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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thoughts Mourning a Murdered Medical Team in Afghanistan

I just read an NPR story of a medical team killed in Afghanistan.  Most of them were members of the International Assistance Mission, a Christian organization with the following values:  "dependency on God, love for all, teamwork, accountability, learning, quality work."  They had just completed two weeks of traveling in villages doing eye surgeries, other medical care, and assistance to the poor.  I enclose a quotation from that NPR article:
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press that they killed the foreigners because they were "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity."
Frans said the International Assistance Mission, the longest serving nongovernmental organization operating in Afghanistan, is registered as a nonprofit Christian organization but does not proselytize....

Among the dead was team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who has been working in Afghanistan for more than 30 years.... Another relief organization, Bridge Afghanistan, said on its website that the group included one of its members, Dr. Karen Woo of London.

Little, who was overseeing eye hospitals in Kabul and two other major cities as well as small clinics in three smaller towns, was expelled by the Taliban government in August 2001 after the arrest of eight Christian aid workers — two Americans and six Germans — for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. He returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces.

According to Frans, two members of the team worked for IAM, two were former IAM workers and four others were affiliated with other organizations, which he did not disclose. He said five of the Americans were men and one was a woman. The Briton and German also were women.

Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz, police chief in Badakhshan province, said the victims, who had been shot, were found Friday next to three bullet-riddled four-wheel drive vehicles in Kuran Wa Munjan district. He said villagers had warned the team that the area was dangerous, but the foreigners said they were doctors and weren't afraid. He said local police said about 10 gunmen robbed them and killed them one by one.

"We are a humanitarian organization. We had no security people. We had no armed guards. We had no weapons," he said.
I have three responses to this tragedy:  one, from the Muslim point of view; the second, from a humanitarian point of view; and the third, from Christian point of view.

The Muslim Point of View

First, Islam forbids any proselytizing as a capital crime.  These clearly were brave and committed Christian medical personnel.  Who knows what they said, or if they prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, for their patients.  One website I found had a photo of a Muslim holding a child's picture book, "A Children's Guide to the Bible," though I was unable to learn if that material was captured as "contraband" from the possessions of these people.  If these good people were proselytizing, they knew they were risking their lives in these dangerous territories.

It is entirely possible the Muslim killers took medical compassion alone and in itself as proselytizing.  Normally, we think of proselytizing as "actively discussing conversion."  But if you were a Muslim father or mother whose child had an eye deformity and disease, and a group of strangers came in asking for nothing else than permission to help heal your child, then left after doing it, would you not be grateful?  And if your own religion offered no medical help to you, would you not perhaps, perhaps, ask yourself in curiosity, "What kind of God would put so much love in people's hearts?"  So there is some potential proselytizing force and power in medical assistance, without prayers, active "conversion talk," or literature.

What disappoints me, as an outside observer, is that I hear nothing from Muslims who disagree with such murders.  Oh there are some "condemnations" in various quarters.  But these are isolated, weak, then disappear.  There is no mass Muslim movement to find and punish the Muslims who do such horrible deeds.  Why?  I have a simple theory.  I would like Muslim readers to respond whether or not I am accurate.

Muslims are united by the Shahadah, their confession of faith--"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger"--and the Qur'an forbids killing another Muslim.  So I think Muslims will condemn bad Muslim deeds, but are constitutionally and theologically chained not to harm another Muslim acting on his or her own faith.  If I am correct, this is a problem for us all.  Would Muslims please respond? 

The Humanitarian Point of View

There are many humanitarian organizations, religious and secular.  To desire to do nothing else but good for others, regardless of motive, is a beautiful and wonderful thing.  But when you are trying to serve Muslim peoples who have a theological doctrine to kill, there is no way to control how any Muslims will apply that doctrine.  To serve such peoples requires the deepest commitment to humanitarian mission, and to embrace the risk of being killed wrongly, due to religious conviction, if not hatred.

Now I know not all Muslims apply the Qur'an the same way, just as Jews and Christians do not apply their holy books the same way.  But in Afghanistan and some other Muslim nations, there are many--either a majority, or fighting and killing to become a ruling elite--who are dedicated to force and violence to ensure their form of Islam is the rule of law.  The Qur'an includes force and violence, so they have divine sanctions from their holy book, when they see applications.

So in these nations and regions, humanitarian aid is extremely high-risk, when services provided for some willing and accepting Muslims is taken by unwilling and rejecting Muslim observers as transgressing the Qur'an's commands requiring death.  There are humanitarian assistance agencies serving many Muslim nations for decades, so they have known these things for a long time.  Yet they still believe strongly enough in their missions to love Muslims they serve, despite the risk of suffering and death.  One only can be impressed by the strength and durability of their love.

The Christian Point of View

Christians who intentionally go into Muslim lands know there are many there who consider Christians, Jews, and others, as religious enemies to be killed.  They know there are Muslims who enter lands where they live in order to kill, but those who are members of organizations like the International Assistance Mission go to give life.  Such Christians as those in IAM go in faith, hope, and love, despite the dangers to themselves.

When they go into Muslim lands, they know they will meet Muslims who believe, because the Qur'an teaches them this, that Christians, Jews, and non-Muslims are their divinely revealed enemies.  These Christians also know there are many Muslims who have heard or know millions of others, who call themselves Christians, are ready, willing, and able to kill as many Muslims as possible.  The theological and relational cards are stacked against them.

So why do they take such risks?  The answer is simple really and it can be found in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.  Setting aside the behaviors of the many Christians who do not obey these, let us see why such people as those murdered in the past several days do what they do.
I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.  Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.  And just as you want men to treat you, treat them in the same way.  And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same thing.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same.  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and evil.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  [Gospel of Luke, 6:27-36]
These teachings are clear enough, but they are insufficient on their own to send Christians who believe them into dangerous lands.  Christians like those in International Assistance Mission believe them because Jesus himself obeyed them, even unto death.  As he was dying on the cross, he said regarding his killers, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."  The Romans, and any Jews who approved, thought they were killing a troublesome man.

The Christians in IAM believe Jesus was the living embodiment of God's love revealed to the world.  Jesus was not merely a man but the son of God.  And he expected and commanded those who believed his message to do what he did:  to love and do good to and for all people, regardless of whether they accepted or rejected it, or whether they appreciated or hated it for their own reasons  Jesus was not merely a moral teacher, but God speaking and demonstrating divine love in him.

The Religious Ironies of These Killings

So here we are today.  The Christian men and women of IAM went to Afghanistan, serving people with medical assistance, Muslims who consider themselves the enemies of Christians, Jews, and others. The Muslim men, and I will presume no women were there, followed them to track, stop, strip naked, then kill one by one some they considered their enemies, the enemies of their faith, and they succeeded.  Those who brought God's divine love through medical service are dead.  They who brought their God's divine judgment through bullets are alive.

Two religions brought these people face to face.  Faith in two different Gods, love for two different prophets, and hope that full and complete obedience to divine commands given in two different religious books, brought the physicians and executioners together.

Based on what we might guess about the Christians there, it is very likely they prayed for divine mercy for their killers, as they saw them slay their brothers and sisters in Christ, one by one, before they themselves died.  Based on what we might guess about the Muslims there, it is very likely they felt satisfaction in obeying Allah, who saw themselves meting out divine justice for their victims, as they lined them up, one by one, to shoot them wherever they fell.

In the event that created this blog, we have these ironies.  These Christians healed strangers, even enemies, because they saw their duties towards them from their God's point of view.  These Muslims killed strangers, their enemies, because they their duties towards them from their God's point of view.

Yet I must point out, to be fair to both religions, at other times and in other places, there have been Christians who killed Muslims and Muslims who have been merciful to Christians.  In neither religion is there complete unanimity or uniformity in the theological views, or behaviors, towards persons not members of those faiths.  This is not ironic, only a fact not to be changed ever in the history of the world.

Theism and Atheism

As a Christian myself, who has spent many decades studying why, first, my religion, and then, later, why other religions have killed strangers based on theological views, I want to plant my feet firmly with the Christians like those in IAM.  Yet the history of my faith too often has been filled with rivers of blood--that of heretics, Jews, Muslims, and even other Christians lined up in national armies all over Europe and the United States, during our Civil War. There have been too few like the good believers murdered the other day. Jesus said, "Blessed are the makers of shalom (spiritual peace with God), for they shall be called, 'children of God.'"

I understand why atheism seems to be growing in God's world.  Anyone who reads certain portions of the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament, and the Qur'an, surely must not wish to believe in a deity who wills the death of strangers.  John Wesley, I think, once told someone their god was his devil.  The context was different, but I long have felt spiritual resonance with his statement, as I have tried to cope with what has been done in the name of God for millenniums.

Because I believe--sometimes very tenuously, because I know too much Christian history, which weakens my faith--in the New Testament statement that "God is spirit...God is love," for many years I have wondered what the God I believe in thinks about all the little babies, boys and girls, men and women, who have died at the hands of people, of various faiths, who thought they were doing God's will.

There have been many millions whose last mental operations and emotions were filled with the question, "Why?," as they felt their bodies tortured by feeling steel and lead, fire and water, to begin the process, short or long, that would kill them, and take them into the presence of the True God--not the false god of their killers.

I think of the millions of Jews during the Holocaust who asked that question as they heard and smelled the gas come into those false baths, slain by many Nazis who somewhere had their names on some Christian church's roll books.  I think of all the millions of African slaves whose lives would have remained better, except for the collaboration of Christians, Muslims, and even some Jews, who all profited from slavery.  I think of the millions of Native Americans exterminated and displaced by the collaborations of every European immigrant who came to America and had a share in their demise, and most had a faith in a god who, in their minds, approved, permitted, or tolerated their crimes.

I close this blog by saying how troubled I am by these murders; by what I know led to them; and, by the facts that there are two separate groups in two divided religions--one which grieves, one which rejoices--by these events.

I confess that I need more faith, hope, and love, to continue, as long as I live, in promoting the same kind of loving God served by those in IAM.  Though millions of other Christians all over the world seem ready, if not eager, to do the bidding of their separation national leaders and generals, to kill strangers, not to bring love and healing.

In the face of such brutality and bloodshed, are wars sometimes not necessary?  It used to be that World War II, and the Nazi ovens and death-camps, were the classic apologies for war and its necessity.  However, now more millions know the details of all the menus and operations of an I-Phone than recognize precisely who Adolf Hitler was.  Yet, without any major exception, wars have been started mainly due to mass suffering and injustice (when people support them), or due to calculating greed.  Today's wars in the Middle East are not "necessary" in the sense "justice requires them."

Whatever the Taliban would have become, had there been no Westerners in their lands, one thing we know.  Jesus Christ himself is not to be blamed for the history of Western exploitation around the world.  The main "Christianity" the Taliban knows is that of the same American "Christians" who reveled and celebrated the accuracy of the "smart-bombs" during the seige of Baghdad, the celebrated Shock-And-Awe of American military destruction.  Few so-called "Christian" Americans cared to think about the horror and terror being inflicted on thousands of innocent Iraqi children, women, men, of all ages and conditions.  No, the flash and boom was of greater interest than human beings created in God's image.  So how is the history of American "Christian" behavior towards so many of any connection with the tradition of Jesus?  No, the members of the Taliban probably saw themselves as killing "Westerners who were sent by Washington," not disciples of Jesus.

When I think about the good Christians who were executed only a few hours ago, I still grieve for them.  For their kind of religion was and is good.  And I pray to my God that I will have enough faith, hope, and love to pray not for the destruction of those who killed them, but for the illumination of God to show them--in the best places in the Qur'an--that only God knows the hearts of strangers unknown and, as Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know them."

God, give me the strength not to hate, or desire the vicious cycle of retaliation, but to leave all in the hands of a just God who will render on the Last Day a just judgment, and wipe away every tear from the eyes of the just who suffered and died during their time on the earth.  I live for this work and pray for more time to do loving work, for the just and the unjust, the righteous and the sinner.  I, as the latter, know I need divine help for that work in times like these.  JDW

PS:  Here is the story of the team's burial in Kabul, covered by the NY Times.

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