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Ambassador Seiple seeks ‘veterans’ to battle ‘man’s inhumanity to man’

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The world is desperately in need of people of courage who are willing to become veterans in the war against institutionalized evil, said Robert Seiple, U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Nov. 10.
The world needs “people who will go beyond duty, people who will go to the hard places, the cruel edges of the world, the difficult places and the difficult times, even if there’s a personal risk to one’s own being,” said Seiple, speaking at a special Veterans Day chapel service.
“We need that kind of courage, but I don’t think that that kind of courage happens without deep and abiding faith.”
Seiple began as ambassador May 5 in a position created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to promote religious freedom worldwide, reconciliation in areas of religious conflict and religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy.
The former U.S. Marine flew more than 300 combat missions in Vietnam and was awarded numerous medals. During his message at Southwestern, Seiple talked about veterans he has known, beginning with Jim Fickler, a Marine pilot and a “great friend” who served with him in Vietnam.
In November 1968, three weeks after he returned home, Seiple heard that Fickler had been shot down in Vietnam and was presumed dead.
“During the days and weeks and months after, I found myself going back over all the conversations we ever had, all the things we ever talked about, all the dreams we ever shared,” Seiple recalled. “And I realized to my deep chagrin and pain that I never once told Jim Fickler about Jesus Christ. I had good news, but I never shared it.
“The painful lesson that was learned that day is simply this: The day of grace is not forever,” Seiple said.
Other “veterans” — in this case, veterans who have paid a price for their faith — Seiple he said he has known include:
— an 82-year-old Chinese priest who has spent 27 years in prison, many in solitary confinement “where the mere moving of the lips in silent prayer would get you a very brutal beating.”
— Coptic Christians in Egypt who talk to him about persecution and have “the marks and the blows to prove it.”
— a priest from Vietnam, who suffered from 1975 to 1988 in a reeducation camp. After learning that a camp guard who had beaten him and killed other prisoners was living in California, the priest went to see the guard “to tell him that I forgave him, and I told him if he repented of his sins that his God would forgive him also.”
— Mary, an 18-year-old quadriplegic in Lebanon who became paralyzed after being shot by a militiaman. Before shooting her, the man said, “Renounce the cross or die.” She replied, “I’m a Christian. I’ll die a Christian.”
After shooting her, he carved a cross on her chest and left her in a pile with the bodies of 30 family members. The next day the militia heard her groans. Inexplicably, they took her to hospital.
Like the Vietnamese priest, Mary forgave the young man who shot her.
“I hope the day will come when I can forgive him face to face,” she said. “God has reconciled me. The least I can do is to reconcile with those around me.”
Noting the faith and courage indelibly etched on these veterans, Seiple asked, “Where are the marks of persecution on my body?
“Why the blessing of being born in America? It’s easier for those of us who were born in this country. Why the blessing of being born white in my generation? It’s been easier to be white. In my generation it’s been easier to be male. … Why does that happen?”
A Chinese couple who had spent a combined 30 years in prison answered his question of why he has not been persecuted, Seiple recalled. The couple said Americans are persecuted by materialism that has made their faith impotent.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the couple said. “Your problem is you see everything. You don’t need to rely on the unseen. … You’ve got it all. You’ve been insulated from global reality; you’ve been marginalized by prosperity; you’ve been co-opted by comfort. I would that you were either hot or cold, but you have been persecuted into lukewarmness, to blatant consumerism and misplaced values.”
Seiple recalled that when he accepted the ambassador-at-large position, his evangelical friends quoted from the Book of Esther: “Perhaps you have come into the kingdom for such a time as this.”
Calling Esther a veteran, Seiple praised her courage.
Seiple also cited Daniel as a veteran who “persevered in the face of considerable odds” of being a “minority in exile unwilling to adapt to a culture that would dilute his faith, unwilling to be co-opted by power that could seduce his faith.”
Seiple recalled being sent on a mission to bomb Radio Hanoi, a heavily defended area in Vietnam, and being paralyzed with fear that he was going to die.
“Growing up in Harmony, N.J., I’d love to have a dollar for every time I would rise up on my spiritual tiptoes and tell anybody and everybody I’m not afraid to die. I know where I’m going,” he said.
“You know why we’re not afraid to die as Christians — because God has not told us when it’s going to happen.
“I would submit to you if you knew at 10:32 over downtown Hanoi you were going to die, it would challenge every shred of faith that you have,” Seiple said.
The raid, however, was called off in mid-flight.
On a bridge between Tanzania and Rwanda in May 1994, Seiple said he watched thousands of bodies of people killed during the civil war float down the river.
“I had a crisis of faith,” he admitted. “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence. Where’s the evidence, God, of the things that I don’t see, because what I see is terribly destructive? Give me something, God, that is more powerful, more real, than the reality of this moment.”
As he helped remove 40,000 bodies from Lake Victoria, he noticed where some of the bodies were caught in eddies, and he felt God telling him: “This is not what I intended. This is man’s greatest inhumanity to man. This is evil. Evil is real. Evil is powerful. Evil has been institutionalized. That’s what this means.”
Then Seiple saw a large rainbow.
“For the Christian the rainbow is both symbol and reality that we worship a promise-keeping God,” he said. “One of those promises is where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”
“An old hand” told him the key to success at the State Department is to “fill a vacuum,” Seiple recounted.
“Folks, there’s a vacuum of faith and courage,” he said, “and there’s a war going on against institutionalized evil, and we need people who will agree to be veterans of that war on faith and courage … .
“Remember, we have enough grace to fill the vacuum and … remember my friend Jim. The day of grace is not forever.”

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  • Matt Sanders