Friday, August 20, 2004

The problem of new wine in Old Iraq

What are we going to do about Iraq? We toppled a dictator so that democracy could have a chance and they've hated us ever since. We thought by overthrowing the brutish Hussein we'd break open a window and allow them, huddled-mass-like, to breathe free. But this New Iraq isn't breathing yet. The surgical removal of the cancer should have been successful, but it seems that what we've got now is a body so crippled by atrophy and misuse that it can't stand and walk. And by refusing to support them, as we must do to uphold our own standard of anti-imperialism, we leave them in a precarious position. Now other Westerners, no less than we ourselves, are nervously eying the clock and trying to figure out when to pronounce them able to stand on their own so we can scoot -- and I don't blame some of them for wishing that we'd never come. It's new wine in old wineskins, after all.

The Gospel reading for today was Mark 2:18-22, in which Jesus is questioned by the offended Pharisees why it is that His apostles don't fast. His answer, I expect, perplexed them into silence: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins."(Mark 2:22)

I'm grateful to the Orthodox Study Bible for help in understanding this verse. As long as I thought there was a condemnation implied in Christ's answer, I missed the point: Christ wasn't condemning the Old Ways, but He was trying to tell the Pharisees to expect entirely New Ways to follow. He was hinting that a new covenant was coming that would require new traditions.

Christ provided the wine; He alone knew that it would be the work of the Church to provide the new wineskins. The new convenant was the salvation of mankind, but the context by which it could be lived out every day took centuries to build (if we're saying it's complete even yet).

Going back to Iraq, it seems to me they must find their own way to the good things that we would like them to have, if they are ever to have them. The form that freedoms and civil rights take in Iraq may look different to us. And certainly, the effort might fail completely. They might not be able to do what we would like them to do -- to go from the dark ages into the garish light of modern self-determination at enough of a clip that we can pronounce the experiment a success. I don't think we know how much we're asking of them to even expect them to try.

But we owed it to them, as we owe it to all people to give them the gifts that we've been given. Freedom may not look like a gift to the Iraqi people yet; it may look like a curse. But we're providing out of the bounty that we've been given. It's for them now to come up with the wineskin to hold onto it.


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