Saddam’s Baptistry

At Truthdig, former air-force colonel David Antoon tells the remarkable story of what happened when he accompanied his son to the orientation session at the United States Air Force Academy in 2004. He compares this with his own experience in the 1960s:

Never, during my four years at the academy and subsequent pilot and combat training, was the word warrior used; nor, whether as a cadet or officer, did I ever encounter “Christian supremacist” rhetoric.

In 2004, however,

…The orientation began with a one-hour “warrior” rant to appointees and parents by the commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida. The fact that the word warrior had replaced leadership was a signal of what was to follow.

…my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets.  Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder.  He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks.  This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy.

There follows a more general discussion of the controversy over evangelical proselytism in the military, and how the academy dealt with media scrutiny when this came to light:

The response from academy leaders was telling. They at first denied the reports of Watties’ “hell-fire” threats.  Under media pressure, they later claimed the violations were committed by a visiting reserve chaplain, when in fact they were by the recent Air Force Chaplain of the Year himself: Watties. In an interview after receiving his Chaplain of the Year award, Watties boasted of baptizing young soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool.  It is difficult to think of more inflammatory and Crusader-like behavior in an Arab nation.

I think I can imagine some rather more “Crusader-like” activities than taking over a swimming pool, but given the context it does look like a needless provocation. Funnily enough, the swimming pool-baptism story was also a detail I came across a few weeks ago when I stumbled across an article in Alpha News from earlier this year. The article was by Canon Andrew White, the British Anglican “vicar of Baghdad”. Alpha News is the newsletter of the Alpha Course, a British evangelical programme designed for enquirers into Christianity.

White is a man of considerable personal courage (and stamina – he has MS) who has undertaken a good deal of humanitarian work and who has highlighted the desperate situations of Iraqi Christians in the face of increasing Islamic fundamentalism and inter-ethnic strife. He also acted as a mediator during the Bethlehem siege of 2001, and enjoys respect (and a high media profile) for his inter-faith work. Unfortunately, however, his judgement is sometimes questionable. As regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has decried criticisms of Israel in the name of maintaining a balanced neutrality; but according to one sympathetic interview, his Foundation for Reconciliation in the Middle East is specifically “Israeli run”, and he reportedly holds the Christian Zionist belief that any opposition to Israel is a priori “dangerous”, because “you remove God’s blessing and protection from yourself”. According to one Anglican clergyman with links to Palestinian church leaders, White is considered “persona non grata” over the way he conducted his mediation. He also remains a strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq.

This brings us back to Saddam’s swimming pool, and to White’s article:

…We have had several people come to faith, and it’s wonderful to be able to baptise these people.

The previous incumbent of the place where we work, Saddam, built us a wonderful baptistry. It may have been a swimming pool for him, but for us it’s perfect for baptising people.

We also baptise the children in a red washing-up bowl. In the days when I wasn’t living in a war zone, we used to have questions about whether you baptise children or adults. Now we have no time for that kind of thing, we just do it.

One assumes these children are members of his long-standing local Anglican congregation. Also:

…We meet in the very room where Saddam Hussein used to have his Republican Guard meetings, his Cabinet.

Around that same Cabinet table we worship God and lead people to God. It’s wonderful to see how God has worked, how he has changed people, not just people who are searching, but people who have already come to faith and need to develop it further.

I’m sure White sees this as simply “redeeming” a bad place through putting it to a good use. But in the context of a belligerant Christian supremicist rhetoric from Watties and his US colleagues, perhaps a bit more discretion would have been sensible.

 

(Truthdig hat-tip to Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Incidentally, White has links with two other people I’ve blogged in the past: Georges Sada and Irene Lancaster. See here for background to the picture.)