Sending Christian missionaries into Iraq along with U.S. troops “was exactly the wrong thing to do,” an expert on the Middle East and Christian/Jewish/Muslim relations said this week at a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Charles Kimball, professor and chair of the religion department at Wake Forest University and author of the 2002 book When Religion Becomes Evil, said Monday that it is not only dangerous for Americans to try to evangelize in Iraq, but their presence inflames Muslim extremists who view the U.S.-led military operation as a crusade against Islam.
“Anything that smacks of Christian imperialism or a crusade plays right into the worst fears that are out there,” Kimball told ministerial leaders invited to a two-day seminar near Williamsburg, Va., sponsored by the Nashville-based BCE with a grant from the Louisville Institute.
Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, is former director of the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches. He has visited the region more than 35 times and has worked on Middle East issues with Congress, the White House and State Department over the past 20 years. He has been interviewed 400 times in the media since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Kimball said he doesn’t question the sincerity of missionaries who go into places like Iraq, and he applauds humanitarian work to alleviate suffering of people in need.
“To me the big issue in terms of our Christian missionary understanding is what we are directed to do,” he said. Christianity is a “missionary” religion, Kimball said–and so, incidentally, is Islam. That means it is the responsibility of both religions to witness to their faith.
“It is not my responsibility nor is it your responsibility to convert anyone,” however, he said. “That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s where I think a lot of people trip up,” Kimball said. “My responsibility is to bear witness, and that takes a lot of different forms. It may be working at a water-purification plant. It may be working at a hospital in Yemen…. It may be church starting.”
Rather than seeking to convert Muslims in the Middle East, Kimball said Western Christians should “think of mission in terms of presence and witness first and foremost.”
Kimball said years ago he was invited to discuss whether Southern Baptists ought to close down their hospital in Jibla, Yemen, (where three missionary personnel were killed last year in an attack by a gunman), because medical personnel were not allowed to proselytize.
“I argued there may not be anything in the world you are doing more important,” he said. “The ministry you are doing there may be the most powerful witness of anything you are doing in the world.”
Rather than sending missionaries into Iraq, Kimball said, American Christians should support the 750,000 indigenous Christians who already live there.
“The dangers of a sort of ‘coming in’ approach are very real,” he said. “Think historically a little bit. Think of the British in India. Whenever religion is connected to military power, and especially in the Middle East (there is danger).”
“This is something that is hard for Americans to understand,” Kimball said, as compared to the Middle East, where “people have a long memory. The Crusades are not ancient history to people in the Middle East.”
“They have a sense of history. They’ve seen this kind of thing before,” Kimball said. “These are in many cases people who are coming out of a couple of centuries of colonial domination. Our sense of history is what happened last week.”
“They’re trying to fashion a more hopeful future and more hopeful forms of government,” he said. “Most of us in the West are not thinking in those terms at all.”
Kimball said the Christian response to the people of Iraq “should be the same response we have when a tornado hits next door.”
“We have to be especially aware as Christians in the United States that our government is the most powerful in the world and if we are not careful–and this is one of my major criticisms of [televangelist Jerry] Falwell–he is fueling, he is simply providing all kinds of information for Islamic extremists.”
Falwell’s comment about Islam being a violent religion and Muhammad a terrorist is still showing up in Arabic newspapers and has been linked to murders of foreign missionaries, Kimball said. “I think some of the things that Falwell and others have said have literally put Christian missionaries at risk.”
Kimball also suggested that Baptists “think ecumenically” in their mission efforts.
“Often I find it very helpful just to ask the question: What are the Methodists doing? What are Presbyterians doing? What is Catholic Relief Services doing?”
“To think and work ecumenically means some of the things we do, we do in cooperation with others,” Kimball said. That is a “big hurdle” for many Baptists, he said, because it requires giving up some control, and not taking all the credit.
Invited ministerial leaders met with Kimball to discuss his book, released on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, which argues against the view expressed by some that Islam is an “evil” religion or that it teaches violence. All the major religions, including Islam and Christianity, hold the potential for evil behavior if abused, he said, but they also include teachings that can unite people rather than divide.
Kimball lists five warning signs for corrupt religion: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the ‘ideal’ time, the end justifies any means and declaring holy war. In the book, Kimball calls for “an inclusive faith rooted in a tradition.”
Kimball opposes exclusivist statements like when Falwell said on “60 Minutes” that Jesus taught a gospel of love, but Muhammad was a terrorist.
“In that simple statement he compares the ideal of his religion with the flawed reality of everybody else,” he said.
“I believe Jesus taught a religion of love,” Kimball said. “The haunting question is what people who have followed have done with the message of love.
“I found Falwell’s statement to be deeply offensive. To say casually that Jesus taught a gospel of love, and that’s all we have to say about Christianity, did not take into account any of the horrific things that were done in the name of Christianity.”
In today’s world, Kimball said, “We don’t have the luxury of people continuing to do the kind of things they have done in the name of religion.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.