Tag Archives: war

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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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.