Posted by: Titus Presler | August 9, 2010

Afghan massacre raises issues of Christian mission

Christian mission features prominently in the August 6 murder of a medical team in the Badakhshan province in Afghanistan.

Claiming responsibility for the killing of two Afghans, six USAmericans, one German and one Briton, the Taliban were reported by the Associated Press to have said that the foreigners were “spying for the Americans” and “preaching Christianity.”  News reports also stated that the Taliban said the group was carrying at least one Bible in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two major languages.

The New York Times’ statement that the Taliban accused the group of “being Christian missionaries” seems likely to be a gloss on the Taliban’s actual accusation of “preaching Christianity.”  The difference is important theologically and politically in Afghanistan, in many other countries of religious tension, and in religious discourse generally.

Christian mission includes many activities besides the important work of explicitly preaching Christianity, as the Afghan incident itself illustrates.  The International Assistance Mission (IAM), of which slain eye doctor Tom Little was a member, has worked in Afghanistan since 1966, according to director Dirk Frans, who went on to say that the organization does not “proselytize.”  On the expedition during which they were executed, the team had conducted eye clinics in remote areas accessible only by foot and pack animal.

Tom Little, evidently, had worked in Afghanistan for thirty years, had raised his family there, was fluent in Dari, and oversaw a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics.  I understand from fellow alumni of Woodstock School, of which slain Dan Terry was also a graduate, that Dan had worked in Afghanistan for over thirty years.  He was former country director for Future Generations Afghanistan, an organization with no direct tie to IAM.  One associate said,

Any of you who knew Dan knew that he deeply loved Afghanistan and worked for peace.  Over the 30 years he has worked in Afghanistan he has had many close calls, and there are few foreigners who have served that country so long. While he served from his deep Christian conviction of loving one’s neighbor, believing in the importance of witnessing for peace, he was never in any manner evangelical. . . . I can hear his voice as it so often said, “Words carry no meaning unless you are willing to couple them to actions.”

“Evangelistic” is probably what that writer means by “evangelical” and probably what Frans means by the pejorative term “proselytize.”  The murdered team members were not brash and inexperienced personnel, but seasoned and dedicated individuals who knew the limits of the kind of Christian mission they could undertake in Afghanistan over the long haul.  Some of them had lived through the monarchy, the Soviets and the Taliban.  They were doubtless concerned for Christian witness, but they chose to express it in compassionate work for the suffering rather than in explicit verbal preaching that would cut their work short.

St. Francis is credited with the injunction, “Preach the gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.”  I have grown tired of that saying in the North American context, for it usually functions as an excuse for never saying anything explicit about Jesus, not because there is any physical threat or even likelihood of offense being taken but because those who use the aphorism are simply reluctant to undertake the vulnerability of sharing their faith.  However, in this instance the saying has traction.  The Taliban knew that the medical team were Christians, and they probably sensed – rightly, as a matter of fact – that their medical work in itself was a kind of “preaching,” for their work expressed in action the compassion of Christ.

As for the term “missionary,” it is probable that no one can live and work in Afghanistan under the formal designation “missionary,” for precisely the reasons of religious competition and historic distrust of Christian mission that reared up in this incident.  Although not termed “missionaries,” however, the team was clearly missional in identity and purpose.  They had a sense of divine calling which had been affirmed by the mission organizations that had sent them, and they were participating in the wider mission of God’s healing in the world.  While not missionaries according to immigration status, they were certainly missionaries in a theological sense, and there is no point in trying to obscure that fact.

It is interesting that the group’s possession of a Dari Bible would be taken as incriminating evidence by the Taliban assassins.  Several observations about this:

– Anyone who has been a missionary and has learned a local language in which one works knows how one comes to love such a language – conversing in it, exploring its nooks and crannies, reading the Bible in it.  One begins to think in that language and to theologize in that language.  It becomes part of one’s enculturation, the process by which one becomes part of the context and builds community with its people.  It would be very natural for, say, Tom Little or Dan Terry to have a Bible in Dari simply so that their daily prayer and meditation could be guided by the nuances of Christian spirituality rendered in Dari.  Having such a Bible, therefore, would be not a sign of aggression but a token of solidarity, a sacrament of love.

– If such a medical missioner happened upon a Dari-speaking Christian, having a Dari Bible on hand would strengthen their fellowship and prayer life together.  A Dari Bible would be an important pastoral resource.  Of course, from a Taliban perspective such a pastoral concern would be indistinguishable from the most heinous sort of missionary activity, for it would be strengthening the faith of a heretic on one side and an infidel on the other.

– At a deeper level and without quite thinking it through, the Taliban probably react violently to the Bible in local languages because they intuit quite correctly that the Christian scriptures in vernacular languages make the Christian gospel accessible directly to Afghan people without the intermediary of a missionary or mission agency.  An indigenous Bible presents the gospel not through the medium of a foreign language or a foreigner with his or her alien ethnicity and culture, but through the medium of the local language and the myriad indigenous cultural nuances it conveys.  Thus a Dari Bible in itself would be rightly regarded by the Taliban as a threat even greater than that presented by a missionary.  Hence their tone of “Aha!” in finding a Dari Bible.

The vicious religious totalitarianism of the Taliban in this incident is shocking.  Yet it should remind Christians of dark periods in our own past, most notably the Inquisition.  In that sense, the religious intolerance of the Taliban can seem medieval to us, as though their brand of Islam, along with that of the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, were arrested in a mindset we long since outgrew.  We should recall, however, that such intolerance in our own history is a good deal fresher than the medieval period, for it includes Anglican persecution of dissenters and Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century, the Salem witch trials of the 17th century, and many waves of religious intolerance in Europe and the USA since then.  The 20th century certainly included the obverse, namely intolerance of authentic religion, in the Soviet, Nazi and Maoist regimes.  Violence connected with religion, in other words, can spring up at any time and is not necessarily an anachronistic holdover that will be simply outgrown in time.

The outrages perpetrated by the Taliban, whether against Christians or against women or against Muslims they regard as insufficiently observant, are a pernicious evil with roots both ancient and contemporary.  In the religious realm their policies violate internationally recognized norms canonized in such agreements as the International Declaration of Human Rights, which is quite clear that people have the right not only to practice their faith but to propagate their faith.  Thus religious mission – when practiced non-coercively and non-violently – as well as religious practice, has specific international affirmation at the political level of the United Nations.  Conversely, the Taliban and their kin violate such norms by explicitly and brazenly fusing their own sense of religious mission with methods of coercive and brutal violence.


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