Missionaries in Iraq

Copyright (c) 2003 by Kenny Felder

A bit dated in some ways, but the core message about religious tolerance hasn't really changed

As the debate rages about who is going to take responsibility for rebuilding Iraq, one relatively small group has received a lot of big attention: the missionaries. They swoop into the country bringing food, medicine, and, of course, Christianity. A lot of my friends are concerned, indignant, or even outraged about this. What right do those missionaries have, bringing their religion into an ancient Muslim culture?

Personally, I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim; you might say I have no dog in this race. But here is the question I keep asking my friends. Suppose a Christian missionary is approaching an Iraqi family to convert them. You stop him in the road and talk to him. What would you say?

Most people start with something like this:

"Why are you trying to convert these people from the perfectly good religion of their country, their people, and their whole way of life?"

Well, the problem is, Mr. Missionary doesn't consider Islam a "perfectly good religion." He thinks anyone who believes in Jesus is eternally saved, and anyone who does not, no matter how well intentioned, is going to suffer eternally. Of course, not all Christians believe this, but for many of them, Christianity is right; other religions are therefore wrong.

So now you might say something like:

"Just stop believing that. It's great that Christianity works for you personally, but don't assume all other systems are wrong."

Well, for whatever reasons, Mr. Missionary does believe what he believes. And we've got a tradition of tolerance in our country that says he's allowed to believe it, just as much as you're allowed to believe he's the one who's wrong.

So you've only got one argument left.

"If you believe these people are going to burn in agony forever, keep it to yourself. Just give them the food and medicine, and leave your personal beliefs at home."

In one form or another, I think that's where most of my friends come down on the issue. It's OK to have whatever religious beliefs you want to, but don't try to push them on others.

To me, that's nonsense. So I've come up with a little role playing game designed to illustrate the missionary's position. The game is set in Spring of the year 79 AD. You, the player, encounter a group of refugees. They are hungry and sick, seeking a better life in the bustling Roman metropolis of Pompeii. They have no idea that Pompeii is mere months away from being wiped out by a volcano.

As you go about feeding and helping them, you try to convince them that Pompeii might not be the best destination. But they are adamant. One man has already arranged to work for his uncle's business in Pompeii; an old woman tells you her whole family lives in Pompeii. Your pleas grow more desperate. You're all marching to certain death! Your children will be buried under a mountain of lava! The ruins won't even be found for thousands of years! They smile politely. Do you have any more of those delicious vegetables?

Your whole goal in this game is to do as much good as you can. So what do you do? Perhaps you only give food to those who will listen to your warnings. Perhaps you hit the road, looking for other travelers who will be more open to your message. Someone suggests that you just forget about the volcano and focus on the more immediate needs; it would sound funny if it weren't so tragic.

I'm sure you see my point: for many missionaries, the situation in Iraq today is very similar to my fantasy game. The people in Iraq are the refugees, good-hearted people with immediate needs for food, shelter, and medicine. But their lack of faith in Jesus dooms them and their children to an eternity of torment that makes Mt. Vesuvius look like a campfire. What's a good evangelical Christian to do? How can he leave his beliefs at home and focus on the smaller issues?

As I mentioned, many Christians have completely different beliefs that don't require them to proselytize at all. But I say, let Mr. Missionary have his chat with the Muslim family. They're all adults, and they don't need me to step in and protect them from each other's ideas. Maybe he'll convert them. Maybe they'll convert him. If they all act honorably on their beliefs—if they respect each other while still trying to win each other over—some greater truth may eventually emerge from the dialogue. That has a lot to do with my own faith in Democracy.


From: Gary Felder
August 24, 2008

I agree with your conclusion and I think the Pompeii analogy is brilliant. There is one point, however, where I think your argument is weak. You say that in our society people are allowed to believe whatever they want and then you seem to suggest that people are being hypocritical for saying that this missionary shouldn't act on his beliefs. That argument clearly is absurd if applied in many cases. You may have the right to believe that it's morally acceptable for you to kill a man for sneezing on you, but if you try to act on that belief we as a society will send men with guns to stop you. Your final conclusion, that missionaries should be allowed to talk to people because they are all free to make their own judgments, is not a general statement of tolerance of anyone acting on their beliefs but a specific statement of tolerance of that particular action. I was also surprised to see you use the argument "They're all adults." Would you feel different if they were talking to a kid? I might, but I wouldn't have expected you to.

From: Kenny Felder
September 1, 2008

First point: I'm making a moral argument, not a legal one. No one really disputes the legal right to proselytize, but people act as if it is a selfish act when I see it as the opposite.

Second point: Perfectly fair. I'm using "adults" to convey all the things that our society means by that word, many of which I don't actually agree with myself.

From: Laura Elena Zarandona
August 21, 2010

Kenny, just read your blog. I think the key word is respect. The problem with most evangelical groups is that they lack this key element for true dialogue. They depart from the premise that they're right and they want to contribute to correct what's wrong. A lot of these people use these ways to justify their flaws and be judgmental and self righteous, they look at those who don't agree with them as inferior. Different doesn't mean less but many of times we give it this connotation. I grew up in Catholic Mexico. Growing up I had a protestant friend and a Muslim one. I understood their isolation. Now, Mexico is a different scenario, over there people just assume you are catholic—not that this is better. When I came to the States I didn't understand this intolerance, I still don't. I was married 14 years to a fundamentalist Christian. I'm not going to deny that there are wonderful people among the born again world, but there's scarce. I had so many arguments because they would only listen to anything Christian. How can someone be so certain they've reached absolute truth if they don't question? Every time I ask this I saw fear in their eyes, fear to be wrong. All I can say is that in all my personal experiences those who were solid in their believes were never afraid to be challenged and were always happy to let there actions do the talking.

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