While surfing the net today I came across a blog post by David Hilfiker, a physician who has worked in the inner city of Washington DC and currently is Finance Director for Joseph’s House, a ten-bed home and community for formerly homeless men with AIDS.
In is essay, Onward Christian Organizers, he complains that all Christians get lumped in with the Religious Right as if they all are conservative and hate gays. Hilfiker says he is a Christian and a leftist and that many Christian groups help people. He says they take on social problems like AIDS and the poor. He says they do it not to proselytize but to get closer to Jesus and His teachings.
I don’t have much in common with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Cesar Chavez, except this: We all are (or were) Christian, and we’ve each spent much of our adult lives in the trenches of the movement for peace and justice. Most of those who have gone to prison for long sentences for hammering on nuclear warheads, or stopping nuclear trains, or crossing the line at military bases have been Christians, and they have often submitted to those long sentences because they believed their faith gave them no other option and would sustain them in the dark months of prison.
Among the Christian charity work he mentions is the work of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraq who documented abuses of detainees before anyone ever heard of Abu Ghraib. Four members of CPT were kidnapped while working in Iraq.
I agree with Hilfiker that we shouldn’t paint with a wide brush and in my blog I make an extra effort not to do so, but his essay brings up an interesting point.
Missionaries have always followed the military into newly conquered areas. History is littered with the carcasses of stamped out religions and culture in the name of the Christian God.
While some groups like CPT aren’t there in Iraq to convert Muslims, other groups did move in, frothing at the mouth to convert the evil ones to Jesus.
An article, from 2003, in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out some of the issues concerning Iraq:
Iraq is particularly volatile, because it has just emerged from a dictatorship and is under military occupation. And those planning to proselytize are known in the region: the former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention has called the prophet Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile,” and Mr. Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse, has termed Islam “an evil religion.”
Their remarks flew across the Muslim world with such effect that a group of Baptist missionaries working in 10 predominantly Muslim countries sent a letter home calling for restraint and saying such comments “heighten animosity toward Christians,” affecting their work and personal safety.
Graham’s close ties to the administration – he gave the prayer at Mr. Bush’s inauguration and is invited to give the Good Friday prayer at the Pentagon – give Muslims the impression, some say, that evangelization efforts are part of US plans to shape Iraqi society in a Western image.
During the first Gulf war, Franklin Graham sent thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to US troops in Saudi Arabia to pass along to local people. This violated Saudi law and an agreement between the two governments that there would be no proselytizing. When Gen. Norman Swarzkopf had a chaplain call Graham to complain, Graham said he was under higher orders. He later told Newsday, however, that had he been explicitly asked, he would have desisted.
A greater concern of some people is that the administration may in fact support the effort, given the president’s beliefs and the import of conservative Christians as a political constituency.
After some missionaries were killed and 21 churches were bombed, foreign missionaries left Iraq.
Many evangelicals in the West think that places like Iraq are 100% Muslim and that is not the case. Just like in the flash point of Jerusalem, Iraq has a large Christian population and until the foreign evangelicals arrived they had a harmonious relationship with Iraq Muslim community. The reason being that each agreed not to proselytize to the other.
Some Iraqi Christians expressed fear that the evangelicals would undermine Christian-Muslim harmony here, which rests on a long-standing, tacit agreement not to proselytize each other. “There is an informal agreement that says we have nothing to do with your religion and faith,” said Yonadam Kanna, one of six Christians elected to Iraq’s parliament. “We are brothers but we don’t interfere in your religion.”
Delly said that “even if a Muslim comes to me and said, ‘I want to be Christian,’ I would not accept. I would tell him to go back and try to be a good Muslim and God will accept you.” Trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, he added, “is not acceptable.”
Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, a prominent Shiite Muslim leader in Baghdad, was among those who expressed alarm at the postwar influx of foreign missionaries. In a recent interview, he said he feared that Muslims misunderstand why many Christians talk about their faith.
“They have to talk about Jesus and what Jesus has done. This is one of the principles of believing in Christianity,” said Ghitaa. “But the problem is that the others don’t understand it, they think these people are coming to convert them.”
But some Western evangelicals don’t get it:
Robert Fetherlin, vice president for international ministries at Colorado-based Christian and Missionary Alliance, which supports one of the new Baghdad evangelical churches, defended his denomination’s overseas work.
“We’re not trying to coerce people to follow Christ,” he said. “But we want to at least communicate to people who He is. We feel very encouraged by the possibility for people in Iraq to have the freedom to make choices about what belief system they want to buy into.”
Sara said that if Muslims approach him with “questions about Jesus and about the Bible,” he responds. But the white-haired pastor said there was plenty of evangelizing to be done among Christians because, in his view, many do not really know Jesus. “They know [Him] just in name,” he said, adding that they need a better understanding of “why He died for them.”
His church appeals to dissatisfied Christians, he said, adding, “If you go to a Catholic church, for example, there is no Bible in the church, there is no preaching, and just a little singing.”