Tag Archives: journalism

الشهيد

“I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.” – Psalm 118:17

Khadra al-Kassasbeh presses her forehead against mine. The 90-year-old grandmother is so close I cannot see her eyes. She touches my cheeks and kisses them, hunched over and whispering, “You are his mother too. You are his sister, you understand. God bless his soul and God give you a thousand healths, you understand.”

I don’t understand, really, because I don’t have a grandson. I didn’t raise my son and his sons under olive trees on green hills in Karak. I have never lost a family member in war. I cannot fathom how it would feel to bounce a baby boy in my lap, watch him grow up strong and tall, hear him calling me jidda, grandma, and then watch him burned in a cage on the Internet.

I don’t think I’d believe it was real.
I hardly believe it is real even now.

Jordan is filled with hurt this week. I don’t feel a right to hurt along with the country because I am a foreigner, an outsider, a listener catching snatches of pain at its outskirts. I have tried to understand every event unfolding in this region. I watch all the videos, track all the deaths, think hard about different narratives, political motives, historical contexts and propagandistic purposes. I consider what makes people angry and desperate. I imagine myself or my father in an Iraqi prison, imagine my family members tortured and killed without reason, imagine watching my country torn apart, myself running out of money, more and more burdens heaping on my chest with no breath or hope to keep me upright – in my imagination, radicalization is not so far-fetched. I see why fear and hurt turn into hate. I see how I might pick up my passport, sneak onto a flight and fling myself toward a preacher’s promise of meaning, self-sacrifice and worth.

But this, I can’t understand.

All week long I’ve heard the word shaheed. Muath al-Kassasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was shot down, captured then killed on video, is shaheed, a martyr, they say. He is shaheed of the nation and of truth, of Jordan and Islam and humanity and goodness, say the newspapers and radio and television and posters all over town. Thousands of people prayed and marched in downtown Amman with posters of his face, calling for death to ISIS and blessing to the martyr’s soul. Hundreds gathered in Karak for three days of mourning, filling a Bedouin tent in the same place where Muath held his wedding six months ago. The king honored his family with a visit as his father spoke to the crowd: “Muath is not just my son. He is our son, the country’s son, martyr for our nation.” Fighter jets roared overhead, coming back from anti-ISIS bombings in Syria. Muath’s neighbors and relatives cried. Young men pushed to the front of the crowd, shouting that they wanted to be shaheed as well. “Let us join the military. We will give ourselves. We will be like him.”

I am an outsider, but I feel the hurt. Karak’s people are kind and hospitable. They open their homes at a second’s notice, begging strangers to stay, stay for ten minutes, stay for three days, drink coffee, have tea, be with us, be together, be filled. Khadra al-Kassasbeh whispers blessings into my cheeks, and I am angry that anyone would want to hurt her. I spend an afternoon with Muath’s wife and sister, hearing their stories, then I go home to write. I am filled with adrenaline from reporting, eager to get the story out, but when I’m finished I still don’t understand. I am sad. I wake up at 5 a.m. and cry.

LORD, I pray. Why would You want Your children to die? Back in the Kassasbeh house, two family friends are trying to comfort Muath’s sister and wife. “For sure he is shaheed now,” they murmur. “For sure he is in paradise, he is happier, he is well.” The holiest people we know have all prayed for him, they say. The imams at al-Aqsa, in Mecca and Medina, thousands in downtown Amman, hundreds of thousands around the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, they have prayed! He is shaheed, he is happier, he is well.

The sister and wife say nothing.

I don’t say anything either, because I don’t know what happens to people after they die. I only know that I hate Death. It feels haram, blasphemous, senseless and cruel. The young men rush forward, crying to be made martyrs. I feel their anger but wish they wouldn’t go.

LORD, I pray. I can’t find the words for my questions.

When Jesus Christ died on the cross, I wonder if his disciples called him a martyr. I wonder if they sat in the dark on the floor, staring past each other’s faces, saying, “For sure he is happier now.” How dark it must have felt, how heavy the night, how thick the air pushing against their chests and breaths. I wonder if they were gripped with an urge to destroy something – the computer screen with a grandson shriveling into ashes, the world with its hemorrhage of pain, the cross dripping vinegar and blood, or their own selves, heaving for air and light.

The word shaheed shares Arabic roots with the meaning, “to witness.” Yushahid means “he watches.” Shuhada means “certificate.” A shaheed dies in testimony. But I sit with Muath’s wife and she tells me that he wasn’t sure about the airstrikes. Muath didn’t want to kill innocent people, she tells me, especially other Muslims. He’d wake up early before every strike and pray two extra raka’s at the dawn prayer, she says, asking God to keep him from causing death. The morning he was captured, Muath’s wife says, he’d asked the Lord for foggy skies.

If I’d been a disciple of Christ when He died, I don’t think I’d have understood. “He’s a martyr,” I might have mumbled. “He’s left us for Paradise.” But it would hurt.

I am awake at 5 a.m., turning Death over in my head, asking why God would want martyrs spawning martyrs, death making hate, birthing fear, calling young and strong and beloved children to throw their lives into flames. I am quiet, and then I hear.

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup,saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

I told you that I’m leaving, Christ said to His disciples. I am going, I am going, I am leaving, I will be gone, He said, but they could not understand where, how or why. Do not fear, take heart, trust in Me, He said. I am going, but I love you. He knelt and scraped the mud off their feet.

It took days before they saw Him again, longer before they understood. I am the good shepherd, Jesus said. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. My sheep listen to my voice: I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.

I find words for my prayers. Ya rabb, thank You for Your witness. Ya rabb, You did not abandon us. Ya rabb, You were shaheed to the truth that You see us and love us, we who are frail, we who are tangled in our hollow boats and empty fishing nets. You are shaheed and yet victorious, the One and only One who caught the senselessness of Death and burst through it with spring and morning. You are the One lifting birds to sketch Glory in the air, the One drawing mountains into swells of indigo praise. You died to prove that You loved us, and then You lived.

Make me a witness too, I pray. There are festering poisons inside me that I beg of You to kill. Fear is gnawing at my spirit, anger stifling its breath. Pride will freeze me into stone and hurt is ticking toward self-destruction.

In the early morning, I ask God to cut these things away. Nail them on a cross. Burn them in a cage. Shear Your sheep that we might die to ourselves, but live in witness to a Shepherd who is alive. Make us humble. Make us meek. We press our cheeks to those around us, whispering: God is still here. God has come that we may have life, and have it to the full. God loves us. God still loves us. God will make us living sacrifices. God will make us shaheed, help us die only to live, help us find a second life.

God is our Shepherd. We shall not be in want. He will help us to love one another.

Advertisements

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.

1 John, ISIS and the Gospel versus Terror

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love each other. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother… We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
– 1 John 3:11-12, 14-15.

Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
– Genesis 4:6-8

I have been afraid lately. I think often about the deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, many more journalists and millions of children, women, fathers, brothers, best friends, uncles and neighbors in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and more. I can’t shake the feeling that death is crouching around the corner, at the doorstep of all the journalists, of all the civilians, of too many people who have become dear to me and thousands more that I’ve yet to meet. Everyone I know is scarred. Some are still bleeding. Hate and fear are in the air, and things are getting worse.

How do Christians respond to terrorism? My church answers falter. “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” OK, but really? What if I were Iraqi or Syrian or Gazan? What if the Islamic State crucified my father? What if an Israeli bomb blew my family into pieces? What if everyone I loved was hit with chemical weapons? I meet person after person for whom this is reality. I wonder what I can say to them. I write down their stories. I cry. I want to vomit. I turn to God.

A few weeks ago I was reporting in Lebanon. I walked through Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps where people are treated like dogs, drinking tea with the most dignified and brave families I have met, fearing they would not survive the next month. I heard stories of those they have lost in the last few years, months and days. I filled notebooks with sorrow. Then I came home. I prayed angrily because I felt so tiny. The world is Dark and I can’t do anything about it. I have no power. I can write. What else? Why am I so small? Why can’t I save my friends? What do I have to give them?

A thought came into mind: You have the Gospel, habibti. 

Me: WHAT GOOD IS THAT?

Dear friends, help me figure this out.

What is the Gospel? What good is it? What does it mean to share Jesus Christ with my friends when His message does not promise any change in their physical circumstances? Here is Jesus, but you’ll still be a refugee. Your country continues to burn. Your daughter is still sick. You have no money for her treatment. She may die. Your father has already died. You may be killed tomorrow.
Here is Jesus.
What does He promise?
Who is He?
What does He do?

I’m reading the Bible a lot these days. The more I read, the more radical it looks. It says: God made the world and loved His children, but they turned against Him. They would not believe He loved them and they wanted to take control. When that happened, everything went awry. The children started to hate, fear, and kill. They hurt each other. They hurt themselves. God hurt to see this. He asked His kids to listen, to turn back, but they wouldn’t.

So God came to earth. Jesus was God-turned-man, living to set an example and to save us from ourselves. He died. He gave up life even though He was innocent, and this paid for all mankind to find eternal life, which means life together with God, which means complete change, which means living in love rather than hate or fear.

Love, rather than hate or fear.
Love: self-sacrifice, thinking of others before ourselves, giving up breath and life for the good of people who want us to die.
Love: refusing to hate. Not fearing anyone or anything except for God. Crying out for justice, but leaving it in His hands.
Love: living our brief and uncertain lives in total humility, surrender and desire to bless those who hate us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
– 1 John 3:16-18

Those tropes about love are so warm-fuzzy-familiar. I’ve seen them cross-stitched onto comfy Christian pillows, stenciled on greeting cards and thrown around in a thousand Sunday sermons.

I’m sitting here watching a video made by fellow human beings just a few hours away from me. There’s a man in an orange suit kneeling on the floor next to another man in a hood, who makes his brother speak words he doesn’t mean. He calls on huge world powers to change, crying, “This is unfair, I am a victim, you are bad, I am good, I will punish you now,” and then the hooded man cuts off his brother’s head.

I think about Cain and Abel.
I think about Jesus.
I’m thinking, Christianity means I should lay down my life for this hooded man?
I’m thinking, That does not make sense.

I read the Bible more.

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
– Luke 22:29-51

Jesus died for Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, Isaac and Ishmael, David and Saul, journalists and extremists, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Gentiles, for the sick and the sicker, for all.

Lately I’ve found the Gospel a shocking, lunatic message. If you take Christ at His Word, this is what He says: Lay down your life for your brother. Lay down your life for the one who wants to kill you. Do not fight. Do not run away. Bless, serve and give.

According to Jesus, that’s the way to eternal life.
But I might die, I think.
Yes – lay down your life and be reborn, Christ says.
Me: NO, but like, I might physically die.
Christ: You’ll die anyway. It’s OK.
Me: No! I won’t! Who says I’m dying? Who says Death is real?
Christ: Look around.

Somehow as I pray, I am convinced that God is for us, not against us. The world is on fire, but it’s because we are against ourselves. Surrendering to God means self-sacrifice, not jihad, not struggle, not fighting our enemies the Muslims and Jews and infidel non-believers, but thinking: God is worth more than my life.

Fundamentalists think the same thing, but Christ redirects the results. If God is worth more than my life, then I die. I give my whole life as He did: not as a warrior, but as a sheep. He did not fight. We are not to fight. We are to give our entire lives to our brothers and sisters so that they do not feel alone, so that they have hope, so that we walk steadily into Darkness to take people’s hands and tell them, We have one Father. He loves us. He is good.

I would think this entirely crazy if I had not met Christians here who live it out in steady, fearless humility. I sit with brothers and sisters from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, places falling apart and families that attacked them when they decided to follow Christ. I wonder why they are not running away. Praise God, I’m going back! they say.

I am so easily scared. I fear danger. I fear death. I fear persecution for being American or Christian or a journalist. I fear terror itself.

My brothers and sisters spill over with light and peace. I want to hold them back. I am afraid they will be hurt or killed today, tomorrow or the day after. They laugh and lay a hand on my shoulder. Sister, my family needs hope.
What, the family that wants to kill you?
Sister, my people are trapped. They cannot leave. They need hope, and we have the one and only Hope. We’ve got to go and serve.

My Palestinian brothers tell me that they can and will continue to pray for all their neighbors, Muslims Jews and Christians, radical or not, Zionist or Hamas, even as they are being bombed from one side and targeted by the other. They tell me, this is what it means to follow Jesus: to suffer for your neighbor’s good, and your neighbor includes every person no matter if they hate or love you.

My Coptic friends in Egypt say, someone tried to burn down our church. But we will not take up arms to fight.

My Iraqi sister says, I am going back. ISIS is there, yes, which means people are afraid. Everyone is desperate. Our world is burning. So we need Christ. So I’m going.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
– 1 John 4:18-19

I think, why am I so hesitant to speak the name of Jesus? On the one hand, I care too much about my reputation. I don’t want to be associated with close-minded Christians and the institutions that have perpetrated so much hate and bigotry throughout the ages. I don’t want to be judged. I am afraid for my public image, my career and my ostensible objectivity.

On the other hand, I am thinking too much of myself and not enough of Christ.

When I really think of Him, He says, Look at me. I look. I blink. I am almost blinded. I am moved. I fall to my knees. I think, this is too bright to be true, too much to hold, too deep and fiery – I am moved out of my mind.

I look.
He says, Every person is your brother.
Love them.

Lay down your life for them.
As I did for you.
I love you so much.
I am for you, not against you.
Your life is in my hands.

I believe.
Against all odds, I believe. I see my brothers and sisters going forward and I pray, Lord, give me the faith to walk alongside them. I see them going forward as sheep to the slaughter. I pray, Lord, give me grace and courage to do the same.

The Gospel offers a call to die, not to take anyone down but to lift them up. To give our lives up in peace and sacrifice and brotherly love. It is not sane. It is utterly unsafe, flying against all my self-righteous inclinations. But that is Christ, and we love Him so, for He first loved us.

When we see and know and taste this, we walk forward with joy. We are walking on a stream of living water that flows from Him in and through us. It grows trees with fruit in all seasons and leaves for the healing of the nations. We are so alive! Even if we may die today or tomorrow. We live in light.

We are not afraid.

Christianity, Journalism and Gaza: I do not know it all; I know very little at all.

“When I finally began to spend time in the place about which I had pontificated for so long, I discovered that I was much more interested in what the people I met had to say than in my own views. It dawned on me that I could only be a good writer on the Middle East to the extent that I was a good listener… The brash young man I was could write with a sense of mission in large part because he had never spent any time in the region; he was intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, the power that he felt it gave him.
—-

I wanted to give an account of their suffering, but I had to do so with a measure of humility, without pretending that I knew more than I did – or, more to the point, more than they did… Reporting on Algeria, I was forced to own up to my own uncertainty and to make it a part of my writing.”

I loved reading this piece today by Adam Shatz, long-time reporter in the Middle East. Partly because he is an eloquent writer full of insight, and partly because the brash, youthful presumption he describes is so familiar to me. One year ago, I thought I had answers to all the hard questions, from “What’s going on in the Middle East?” to “Whose fault is it?” to the biggest of all, “Who is God?”

Graduating from Princeton, I was confidently groomed to analyze, critique and defend political and religious views. I had the perfect blend of sureness, urgency and occasional condescension. I’d only studied the Middle East for four years, mostly from outside the region, but felt justifiably self-righteous, often indignant, and obliged to jump into punditry and political debate.

That changed this year. It doesn’t matter how hard I studied at Princeton or Oxford, how many books I read on Islamism, Zionism or Orientalism, how well I presented at the State Department or how many drafts I wrote of my thesis. I did not know the sound of church bells and calls to prayer in the mornings of Jerusalem, the scorch of beating sun on your 400th day in a refugee camp, the jostling of bodies as soldiers herd you like cattle through a checkpoint, or the rush of Mediterranean blue along Beirut’s Corniche as you pass old men smoking argileh and toasting kaakeh on its coals.

Journalism is humbling, especially from abroad, because I realize that I do not know it all; I know very little at all. Thankfully, reporting is not about projecting my own opinions but gathering knowledge, walking the streets, drinking tea, making friends, asking questions, and most importantly, listening.

My best friends now are from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. I’ve never felt my heart swell with an entire region’s revolutionary promise, then break as my heroes were killed, arrested or forced to flee. I’ve never fled across a border. I’ve never watched anyone that I love die. I don’t know what it’s like to live through war, occupation or genocide. I barely dare to imagine. But I can ask.

As a journalist in the Middle East, the most foolish thing I can do is to assume I know what’s going on. As a Christian, the same mistake applies. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:9-12:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

This passage used to confuse me. So am I a child or a man? Surely I’m a ‘man’ by now, I’d think. But the longer I’m a Christian, the clearer it becomes that I am but a child.

This year, God is suddenly very real. I talk to Him, ask questions, seek Him hungrily, because I find that I do not know. My quiet times of repeating religious adages to self have been replaced by what I call “faith like a crazy person.” It includes tumultuous emotion, exuberant bouts of joy, really cheesy moments and a lot of me just sitting on the floor yelling WTF ARE YOU DOING? Who ARE You!?

In journalism as in faith, we must listen humbly and ask hard questions. That includes “What’s going on in the Middle East?” “Why?” “Who is God?” and one more: “What would He have me do about it?”

In Gaza, for example, more than 2,000 people have been injured and 268 people killed from Israeli attacks this week. 70% of them were civilians. 1 in 4 were children. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations have all condemned the strikes as illegal human rights violations, but the killing continues.

Hard questions: Why is this happening? What role are America and Christian church playing in it? Who told me so? Why do I believe them? Could I be wrong?

Harder questions for Christians: What is justice? God, how am I to seek it?

Usual side question from me: Can we just avoid this topic? It’s so sensitive and contentious. Also I hate oppression and it’s easier to just pretend this isn’t happening.

Steady answer from Christ: No.

I bring up Israel specifically and intentionally because it’s a vortex of all the hardest questions of all. But dear friends, we must ask them.

People often ask me how to help refugees in Jordan and the Middle East. Donate to UNHCR and pray, I say, but also ask questions about the region’s current crises. Too often do we feel sad for innocent victims without realizing that our states and institutions are involved in ongoing injustices, ones that depend on constituents’ apathy and ignorance to continue.

Accountability is harder than charity because it demands our effort to seek out truth, and then strength to acknowledge that we might have been wrong. But we needn’t be defensive or afraid of admitting mistake, because God is for us, not against us. He is gracious and ready to show us who He is – as long as we ask genuinely, surrendered, willing to drop our comfort and assumed righteousness.

I ask a lot of questions. I don’t have answers for all of them. Re: Israel and Christian Zionism, for example, I do not know what will happen in the “end times” with the Israelites, the state, the temple, etc. Based on Jesus’ words in the Bible, I don’t think I’m supposed to know. But I do know this:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:13

Faith and hope can be difficult. Last night I stayed up late writing about the refugee crisis in Jordan, thinking about the Syrians begging here in Beirut, scrolling through my Twitter feed to read about the plane shot down in Ukraine, fascist racism in Tel Aviv and children killed on the beach in Gaza. My mom sent me a text at one point: “I wish I can be next to you and hug you right now. Grieve the loss of a child’s innocent dream about the beautiful world.”

I closed my laptop and cried.

If I weren’t Christian, I would be scoffing at all the soft-hearted fools who believe in humanity and kindness and people’s rights. Obviously they haven’t read history or even current affairs. Obviously they don’t know that people just hate each other. In Darfur the paler Arabs hate the darker Africans, just like in Israel the Jews hate the Arabs, just like in Germany the Nazis hated the Jews, just like in America the whites hated the blacks, and so on. I’d be a skeptic and a realist, attributing everything to power and interests and safely removed from the foolishness of belief in compassion.

But I am a Christian, which means by the Holy Spirit and God’s grace I have this lunatic faith and hope that God is just, He is sovereign, He is for us, not against us, and He wins.

Meanwhile, I ask questions. I listen humbly. I pray for Christ-like love, which means to consider others above myself, resist violence and to seek the good of people that hurt me.

It means to keep my Twitter feed open, to look, read, listen and think long and hard, crying and feeling for children who play in the sand and dream of a beautiful world that suddenly stops.

It means ignoring the cynic that cries, “Fool!” in my head, insisting until the day I die that every human being is a human, Holy and Beloved, regardless of their color, race or religion.

We do not have all the answers. But we can and must ask the questions. In the meantime, we know enough to love.

So You Want to Be a Christian Journalist?

When I first came to Jordan, I didn’t think much about my purpose, vision or values as a journalist. I just thought, I love writing and I’m good at making friends, so inshallah this will work..! I also was desperate for income and thankful just to have my pitches published at all. But recently I’ve been thinking and praying about why I write and who I’m writing for. I’m trying to articulate the mission and values underpinning my decision to write – and in extension, my mission and values in life (whoa).

This is important because a) my discipler Ivy told me to do it when I graduated and I do everything Ivy says, hahah; and b) journalism is a spiritual minefield for competitive types like myself. Journalism fosters a striving mindset, especially among freelancers. Everyone is always scrambling to one-up each other, get the next scoop, pitch a better story and write something that will get you noticed and pay the rent. Hustle is everything. Humility gets you crushed.

How does the Gospel Worldview apply in this context? What does it mean to write not for my self, but for Christ and His Kingdom? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Don’t be a hater.
“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” – 1 Peter 2:1

Half the Internet seems to be made up of haters and trolls, ripping each other apart and belittling anyone who disagrees with them as ignorant fools. It’s so common that it seems OK, which makes me sorry and sad.

I pray about this all the time, though, because I am naturally disinclined to be humble and so very quick to judge. When someone says something I find bigoted or mean, my knee-jerk response is equally dismissive mockery. I often want to ridicule the politics and opinions that I disagree with.

In Western media today, slander is not only easy but also lucrative. There are so many liberal outlets that love scathing exposés of “dumb Republicans” and so many right-wing outlets that do nothing but denunciate the left. As a freelancer scraping by from commission to commission, it’s really tempting to join in.

But Christ preaches a message of humility, which means I am not to denounce anyone, even if I disagree with them. Even when criticizing, I must be gentle and gracious, remembering that I don’t know everything. My goal is not to bash the other side to the ground but to ask genuine questions so we can make better polices, tell fuller stories, consider more narratives and seek truth. I want to build, not to break. I am to always remember that I am not infallible. I may very well be wrong.

2. Tell truth that makes peace.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” – Proverbs 31:8-9

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” – James 3:17-18

Sometimes journalists put on a hero affect, championing investigative work that speaks truth to justice and holds the powerful accountable. I am all for this, but pray also for words and stories that will tell truth in a way that ushers in peace. This means a) humanizing rather than polarizing, and b) rejecting vitriol.

My activist friend Kristian moved me during a trip to Israel/Palestine last August when he said, “I always assume good intentions.” Let us not demonize anyone based on assumptions about their backgrounds or beliefs, he said, but approach them thinking, You are a human like myself. I believe you want people to live and thrive, not to hate or oppress or destroy. This seems like a pretty basic humane mindset, but it’s not at all the standard in much of today’s journalism. We are quick to take sides, tacking good guy-bad guy narratives on everything from healthcare to foreign policy to environmental protection. It’s an easy narrative and one that makes for a good story – the evil man oppressing the small and weak! The rich stepping on the poor! The Man, who must be resisted!

The first problem with this approach is that it makes people shut down. Readers see vitriol and they stop listening. Rather than persuade others, it triggers their self-defenses. The second problem is that it doesn’t sound like Christ.

The Gospel narrative does not sugarcoat injustice. Christ does not brush over Sin and Dark and our screaming, falling world. But He also doesn’t pin blame on the Right or Left or Americans or elites. The Gospel, I think, asks us to humanize. Our tendency is to cry, “The world is broken, look, and IT’S ALL THIS OTHER GUY’S FAULT!” The Gospel says instead, “The world is broken, and the fault is upon all of us, and only Christ can save.”

When I wrote this story last fall, an aid worker I interviewed begged me not to take a simplistic good guy/bad guy approach. My Sudanese refugee friends had been telling me, “The UNHCR and NGOs are racist! They give aid to Syrians but not to us!” I realized that would be the easy story to write: Sudanese are being overlooked. This is discrimination. But the harder and more truthful story was that yes, there is injustice, but not out of malicious intent. Everyone is trying to help, yet it’s not enough. The problem is complex. Unilateral blame is easy. Finding a solution is not. But let’s go for the latter, because that will move us toward actually getting a blanket and food and medicine to our neighbors who need it, whereas the former makes a flashy headline and nothing else.

3.“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3

I bolded and italicized and title-ized the entire verse because this is the mantra I pray and ask for grace to remember every single day.

This verse hit me deeply this year when I started working for a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to refugees, migrants and other marginalized people. Many of our projects are politically sensitive and require discernment in their media coverage – which means, counter to my previous journalistic assumptions, I should not always write everything about every story. In fact, there are some stories I shouldn’t tell at all.

Without Philippians 2:3 in my mind, all I care about is getting big scoops and deep stories with enthralling, juicy conflict. But when the Gospel comes in, my key question changes from What will make the best story? to Is my writing going to help or hurt people? As a self-seeking journalist, my portfolio and career come first. As a Christian, people become ablaze with dignity and importance. They are my brothers and sisters and neighbors, image-bearers of God who mean much more than fodder for my next pitch. Protection of the weak takes priority over my collection of clips. It doesn’t matter if I never get to write a story again.

I know these lessons are basic. But I wrestle with them every day, not only in what stories to write but also what to include in each piece. Paradoxically, writing for my Audience of One means using more discretion and sensitivity than I would if Christ didn’t factor into my work at all. I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles so that I won’t be lured to pursue gold stars of journalistic success at the cost of others’ suffering.

Actually, I need prayer, humility, grace and a clear set of principles in general. I prayed for discernment on what it means to be a Christian journalist, but ended up with answers on how to follow Christ, journalist or not – funny, yeah? Or divinely planned by a wise and loving God who shows us more of Him in every single thing we do… 🙂 PTL.

I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story

Which is ironic, since I’m supposedly the journalist in the Middle East, intrepid and articulate, spinning narrative for a living.

OK.
Hi.
My name is Alice and I live in Amman, Jordan. I graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School in June 2013 with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies. I’d written a thesis on Sino-U.S. soft power competition in Egypt, aka an excuse to indulge in Chinese/Arabic and get funding to traipse around Beijing, Cairo and D.C. My adviser was a former U.S. Ambassador, and I harbored vaguely fancy dreams of working at the intersection of journalism and diplomacy, bringing the public back into public diplomacy by helping Chinese, Arab and Western media spheres to talk to, not at, one another (so I wrote on my Rhodes application, ha).

I spent two months after graduation in Oman, studying intensive Arabic on a scholarship from the State Department. Then I moved here to intern unpaid at a Jordanian news network, translating reports and helping with a program that trains Syrian and Palestinian refugees to be citizen journalists. I had $10,000 of personal savings that I’d decided I could spend if Jesus wanted me to come to Jordan, and I hoped to find some kind of part-time job on the side. That would be enough to stay a year, insha’allah, which was fine! Even though I didn’t really like the Middle East and remembered losing 7 pounds from food poisoning and being harassed on the streets every day when I was in Morocco two years earlier, I was going to come, based mostly on the intense heart-gripping “I MUST COME HERE I MUST GO” feelings I had whenever I seriously prayed about it.

I moved to Jordan like a psycho because I thought God wanted me to – and because I was interested in refugee policy, journalism and Arabic, and this unpaid project had dropped from the sky with all my interests rolled into one (another story for later). I started volunteering with a Jesuit group, teaching English literacy on weeknights to some 40 adult refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I sent out journalism pitches too, cold emailing story ideas to editors without expecting any reply.

To my surprise, they took my ideas. Better yet, they paid! I wrote a story for the Atlantic about a Chinese product fair, then one for Columbia Journalism Review on Syrian journalists, then another for Al-Monitor on Islamist dissent. I went to Palestine for a WIRED profile on this guy who’d hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. One day, the Guardian called me asking for coverage of a terrorist trial. By Christmas, I’d published 12-13 stories on refugees, nuclear programs and protests. I’d made more than enough to cover my rent and food. I never had to dip into my $10,000, and people were asking me for pitching advice.

But listen. Friends. I’m not some path blazer who went out and “made it” as a freelancer. I am no change maker writing stories that stir hearts and inspire action. I am just here. I try to be all here. Mostly, I feel very small.

The scary yet good thing about being in the Middle East is that Death stares me in the face. I spend much of my time with refugees. Many of my friends are from Darfur, Iraq or Syria. They tell me about their brothers being tortured in jail, knives twisting into their guts. They say, my husband was kidnapped by extremists, or I don’t know if my mother is alive, or I watched my baby burn. I see our world and it’s splattered with blood. I want to look away but I can’t. Sometimes I want to get a flight and just leave, peace out, go back to my comfort bubble and pretend I never came to Jordan or had to deal with the reality of everything here.

Or I grit my teeth and think, I’ll write a story about this! If I just write a really good story, things will change. Maybe a few stories. A book! A book, and I will save the world. My Princeton self is prone to the delusion that life is basically under control. If I try hard enough at anything, I can make it happen. When things are beyond me, that just means I haven’t tried hard enough. I drive harder. Push more.

Eventually I had to stop. Girl. Who are you kidding? You think your book will end war in Sudan? And Syria? And Iraq? And everywhere in the world once and for all?

Many people think journalism is a magical tool that can humanize foreign policy, bring faces and voices back into our understanding of faraway wars, show the world that we are all ONE brotherhood and that it is foolish, ridiculous, dark and dirty and wrong to hate and kill one another. Many people think we can use journalism to make a difference.

The question Jesus asked me this year, quietly, gently, was:
What if it doesn’t?

One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and cried for 3 hours. I was gasping from a nightmare, head and heart swirling from too many stories too many people had told me of too much hunger and pain. That’s when I realized it was silly to pretend that I’m not sad. I am sad, I prayed. Jesus, damn it, I am sad.

Suddenly honesty was howling from my veins. GOD. YOUR CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. GOD! I cried like a lunatic. I prayed without words. I felt like the very bottom of my heart had dropped out, turned into a cavern, flooding and splitting with a cry, GOD. Save us. We are crumbling, twisted, poisoned, struck – Jesus! Lord, SAVE.

Two things happened when I prayed that morning:
a) I stopped being in denial about the world.
b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.

Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save.

More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save.

Let me share this video with you. It’s from an amazing thing that happened when I wrote a story about my Sudanese friends: kind-hearted Americans across the world read my article, started a fundraising campaign and sent more than $5000 to help them. I went out with the Sudanese community leader and bought heaters for ~900 members of the refugee community here.

It’s beautiful, right? I was so moved when this happened. I cried. It was incredible, the kind of impact journalism I’d always dreamed of.

But I’m under no delusion. War goes on. My friends remain refugees, mistreated and forgotten, the system rigged against them for no particular reason at all. A heater is great,  but it’s a fist-sized sponge trying to sop up an ocean of need. My results-oriented self cringes, annoyed at its insufficiency, and looks for a way to leave.

My LORD says, Hush. Beloved. Stay.

I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving. I’m learning to accompany, to just be a friend and sister, to say I have no solutions for your problems, but I’ll stick with you anyway. I’m learning to love even when I can’t make pain stop. I’m learning, I think, to just carry pain alongside my brothers.

The tearful-lunatic-prayer thing has only grown, not stopped – but it always ends in praise. It always ends in hope, inexplicable but firm. I feel like I know God more because of it, like I know the Gospel better as a message not that pain has gone from the world, but that God loved us enough to come and bear pain alongside us. Maybe all He wants us to do is love each other enough to do likewise. Instead of straining to stop suffering, we step into it, offer a shoulder, we say, Dear friend, I can’t save you, but
I’m here,
I care,
I’m listening.

Tell me your story.

You are not alone.