Posted by: Titus Presler | December 1, 2009

Desert Storm story flags danger of linking mission with state policy

Today the online edition of Forward Day by Day, the daily devotional published by Forward Movement Publications in Cincinnati, Ohio, included a meditation of missiological significance by the Rev. Dr. Richard Schmidt, Editor-in-Chief:

Amos 3:1-11. You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Two weeks after the conclusion of Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf war of 1991, I sat in a meeting with fifteen other pastors. We were each asked to tell how we and our congregations had responded to Desert Storm. The other pastors told of the rejoicing among their parishioners at this demonstration of the power of God sending soldier-evangelists into Iraq to win the nation for Christ.

I was the last to speak. I said, “Jesus rejected violence as a means to convert people and rebuked Peter when he resorted to it in the Garden of Gethsemane. He does not hold Peter to one standard and us to a lower standard. If God has chosen America as his agent in the world today, as he chose ancient Israel, we must expect to be held accountable for what we do, even more so than nations not so chosen. To be chosen by God is to be held to the highest standard. I cannot believe that bombing anyone’s home, school, business, hospital, or place of worship is the way to bring him to Christ. There is more cause for repenting than for rejoicing today, on all sides. Lord, have mercy on us all.”

Yes, it’s horrifying that such a group of Christian congregations and their pastors could be so unanimous – with one exception – about a military invasion being a legitimate expression of gospel proclamation and Christian mission. Christendom is over in most practical senses, but the mentality of Christendom persists among many Christians and their leaders in their conviction that it is legitimate to use state power to advance the supposed interests of the Christian gospel and the churches it has birthed.

Ironically for the churches represented in that pastors’ group, it is not clear that USAmerican soldiers in the Gulf war did anything to proclaim the gospel or encourage existing Christians in Iraq.  Neither is it clear that the extended stay of the USA’s military beginning with the Iraq invasion of 2003 has resulted in any such mission.  Nor would any such mission by the military have been appropriate.  And the effects have been quite to the contrary.  The USA’s military actions have enflamed vast swaths of the Muslim world with intensified hatred of Christianity.  Moroever, the Christian community in Iraq, numbering about 741,000 in 2000, or about 3.2% of the nation’s population of 22.2 million, has suffered considerable disabilities since the invasion as local opinion has turned against it, accompanied by bombings of churches and the like.

Alongside the 97% Muslim population, Christians are far and away the largest religious minority in Iraq.  The Catholic Church in Iraq, a Chaldean group in union with Rome, is the largest church, with 271,000 members, followed by the Ancient Church of the East, an Orthodox group with 58,000 members.  Interestingly, the World Christian Encyclopedia lists about 200,000 members of “isolated radio churches” in 2000.

The issue of state power and religion has particular gravity today as Pres. Barack Obama prepares to announce the deployment of 30,000 additional USAmerican troops to Afghanistan.  There were about 7,000 Christians in Afghanistan in 2000, in a total population of 22.7 million: 1,500 Catholics, 1,000 in the Community Church of Kabul, 1,000 in the German-speaking Protestant Church, 3,000 in “isolated radio churches,” and 200 Anglicans.

Dick’s anecdote should spur us to be alert for other and more subtle ways in which we either support or consent to the use of state power to promote certain kinds of religious profession.  Mennonites and those of other anabaptist traditions have always been quite clear in their rejection of any alliance with state power.  The issues tend to be more complex for Anglicans.  With a tradition of a state-established church in England, Anglicans worldwide have been more interested in what state power, properly directed, can accomplish for good in national societies.  The Global Anglicanism Project, for instance, found such interest in its research areas of Tanzania, Brazil, India and Aotearea/New Zealand.  In its 2005 report the project stated:

The church’s role during the colonial period afforded it proximity to the channels of social and economic power.  In the British wcolonial world the church typically was the religious arm of political establishment, and this has left an indelible imprint.  Anglicans may retain no official political role in the former empire, but frequently they hold influence that resembles that of an actual establishment.  Anglican congregations in many places attract society’s leaders, and Anglican facilities provide the venue for important societal occasions.  (The Vitality and Promise of Being Anglican, by Sathianathan Clarke, Donald Miller, Titus Presler, Wm. Sachs, Maurice Seaton and Jenny Te Paa (New York: Episcopal Church Foundation, 2005): 27.)

Such interest is good when it prompts the church to encourage fruitful state policies and participate in national debates.  The influence can be seductive, however.  Continuing establishment of the Church of England, for instance, has betrayed the church into a situation where Abp. Henry Orombi of Uganda could justify in the Times of London during the 2008 Lambeth Conference his rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s authority because Canterbury is the one Anglican archbishop who is not selected by the church but by a government.  Corruption of church life through alliance with government is clear in Zimbabwe, where breakaway Bp. Nolbert Kunonga continues to be able to sow chaos in the Diocese of Harare on account of his friendship with Pres. Robert Mugabe, and there seems to be a similar situation in the Diocese of Manicaland with breakaway Bp. Elson Jakazi, though there the connections with government are murkier.

The church must always beware of colluding with the state for the sake of preserving its connections and influence.  Its first obligation to the state is, as the saying goes these days, to speak truth to power.

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