Protestant missionaries have been criticized for their plans to evangelize in Iraq. If history is any guide, they're not likely to have much luck anyway.
By Laura Secor, 4/20/2003
GEORGE BRASWELL REMEMBERS what it used to be like to evangelize in the Middle East. You learned the local language and customs. You prepared yourself to build a life in the place, not for months but for years. You brought some kind of skill that would add value to the community that you served. You probably didn't come home having made a lot of converts. But you certainly did not insult Islam or the prophet Mohammed, as the Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and the head of the Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, recently did when he called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."
Braswell, today a professor of missions and world religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., was a Baptist missionary in Iran from 1967 until 1974. While he was there, he wrote a cultural anthropology dissertation on Shi'ite religion and politics, and he taught at a Muslim seminary-"training young ayatollahs and imams," he recalls. As he and his family got to know their neighbors in Tehran, conversations would inevitably turn to culture and then religion: "They'd ask, `Are you Christian?' They prompted the discussion. And we'd talk about how Christians view Jesus."
By the time he left, Braswell had helped establish four Baptist churches and a mission. When the 1979 Islamic revolution shook Iran, he says, "All the missionaries were asked to leave, and the Christians went underground."
Somewhere out there, then, is a coterie of Iranian Baptists. If that sounds strange, it is. Over the past decade, Christian missionaries have converted millions of African animists, some Buddhists in Asia, even Hindus in India. But Muslim communities have proved notoriously resistant. "Christian missions have not impacted the Muslim world since Islam began," says Braswell bluntly. Adds M. Thomas Thangaraj, a professor of World Christianity at Emory University, "I've only known a couple of people in my life who have given up Islam and become Christian."
That hasn't stopped missionaries from trying. In recent years, Christian missionaries have increasingly focused their attention on the so-called "10/40 window," a latitudinal range that includes much of the Arab world. It's controversial, and sometimes dangerous, work. In December, three Baptist missionaries were murdered while working at a hospital in Yemen, and as the war in Iraq draws to a close, controversy has erupted over the plans of the International Missions Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan's Purse to send missionaries into that country. To some Christians, such missions are entirely consistent with their duty to bring good works and the gospel to all corners of the world, whatever the fallout. But others see dangers in such an approach-not just to US-Arab relations, but to the integrity of evangelizing itself.
Missionaries in the Arab world have their work cut out for them. The hardest nut to crack is theological. A religion that builds on the Old and New Testaments, Islam explicitly repudiates Christian belief. The Quran is believed to supersede the Bible and to correct its flaws. Says Thangaraj, "It is difficult to convince people to go back in history to something they consider primitive."
And while Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet, they view some basic facts very differently than Christians do. "Islam is the only religion that says that Jesus did not die on the cross," explains Braswell. "Not only do they not buy the meaning, they don't believe it's history."
According to many interpretations of the Quran, conversion from Islam is punishable by death. At the very least, says Scott Moreau, the head of the department of missions and intercultural studies at Illinois's Wheaton College, it leads to "social dislocation," as converts are ostracized from their communities.
But fear of reprisals isn't the only obstacle. Islam fosters genuinely strong communities that prize an ethic of mutual aid. Where missionaries in other parts of the world may naturally attract the poor, the alienated, and the already socially dislocated, those who seek to evangelize tightly knit Muslim communities find themselves in a more challenging situation.
What's more, Islam is itself a proselytizing religion. Says Jonathan Bonk, the executive director of the Overseas Missions Studies Center, "My impression is that Muslims love to talk about religion. They have no problem engaging with someone who is trying to proselytize to them. They proselytize right back."
The real issue at the moment, according to Bonk, is a cultural and political one. Many Muslims associate Christianity with Western practices and values they reject, including "commercialization, exploitation, and the manipulation of the politics of countries where we have no business," says Bonk. "The missionaries become symbols of a much, much larger encroachment."
Bonk compares the problem to one that faced British missionaries 150 years ago: "Despite denials, there is an implicitly close relationship between the goals of empire and the goals of the church."
Ironically, the IMB spokesman Mark Kelly describes the Muslim critique of Western values as a positive point of contact for Christian evangelicals. "Muslims have moral concerns about the Western world, and they find out that these are misgivings that evangelicals have as well. They think all Americans are Christians, including a lot of celebrities. Evangelicals say that if that were what Christianity were about, we wouldn't want anything to do with it, either."
Ever since the first American Protestant missionaries -- students from Williams College -- ventured abroad in the 1790s, evangelists have faced questions about the relationship between preaching and social reform, and between doing good works and furthering colonialism.
In 1932, an interdenominational committee headed by the Harvard philosopher William Hocking called upon missionaries to make "world understanding" central to their work, admonishing them that it was "clearly not the duty of the Christian missionary to attack the non-Christian systems of religion." Fundamentalists, unhappy with what they saw as the relativism of this declaration, broke away from mainline Protestants to form their own missions.
Some of the debates surrounding evangelizing to Muslims today are rooted in the old splits among American missionaries. Although Islamic law encourages Muslims to proselytize, it clearly forbids others to proselytize to Muslims. To get around legal restrictions in most Muslim countries, missionaries often enter as aid workers, teachers, nurses, and the like. Should these missionaries be attempting to convert the locals? Or is that a kind of manipulation? And if they go to offer aid, discussing their faith only when asked, are they still doing missionary work?
Thangaraj says that Christian missionaries should lead by example. "Jesus talked not about a membership drive but about celebrating faith by living it and bragging about it," he says. But to Scott Moreau, this soft approach raises questions. "If Christianity is just an ethical system, there is no need to speak. If it is something more, if it is about a relationship with God and not just good deeds, then if you stop at good deeds you are shortchanging who you claim to be."
Evangelizing in the Muslim world has always been different than in looser cultures, however. In Africa, claims Braswell, you can get a hundred people to gather under a tree to hear a preacher. In the Middle East, "the stratagem was to make yourself available in human conditions -- children to children, family to family. We built trust relationships. It grew out of a natural encounter."
But some missiologists question the focus on individual conversions. Asks Moreau, Why not take a different approach when working with Muslims -- one that allows "time for conversion to ferment within the community"?
In some cases, conversion has taken place very quietly indeed. According to missiologists who specialize in Islam, there are actually communities of converted Muslims that retain many Muslim practices, such as styles of dress and manners of prayer, while accepting Jesus as their savior. A mosque serving these communities, says Braswell, is known as an Isa Majid, or a Jesus Mosque. Some converts attend regular Muslim mosques, and their communities are none the wiser.
This kind of hybrid practice has become a topic of hot debate in some Christian quarters. "Some say Christ called for a public pronouncement," says Moreau. "Others say, give them time."
As Christian missionaries turn their attention to the "unreached peoples" of the Arab world, their need for "cross-cultural understanding" looms larger than ever. When people like Franklin Graham publically insult Islam, says Bonk, "This really hurts missionaries on the ground there. It's not how they see Islam. It's a caricature, a parody designed to justify what political leaders want to do."
Indeed, says Bonk, because Islam does not distinguish between private religion and public policy, it is often difficult for Muslims abroad to understand that American foreign policy may not be equivalent to the Christian agenda.
That's not always easy for Americans, either. Says Moreau: "It frightens me even as a conservative Christian when I see our president at times utilizing a personal sense of eschatology to drive foreign policy. Part of me cringes. Sometimes people get so righteous that they can't afford to be wrong. That scares me."
Laura Secor is the staff writer for Ideas.