As an American teaching ESL for a church in New Zealand, I’m constantly trying to conceal my accent or at least end conversations with a “Cheers Mate!” Wellington is a churning melting pot of cultures, so much so that most days it seems like I’m working with more Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders than Kiwis or even Aussies. And it turns out that most of the people I run into have some reason to, at least, dislike America. Imagine that. Our national superiority complex and meddlesome foreign policy haven’t gained me any favors living abroad!
A Cambodian woman I study with once told me that she didn’t know her birthdate because her parents were killed and her home (and birth certificate) was destroyed by Americans during the Gulf War… What do you say to that? …I tried my best to offer my condolences and my disapproval of this terrible act, not as an American defending my nation’s supposed need to “police the world” no matter the casualties, but as a Christian who follows Jesus’ way of nonviolence. Needless to say, her perception of America hasn’t helped me as I’ve tried to teach her about Jesus. Crippled America: How ... Best Price: $0.10 Buy New $2.99 (as of 04:00 EDT - Details)
All this being said, I had an incredibly interesting exchange with a 20-year-old Iraqi man regarding Christianity and American foreign policy. Ledan and I meet weekly to work on English and to talk about the Bible. In fact, when I first met him and learned he was from Iraq, I instinctively gave my disclaimer of denunciation of American wars and politics. I was hoping he would seem relieved, but he seemed more puzzled than anything. At the time I was hoping it was the language barrier, but after our study yesterday, it makes sense.
We just started talking about our pasts, what our childhoods were like, family, friends, etc. He told me about his father dying of a heart attack in Iraq and his mother and brothers fleeing to Jordan once the fighting in their area grew more intense. They were eventually allowed entry into New Zealand as refugees. I asked if he had been back to visit his home since coming to New Zealand 8 years ago and he answered, “What for?”
He worships with an Arabic speaking church comprised of 7 or 8 families who do everything together. It reminds me a lot of the early church in Acts 2. I asked him, “What does your church think about the war in the Middle East?”
“It is a common topic in our public prayer. And a part of our giving goes to help people in refugee camps, since most of us went through that.”
I beat around the bush a while before asking him, “Why do you think the Americans are involved in the fighting in the Middle East?”
“Well, oil. And money. And power. Why? Why do YOU think?”
“In school we were told that we were fighting the enemies of democracy so that we could provide the Iraqi people with freedom. Whatever that means…”
“Why are things worse now? I don’t think you guys helped very much.”
“Ha, well…I agree. And to think that there are so many Christians who think it’s some kind of religious duty to go and fight.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s stupid.”
“…American Christians fighting for religious reasons? Like Muslims? Wow. I didn’t know that…”
Our conversation suddenly grew solemn and sporadic. He obviously wasn’t focusing on his English pronunciation and grammar anymore. I now understood his confusion to my initial disclaimer against war. Of course he was expecting me to denounce war! I’m a Christian aren’t I? It’s almost like saying, “Before we start our study I want you to know that, as a Christian, I don’t approve of stealing.” Well, duh…
I couldn’t believe that he never knew that many of the American soldiers occupying his country claimed the same faith. What scares me is that he never would have dreamt it. I doubt that the Iraqi church has ever read Romans 13:1-7 and found justification for Christian involvement in war. I doubt they’ve ever read the Sermon on the Mount and, like many in my own faith community, exclaimed, “Turning the other cheek and loving your enemy do not negate civic duty!”
What will it take for American evangelicals to wake up and realize that our military is making things worse for Christians in the countries that we occupy? The so-called Christian warriors that we pray for in our assemblies and send church care-packages to are unrecognizable to their brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq. What does that say about us?
I’m afraid we have contextualized Jesus as an American Republican who lobbies against same-sex marriage and abortion, blesses middle-class evangelicals, and champions democracy throughout the world.
Be the person who reminds your church that America’s enemies aren’t Jesus’ enemies.