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What Would People Think?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The New Missionaries.....and the New Pharisees

Of all the posts I've written, this one is most likely to anger a number of my friends. I'm almost afraid to post it, since after I told my coworkers at the capital defender that I'm an Evangelical, I get the feeling they are trying to gauge if I'm one of "them." ("Them" being one of those horrible Fallwell-esque "Christians" they are always hearing about.)

But I have to write about this.

The other day, the Washington Post had a story about the rise in the number of Evangelical Christians in post-invasion Iraq and the Middle East in general.

It started with American missionaries following the soldiers into Iraq with humanitarian aid and Bibles. (No, it was not a convert-if-you-want-aid scam.) They started building a few churches and handing out Arabic-language Bibles. Eventually, some local Iraqis (mostly Christians but a few Muslims) became enthusiastic converts. When most foreign missionaries were frightened off by the insurgency (sadly still going strong), Iraqi Christians took over. More and more Iraqis are discovering Jesus in a way they never have before.

This is absolute, unalloyed good news. People are discovering their Lord and Savior, finding a personal, eternal relationship with God. Others are rediscovering their faith in Christ in a new, vibrant way. For me, as a Christian, this is the best possible news I could ever hear.

There are two groups of people in this article that would disagree with me. The first I have some sympathy for. The second I hold in contempt.

1) The first group is concerned about peace in the region. They are afraid that overbearing Evangelicals trying to convert Muslims will set off tensions in the region which could spark violence. This is, admittedly, a justifiable fear. American Evangelicals have a history of bumbling into things with lots of passion and little appreciation of the complexities of local culture. The character Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible illustrates the type - preaching fiery sermons, refusing to listen to the locals, and eventually setting off tragedy. Similarly Franklin Graham - who once called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion - is probably not the best face to present to the Muslim world as the poster boy for Evangelical Christianity.

To the extent that such violence is NOT the inevitable result of trying to spread the Gospel, but of HOW it is done, I agree that Evangelicals should be more sensitive to the rivalries and complexities around them. They should treat the local Iraqis with respect, not condescension. (And no, preaching Christianity to Muslims is NOT automatically condescending.) That's one reason why I'm happy Iraqi Evangelicals are starting to take over the mission from Americans. They are more likely to know what's going on around them.

But hear this...even if violence is sparked purely in retalitation for attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity, those attempts should not stop. The Gospel is always met with hostility. Yes, the missionaries should be sensitive to local culture. But they should NEVER abandon the lost souls before them.....people in danger of eternal separation from God.....for the sake of temporal peace. In this life, they will seem to have done the right thing for those around them. In the next, they will be shown as cowards who abandoned those around them for eternity.

2) Thus we come to the second group that opposes the rise of Evangelicals in the Middle East: local Christian leaders who seem to treat this as some sort of turf war. You'd think Christians would be thrilled to see the spread of the Gospel and new vibrancy and enthusiasm in the faith. But no:

"Evangelicals come here and I would like to ask: Why do you come here? For what reason?" said Patriarch Emmanuel Delly, head of the Eastern rite Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's largest Christian community...."I'm not against the evangelicals. If they go to an atheist country to promote Christ, we would help them ourselves."

Translation: "Get the hell out and don't mess with our turf or step on our toes." Another local leader accuses Evangelicals of "seducing" Christians from other Churches.

Why are local Christians flocking to these new Evangelical churches? "I'm thirsty for this kind of church," Suhaila Tawfik, a veterinarian who was raised Catholic, said at a recent service. "I want to go deep in understanding the Bible."

And why is that thirst not being quenched at the local churches? Perhaps because they are being led by people like this:

Delly said that "even if a Muslim comes to me and said, 'I want to be Christian,' I would not accept. I would tell him to go back and try to be a good Muslim and God will accept you."

And this man calls himself a Christian?! He would reject a person who is earnestly seeking Jesus....says he would turn him away from salvation......and he wonders why Evangelicals aren't working through his church? Delly's quote may draw nods of approval from those who see "proselytizing" as moral arrogance. I can only react with horror that a man who calls himself a Christian and a Church leader has so little compassion for other people's souls.

See, these local churches enjoyed privileged status under Saddam, much as Baathists enjoyed privileged political power. Saddam allowed some degree of freedom of worship in that he allowed certain Christian churches to operate (provided, I'm sure, that they didn't challenge his power). But he severely limited the right of new denominations to form and operate. Here's a good rule of thumb for Christians: if you are operating under the favor of the State (especially a dictatorship), there's probably something wrong.

While some of the criticisms of local Christian leaders may be genuine and worth considering, their eagerness to criticize (and rhetoric like the "seducing" line) smacks of resentment over losing their privileged status quo. They seem to have lost their concern for their neighbors' souls and their joy in the Gospel.

There is a group in ancient history who were similarly concerned when a charismatic young preacher challenged their position of privilege and respect. The Pharisees and Sadducees took every opportunity they could to undermine Jesus with legit-sounding complaints ("He's healing on the Sabbath"....."He's eating with tax collectors and sinners."...."He's not fasting like John the Baptists's followers." And on and on.) But ultimately, they were concerned with the fact that he challenged their privileged status in the community.

I recently referred to James Dobson as a Pharisee because I was trying to draw a parallel between the Christ-era Pharisees' obsession with legalistic rules over mercy and love....and the same pattern in Dobson and his followers. But the parallel is even more apt here. These days "Pharisee" has become a byword among Christians to refer to legalistic, self-righteous hypocrites. (Interestingly, the word has very different connotations to Jews.) I hope the name "Emmanuel Delly" doesn't become such a byword, too.

(One last note in this over-long post.....I don't endorse the anti-Catholic remark of one Evangelical in the article. He's adding to the tensions. However I would also like to note that, contrary to the assertions of local church leaders, that same Evangelical seems to be getting along fine with his Muslim neighbors.)


  • I'm impressed that you've read Poisonwood Bible. What did you think of it?

    This might shock you, but I agree with most of what you said. And oddly enough, I think that efforts to convert Iraqis to Christianity might not be met as violently as one might expect (provided it's not being led by Franklin Graham). Islam has a good history of playing well with others, at least to a greater extent than Christianity and Judaism when they were in power. It's just the psychos you have to worry about. So with respect to touching off violence, missionaries are on my list of worries somewhere between bananas and ice-skating rights.

    Interesting that the Chaldean guy seems to reject newcomers to the Church. That's an attitude Danielle and I see - and lament - in Judaism. Never seen it in your usually welcoming tradition, though. It kinda weirds me out.

    The comparison between Chaldean guy and the New Testament Sadducees might be more prescient than you think. After all, it was the higherups' willingness to support a corrupt regime that led to such disasters as, say, the Crucifixion.

    I'll still quibble with you on the Pharisee bit, and if I find a good Jewish perspective on the Pharisees somewhere, I'll post it here. (Telushkin has one, but it's in book form and I don't feel like transcribing.)

    By Blogger Jeff, at 6/27/2005 10:26 AM  

  • Actually, I haven't read The Poisonwood Bible. Everything I wrote is based on conversations I've had with people who have read it.

    One should always beware the danger of bananas setting off violence, Jeff. Remember the countless tragedies set off among the Three Stooges by banana peels.

    As for the Pharisees, they DID oppose Jesus and the term has come to imply censurious, self-righteous hypocrites according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Now that may be simply because of the dominance of Christian thought as our language has evolved but....well, there it is. Now I'm sure they did good stuff and there was much to admire about them, but most of what I know about them comes from their clashes with Jesus.....one issue on which the Pharisees and Sadducees were united.

    By Blogger Ben, at 6/27/2005 10:42 AM  

  • Here's a long-winded but good Wikipedia article on Pharisees. Fast-forward to the "Pharisaic Principles and Values" section about 3/4 of the way down for the most concise description of what a Pharisee really was. "From Pharisees to Rabbis" right before it is also worth reading in that it highlights the differences between Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism. And while you probably won't buy it, the last section, "Pharisees and Christianity," describes how the Gospels may have exaggerated the clashes between Jesus and the Pharisees as a whole, and thus how the concept of Pharisee became wholly different from what it was back then.

    My apologies to you for what seems like a picky quibble. It's slightly off-putting to Jews to see the forerunners of Rabbinic Judaism written off as moral hypocrites. The accusation likely has some merit, but this merit lies in the exclusionary nature of sectarian Judaism in the Second Temple era, not in the core Pharisaic principles themselves. Sadly, this exclusionism hasn't really gone away. If anything, it's gotten worse. But that's another rant.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 6/27/2005 12:47 PM  

  • Well there's a difference between criticizing the principles of the Pharisees and the behavior of specific Pharisees in a specific time as they treated a specific person.

    I won't deny the Pharisees had some great principles. However, the reaction of a powerful group of Pharisees (not all of them...there are "good" Pharisees even in the New Testament) was to ignore their principles when faced with the threat of this Jesus guy. I don't think their critiques of Jesus were based in their principles so much as finding a reason to undermine this guy who threatened their prestige. Which is why I'm comparing them to these people in Iraq.

    Christianity has its own history of people abandoning its teachings for the sake of power.

    By Blogger Ben, at 6/28/2005 9:36 AM  

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