Tag Archives: conflict

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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Christ at the Checkpoint

What would Jesus do if he were standing at a checkpoint in Israel/Palestine today? Asked that question one year ago, I would have given you a blank stare. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I thought of Israel only as a Bible-place of God’s chosen people, quaintly holy and surely blessed. Checkpoints, occupation, Palestine – these words meant nothing for most of my 22-year-old life.

Today I write from Bethlehem at the end of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a Christian conference that asked “WWJD?” in context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have an answer.

The question is complicated, as is any discussion of Israel and Palestine in America. I studied the Middle East at Princeton and Oxford, where my classes were objective, historical and politically correct. I swallowed timelines and parsed narratives, but never wanted to make a value judgment on the situation. In my eyes, Tigers for Israel and the Princeton Committee on Palestine were akin to College Republicans and Democrats. Both had valid points and interesting arguments, but no one was right or wrong. Both groups also seemed very emotional, and I wasn’t one to get swept away with radical types.

Then I graduated and came to the Middle East. I first visited Israel and Palestine last August, after a summer of Arabic study in Oman and before moving to Jordan. I wanted to see things for myself but kept my eyes narrowed, wary of activists’ exaggerations.

Instead, I found an occupation; a deliberate power imbalance where the weak were daily stepped on by the strong. Israel’s being “chosen by God” somehow exempted it from international law, basic human rights and the command to love our neighbors. My church and state saw innocent people illegally hurt and beamed in approval.

This went against everything I knew about Christ’s teachings. I came expecting to find suffering but not systematic injustice, and never any Wrong in which my country, church and self were complicit. I felt shocked, confused, and used.

My friends in Jordan are always astonished to hear that I went to the best school in America, but never knew that there is ongoing oppression in Palestine. “I thought it was complicated,” I tell them.

Living here, I’ve learned that injustice is only complicated to those who don’t suffer from it. In faraway America, I’d confused myself with semantics and details on who shot what or signed which treaties when and where, and why this or that made occupation reasonable.

But nothing is complicated to my arbitrarily detained friend in solitary confinement, to the mother whose baby cries from tear gas, to the man who has lost three daughters in a second’s bombing, or to the child who is afraid. Nitpicky suspicions fall apart when I face their eyes and stories. I am ashamed that I ever thought violence might be justified in the ostensible name of God.

At the conference, one older British woman told me she was a Christian Zionist.

“It’s wonderful that Jesus said we are to be peacemakers,” the woman said, brushing white hair back with wrinkled hands. “But I’m afraid.” How can we give up land to Arabs who are bloodthirsty terrorists, she asked? There are too many Muslims wanting to destroy the West, she said, in Israel and in Europe, feeding off welfare systems to plot suicide bombings behind closed doors.

“I like this conference but have trouble applying what we hear,” the woman said. She’d lived in an Israeli settlement for 10 years, working for Christian Friends of Israel. “I want to feel for Palestinians as I do for Jews when they are dying or hurt. I want to feel for children, women, civilians…” Suddenly she was crying. “Oh, dear, I’m sorry. I’m not quite there, but I want to be. Do you understand?”

I did. It can’t be easy to stake your life on something and see it flipped inside out, I thought, remembering an Israeli friend who’d changed his thinking after a gap year in Tibet. “The Tibetans live there with their language, religion and culture. It’s all Tibetan,” he’d told me, face wrenched, words slow. “But the people in control are all Chinese. Another race is in charge. I thought that was so wrong. Then I felt upset, because like, you know, it was sort of, it reminded me of what we have here.”

Questioning one’s belief system hurts. An Omani friend once told me that he’d woken up every night at 4 a.m. for two weeks, crying, when he converted to Christianity. “It felt like I was ripping off my own skin,” he said.

“Can we pray together?” I asked the woman, and we did.

Globalization is a gift to my generation. We don’t believe people in other countries are so different that we can treat them as lesser humans. A surfer friend in Tel Aviv once asked me: “What are the Arabs like? Do they drink? Smoke?” I laughed, telling him about my Jordanian friends who Instagram their parties, struggle with their sexual orientations, play flamenco guitar and wish they could just make music instead of being engineers and accountants. We are young, we are the same, we all just want to live. Our generation knows this.

Yet relating to one another is not enough. Before coming to the Middle East, my American millennial privilege had made me globalized but desensitized to suffering. I knew injustices existed but was too busy writing Facebook statuses about my thesis to examine them. I enjoyed feeling like a generally good person and skirted around sensitive questions that might threaten my career or upset my worldview.

Here, I’ve learned that people suffer when the privileged are ignorant or apathetic. Millennials like humanitarianism. We Tweet about Syria, work for nonprofits and glory in social entrepreneurship, all of which I love. But what if we microfinance a rural woman’s handicraft business, and then a drone kills her and her children? Seeking justice must extend beyond doing Good to also checking ourselves for Bad. We must ask harder questions, dig deeper into our state and military’s actions, not to undermine America but because we love her.

Having seen the occupation, I believe it is unjust and must end. I am not against Israel, America, or evangelicals. I just don’t want policies that hurt people in my church and nation’s name without our understanding or consent.

Conservative evangelicals may call me naïve. My response is not argument but invitation. I grew up in Asia, so when Americans ask if Shanghai is a Communist rice field, I laugh and ask them to come look around for themselves. When others say Palestinians are hateful and all Arabs want to push Israel into the sea, I again say, come and see.

As a follower of Christ, I believe that God stands with the oppressed. But oppressors are themselves oppressed by insecurity and fear. I’ve heard many Israeli and American friends speak out of terror: the Communists will get us! The jihadis will bomb us! The non-Western world lives in cultures of hate that will crush us the moment we let them, so we’d better crush them first!

If Jesus were here today, I believe he would pierce these lies in a second. They are so flimsy against the truth that man is man, filled with dignity, and no one is less human or less fiercely loved by our God than another. I believe Christ can and will free the oppressed by freeing their oppressors from fear.

But we must first commit to seek truth, relentlessly and humbly. I speak to Americans, Christians, and especially my generation: friends, political vitriol and religious rhetoric are distractions. Let us choose honesty over comfort. Let us ask questions even if they lead us to give up our privileges. Let us be smart and let us be brave – above all, let us be human.

I originally wrote this piece for +972, an independent online magazine focusing on Israel and Palestine, after I spent last week in Bethlehem at Christ at the Checkpoint. I volunteered on the media team doing FB, Twitter and their blog posts (learned a lot about ignoring Internet haters and trolls, haha). For those who want to learn more about Christian Zionism, I HIGHLY recommend watching this documentary (use code CATC2014 to get it for free this week). I also found this dialogue on replacement theology, between a Wheaton prof and Messianic Jew, really helpful. Also loved Princeton alum Joseph Cumming on Christian response to rise of religious (Islamist and Jewish) states, and Munther Isaac on neighbors.

(Ekuo I’ll also write another normal blog post! But wanted to share this as well.)