For years, evangelical churches at large have considered the missionary the cherry on top of Sunday. At conferences and weeks of church camp they hold three-step altar calls. Step one, be baptized. Step two, be re-baptized, whatever that means. Step three, enlist in FTVM — Full Time Vocational Ministry.
Regarding step three, there’s this hierarchy. First you’re a children’s minister, then a youth minister, then a worship or associate minister, then a preacher, and finally a missionary. You know, the corporate ladder. Whether I — or any missiologist — considers this thinking valid for churches cannot be addressed in the scope of this piece, but its validity or invalidity would make for interesting debate, particularly for critiquing the nonprofit industrial complex.
What we all can agree on is this: white, midwestern churches think missionaries are the closest to God.
They believe this so fully that they even created bumper stickers in the early aughties that read “Fight Terrorism: Support a Missionary.” Concerning this attitude, Chesterton pointed to St. Francis’ historic protest of the Christian crusades:
“St. Francis’ idea, of course, was to bring the Crusades in a double sense to their end; that is, to reach their conclusion and to achieve their purpose. Only he wished to do it by conversion and not by conquest; that is, by intellectual and not material means. The modern mind is hard to please; and it generally calls the way of Godfrey ferocious and the way of Francis fanatical. That is, it calls any moral method unpractical, when it has just called any practical method immoral. But the idea of St. Francis was far from being a fanatical or necessarily even an unpractical idea….
“The way he approached the matter was indeed highly personal and peculiar; but that was true of almost everything he did. It was in one way a simple idea, as most of his ideas were simple ideas. But it was not a silly idea; there was a great deal to be said for it and it might have succeeded. It was, of course, simply the idea that it is better to create Christians than to destroy Moslems. If Islam had been converted, the world would have been immeasurably more united and happy; for one thing, three quarters of the wars of modern history would never have taken place.”
Chesterton here sums up the bias of the following folk: these missionaries believe in proselytizing because they believe that the reason the mas’baha prayer beads have three at the end is because Muslims got the idea from the Trinitarian rosary and the reason Muslims have hours of prayer is that they got the idea from the monks (thus the cover image). They believe, in short, that they’re simply persuading people towards the oldest and most beautiful truth. They believe alongside all great philosophers that persuasion trumps coercion because persuasion comes from love and coercion comes from hate and because love trumps hate. If you consider proselytizing wrong, exactly how do you plan to persuade these missionaries of their wrongness and convert them to your side? I’m reminded of my friend and fellow critic Porter Anderson’s contortionist attempt to persuade us thou shalt not persuade.
These missionaries think Chesterton was right to call Islam a heresy and not a religion, that Boethius was right to call broken ideas like Islam merely a sickness of the mind. Keep that belief and bias in mind, then press forward to consider their words because right now, in hopes of earning a hearing from white evangelicals, we have every reason to interview as many of these people we can and ask them — straight up — what they think about banning Muslims.
I interviewed a few missionaries I knew operating in Muslim countries and contexts under the condition of anonymity. Their network took over and they forwarded on my questions to friends and friends of acquaintances and I ended up interviewing tons of them. I certainly couldn’t include them all. I interviewed across denominations. Conservative and liberal. Male and female. Rich and poor. Famous and obscure. White and brown people alike with former lives in Islam, Atheism, and so on. Some have attended the national prayer breakfast. Others will never have a biography written about their life, but they remain faithful in their work among Muslims despite Mr. Trump’s ban.
The first response to Trump’s Muslim ban sums up the rest if you need a TL;DR version. One missionary who has evangelized influential terrorist leaders said, “Can I just say, ‘It’s stupid?'”
“Yup,” I said
“Do you want a more thoughtful quote?”
“Whatever you prefer,” I said.
“Trump’s decision affects some immigrants, some Muslims and some nations. But it FEELS like it affects every immigrant, every Muslim, and every Muslim and Middle Eastern nation. His attempt to be selective doesn’t affect the feelings of those more broadly listed above. That ‘feeling’ by hundreds of millions of people (actually it affects a couple billion people) is a dangerous thing for American security at home and abroad. It will prove to be exactly counter to the desired goal. I could also say something about Jesus being a refugee or the long list of ‘love your enemies’ and ‘be kind to the foreigners’ passages, but my guess is that others will say that.”
A minority whose relatives are oppressed by some of Trump’s other policies worked with his wife to compile a near-exhaustive list of scriptures relating to refugees and aliens and strangers. Then he said, “There is now a ban against Muslims coming into our country. But so many are already living as our neighbors – have we been faithful with the ones that are here? Fifty years from now, I don’t want to wake up thinking to myself, ‘I remember when they first started coming. Why didn’t we engage earlier?’ It is not just about who we should be as Americans, but who are we as believers? America might not have doors thrown wide open, but we know that The Kingdom [of Christ] does. Some people ask ‘Why aren’t other Muslim countries helping them?’ and my question is, ‘Why would we want them to go anywhere else when we have the greatest gift to offer them?'”
Two expressed concern that the ban will extend to more countries and that the countries will reciprocate (as Iran and Iraq have done). “This will make a people group that is already difficult to access almost impossible to contact,” they said.
Another who works among refugees — that is to say another one who works among women and children seeking refuge from hunger, war, famine, and tyranny — told me, “Thus far, many Muslims are scared of what will happen. As I work a lot with refugees, this means that the number of people that I’ve been able to minister to looks like it will significantly decrease in the next hundred and twenty days, unless Trump’s ban is blocked. Moreover, five interns will come here to work with refugees this coming summer. This will affect their ability to meet new refugees. I’ve been volunteering with various resettlement agencies since 2011. A few years ago, many Christians I knew didn’t care much. Once people saw the three year old boy washed ashore dead on the beach in Greece, this really stirred many. Lots of churches and small groups have become involved with refugees since January of 2016. The more that become involved, the less ignorance there is that we’re in danger from refugees.”
I asked him, “What would you, as a Christian missionary, say to churches if they asked you to tell them God’s honest truth about the ban? No mincing words. If you just told it like it is?”
His response moved me:
“This ban is based on fear and mistrust of the government, focusing more on our safety than it does on showing the compassion of Christ to those in need. While countries that have far less evangelicals show concern and generosity for the needy, will the United States – with so many Christians and people who follow Jesus – turn away those in need? Are we more concerned about our safety than the imperative to take the gospel to those most in need? Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation. He asked us to give our lives to that others might know him. We need to respond in love and with faith, not in fear.”
“Has it affected your relationships with Muslims?” I asked.
“Muslims will be upset with the government, people like Jawad who was tortured for associating himself with the US in Iraq. He’s received very little for all he’s given to help our country. And now it’ll be hard for those family members – his wife included – who are now overseas to come back here and be re-united. I sincerely hope he will blame this on politics and not on Christians. I hope that Christians will unite in compassion and a willingness to sacrifice for those who are in need and do not know Jesus.”
Another felt completely, utterly torn. Especially concerning his kids who attend a Muslim-majority school.
“I am caught in the middle of various tensions in this political climate, pulling at me from all sides. From one angle I am called to stand up for justice and speak up for the rights of the oppressed. Yet, another tension is hearing my kids come home from their Muslim-majority school, joining in the negative and fearful rhetoric they often hear from other students against President Trump. I must teach them to love, respect and pray for our President, even when we disagree with his choices. In all these tensions I want to promote the triumph of love. And this has not changed. I am commissioned by Jesus the Messiah to love and serve Muslims, and I will continue to strive to do so no matter what the circumstances are surrounding me.”
I wanted more, so I asked his wife — a cancer survivor — to elaborate:
“‘We hate Trump!’ My kids brought this chant home from school, saying that their classmates, many from immigrant and refugee families, are scared that they will have to leave the country because of the President’s actions. As a mom, I try to strongly and gently replace messages of hate with messages of love. Our family has given our lives to loving our neighbors in a Muslim community where most of our neighbors come from banned countries. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The Muslims in our community are regularly bombarded with hate rhetoric. It breaks my heart. And yet we continue to live out big and small actions of love, kindness and truth. We hold on to the hope that our small, perpetual, non-news-breaking actions of love make a difference in our community. Our hope is bigger than we are. It anchors our souls. Yesterday at our protest at the airport, people chanted, ‘Love trumps hate!’ That’s what I want my neighbors to know; what I want my kids to know; and the truth that I want to reign in my heart. Through this ban and always–love conquers all. Jesus the Messiah chose to love each of us without condition and with a love so compelling that we can’t help but be changed by it. That’s the kind of compelling love that trumps hate.”
Another serves as VP of global operations for a medium sized sending agency with workers worldwide. He himself served in a predominantly Muslim country for ten years prior to taking this role:
“The executive order on immigration has shocked and dismayed me and all of our missionaries. Some personally know legal residents of the USA who are now stuck since it hit while they happened to be out of the country attending an event. Our friends are confused and hurt by a new tone from a nation they always saw as welcoming. Our Muslim friends in particular wonder if the USA is really at war with Islam, as they are sometimes told by some propaganda, but did not believe before. The compassion which has been a hallmark of people’s perception of the USA is now in question. My prayer is that this will be undone and that the church in the USA will clearly and unequivocally let it be known that this does not represent the view of Christians. My adult daughter, who grew up in a predominantly Muslim country where we served and who tutors a Syrian family, is deeply troubled and has participated in some of the airport protests. These are her friends being targeted.”
Did anyone push back against the consensus of the everyone else?
One. And hers wasn’t really a pushback so much as an attempt to temper her response:
“If President Trump wanted to have a Muslim ban, why didn’t he include countries like Indonesia and Morocco?” she asked.
Because Rudy Giulliani, a conservative and the former mayor of my city, said quite clearly on Fox News in a Trump-supporting interview that Trump came to him and asked how to ban Muslims legally. Not to mention Spicer and the rest. And because Trump himself tweeted that it’s a ban. And because Trump himself said in December he wanted to ban Muslims with the following statement:
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.
She claimed Obama had banned Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011. With all due respect to her, that’s patently false. Here’s what happened: after two Kentucky-based Iraqi refugees were arrested on terrorism charges in 2011, FBI agents said others could have posed as refugees, which prompted the Obama administration to “reexamine the records of 58,000 who had been settled in the United States.” This also “imposed new, more extensive background checks on Iraqi refugees.” Link to that piece here. Obama also signed a bill that kept people from seven countries from accessing the Visa Waver Program, according to Policy Mic. That’s not a ban. Not like this. Not even close.
We have a neighbor here in New York who’s Indian. Guy’s an American citizen. Saved up enough for years from driving cabs that he could buy a storefront. A stationary business. My wife loves stationary and I love pens (my jeans are so ink-stained that strangers wonder if I write my final drafts by quill). She decided to talk to the owner for awhile. He was a wonderful man with incredible hope for this country and his place in it.
That’s when my bride asked, “Can I use your restroom?”
Now in New York, that’s a pretty private question mainly because of critical mass. In a global capital like this — with 800 languages spoken — you witness all manner of ways to use the restroom. You have people who are used to squatty potties back home so they stand on the seat and do what boys in the dorm used to tactlessly call “sky dumps.” You have people who wipe with paper. You have the French and others who are used to water, so there’s water from the sink everywhere. Then you have the rich white women who are too good to touch places where black people and AIDs victims sat, so they hover over the seat and spray everything like the tiger in Life of Pi. Or sometimes they just do it because there’s already stuff on the seat. The end result in a public NYC restroom is something like if a firetruck hosed down Dunder Mifflin after accidentally hooking up the pipe to a septic tank. It’s messy and therefore the request to borrow a private bathroom can be very personal for a small business owner.
“Can I use your restroom?” my wife asked.
We’ve come to expect the word “no” in most places in NYC.
But that’s not what this man said.
“Are you going to break my mirrors and write on my walls?” he asked.
“What?” Tara asked. “Of course not!”
“As I said, Miss, I’ve only owned my shop for a week and two white people came in and destroyed my brand new bathroom.”
“I am so sorry,” she’s said. “I can go somewhere else.”
“Wow,” I said. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
He seemed on edge. He seemed worried. He said, “But you look nice enough, so I’ll try again to love and forgive.”
What a gift, huh?
See I understand his hesitation: his desire to ask a few more questions after that happened to assess the character of the two people who wanted to come into his territory and use his restroom. What I would not — under any circumstances — have understood was if he said, “No. White people can’t use my bathroom. They always break everything.”
That would be wrong because it would be both false and playing favoritism. Falsehood and favoritism empowered by superlatives.
You know, the kind of favoritism forbidden in the Bible for missionaries such as these and white Christians such as those supporting this presidential act of favoritism.
This particular missionary’s hesitation interests me primarily because she has friends from all seven countries banned. Her opinion should be heard in full by an open and inquiring mind like mine. This matriarch I respect also said:
“I have Muslim friends that are peaceful, but I also know Muslims that have become believers that think the US does need to better vet refugees and those entering from countries that seem to have more terrorists. I have a good friend from Aleppo, Syria, she is Orthodox Catholic, and she feels the US is crazy and foolish to let in Muslim refugees. How do we reconcile her feelings? She says that Muslims that read the Quran and follow it are potentially dangerous. She has lived alongside Muslims as a minority in her country. She is well educated and her husband is a physician.”
“Our Iranian friend, ‘Max,’ is no longer a Muslim and not yet a Believer, but has said he could not be a good Muslim and a good man. The two did not go together. He also says the good Muslims are the terrorists as they are the ones truly following the Quran. ‘Shariah Law and democracy do not mix.’ He has received threatening phone calls while living in the US from Muslims pressuring him to return to Islam.”
Of course, the main principle behind Shariah Law is persecuting the infidel and the foreigner in an attempt to be coerced into faith. The hypocrisy is obvious when you place a ban on infidels beside another ban on infidels. The problem with the crusades wasn’t that they were Christian. The problem with the crusades was that they were global — it was the time of holy war and jihad and in the midst of a whole world gone mad with war, the missionary St. Francis staked his peaceful protest and deigned to die on the altar of reason.
She went on:
“I work weekly teaching refugees from Somalia and Sudan. We talk often about this and other issues. Our students know we care for them and would stand up for them if they were harassed.”
And thats the kicker:
They know we would stand up for them if they were harassed.
According to all of the other missionaries, this Muslim ban is harassment. Harassment on the scale of the largest, most powerful government in the world led by its harasser in chief.
Her main point — that even some Arabs believe that stronger vetting is needed for their neighbors — may or may not be a good idea. Let’s say for argument’s sake that I accept this premise offered to her from her post-Muslim Arab friends. I’ll ask two questions about the implementation of that particular idea with the current executive order:
- How many people were affected by the ban?
- And how many Americans were killed by terrorists in those countries?
Surely the raw numbers will tell us everything we need to know:
|Number of Americans killed by their citizens ||Number of people with nonimmigrant visas affected by Trump’s Muslim Ban|
|Number of people with immigrant visas affected by Trump’s Muslim Ban|
|Trinidad & Tobago||1|
Over 90,000 human beings from countries with high concentrations of Muslims had been banned at the time of writing this, Muslim countries whose citizens had no hand in the total 3,025 Americans who have been killed by terrorism. Again, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt: it’s entirely possible that this move is completely economically motivated, for the countries with the highest number of Americans killed by their governments also happen to be the richest in the region. It could simply be economic and a way of continuing to oppress the poor in the region.
But didn’t Jesus also say we should love the poor?
At best this is economic oppression and at worst, it’s the first step on a slippery slope towards genocide. Either way, if anyone should be punished, it’s quite obvious from the data that we should start with Saudi Arabia, but as I also have dear friends who are Saudi, you won’t hear me calling for a Saudi ban.
I asked her how missionaries would be affected.
“I don’t yet know how missionaries will be affected. All of this is a short answer for a complex issue.”
She’s absolutely right. These statements should be taken as a whole and used to critique one another. Which is why I’ll turn to Andrea, who’s not an American and who wanted me to use her first name:
“The top three ways Muslims come to faith in Christ are 1) a relationship with a Christian; 2) exposure to the Scriptures; 3) dreams and visions. Most people that I have known personally have had all three of those factors affect their decision to follow Christ. This ban makes number one much harder, placing an even bigger barrier between Muslims and Christians, making both more fearful of getting to know the other.”
What did she mean by getting to know the other?
“Muslims value hospitality,” Andrea said. “I have been the guest in Muslim homes and cared for, loved and protected. When my husband would travel, I almost always had the offer from a Muslim woman to spend the night at my house so I would feel safe and not alone. The lack of hospitality and protection we offer in return is shameful. Most of my Muslim friends are worried about the effects of extremism in their countries. Some have even been victims of extremist violence. They worry that this ban will empower extremists even more.”
The most heartbreaking story came from a lady who reached out to the Taliban for years. I’m going to quote her tale in full:
I sat in my car at a red light, explaining the recent executive order by the president in the U.S. to “Assia,” a former Muslim from the middle east. She knows scripture well, and she is deeply in love with Jesus. I turned down the radio and explained my distress over the many American Christians supporting the idea of keeping refugees out of their country for fear of terrorists coming into America by posing as people fleeing violence.
“They’re not really Christians, then,” she said.
I sat silently for a moment. I come from a very American “don’t judge me” culture, and her words stung my politically correct nature. She could surely see the wideness of my eyes.
Assia quoted scripture in her native tongue, the one I have been learning it for the past six years. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
It was all familiar, but the word in her gospel of Matthew was not “stranger,” but the very literal word for refugee, “musafir.”
“How can a Christian hear this scripture and do these things? They are disobeying Jesus completely,” she said.
I let her words sink in. Assia is a mature believer in Jesus. She is not proud, but a humble and loving servant of the Living God. She is not new to her faith, and she has faced persecution for her beliefs in her home country. Assia regularly teaches me profound lessons from scripture because she catches deeper themes of shame and honor than my western mind can detect. Her own culture is not far from that of Jesus, so the stories of Jesus’ ministry are all very relatable to her. Her words of judgment stung, but not because they were untrue.
One of the many dangers of American Christians’ opposition to welcoming refugees is the precedent it sets for other Christians around the world. American believers have believed the lie that our safety supersedes the command of Jesus to welcome the foreigner. On the contrary, throughout Jesus’ ministry He called his followers to leave safety. He asked them to leave behind what was familiar and go to what is difficult. His disciples left their jobs, their families, their security, and they followed Jesus on a wild adventure. Others stayed in their hometowns, forsaking Judaic orthodoxy and cultural mores to follow wildly after this Jesus of Nazareth, this rogue teacher who shamed the religious elite and exalted the poor and lame.
American Christians have ingested the idea that since we currently enjoy the freedom of worshipping without government persecution or opposition, and especially since this freedom was gained with great struggle and bloodshed, that this is something for which we must continue to “fight.” This belief has so permeated American Christian culture that it has become fully woven into the very fabric of the American Christian faith itself.
“Without freedom to worship, we will have no freedom at all.” This seems to be the ever pervasive sentiment I hear from the Christians in my homeland, the U.S.A. Many of us are opposed to anything that threatens our freedom to worship as we choose. Freedom has become God to us, and we will take up arms against absolutely anything that threatens it, even Jesus Himself.
Jesus was fully aware of the strife and struggle that would pervade the world. He did not hide the fact that the world would persecute us, torture us, and kill us because of the name of Christ. Yet, we have bought into the lie that creating our own kingdom of safety and freedom will allow us to evade the persecution of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 10. And the fact is, many of us have indeed been spared of it. We have escaped it at the expense of ignoring Jesus’ call to follow Him into the unknown, to places that are dark and oppressive in order to carry in His light of life.
God has been calling American Christians to “go” for hundreds of years. He has been asking the American church to leave their comforts and freedom behind, to go to places far away from the trappings of wealth and privilege. Some have heeded this call, but most cannot even hear it because their noise canceling idols stand in the way. These idols are many and have various names, but perhaps the most glaring one of all is the finely chiseled god of Safety.
It is my belief that in response to our defiance, God is now presenting us with an unbelievable opportunity to show love and compassion to Muslims from every corner of the earth by bringing them to the doorstep of our very own country. But once again, we are turning our backs on Jesus and bowing our faces to the golden feet of Safety.
We face a new opportunity. Millions of Muslims are being persecuted by their very own. They are seeing the raw truth of Islam and are desperate for someone to throw them a life vest. They are coming to our shores, they are waiting for someone to see their humanity and welcome them.
Church, wake up! The entire world is watching us! They have heard what Jesus has asked of us. They have heard the rumors that this Jesus told his followers to go out into the world and show love and compassion to all. And now they see us now walling ourselves up in our American castle with a Christian flag flying high. The outside wall reads “WE ARE BETTER THAN YOU. WE ARE AFRAID OF YOU. STAY AWAY.”
Oh, but we love the idea of missions inside of our climate controlled castle of Safety. We love that someone else will go and tell those dangerous people about Jesus. We send money, we subscribe to Voice of the Martyrs. We sit on the committees at church and even tell these stories to our friends. Yet when we are faced with the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with those very same people, we scream in fear that they be kept far from us. We love the lost, don’t we? We love them when they are kept at arm’s length and on the pages of Christian periodicals. We love them in the newsletters of missionaries and aid organizations. But we will only love them on these terms because we are free and they are dangerous. Keep them in their countries or others like them. That is where they belong– far away from us. Perhaps this is harsh, but it is exactly what the world is seeing from American Christians. We will neither go to the nations nor will we allow them to come to us because we have our Kingdom of Safety to protect.
Don’t think for a moment that we will escape judgment simply because we wanted to keep our families safe. Jesus told us “Whoever loves father or other more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
We must speak up in defense of the refugee. It is time to leave the castle of Safety and tear down its walls of fear. It is time to leave that kingdom of lies and seek out the sojourner. That sojourner may even have a bomb strapped to his chest, but Jesus has asked us to love those whom we would deem our enemies. Take heart, because there is greater freedom out side those walls than we have ever known inside it. And take your cross, because the King of Glory never promised us safety in this life.”
Her story sounds like that old hymn:
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood
When a stranger. While we were God’s enemies. While we were foreigners like Abraham, our wandering Aramean father of many, many, many nations.
After reading her words, I’m reminded of the time G.K. Chesterton — the british poet, philosopher, playwright, and journalist — compared the American ideal to the Spanish Inquisition. And he actually illustrated his point by pointing to the ethical discernment of missionaries:
“America invites all men to become citizens, but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, America’s exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial. The missionary can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude a terrorist precisely because he cannot exclude an Arab.”
[Full context of that quote here]
If white Evangelicals are right to put missionaries on pedestals, then we have a pretty clear directive from them as to how Christians must respond. I’m encouraged personally by this letter by top evangelical leaders from all 50 states calling on the White House to support refugees (click on images to embiggen)
In such a time as this, I’m reminded of the ethical dilemma game we used to play as an ice breaker in that very same youth group that called us all into full-time vocational ministry. It’s a game called Would You Rather? And the answers can tell you everything you need to know about a person.
Would you rather die for the crucified Christ
or kill for a flag-robed Trump?
The deepest answer of your deepest conscience to that particular dilemma will tell me all I need to know when I try to discern whether you’re a Christian or something much more sinister posing as a Christian. Remember: when St. Francis saw the church in ruins he decided to reform himself and Harry Potter first had to kill off the Voldemort inside himself before he could save the world from He Who Must Not Be Named.