Early in 2009, Philip Yancey went on a speaking tour of the Middle East, primarily in the United Arab Emirates and other small countries along the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. In Bahrain he met in a backyard with 30 people from Saudi Arabia, all expatriates. Most of them lived in compounds built by the oil companies, and all had chilling stories about life in one of the world's most conservative Muslim countries. The hosts asked the caterers to step inside as Yancey talked, fearing they would be reported to Saudi authorities. Yancey is the author of many books, including What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters (Hachette/FaithWords), from which this article is excerpted and condensed.
If someone had stood here in Julius Caesar's day and predicted the decline of the mighty Roman Empire and the triumph of an upstart religion founded by a Galilean peasant, he would have been judged a lunatic.As would anyone who stood in the Middle East five centuries later and predicted the downfall of Christianity, by then dominant in places like Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yet here we are in the 21st century meeting rather furtively in a backyard in an Islamic state, hoping that none of the hired help are eavesdropping. As a visitor, I cannot help wondering why this part of the world, the birthplace and once the center of the Christian faith, became the region most resistant to it.
I get one possible clue from the French sociologist Jacques Ellul who, looking around him at the modern world, noted a paradoxical trend: As the Christian faith permeates society, it tends to produce values that contradict the gospel. I sometimes test his theory while traveling by asking foreigners, "When I say the words United States, what first comes to mind?" Invariably, I get one of three responses:
Wealth. Representing only 5 percent of the world's population, the U.S. generates almost a fourth of the world's economic output and still dominates global finance.
Military power. The U.S., as the media regularly remind us, is "the world's only superpower." The U.S. military budget exceeds that of the next 23 nations combined, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
Decadence. Most people in other countries get their notion of the U.S. from Hollywood movies, which seem to them obsessed with sex and crime.
Each contradicts the teachings and example of Jesus, whose life was marked by poverty, self-sacrifice, and purity. No wonder followers of Islam puzzle over Christianity, a powerful faith that somehow produces the opposite of its ideals in society at large.
American soldiers stationed here know the pattern: while fighting in two Gulf wars, they had to get by without alcohol and Playboy in deference to the strict Islamic code in the staging nations. One Muslim mentioned to me the Baywatch syndrome, alluding to the titillating television program that some years ago replaced Dallas as the most popular U.S. television export overseas. "We are attracted to what we most fear," he said. "Imagine what decadent American culture represents to a young Muslim who, outside of his family, has never seen a woman's knee, or even her face."
For our part, Americans react with confusion and dismay as mobs of screaming Muslims call for "death to the Great Satan" and burn our leaders in effigy. The label "Great Satan" especially rankles, for we think of the U.S. as a Christian nation, far more devout than, say, most European countries. At least we still go to church. How can anyone consider us diabolical?
Most observers understand the difference between a committed Christian who accepts Jesus as a model for living and a "cultural Christian" who happens to live in a nation with a Christian heritage. Most Muslims do not. (Similarly, many Americans paint the Middle East with a broad brush, judging all Muslims as radicals and terrorists.) One reason for their confusion, I believe, relates to the total-society approach to religion typical of Islam and the laissez-faire approach more common in Christian societies.
Several years ago, a Muslim man said to me, "I have read the entire Qur'an and can find no guidance in it on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find no guidance in it on how Christians should live as a majority." He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. Muslim societies tend to unify religion, culture, law, and politics. Whereas U.S. courts debate the legality of nonsectarian prayers at football games and public monuments to the Ten Commandments, in the Middle East even the airlines broadcast the call to prayer five times a day. And in countries with a variety of religions, like Nigeria, as the Muslim population increases, they seek to impose the religious Shari'ah law on all citizens.
The top-down approach has a certain ruthless efficiency. At one point, Islam conquered three-fourths of all Christian territory, including the Middle East and much of Europe. Of course, we Christians have had our own experiments with moral coercion—Spain's Inquisition, Calvin's Geneva, Cromwell's England, New England's Puritans—which we look back upon with regret. Over time, though, the Christian West moved toward a separation of church and state and a respect for religious freedom.
Much of the misgiving that Muslims feel for the West stems from our strong emphasis on freedom, always a risky enterprise. I've heard some say they would rather rear their children in a closely guarded Islamic society than in the United States, where freedom so often leads to decadence. An Egyptian Christian told me he cannot check into a hotel room with a woman until they show evidence that she is his wife—a policy he appreciates, as does his wife. We could also learn from the Islamic emphasis on family. Middle Eastern émigrés to the West are shocked to find us shuttling preschoolers off to daycare and elderly parents to nursing homes.
Although there may be advantages to living in the Middle East, Christians here face the daily challenge of practicing their faith as a small minority in a culture that may sometimes seem hostile. How can they stay true to their beliefs and present a different picture of Christianity to their Muslim neighbors? Fortunately, they have a good model to follow: the original Christians who came from this region.
Recently I have been reading a historical study by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity. A sociologist of religion, Stark investigated the success of the early Christian movement, which, starting from a few thousand followers, grew to encompass half the population of the Roman Empire in three centuries. In the midst of a hostile environment, the Christians simply acted on their beliefs. Going against the majority culture, they treated slaves as human beings, often liberating them, and elevated women to positions of leadership. When an epidemic hit their towns, they stayed behind to nurse the sick. They refused to participate in such common practices as abortion and infanticide. They responded to persecution as martyrs, not as terrorists. And when Roman social networks disintegrated, the church stepped in. Even one of their pagan critics had to acknowledge that early Christians loved their neighbors "as if they were our own family."
In the long run, the compassionate work that many of you are doing among the laborers from other countries may have more impact on Middle Eastern society than all the billions of dollars being poured into oil exploration and construction projects. I have seen the long-term results of a few early missionaries who sacrificially brought education and medical care to neglected groups here. People instinctively know the difference between something done with a profit motive and something done with a love motive.
Some in the United States judge our nation's success by such measures as gross national product, military might, and global dominance. The kingdom of God measures such things as care for the downtrodden and love for enemies. In the final reckoning described in Matthew 25, God will judge nations by how they treat the poor, the sick, the hungry, the alien, and the prisoner. How differently would the world view my country if it associated the U.S. with the "Jesus syndrome" rather than with weapons, wealth, and the Baywatch syndrome?
When Victims Write History
I once attended a weekend retreat sponsored by the late psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) that brought together ten Jews, ten Christians, and ten Muslims. Peck had the idea that in order to solve human problems, we should first work to create a spirit of community, and only then try to resolve differences on issues—precisely the opposite of the normal approach in diplomacy. I regret to say that the weekend mainly accentuated conflict between the Jews and Muslims as the Christians sat silent on the sidelines.
One of the attendees was Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar. She introduced herself by saying, "I am quadruply marginalized. I am a feminist woman in a male-dominated society. I am a Christian from a predominantly Muslim society. I am a Palestinian, a people without a country. And here in the United States, I am a racial and cultural minority."
Shortly after that retreat, I came across the writings of René Girard, a French philosopher and anthropologist whose brilliant career culminated in a position at Stanford University. Girard became fascinated with the fact that in modern times a "marginalized" person assumes a moral authority. In our group, for example, Dr. Ashrawi's introduction gained her respect. Girard noted that a cavalcade of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women's rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in the 20th century.
The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his readings of ancient literature. Victors, not the marginalized, wrote history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims. In his further research, Girard traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus. It struck Girard that Jesus' story cuts against the grain of every heroic story from its time. Indeed, Jesus chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a prisoner. From the very beginning Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the "marginalized." His crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: The victim becomes a hero by being a victim. To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.
When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard's disciples has called "the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims." Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians. Girard contends that Jesus' life and death brought forth a new stream in history, one that undermines injustice. It may take centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as it did with slavery, but the stream of liberation flows on.
Sometimes Jesus' own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch. Yet over time the gospel works its liberating effect. (You can see the contrast clearly in societies that have experienced little Christian influence.) Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists—all these draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the Cross, when God took the side of the victim. In a great irony, the "politically correct" movement defending these rights often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that make possible such a movement. And those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles. The gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue.
I have seen the stream flowing here in the Middle East as many of you reach out to help victims of injustice. Some countries in this region have a pecking order based on gender, race, and religion as rigid in its own way as the caste system in India. By your own examples, you are showing your neighbors another way to treat women, aliens, servants, and other races. In the process, you are also showing a new Christian face to a region that tends to judge us by stereotypes.
You may feel like a beleaguered minority here, with good reason. Yet again and again in human history, a minority of Christians who simply express the spirit of Jesus can have a potent subversive influence. It has happened in this part of the world before, and it can happen a new.
I close with a true story from Afghanistan that took place in the early 1970s, before the Russian occupation or the Taliban regime or the NATO intervention. At the time, the government allowed a small Christian church to service internationals who worked there, though no Afghans could attend. (A sterner government later revoked permission and destroyed the church, bulldozing a large hole in the ground because they had heard rumors of an "underground church.")
A friend of mine named Len organized a musical team of young people to tour countries in the Middle East. With some trepidation, he also accepted an invitation to extend the trip to Afghanistan for a concert in downtown Kabul. Len made the teenagers write out exactly what they would say, subject to his approval. "This is a strict Muslim government," he warned them. "If you say the wrong thing, you could end up in prison and at the same time jeopardize every Christian who lives in this country. Memorize these words and don't dare stray from them when you perform." The teenagers listened wide-eyed as he described the ominous consequence of a slight misstep.
In a warm-up, the team gave an abbreviated program at a United Nations-sponsored school and then a restaurant, singing folk tunes and songs about God's love. The night of the official concert in Kabul, almost a thousand Afghans filled the hall and spilled outside the open doors to listen. All went well until one teenager on the team put down his guitar and started improvising: "I'd like to tell you about my best friend, a man named Jesus, and the difference he has made in my life." From the side of the stage, Len motioned wildly for him to stop, drawing his finger across his neck. Ignoring him, the teenager proceeded to give a detailed account of how God had transformed his life.
"I was practically beside myself," Len told me. "I knew the consequences, and I sat with my head in my hands waiting for the sword to drop. Instead, the most amazing thing happened. The Minister of Cultural Affairs for Afghanistan stood and walked to the stage to respond.
" 'We have seen many American young people come through this country,' he said. 'Most of them come for drugs, and most look like hippies. We have not seen nor heard from young people like you. God's love is a message my country needs. How thrilled I am to hear you! You are a prototype for the youth of Afghanistan to follow in the future. I would like to invite you to expand your tour so that you visit every college and faculty and also give this same message on Kabul Radio. I will make it happen.'"
Len was dumbfounded. That night he gathered the musical group together. "Did you hear what the man said? We're changing our tickets, of course, to lengthen our visit. And he wants you to give this same message—you'd better not change a word!"
Over the next few days, the musical team held other performances. After each event Afghan young people crowded around with questions. Tell me more about this Jesus—we know of him through the Qur'an. You speak of a personal relationship with God. Can you describe it? How does your faith change you? Some asked to pray with the teenagers. Nothing like it had ever happened in Afghanistan.
On the last day, after a triumphant tour, the teenagers met J. Christy Wilson, a revered figure in Afghanistan. Born of missionary parents in Iran, he earned a degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Oriental studies from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He then spent 22 years in Afghanistan, serving as principal of a government high school and teaching English to the Crown Prince and Afghan diplomats. He also led the Community Christian Church and founded the School for the Blind in Kabul.
Wilson drove the teenagers to an unusual tourist site, the only cemetery in Afghanistan where "infidels" could be buried. He walked to the first, ancient gravestone, pitted with age. "This man worked here 30 years and translated the Bible into the Afghan language," he said. "Not a single convert. And in this grave next to him lies the man who replaced him, along with his children who died here. He toiled for 25 years, and baptized the first Afghan Christian." As they strolled among the gravestones, he recounted the stories of early missionaries and their fates.
At the end of the row he stopped, turned, and looked the teenagers straight in the eye. "For 30 years, one man moved rocks. That's all he did, move rocks. Then came his replacement, who did nothing but dig furrows. There came another who planted seeds, and another who watered. And now you kids—you kids—are bringing in the harvest."
"It was one of the great moments of my life," Len recalls. "I watched their faces as it suddenly dawned on these exuberant American teenagers that the amazing spiritual awakening they had witnessed was but the last step in a long line of faithful service stretching back over many decades. I'll never forget that scene."
Those of you who work and pray in this hostile part of the world may sometimes feel as if you do nothing but move rocks, or dig furrows. Maybe so. God alone controls the harvest. We have no idea what the future holds for the Middle East. Most of the Westerners who come here represent something other than Jesus. Some bring in military equipment. Some come to exploit the resources and invest their dollars. But you have a different calling: to make known the spirit of Jesus and to join the stream of liberation that broke free 2,000 years ago.
That image, of course, comes not just from René Girard but from the prophet Amos, who said, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness, like a never-failing stream!" May that stream gather momentum in this place.
Excerpted from the book What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. Used by permission of the publisher, FaithWords, a division of the Hachette Publishing Group.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Good is God? In Search of a Faith that Matters is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Read more by and about Philip Yancey in Christianity Today, including:
Border Crossing | Why Philip Yancey's newest book is debuting in Brazil. (October 11, 2010)
It's Not About the Crusades | The clash with Islam is over new global realities. (July 19, 2007)
Middle East Morass | Learning to regard people in light of what they suffer. (November 20, 2006)
Hope for Abraham's Sons | What will it take for us to overcome this violent world? (November 1, 2004)
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