Ever since the Gulf War, I have had the nagging feeling that recent Western military efforts may be doing more harm than good. I am certainly not a political analyst, but I thought it would help Western Christians to know what many of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the world go through when the West engages in military offensives.
The so-called (Orthodox) Christian Serbs have treated the Muslim ethnic Albanians terribly. I was relieved that for once "Christian" powers were fighting to protect a group of Muslims. I believe we are called to "love the Muslims into the kingdom," but so often we see them as enemies. Nevertheless, I kept wondering whether this bombing, with so much loss of life and suffering, is the answer to this problem.
It would be naive to draw a direct connection between the war in Yugoslavia and the shooting in Littleton, Colorado. But the tragedy resurfaced in me the feeling that the use of force—outside the laws of a given country or state—to fight "wrong" can establish serious precedents and dangerous attitudes that in turn prompt the use of force in a terrible way, as happened in Littleton. When people we consider bad are indiscriminately bumped off outside the legal procedures of the land, it fosters a vigilante culture. This unfortunately is what we are seeing in Sri Lanka, my country. Some years ago we saw state-sponsored bumping off of the "wicked" outside the law. Now we have given birth to a culture that looks to the gun to get all sorts of agendas fulfilled.
On the other hand, I remember that so many on the outside were silent when the Nazis were exterminating Jews and when the Khmer Rouge were exterminating millions in Cambodia. So I see the dilemma and the potential for complicity. Certainly the situations in Iraq and Yugoslavia call for a response from the international community. Yet let me give some perspectives of one who is trying to proclaim the gospel in a poor, Third World country.
The Western face of Christianity
In Sri Lanka, we get our news about these wars from the Western news media. We know that a lot of attention is given the moment a Western soldier is captured or injured or killed. This is inevitable as media personnel will always think first of their own. But when I, who am not from a Western country, think of the suffering and loss of life on the other side, which is not as well covered by the media, I wonder. I wonder whether we, as Christians who are called to love all people, should be focusing on what the media are ignoring. After all, the civilians in Iraq or Yugoslavia who suffer from these military offensives are not to blame for the actions of their despotic rulers.
My feelings about these wars were influenced by the fact that there are many poor Sri Lankans working in the Middle East. Most are women working as housemaids. This work force is, I believe, Sri Lanka's biggest earner of foreign currency. However, many of these workers, especially women, suffer much from wicked employers who treat them as slaves. We considered Kuwait as having the most brutal record in this regard. In fact, today's news highlighted the return to Sri Lanka of about 20 women who had been ill treated in Kuwait. There are several more waiting in the Sri Lankan embassy for their trip back home. Sri Lankans working in Iraq were, we thought, generally treated with more kindness. Then the powerful Western world at tacked "kind" Iraq to protect "unkind" Kuwait.
Christians in many Muslim countries were treated severely during the Gulf War. In one country, some Christians were killed just because "Christians were attacking Muslims in the Gulf."
Most of our people were mad about the war. So you can imagine our embarrassment when our newspapers and TV showed my hero Billy Graham with George Bush on the day the war started. We tried to tell people that he was there as a pastor and not as a politician (and I think it was right for him to be there). But not many were impressed by that argument.
Though most people in Third World countries did not like the Gulf War, most of our governments supported it. This caused more problems. It told us that the West is so powerful that we must align with it whether we like it or not. At a time when trust is lost and people don't believe that countries get involved in other countries for altruistic reasons, this leaves us poor nations feeling very vulnerable. We ask what motives really lie behind these offensives.
To us Christians this brings up another problem. The bombings of Iraq and Yugoslavia remind many here of the attempts of Western nations to dominate poorer nations during the colonial era. Our concerted efforts to get people to separate Western political powers from the Christian enterprise do not have much success. The opponents of evangelism keep reminding us of this era when "Christian" countries dominated us not for our benefit, but for their national interest.
Recently I watched a two-hour debate on the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. A learned professor of mathematics kept blaming it all on the "Christian" colonial powers who, he said, furthered their missionary, political, and economic ambitions by ruining the social fabric of our nation. I thought this was ridiculous. But that is the way many of our people think.
When we evangelize the Buddhists, they say we are back to our old tricks. We tell these opponents of evangelism that we are people committed to being servants. Christians are not servants, they say; they always want to master others. They say that our evangelism, which they assume is entirely funded by the West, is simply another tool of the West aimed at furthering its goal of domination. A few articles have appeared in our newspapers recently with this type of thinking.
We are in a very vulnerable situation here, as Christians are associated with the West and with colonialism. It is true that church growth has often been associated with political expansion in history. While God in his sovereignty may have used situations of political power in the past, this is not the way the church grew in the New Testament, and we should not consider it as a primary biblical model. In the New Testament, and often in history, the church has grown through the sacrificial love and bold and wise proclamation of socially weak people filled with the power of the Spirit. Now that we are doing a lot of evangelism among non-Christians, our association with the West is causing us problems. The answer is not for us to cut ties with the West. Rather, I am convinced that an important way to respond to the growing opposition we are seeing worldwide to conversion- oriented evangelism is radical servanthood for rich and poor Christians all over the world.
This is particularly relevant as Christians today are talking a lot about warfare and about defeating strongholds and the forces of evil. When non-Christians in Sri Lanka hear this, they do not understand it in the way the Bible in tends it to be understood. They think we are trying to attack them in the same way that the Christians did during the Crusades. I think the world must see us, as they saw Jesus, as servants who die for others, not as conquerors who defeat others. They must see the power of our love, which will challenge them, rather than the power of our political clout, which will repel them from the gospel.
Ajith Fernando is national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka and the author of the Acts volume in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan) and The Supremacy of Christ (Crossway).
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