Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq

Most journalists I meet in the Middle East are disenchanted with religion. They are spiritually cynical, agnostic at best. Many are unusually humane, intently aware of our world’s wounds, yet invariably critical and distant from any organized faith.

I can see why. I’ve just spent 6 weeks reporting from Iraq, where faith seems saturated in hatred and blood. “Christians are not Arabs. Arabs cannot be Christians,” a displaced Chaldean from Mosul tells me. “We can never live with Muslims,” a widowed Yazidi cries. “Watch these Shi’a bastards,” a Kurd says as he sends me videos of elite militias abusing Sunni civilians. “You dog,” the soldiers in the videos laugh as they kick and beat a cowering man.

Religion starts to hurt. “In the name of God” becomes the sound of sectarianism, the anthem of a thousand gleaming daggers cutting lines and boundaries across the broken earth: I’m in, you’re out. I’m a believer, you’re not. I am good, you are bad. You dog. I could never live with you. You could never be like me. In the name of God, the merciful, the beneficent, you heretic! You infidel, in the name of God, go to hell. In the name of God, the merciful, burn.

As a reporter, I tread the lines between Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Christians, Sunnis and Shias. I see giant crosses and green flags demarcating different neighborhoods of Beirut. I see Jewish stars graffiti-ed on the staircases of Amman with “Al-Mot, Death” scribbled underneath. I see overflowing refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, and I am seized with an urge to damn religion. To hell with this hell, I want to say. To hell with the institutions and social constructs that give men self-justified license to rip other human beings apart. To hell with the lines, the walls, the moral police and everyone judging everyone else as unrighteous. To hell with God, I almost think.

But LORD have mercy, I cannot pray this. I almost curse the name of God, but then I stop, I cannot, I don’t.

I read the Bible in Iraq out of desperation. I needed to know that God is good and understand how that could be true when our world is as poisoned as it is. I couldn’t understand how God could be loving and exclusive at the same time. “Christ is the only Way,” I thought, “But what does that mean for all those who don’t know Him? Shall I condemn them, as other religions will condemn me?” Deuteronomy reads like an instruction manual for ISIS, I thought[1]. I spent my days collecting testimonies of genocide and my nights fearing that God was pleased to see this happen. I reported on violent religious extremism and feared: what if God actually condones this?

This fear paralyzed me for a while. Then I picked up the Gospel and read.

It’s much easier to picture Christ now that I live in His neighborhood. I picture Him coming to a land under oppression and celebrating life. Jesus goes to a wedding and turns water into wine.[2] He walks around healing, casting out spirits, multiplying food and telling tantalizing parables. He shows Martha that being with God is better than doing anything for Him. He weeps with Mary when she tells Him, My brother has died, and if you were there, it wouldn’t have happened. But she still calls him Lord as she says this. Jesus weeps- and raises Lazarus from the dead.[3] The next day, Mary pours expensive perfume on Him, worshipping, and small-hearted Judas says, “What a waste.” Think of the food distributions, cash programming, and hygiene projects that money could have funded. But Judas is a thief who’s been helping himself to the disciples’ moneybag. He’s really thinking of himself, selfishness twisted with self-righteousness, and Jesus sees right through him.[4]

I picture Jesus coming to historic Palestine, where the Israelites are under Roman occupation. Surely our LORD will save, his disciples must have thought. Our people worship the One True God and now the Messiah will break these chains of oppression, they must have hoped. FREEDOM, I imagine them whispering to one another, the way my Syrian friends tell me they spoke in 2011 for the first, daring, dangerous time. The word tingled on your tongue, they say, then grew until it grabbed your whole being, flung you into the street and had you yelling, roaring, electrified in sudden exultation with brothers and sisters and countrymen: FREEDOM, we stand and claim our humanity. Freedom, we protest and demand.

Surely Jesus’ followers thought this way as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Hosanna, they cried, save us now.[5]
Surely they thought he would lead them to social and political release.

I imagine how the earth must have shattered beneath the disciples’ feet when they found their leader had no intent of rebellion. No uprising, no overthrow, no victory – rather, death. I see photos of ISIS crucifying people in Raqqa and I picture Christ, then I picture his dearly beloved wracked with heartbreak and fear. So injustice continues. The world wins. All things are broken and we thought you’d fix them, but you’re gone, we’re lost, LORD -[6]

What the hell is this Gospel? Why would the disciples believe it, as Jesus died and Roman rule continued? Why should I believe it, as I stand in front of a Yazidi woman whose daughter is enslaved, counting atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Sudan, feeling like the smallest person in the world, taking notes and knowing they’ll do nothing but elicit some fleeting public sympathy and exert a featherweight bit of pressure on military and political powers?

In Iraq, I consider this unlikely message: Jesus did not end suffering and injustice, but He will end them. He did not fight the way the world fights, with swords and guns and drones and jingoistic anthems. He did not win an ethno-nationalist victory for the Jews. He did not stop Lazarus from dying, nor did he heal every person or raise every Beloved from the dead.

Christ rejected Pharisees and went to the sinners, even to the Gentiles. He was like a Palestinian going to the Israelis, a Sunni going to the Shia, a Kurd going to an Arab, a Yazidi going to an ISIS fighter. He crossed all the lines.[7] He didn’t form a new club to supersede all the others. He said, being in a club won’t save you. Nothing you do will ever save you. Stop trying to be good. Seek God, repent and ask to be saved.

He washed feet.
Then He died.

There’s a trick of the devil that says, God hates the world because it’s sinful, so prove that you’re righteous and maybe you can be saved. Everyone else will burn.

The Liar whispers poison-thoughts of revenge, fear and self-pity in our heads. They bleed into systems of greed, power and money that rip the world apart. Then he stands at our ear and sneers, “The world is damned and you are damned with it. God hates you. Hate Him back.”

But the Gospel speaks the opposite. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

I read headlines from Kobane, Jerusalem and Darfur, and turn this over in my mind. We are not condemned. The world is burning, but those who believe are not condemned. “The prince of this world stands condemned,” Jesus says in John 16 – then He goes to the cross. He dies, then rises again. The Liar is condemned, Christ said, so don’t despair or bow before him. He is the condemned one, not you, Beloved.

There’s a secret message in Christianity that doesn’t make sense unless you believe in Christ not just as a teacher and moral example, but really as God giving Himself for Man: life comes through death. Everyone thought Christ was losing, but He won through loving sacrifice. His shocking call is this: “Follow me,” not to kill unbelievers, but to die for them.[10]

Lay down your life, Christ said: love those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, and speak Jesus’ name.[12] Follow Him, not toward comfort, privilege or resettlement to suburban America, but to wash feet and tell people that God loves the world. We may be killed in the process. But He is victorious. We are not condemned, darkness is. Nothing can separate us from our Father’s love.[13]

I don’t want to be religious anymore, I prayed in Iraq, recoiling from the vortex of exclusion, revenge and sanctimonious hate. At the same time, I feared the real cost of following Christ. I didn’t want to burn. I didn’t want to see any more of our world’s self-destruction. I’ll vomit, I cried. God, I’ll fall apart.

Religious people are like candles who don’t want to be lit. We’re adorned with gems and carvings, standing high and proud. We think our decorations make us good. Christ says, Forget your self-righteousness. The smallest scrap of paper that blazes from my Presence is more useful than a thousand pieces of regal unlit wax. I’m going to set you on fire and send you into the dark. You’ll melt, Beloved, but do not fear. You’re surrendering to a Light that will never go out.

The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth.[14] Follow Him, and invite others to do the same. [15]
[1] Deuteronomy 20.
[2] John 2.
[3] John 11.
[4] John 12.
[5] John 12:12-19.
[6] “They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’” – John 20:13, Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
[7] John 4: Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman.
[9] Romans 3:23, John 3:16-21.
[10] Matthew 10:38-39.
[11] “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” – John 12:24-26.
[12] Matthew 5.
[13] Romans 8.
[14] “He tends his flocks like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” – Isaiah 40:11
[15] John 10.

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13 thoughts on “Christ and Other Sheep: Reading the Gospel in Iraq”

  1. This is astounding. True, frank, piercing, iconoclastic, bracing and, most of all, refreshing. Thank you for taking the time to write this. May God use these words to bring light and life to our dark world.

  2. This was beautiful. I used to live in Syria – before the war. And then I worked for a time with refugees both inside and outside the camps in Jordan. My heart still breaks at the seemingly uselessness of it all. And then I remember that God does not waste a single tear. Indeed, he wastes nothing. A rainbow will come from this, too.

    My meager words in response to the pain I was seeing among the Syrian refugees: http://wp.me/p4Itue-ee

    http://www.desertmeanderings.com

  3. Thank you for writing this down.To me as a “former believer” it sounds familiar. But do you think that practising religion(s) made this world a better place? It often seems to be the opposite.

  4. Reblogged this on walk in grace. and commented:
    Living in Israel and Palestine this summer was beautiful and painful and hard. The so-visible brokenness, injustice, oppression, hatred, fear… tied me up inside and then ripped me apart.

    What power can the Gospel have in the Middle East when even the glimpses of brokenness I saw hurt so much?

    This article puts words to what I’ve been unable to express in these 6 months, why I’ve fought so hard to strip off the hatred and fear threatening to coat my heart and tongue, why we must throw off anger and bitterness weighing us down, why continued violence is not the answer.

    The conviction that has stood strong in me is this: this place, this world, needs the Gospel.

    “The Gospel does not ask its followers to form a club and hate everyone else. The Gospel is a feast in a refugee camp, a banqueting table set before our enemies, an engagement party as the world breaks. It says: by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ, come to our Father’s table. Eat, drink and be filled. Don’t kill for the Gospel! Die for the Gospel. As you die, you live. Your Shepherd has loved the hell out of this earth. Follow Him, and invite others to do the same.”

  5. in the bible it is written “But even Michael, one of the mightiest of the angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, “The Lord rebuke you!” , if the mightiest angel does not condemn even Satan , then who are we to condemn our human brothers .
    i am a christian Arab that lives in Israel , and yes it is hard to be the minority of the minority ,yet what does christian mean if we not show the light to others . didn’t Jesus say “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” , yes it is hard , harder than you think where everybody see you as an enemy because you are the minority , yet god is always there to make it easy , even in my hardest moments he is there to comfort me , we may die for our beliefs but are forbidden to kill !! that what makes Christianity different than others , the problem is not from god , but the people that uses the name of god in vein

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