The Lady with the Lamp

The eyes of the world are fixed on Crimea this weekend as its people get set to vote in a referendum on Sunday. Putin’s move into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has generated the greatest international crisis since the end of the Cold War. Some have even compared it in its potential for disaster to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. There’s little doubt as to how the people of Crimea will vote, given the ethnic make-up of the region. Many (and that would include me) have already determined that, when it comes to Ukraine’s hold on the peninsula, Crimea is ‘as good as gone’. More important than the referendum on Sunday, however, will be the response to it by Ukraine and its supporters.

With the crisis in Crimea in the news every day, one’s thoughts naturally go back to that earlier conflict in the region. It has been 161 years since Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia fought against Tsarist Russia in what has come to be known as the Crimean War (1853-56). It is estimated that 750,000 people lost their lives during the conflict. One particular battle in that war has been memorialized for all time by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. On 25 October 1854, during the Battle of Balaclava, a British light brigade, because of some miscommunication, was sent on a suicidal mission that had no chance of success. The assault ended badly, as one would expect. Of the 673 British men that rode into battle that day, 118 were killed, 127 were wounded, and 60 were taken prisoner. Six weeks after the event, Alfred Lord Tennyson made the tragic debacle the subject of a poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Who has not at one time or other heard recited these now-familiar lines from Tennyson’s poem:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Because of Tennyson’s poem, this sorry tale of military ineptness with its tragic consequences has been kept alive from generation to generation. In contrast, the story of a remarkable woman who saved the lives of countless British soldiers during the Crimean War is now largely forgotten.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was born into an affluent British family. From the age of sixteen, Nightingale knew that she wanted to be a nurse. At that time in Britain, no respectable woman would even have contemplated such a thing. Nursing sick men was seen as “unbecoming.” Only women of ill-repute were nurses. Even though her family recoiled in horror, Nightingale couldn’t be dissuaded from following what she viewed as her “calling.” She systematically prepared herself to be a nurse: She gathered information about hospitals, she studied reports on the sanitary conditions at home and abroad, and she nursed the poor in her village. Later, she spent three months working in Germany at the Kaiserwerth Institute for Nursing Deaconesses.

When the Crimean War broke out, the newly-invented telegraph and the presence of war reporters at the Front for the first time made the families back home acutely aware of the deplorable conditions in which their sick and wounded loved ones found themselves. Hard to believe now, but there were no nurses to carry out the surgeons’ instructions following surgery. The French made use of Catholic nuns but the British, not so. After a number of distressing dispatches sent from the Front made it into the press, the British Secretary of State Sidney Herbert wrote Nightingale and invited her to organize and lead an expedition of nurses to the Front. On 21 October 1854, Florence and a party of 38 nurses set sail for Scutari, Turkey where the British had requisitioned an army barracks from their Turkish ally and turned it a 1000-bed hospital.

The conditions in the barracks/hospital when Nightingale and her nurses arrived were appalling–and lethal. The wards were damp, unheated, and filthy. Many patients lay on the stone floors. Cavalry horses were stabled adjacent to the hospital. There was a dearth of drugs and little hospital equipment. Surgeons performed amputations on boards set up on trestles in the open wards within sight and earshot of the other patients. The number of men who died from diseases contracted in the hospital outnumbered those who died from wounds acquired by fighting the Russians.

Nightingale carried out a series of changes that improved things dramatically. The rate of mortality in the hospital at Scutari dropped from 42% to 2.2% of the cases treated. Part of Nurse Nightingale’s routine was to make a nightly round, lamp in hand, along the four-mile-long rows of beds. She thus came to be known as “the lady with the lamp.” Later, she carried out the same sort of improvements in the army hospital at Balaclava in the Crimea. At one point, she herself contracted a fever and almost died. No one will ever know how many soldiers’ lives this one determined woman saved. When the war ended, she returned to England where she continued her work to improve the lot of the British soldier and to firmly establish a role for women as military nurses.

A military blunder is set to verse, and it’s passed down generation to generation. A story like Florence Nightingale’s, on the other hand, rarely gets told. Not quite fair, is it.

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Changing Minds at the Checkpoint

To be a Christian in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa today is to accept the very real possibility of a violent death. Consider the deadly assaults on Christians just in the last few days. Jihadists who go by the name Boko Haram (‘Western education is forbidden’) attacked and killed 59 students, many of them sleeping at the time, in a boarding school in north-east Nigeria. A number of the students at the boarding school undoubtedly would have been Christians. After blocking the exits, the jihadists set the dormitory on fire. Those young men who tried to escape were shot or had their throats slit. The next day, Boko Haram launched a three-pronged attack on three more schools, one of which was a Christian theological school, killing another 37 students. In the last month alone, over 200 people in Nigeria have died at the hands of jihadists. Boko Haram has demanded that all Christians in north and central Nigeria move south so they can establish a pure Islamic society in the north. To rid their territory of Christians, Boko Haram not only attacks schools but uses bombings and drive-by shootings as well.

In Libya, the bodies of seven Egyptian Christians were found on a beach in the eastern part of the country. Gunshots to the back of the head indicate that the victims were killed execution-style.

In the city of Raqqa in Syria, minorities i.e. Christians have been informed by opposition forces who have taken control of their city–members of the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)–that they are now subject to sharia law. Christians must pay the jizya or tax to ISIS; they must worship privately; they may not build or renovate their churches, or display the cross. Failure to comply can result in death.

It’s a perilous time for Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. Of those who are able to flee, many are doing so. No country illustrates this exodus of Christians more than Iraq. In the 1990s, the Christian community in Iraq numbered 1.2 million. Today, that number has dwindled to around 200,000. Inadvertently making their situation only worse, many fleeing Iraqis chose neighbouring Syria as their destination. Israel, on the other hand, in stark contrast to its Muslim neighbours, has a small but thriving Christian community that is actually growing in numbers.

In ten days’ time, evangelical Christian leaders, academics, and delegates from around the world are scheduled to assemble at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem in the Westbank to address the problem of Israeli checkpoints in the lives of the Palestinian Christians. That’s right: Not abductions, assaults, or murder. Checkpoints! A ‘Christ-at-the-Checkpoint Conference (CaTC)’ is set for March 10-14. This is the third so-named conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational Christian college located in the Westbank. The theme of this year’s conference is, “Your Kingdom Come.” Organizers want the international community to come and see for themselves the situation of Palestinian Christians. They hope this year’s conference will “challenge evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel-Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.” Delegates are invited to come and study Scripture in the shadow of the checkpoints, to hear what God would tell them about the situation there, and then to determine “what Jesus Christ would do and say if he walked through a checkpoint on a daily basis and determine how he would deal with feelings of anger and bitterness caused by the checkpoints.”

At a time when Christians are facing brutal persecution as never before throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, why an international conference focused specifically on Palestinian Christians? My response would be that, despite the theological language and talk of reconciliation, the conference has an unstated political goal which is to erode evangelical Christian support for the Jewish state. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, evangelical Christians have been the Jewish state’s most ardent supporters. Conference organizers would like to change that.

Looking at the roster of keynote speakers for the upcoming CaTC conference, I see that Professor Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School is a guest speaker for the third time. Burge, in addition to being an academic and author, is an ordained Presbyterian minister and founder of the organization Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an affiliation of North American churches and agencies which support Arab churches in the Middle East (and demonizes Israel, say critics).

I’ve read one of Burge’s books, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (2003). In his book, Burge states that Israel’s right to the land is linked to covenant righteousness. A feature of that righteousness has to do with the way Israel treats its resident aliens or foreigners. By resident aliens, Burge means Palestinian Arabs. Burge argues that Israel has failed the covenantal test by mistreating the Palestinian Arabs, thus putting Israel’s inheritance i.e. ownership of the land in jeopardy. “If Israel makes a biblical claim to the land, Israel must necessarily also live a biblical life…,” writes Burge. “Israel is committing the sin of Ahab [stealing land and committing bloodshed],” Burge asserts. (I personally found Burge’s comparing modern Israel’s actions with those of ancient Israel’s most evil king a repugnant analogy.)

In his book, Burge details what he perceives to be Israel’s crimes at great length, yet makes no mention of Palestinian bad behaviour. He talks about the need for justice for both parties, and then lays all the blame on Israel. He doesn’t much care for Christian Zionists, either. He is “offended by those people whose faith is consumed by the politics of Israel’s restoration” (296). In short, I found Burge’s book to be the most one-sided, biased discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I have ever encountered. And seeing Burge’s name yet again on the roster of speakers, the third time in a row, has definitely influenced the way I look at CaTC conferences.