Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This just in....the Iraq war was a holy war...according to the Pentagon!!

Despite the repeated attempts of former President George W. Bush to renege on his usage of the word "crusade" to describe the Iraq War, there are some in the evangelical community who suspected all along that for Bush and his top aides, the Iraq War was indeed a holy war. At the time, the majority of evangelicals--including myself--cheered as the President and his top aides cast the Iraq war in moralistic terms, invoking the name of God to bless the bombs dropped by U.S. planes in the initial "shock and awe" campaign.

When other Christians tried to tell us that invoking the name of God to bless the invasion of a sovereign nation was wrong, we laughed and mocked. Who in the world--other than liberals of course-- actually believes that the President of the United States of America would launch a modern day crusade? It turns out that the minority was right. I was wrong.

Earlier this week GQ magazine released a set of memos from none other than the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In a set of memos placed on Bush's desk every morning over a period of several months (titled the World Wide Intelligence Update), Rumsfeld quoted numerous passages from the Bible and superimposd them against a backdrop of soldiers, tanks, and fighter planes.

If the leader of a Muslim country were to invoke passages from the Koran to call on Allah to bless their troops as they attacked their American enemy, we would have with absolute certainty called that fanatacism--and we would have ridiculed anyone who thought otherwise. But because it was our leaders and they were calling on the name of our God and reading from our Bible--even though anyone with an elementary Bible knowledge knew that they were twisting the Scriptures by divorcing them from their original contexts--we called them pious.

To my fellow evangelicals that love Jesus and want to see His purposes fulfilled in our world, here are a few examples of how the Holy Scriptures were twisted by the Pentagon to sanctify a holy war.

1. In the first picture, there are three soldiers sitting in prayer with their machine guns pointed heavenward. The Scripture reference is Isaiah 6:8 which says, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" I can remember as a young boy going to church and seeing these words on a banner hanging over the center stage of the sanctuary. These words have inspired thousands of Christians to go into all the world and devote themselves as Christ's ambassadors to humanity. Now apparently we're supposed to believe that God had the U.S. military in mind when He inspired Isaiah to write these words.

2. In another frame we see a tank gliding across the Iraqi desert as the sun is setting. The Scripture for the day? Ephesians 6:13 which says, "Therefore take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." I guess I was absent that day in Sunday School when the teacher said the Apostle Paul had America's War on Terror in mind when he wrote these words. Somehow I always thought this verse was talking about prayer against demonic powers seeking to overthrow believers in their faith. Who would have known?

3. Perhaps the most bizarre frame is the one using Psalms 33:16. Although the verse says explicitly, "The King is not saved by a mighty army," the verse is plastered across an American tank, a missile, and a U.S. soldier showing that victory does come through a mighty army. Talk about missing the point!

There's only one word for such a blatant misuse of Scriptures to sanctify a political agenda--idolatry! The American Church let this happen. I let this happen. May God be merciful to us and move upon our hearts to repent.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Should soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan proselytize?

Blogging and me share a love/hate relationship. One the one hand, I hate writing articles because often it takes me hours of mental sparring to get to exactly what I want to say. On the other hand, I love the feeling of accomplishment after having written. Yes, I know it’s weird, but this is why I only post about once or twice a month. My mental sanity can’t take much more.

Over the past few days, however, I’ve felt a compulsive urge to go to my computer and start typing. Call it a blogging binge if you will. My only justification for this latest binge is the hope that at least a few people will read what I have to say and put themselves through the same agonizing soul searching as I’ve had to do over these past few days. So if you’re ready for some no holds barred gut grabbling heart stopping soul searching, please read on. If not, I’ll understand.

It all started a few weeks ago when I read a post by Brian McLaren on the Sojourners blog stating that according to a recent Pew survey, white evangelical Christians are the one group in America the most likely to support torture. This really bothered me. The reason it bothered me—and I’m still unable to let it go even as I write—is not because I don’t understand the moral complexities involved in protecting our country. What bothers me is that if the survey is correct, then that means there’s something in evangelicalism—more specifically white evangelicalism—that causes people who look like me and think like me to be more prone to violence than others even after all other moral factors are considered. Troubling!

It doesn’t stop here. It’s come to my attention that Christian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been actively distributing Bibles and attempting to convert Afghanis and Iraqis to Christianity—and now Al Jazeera is blasting footage throughout the Muslim world of Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief military chaplain in Afghanistan, counseling his followers in how to “hunt souls for Jesus” by distributing the New Testament to Afghani civilians as “gifts.”

One might ask why I as a Bible believing Christian—and a missionary at that—would be so vehemently opposed to this? I can understand why some might think that I’ve had a sudden memory loss and forgotten that Jesus told His followers to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Why in the world would I oppose soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan distributing Bibles to the local population?

Here’s why. Imagine our country was invaded by…say a country like Indonesia…a country with a majority population of Muslims. Imagine further that the president of Indonesia called the invasion a “jihad to rid the world of evil”—but then turned around and insisted that the invasion of America was not a war against Christianity and has nothing to do with trying to impose Islam on the American people. Now further imagine that the same invaders that occupy our country and patrol our streets with tanks are also distributing copies of the Koran in English at the local Wal Mart—howbeit with smiles on their faces. How likely is the average American citizen going to buy the story that the invasion of our country had nothing to do with attacking our faith, especially given our knowledge of the long history of Islamic/Christian relations?

Now that I think about it, there is a connection between these two stories. Remember what I just mentioned about the footage of Lieutenant Colonel Gary Hensley counseling his followers to “hunt souls for Jesus?” That took place at the huge military base in Bagram. If you’ve ever seen Taxi to the Dark Side, then you’ll know that Bagram is a place that—at least we know in the past—the U.S. military has used to torture and detain prisoners indefinitely. And by the way, very few of the prisoners—at least initially—were known terrorist suspects. Many of them were handed over to the U.S. military—with little to no evidence against them—by tribal warlords looking for a quick buck.

If this isn’t a call to action for Christians to wake up to the reality of the militarization of our faith, then I don’t know what is. According to a world public opinion poll taken in five Muslim countries, nearly two/thirds of the respondents said they believe the “war on terror” is an effort by fundamentalist Christians to spread Christianity in the region. Is it really that hard to understand why?

It’s time for Christians to wake up and divorce once and for all our faith from all things military. Mixing the Kingdom of America with the Kingdom of God not only does serious damage to our country; it also does serious damage to the integrity of the gospel. Let the missionaries proselytize. Soldiers should stick to doing what they do best. Defending our country—and our constitution.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Michael J. Fox and the reality of Bhutan

Recently former Family Ties and Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox visited the country of Bhutan as part of his documentary exploring the theme of optimism around the world. A much publicized part of the documentary is the "gross domestic happiness" that the Bhutanese king ensures his people. Here is what Fox had to say about his visit to Bhutan.

“Bhutan sets an excellent example,” said Michael J. Fox. “The fourth King and the government have been very wise and the people have been very smart and responsible in the way that they’ve responded to their leadership. I hope that y’all are aware of the gift you’ve been given, about where you live and how beautiful it is, and also how you’ve taken care of it.”

Now I don't fault the actor for seeing the positives in the way they do things in a far away country. Too often we in America think that our system of government and way of life are the only possibilities available to ensure the possibility of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps we in America can learn a lot from the way they do things in Bhutan. Having said that, let me insert a reality check that you will not see in Fox's upcoming documentary.

Below is an e-mail I just received from one of the top leaders of the underground church in Bhutan. I've omitted the names for security reasons:

Dear Respected Brother Aaron,Family and all the faithful praying family's in USA warm and loving greeting's to you all. i am writing you this email on behalf of our two impassioned brothers who are in the jail for the last three years and their kids and family's are now is a very tough situation financially they are dry and children's without school and because they could not pay the dues to schools and school authority has discontinued their schooling's so please do kindly pray for this very urgent needs and share it with those praying friends
i am trusting the lord for the miracle to happen and their kids will be able to rejoin the schools and they will also have food and clothes at home while their parents are in the jail for the cause of the gospel.
please do kindly share it with others as an urgent prayer request please.

Apparently the "gross domestic happiness" comes at a price. In Bhutan, you are only allowed to be happy if you conform to the King's religion.

Please pray for these brothers, and if you would like to help them, e-mail me at

Monday, May 11, 2009

On white evangelicals and torture--some intense soul searching

A few weeks ago, I read an article by Brian McLaren that caused some intense soul searching. In his post on the popular God’s Politics blog, McLaren cited a Pew Forum study showing that 6 out of 10 white evangelicals believe that torture is often or sometimes justified, making white evangelicals the religious group the most likely to support torture. As a white evangelical myself, I realize that for many people, the torture question is morally ambiguous, especially in light of the infamous ticking time bomb scenario, so it is not my intention to demonize those who participated in this survey and answered honestly. What troubles me isn’t so much that some of my fellow white evangelicals believe that in a sin cursed earth, morally complex situations arise in which Christians sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils; what troubles me is that most white evangelicals think this way.

Think about it. If this survey is correct, then atheists and Muslims are less likely to support torture than white evangelical Christians—and we are the ones who claim that if everyone on earth were to become like us, the world would be a more peaceful place. Even if we allow the white evangelical survey respondents the highest benefit of a doubt assuming that they had the most morally complex situations in mind, there’s still the question of what is it about evangelicalism, and more specifically white evangelicalism, that makes us the most likely to respond to evil with violence? In his post, McLaren framed the question this way:

Why would white evangelicals be most likely to support torture? Could some conventional theological assumptions of evangelicals have anything to do with it?

The truth is probably a combination of many factors, so in no way do I think that what I’m about to propose is the only factor, or even the greatest factor, but I’m convinced it is a factor and worth mentioning. Since McLaren opened up a huge can of worms with his open-ended question, allow me to throw in my two cents.

I believe that one little discussed factor is an exaggerated emphasis on total depravity in evangelical circles. Whether most evangelicals realize it or not, our underlying assumption is that those who are not born again are only capable of evil. Even if we notice good behavior in non-believers, our understanding of the Christian faith demands that we attribute it to selfish motives.

The translation usually goes something like this:

If society is going to change, then hearts have to change. Only a personal relationship with Christ can take away the evil and murder in people’s hearts, therefore we must send missionaries to convert the terrorists/radical Muslims to Christianity.

So far so good. I’m all for sending missionaries to preach the gospel to Muslims. Anyone that knows me will tell you that my life’s work has been devoted to extending the gospel to unreached regions of the world—and I refuse to apologize for it. But notice what happens next when we take the original assumption, namely that people apart from a personal relationship with Christ are only capable of evil (or at the very least good with tainted motives), to its logical conclusion:

Therefore, unless we convert these people to Christianity, the only other way to deal with them is through force.

As harsh as this may sound, I think if the vast majority of evangelicals were honest with themselves, they would discover that this is their underlying assumption. The problem with this idea is that it fails to take into account that even fallen human beings are created in the image of God. And even though the image has been marred by sin, there still remains a trace of God’s goodness in every human being.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m a firm believer in the doctrine of total depravity—as long as we define total depravity as the idea that only God is truly good and that no one will seek God on his or her own apart from God’s gracious revelation. The problem comes when we turn a Biblical proposition and stretch it beyond its intended meaning. When we take total depravity to mean that every non-believer at all times is only capable of sinning, we forget that even fallen human beings are created in the image of God and are therefore capable of reason. According to Jesus, even evil people know how to give good gifts to their children. Jesus always affirmed the humanity of fallen human beings, and so should we. If we fail to affirm the humanity of others outside our fold, then we’re left with a theology that says the only way to deal with evil people is to convert them or kill them—or torture them.

This is one explanation for why so many evangelicals support the torture of other human beings as a matter of national policy. Now as to why so many white evangelicals support torture, that’s another subject for another day. I think I’ve done enough soul searching for one day. Thank God for His mercy!

Monday, May 04, 2009

A review of "Spirit of the Rainforest"

I love reading missionary books. Though I haven't read every missionary classic (I still haven't gotten around to reading God's Smuggler though I am a huge fan of Brother Andrew), I've read most of them. From Don Richardson's Eternity in their Hearts to K.P. Yohannan's Revolution in World Missions to Bruce Olson's classic autobiography Bruchko, most missionaries that I know have a staple of books that they turn to for inspiration. And with the exception of Yohannan's book, nearly every missionary classic is written from the perspective of a white missionary. Never have I read a book narrated from the perspective of a life long shaman living in the remote jungles of the Amazon.

Until now.

Enter Jungleman, the narrator of Spirit of the Rainforest. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Jungleman was a real shaman of the Yanamomo people that narrated his story over a period of several years to an American named Mark Andrew Ritchie before he died in 1994. According to a friend of mine, Dorothy Miller, who edited the book, Spirit of the Rainforest is in every university library in the United States, and for good reason. Jungleman's first hand narrative provides valuable insights for anthropologists into the lives and culture of a very remote Amazon tribe--even though Jungleman pulls no punches in describing his disdain for anthropologists.

Fair warning. Jungleman's first hand narrative may be one of the most violent books you'll ever read. Anyone who thinks that native cultures should be preserved no matter what (lest "Eden" somehow be spoiled) and that missionaries are guilty of cultural imperialism are in for a rude awakening. In Jungleman's world, and indeed the Yanomamo world, the jungle is populated by spirits that actively communicate with people. These spirits cause the Yanomamo people to raid villages, slaughter their relatives, take the women captive, and then wait in fear for retaliation. Like the Waodani people in End of the Spear, the cycle of violence and revenge has persisted for as long as any Yanomamo can remember.

What I really liked about this book is that it confirms one of the central themes I've written about in my latest book "Alone with a Jihadist"--namely that violence begets violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in a very moving speech given by Shoefoot, the leader of a mysterious village called "Honey" that happens to follow the ways of Yai Pada (the Yanomamo word for God). After his fellow villagers raid another village over a violent domestic dispute between a husband and a wife, Shoefoot, (also known as "Doesn't grab women" because he refuses to behave like other men in his position) has this to say to his people:
I want to talk to you about one little thing today. Those of you who can read have seen in Yai Pada's book where it says, 'If it is possible, as much as you can, live at peace with all men. And never take vengeance into your own hands, but leave room for Yai Pada's anger.' Yai Pada says 'Vengeance is mine, I will pay back.' Because you are my family and my best friends in the world, I want you to know that I think Yai Pada wrote those words just for us Yanomamo. You all know that our whole life all we ever wanted was vengeance. You old women know how you saved the bones of your relatives, waiting for your boys to grow up so they could drink those bones and go kill. You know that our old spirits always told us to kill for vengeance. Now we follow a spirit that tells us to do completely different. I tell you that Yai Pada wrote this for the Yanomamo because no one knows more about war than we do. We all know that no fight ever ends. We always make sure that it goes on and on. If we let Yai Pada take care of vengeance, then our fights will always get smaller. If he wants to kill them, let him. But we won't be blamed for it when it happens, and the fight will never get bigger. I'm not going to say I like what you did. You were wrong to try to take vengeance yourselves. When you take the fight to them, it always gets worse.

It would be very easy to read this story and praise Shoefoot for his courageous stance against violence in his culture. I'm sure many readers of this book have done that, and have missed the point entirely. Before you allow yourself to feel those warm fuzzy feelings of admiration for Shoefoot, I'd like to invite you to an exercise. Read Shoefoot's words again, but this time imagine an American pastor saying this to a congregation of Bible believing Christians on the anniversary of 9/11. I wonder how many members he would have left after delivering such a speech?

Is it possible that Yai Pada wrote the words "Vengeance is mine" not just for the Yanomamo people, but for us as well?