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When the Sheep Have Anthrax: A Reflection on the Politics of the Middle East

This was originally written for Christmas 2001–right after 9/11 and the anthrax scares–but deals with the whole political and social dynamic of the Middle East, before and after Islam.  It’s good to think about this after Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and should be a caution to the unbridled idealism that dominates the rhetoric of too many Americans on the subject of “peace in the Middle East.”

At Christmastime, we frequently consider that lovely passage from Luke’s Gospel:

In that same country-side were shepherds out in the open fields, watching their flocks that night, When an angel of the Lord suddenly stood by them, and the Glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were seized with fear. “Have no fear,” the angel said. “For I bring you good news of a great joy in store for all the nation. This day there has been born to you, in the town of David, a Saviour, who is Christ and Lord. And this shall be the sign for you. You will find the infant swathed, and lying in a manger.” Then suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly Host, praising God, and singing–“Glory to God on high, And on earth peace among men in whom he finds pleasure.” (Luke 2:8-14)

This passage heralds the coming of the Saviour into the world, but it overlooks one important point the shepherds were well aware of — the sheep might have anthrax.  Even today anthrax is an occupational hazard for anyone who comes in contact with sheep or other livestock.  And the shepherds of Bethlehem didn’t have Cipro to help out either.

Anthrax has been around for a long time; it’s just now that people have figured out how to post it.  The problems in the Middle East have been around for a long time; it’s just now they figured out how to use our own commercial air system to bring it home in a gruesome way.  If we’re going to get past a lot of the propaganda — both of the combatants and the press — and understand what’s going on, we’re going to need some help.

Our government has declared a war against terrorism.  Such a declaration — and singling out countries that sponsor it — assumes everyone is working from a “rule of law” perspective.  This is patently false; the Middle East, more than any other place on earth, is driven by two forces that almost always take precedence over any rule of law and make virtually any country a potential “sponsor of state terrorism” — shame-honour and careerism.


Anyone who has watched The Godfather or its sequels is familiar with the whole concept of shame-honour.  Your honour is the most important thing; if anything come to you to make you look bad in front of the world, you have to avenge it, and avenge it in a way that everyone else gets the message.  Everyone is subject to a shame-honour reaction at one time or another, but there are places on the earth — and the Middle East is one of them — where shame-honour is an obsession, something that drives people to retaliate with a ferocity that we in the U.S. aren’t used to.

The Bible, being the supremely Middle Eastern document that it is, is well familiar with the concept.  Consider the following from the days of King David:

Now it happened afterwards that the king of the Ammonites died, and Hanun his son became king in his place. Then David said, “I will show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent some of his servants to console him concerning his father. But when David’s servants came to the land of the Ammonites, the princes of the Ammonites said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think that David is honoring your father because he has sent consolers to you? Has David not sent his servants to you in order to search the city, to spy it out and overthrow it?” So Hanun took David’s servants and shaved off half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle as far as their hips, and sent them away. When they told {it} to David, he sent to meet them, for the men were greatly humiliated. And the king said, “Stay at Jericho until your beards grow, and {then} return.” Now when the sons of Ammon saw that they had become odious to David, the sons of Ammon sent and hired the Arameans of Beth-rehob and the Arameans of Zobah, 20,000 foot soldiers, and the king of Maacah with 1,000 men, and the men of Tob with 12,000 men…Now when it was told David, he gathered all Israel together and crossed the Jordan, and came to Helam. And the Arameans arrayed themselves to meet David and fought against him. But the Arameans fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers of the Arameans and 40,000 horsemen and struck down Shobach the commander of their army, and he died there. When all the kings, servants of Hadadezer, saw that they were defeated by Israel, they made peace with Israel and served them. So the Arameans feared to help the sons of Ammon anymore. (2 Sam 10:1-6,17-19 NAS)

Here we have the classic pattern of shame-honour: David sent his envoys to the Ammonites, they dishonoured them (and David,) David sent his army and not only defeated the Ammonites, but also the Arameans, and made an example out of the Ammonites in front of the Arameans and everyone else. David was the man after God’s own heart, but he was a realist with Middle Eastern politics.

One of bin Laden’s — and other’s — greatest gripes is that U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia.  For him, Saudi Arabia is shamed by this; so he attempts to restore the honour of Saudi Arabia and Islam by attacking the U.S..  He doesn’t care that U.S. troops are there to prevent another power — Iraq — from taking the country over.  But he and other have other goals in mind, and that brings us to the other force that drives things in the Middle East.


Everyone wants to get ahead in life.  But there’s a line where getting ahead becomes the all in all, where one places the good of one’s family and country behind him or her to get to the top.  At that point it becomes careerism.  As is the case with shame-honour, careerism is an obsession in the Middle East, and it makes for very violent and volatile politics.

Once again we have a good example of this in the Bible:

Now Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, “Do you come peacefully?” And he said, “Peacefully.” Then he said, “I have something {to say} to you.” And she said, “Speak.” So he said, “You know that the kingdom was mine and that all Israel expected me to be king; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the LORD. “And now I am making one request of you; do not refuse me.” And she said to him, “Speak.” Then he said, “Please speak to Solomon the king, for he will not refuse you, that he may give me Abishag the Shunammite as a wife.” And Bathsheba said, “Very well; I will speak to the king for you.” So Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king arose to meet her, bowed before her, and sat on his throne; then he had a throne set for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right. Then she said, “I am making one small request of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Ask, my mother, for I will not refuse you.” So she said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as a wife.” And King Solomon answered and said to his mother, “And why are you asking Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him also the kingdom– for he is my older brother– even for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruiah!” Then King Solomon swore by the LORD, saying, “May God do so to me and more also, if Adonijah has not spoken this word against his own life. “Now therefore, as the LORD lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of David my father, and who has made me a house as He promised, surely Adonijah will be put to death today.” So King Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he fell upon him so that he died. (I Kings 2:13-25 NAS)

This was just one of several instances of Solomon liquidating his enemies at the beginning of his reign.  Abishag took care of Solomon’s father David in his last years; Solomon knew a veiled power challenge when he saw one.  A look at modern Middle Eastern politics reveals that power holders there today do essentially the same thing when taking — and keeping — power.

People professed to be shocked at many of the things they read done in the Old Testament that are either commanded by God or implicitly sanctioned.  One should keep in mind, however, that old habits die hard.  God’s ways with the people he picked were progressive in nature and it’s asking too much to expect all of the change all at once, especially in the tough neighbourhood that was and is the Middle East.

Our government must recognise that it ultimately is not fighting terrorism but careerism.  The Clinton administration understood the concept of careerism completely; it is hard to find people in American history that made the taking and holding of power more of a single minded objective — with the wreckage of “friends” and enemies alike to go with it.  But calling these people simply “terrorists” is not enough; these people are fanatical careerists who see terror as simply another weapon to be used to get to the top.  Bin Laden’s greatest objective has been the toppling of the House of Saud and taking over Saudi Arabia, and he has done so with help from others in the Kingdom who are interested in the same thing.

A Different Way

But God did not intend for this state of affairs to go on indefinitely:

But Jesus called the ten to him, and said: “Those who are regarded as ruling among the Gentiles lord it over them, as you know, and their great men oppress them. But among you it is not so. No, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, And whoever wants to take the first place among you must be the servant of all; For even the Son of Man came, not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

The concept of servant leadership is very much in vogue in management circles these days, but it is at its heart a Christian concept.  When servant leadership becomes the norm, the kind of careerism, power holding and challenging, and shame-honour that we see in the Middle East — and here also — have to go.  This is one of the principal reasons why the Middle East embraced Islam after Christianity; Islam makes it simpler to continue in the old ways.  The West’s embrace of Christianity has left a lot to be desired of, but at least enough of servant leadership has sunk in to make institutions beneficial to many people and not just those at the top possible.

So now we must face all of this during the holiday season.  No matter how things come out in the short run, if we do not face our problems for what they are, we will spend a lot of holiday seasons worrying about whether we — let alone the sheep — have anthrax — or worse.


8 Replies to “When the Sheep Have Anthrax: A Reflection on the Politics of the Middle East”

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