Caring & Praying For Over There … From Over Here

iraqi-christians

A month ago, news feeds and Facebook threads were alive with the news of Christian persecution in Iraq. Christians around the internet cried out for mercy in the wake of news of civilians being slaughtered, women and children raped, families forced to flee. Reports leaked of starvation and hunger; the UN reported that the country was on the verge of a mass humanitarian crisis.

But today there’s more being posted about nude celebrity photos than what’s going on in Iraq.

I was reminded of this when I saw the following video. It was surrounded by several posts regarding #celebgate and had garnered almost no attention. In fact, I think the only reason I saw it was because it’d just been posted just a moment previously by a friend of mine who’s particularly passionate about this topic.

It’d be easy for me to heap on the “you should be praying about this, thinking about this, obsessing over this” brand of guilt that is all-too common in Christian circles. It’d be easy to write a blog post with a catchy-title – even a controversial one – to make a compelling case for why we should all care more than we do, to subtly compel everyone to feel guilt about not being as moved as this man by the suffering of his neighbors.

But the reality is that emotion, human emotion, is produced by experience. Even Jesus did not experience emotion abstractly, but rather he experienced it in the context of grieving, in the moment when real pain, real life reached out and touched him. John 11 shows us a Jesus who viewed the tomb of his friend and wept over it. There. In a place where his friend was buried. In a place of grief, mourning and loss. He did not weep with a vague notion of the idea. He wept in the midst of an experience.

What American Christianity needs is not another dose of abstract guilt but experience with tangible, real love. What America needs is to scrape our knees and get our hands dirty with love. The problem is, we keep convincing ourselves that the only possible way to do this is by going somewhere else. 

But what struck me in viewing this video was that this man is not a Christian. The man weeping in this film does not share the same faith, convictions or beliefs as his Christian neighbors, and yet he is weeping over them.

Now, the following may seem like a harsh statement, but I don’t think it’s unfair: how many American Christian leaders would find themselves weeping on national television over a similar plight of their Muslim neighbors? Put differently: how many members of the ‘moral majority’ would break down sobbing during an interview if there was a sudden forced deportation of peaceful, loving Muslims from our country?

Better yet: how many of us regularly weep over the ragged veteran sitting day after day at the corner of Main Street, the one with a hopeless expression and a cardboard sign? How many of us regularly break down sobbing on national news for the plight of 1,750,000 homeless people that live in our neighborhoods? How many of us weep over the fact that there’s nearly half a million orphans living in the US, that every year 20,000 children age out of foster care without being adopted? What about the rampant sex-trafficking that takes place in our own backyards?

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Grief over the pain of the world doesn’t have to be abstract. In fact, it can’t be. And to believe that this is the case, to believe that the only problems to be fixed involve places over there ignores the reality of human depravity and the calling of the local church.

When I saw this video about Iraq, I was motivated to continue to pray for Iraq. But I realize that’s the most I can do regarding that situation: pray. And any guilt beyond that pushes me to the brink of apathy, depression, immobility, uselessness.

Which is a shame because there’s plenty more to be done. There’s more to Christian life, faith and hope than just praying for something over there. There’s more wrong with the world than something a miracle of God, a missionary, or perhaps government intervention can help.

And it happens every day.

Because when I wake up and walk out my front door, I pass my neighbor’s door.

There’s 613 laws in the Old Testament. When asked which of these, above all the others, is the greatest, Jesus answered:

 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’- Mark 12:30-31

Love God. Love others. And the “others” that we’re supposed to love isn’t an abstract. It isn’t over there, it’s right down the road.

The way to love and care for those over there is to start by loving and caring for those right here, where you are.

When Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor, he couldn’t have been more clear. He literally meant the people to whom you have immediate access.

The word Jesus used for ‘neighbor’ (πλησίον) means: near, adjacent or adjoining

To further elucidate his point, he told the infamous parable of the good Samaritan, in which “your neighbor” is the person you literally have to step around and over to avoid loving.

There is no concern in the Bible for loving someone over there until you’ve first accomplished the task of loving the person near, adjacent or adjoining you.

Because Christ was human. He understood that human experience deals with just that: experience.

It deals with spheres of influence.

And our human sphere of influence is only so big. There’s only so much we can do.

And if we’re wondering to begin, there’s a video from an Iraqi non-Christian that gives us a beautiful example: love the people next door, weep for their hardship, pray for them. It doesn’t matter what their religion. It never has and never should.

If you want to love and care for people over there…we have to start by loving and caring for those who are right here.

Because as Jesus says:

There is no commandment greater than these.- Mark 12:31

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The Face of REAL Persecution

Taken from an IS video, this photo shows Iraqi prisoners, including what appear to be children, piled onto trucks before being driven off for execution. Photo from Anglican Communion News Service
Taken from an IS video, this photo shows Iraqi prisoners, including what appear to be children, piled onto trucks before being driven off for execution. Photo from Anglican Communion News Service

It’s three AM in the morning and I hear a dog bark down the street. I turn over in the night and feel my wife next to me in bed, hear my children sleeping in the next room. Suddenly, there’s a loud bang, the door to our house is kicked open, lights flash into our house and masked men yielding guns charge into the room. I jump out of bed and one of them slams the butt of his rifle into my face. My wife cries and lunges for our children, but a man grabs them and begins dragging them outside. There’s yelling, my children are crying. I hear similar shouts coming from the other houses. I hear my neighbor’s wife screaming in terror.

I try to push through to my wife, but another rifle butt hits me in the eye and I cannot see out of it. I am on the ground and I turn over, trying to stand up when another blow hits my good eye and I see only darkness. I crawl on the floor, blood pouring from my face. Lord, hear our prayer. I am trying to reach the sound of my screaming children. I feel two sets of hands take me by the ankles, and pull me out of the house, dumping me in the yard. I hear the sound of a pistol loading behind my head. Lord, hear our prayer. I hear my children screaming. I feel the muzzle position itself at the base of my skull.

Lord of mercy, hear my prayer. 

The situation in Iraq has gone from dire to hell. ISIS, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, claims that it “can do anything now that the world is just looking at Gaza”. The Vicar of Baghdad, Reverend Canon Andrew White has issued an impassioned plea for prayer and support as the ISIS onslaught against the minority Christian community increases and worsens. According to some unconfirmed reports, up to 1500 people have been killed by ISIS already.

This is not to say that we should not be concerned with the events of the Gaza Strip; Christians should be praying fervently for both situations. But the worsening crisis in Iraq should draw on the heartstrings of Christians in particular because the killings in Iraq are not due to war or political disputes, they are religiously based slaughterings. Christians, as well as various other religious sects, are facing unprecedented persecution. And they need our prayers. 

Displaced Iraqis from the northern town of Sinjar flee to the mountains, seeking refuge after Islamic State extremists seized their hometown and vowed to execute them. Photo from New York Daily News
Displaced Iraqis from the northern town of Sinjar flee to the mountains, seeking refuge after Islamic State extremists seized their hometown and vowed to execute them. Photo from New York Daily News

As American Christians, news of the sufferings of our brothers and sisters should awaken us to the realities of the world we live in. And it should not just sadden us, it should convict us. Because American Christians have a terrible habit of crying wolf when it comes to religious persecution. Even when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby in a controversial judicial decision this past July, many Christians were quick to remark that the whiplash faced  by the media had taken some form of persecution. Shortly thereafter, Fox News Host Gretchen Carlson came out and warned that America’s increasingly anti-Christmas spirit promoted Christian persecution. When President Obama signed an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, Christian author and radio talk show host Michael Brown called it throwing “religious- in particular Christians- under the bus”.

In far less official and undocumented cases, I’ve had numerous conversations with fellow Christians in America when they refer to the “persecution” they face from the government for not being allowed to pray publicly in school or because of the remote possibility of losing their second amendment rights. Others of us may mention persecution not at the hand of the government but of peers: we are mocked, looked down upon or viewed as intellectually inferior. All these things are unfortunate and discouraging. But none of this is persecution. This is “being in the world but not of the world.” It’s being a Christian.

And when reading of the horrible events taking place in Iraq we ought to be humbled into prayer and drawn into the grateful realization of how well off we really are. In truth, we ought to be a little bit ashamed of ourselves. Because the American tendency of labeling our standing in society as “persecuted” is akin to standing next to a cancer patient in the hospital and complaining about a chest-cold.

I am not saying we don’t go through difficult times or that there are not some people reading this who are not facing depths of despair: but if they are it’s not because of persecution. Mislabeling any hardships we face displays great ignorance and great insensitivity and diminishes our ability to properly minister to our brothers and sisters in their greatest moments of need. It betrays the fact that, on a practical level, we care more about our political standing and whether or not we’ll be allowed to buy ammunition at Wal-Mart than the fact that some of our brothers and sisters are falling asleep tonight not knowing if they’ll awaken with a nozzle to their foreheads.

I say this as a reminder to myself as much as anyone. I say this to awaken myself from the apathy that haunts me into caring more about updating my Iphone than praying for the persecuted church, more about what type of shoe I will wear today and whether or not 1500 Christians in Iraq are slaughtered while I sleep. It would make for an awful day if my boss yelled at me and berated me publicly for my faith. That would be a good day for an Iraqi Christian; at least they and their family would still be alive. At least they would still have their house, their possessions and a safe place to sleep.

We are not persecuted in the United States.  Take a moment today to read about Christians in Iraq and Syria. Take a moment to read the plea from the Vicar Of Baghdad. Then bow your head, picture yourself as a sibling, parent, child in the Iraq church. Feel their pain, their vulnerability, their suffering for the sake of Christ. And for a moment, let us try and put aside ourselves and be unified with them.

 

Pray for the the church in Iraq and Syria who are facing dire persecution at the hands of ISIS.

Pray for people everywhere who are persecuted for their beliefs.

Continue to pray for the war in the Gaza strip, as the violence continues there.

Pray for the American church, that we would be awakened from our apathy and united with the global church in their sufferings.

 

Lord, hear my prayer,
    listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
    come to my relief.

Psalm 143:1

 

 

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The Arabic letter N is a sign of solidarity with Iraqi Christians. The symbol – meaning Nazarene, or Christian – is being painted on Christian homes by IS supporters to mark them out for attack; and is now being adopting by Christians around the world as an act of support.