by foreign interference and domination let few off the hook, especially in this era of "global thirst for the region's disproportionate store of the world's petroleum reserves. …