Your Church and Poor Muslims

Jesus told us to care for the poor. This is as uncontroversial as theological statements get, but it still factors into myriad disputes within the Church. Some denominations will do almost anything in the name of caring for the poor. Others affirm the sentiment, but invariably direct maximal resources towards preaching and teaching scripture instead. I point this out not to take sides – your local church’s context isn’t something I can judge fairly from Northeast Illinois anyway – but to acknowledge the complexity that follows even such an anodyne imperative.

I also mention this because a recent issue of The Economist raises some fascinating questions about where the world’s poor do and will live (http://www.economist.com/node/21561878). According to recent research, the majority of those who live on less than $2/day live not in the poorest countries on earth, but rather in countries classified by the World Bank as Middle Income Countries (MIC). This is true for several reasons, but one key factor appears to be the size of many MICs; China and India, the two most populated countries are MICs, but so are enough other heavily populated countries – like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia – that they account for more than ½ the world’s population.

Scholars differ over where the bulk of the world’s poor will live in the future (the two options are the MICs or the Low Income Countries, which are primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa), but whatever else the future holds, permit me to make two guarantees. The first is that those countries that are classified as fragile (read: unstable) will fail to eliminate poverty in their midst. This means that the aforementioned densely populated countries of Nigeria and Pakistan – among others – will continue to have many poor people. Additionally, you can bet that India won’t be lifting many of its poor out of poverty in the next twenty years, for almost every reason imaginable except for instability.

So what? It seems likely that for most of the working lives of those who read my blog, huge numbers (and maybe the majority) of the world’s poorest people will live not in the poorest countries on earth, but rather in Middle Income Countries too dysfunctional to help the poor in their midst, and that’s even if we assume that China – despite anecdotal evidence of the total amorality of the wealthy there – decides to aid their poor. If we as Christians wish to help the desperately poor we need to at least know where they live, and we do and will find high concentrations of them in countries that are either entirely or partially Muslim. This is true both because of endemic instabilities in some Muslim countries (Hello Pakistan!) and because of the high birthrates throughout the Islamic world (topped only by Sub-Saharan Africa). Even India, a majority Hindu nation, has 156 million Muslims right now, and Nigeria, which is divided between Christians and Muslims, has 85 million followers of Muhammad (stats courtesy of the CIA World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html).

Consequently, if Christians want to aid the poor wherever they are, we need new strategies to navigate the religious restrictions of Islamic societies. For many churches, efforts to aid the global poor are part of their larger missiological focus; evangelism and feeding the hungry go hand in hand, and both are done under the oversight of a missions board. Since Christian proselytism is usually prohibited in Muslim countries (and for the record isn’t always received well in the Hindu parts of India, either), however, this data suggests the future of church-based aid will require either a bifurcation of evangelism and social work in our outreach efforts, or some really creative thinking.

The bifurcation option has risks aplenty for the local church. Some Christian organizations already focus primarily on relief and development work, but these are undersized relative to the task, and are also almost all non-denominational agencies – which many denominations (and thus local churches) are hesitant to embrace formally. Another option is for denominations to accelerate non-evangelistic missions work, but this approach makes many mission boards uncomfortable since it was a key step on mainline Protestantism’s journey to theological liberalism. We could debate such fears, but the fact remains that for many evangelical denominations, international efforts must focus on evangelism rather than fighting global need.

Which leaves us with the Creative Thinking option. One idea that occurs to me would be for local churches to begin an adopt-a-mosque program. Your church could use its resources to provide aid for a mosque in Pakistan or Nigeria, for example – aid that would likely be accepted, since Muslims value charity as one of the five pillars of their faith. In turn, over time that aid could build relationships that permit your congregation to feed the recipients of your benevolence in ways that transcend the material. If this brought more stability to dangerous parts of the world (again, parts of Nigeria and Pakistan come to mind), so much the better. Implementing this idea would obviously be complicated, but it strikes me as a way to be obedient salt and light while also getting a foot in the door for deeper transformations.

It wouldn’t completely eliminate poverty, of course, and it would have to be modified in other places where traditional models don’t work – incorporating Hindu temples in India as well as mosques, for example – but the data suggests it may be time to consider such an approach, particularly if it can be done without undermining denominational missions efforts. We know where the poor are; what are we going to do about it?

Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable: Reason #1

I commonly feel uncomfortable in Evangelical Culture, and I intend to devote a significant portion of this blog – at least initially – to articulating some of the reasons why that’s true. In fact, this is going to be my first topical series. I’m calling it “Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable,” and I’ll try to add one new reason why evangelicalism makes me uncomfortable each week. Some of my reasons will be kinda funny, some deadly serious, but each will highlight parts of Evangelical Culture that I think ought to be debatable.

Before I go on, permit me to clarify a few things. I am an evangelical, at least technically, since evangelicals are defined by what we believe. I believe in the infallibility of scripture (and maybe even inerrancy, depending on how it’s defined), I believe Jesus really did live, I believe that he was crucified and literally rose from the dead, I believe the bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that the accuracy and veracity of scripture has been preserved over the years by that same Holy Spirit, I believe that all of this matters for how humans may best live, and I believe that people – even people from other faith traditions – should be given the opportunity to ruminate on these truths as truths. As I said, this makes me an evangelical.

The problem, of course, is that while believing all of those things and being an evangelical alienates me from the rest of the world in vital ways, it doesn’t guarantee that I feel at home in Evangelical Culture. That’s awkward enough, but the problem only compounds when we note that evangelicalism doesn’t generally welcome criticism of Evangelical Culture.

In my last blog post, I mentioned a magazine article about ArtPrize that I thought was unfair to evangelicals in general. My instinctive response to that article was the usual evangelical response: to defend the evangelicals from outside attack. That’s what evangelicals do. We close ranks and defend our fellow insiders, never acknowledging that not all criticisms of evangelicalism are spurious. Which isn’t to say that evangelicals react to every criticism the same way; regardless of whether or not a criticism is spiteful, the circle-the-wagons approach is our default response to outsiders. For criticism from inside evangelicalism, we’re much more likely to deflect in a very specific way.

Experience has taught me that if I criticize any evangelical undertaking – a church program, a Christian school policy, a whiny new blog – the first response will be to ask me how to improve on it, because Evangelical Culture always defends effort. Even if that effort is misdirected and damaging, Evangelical Culture only wants to hear about it from people who have better ideas, and will close ranks to defend against criticisms from all others, even if the critic is an evangelical insider. Eventually, if that insider persists in lobbing criticisms without offering an alternative path forward, the exclusion of that evangelical becomes permanent, and the critic is cut off from Evangelical Culture in the same way that critics from outside are always held at arms length. Essentially, the evangelical world often seems to view criticism as apostasy and betrayal.

Simply put, this is asinine.

I could press the argument, but I imagine you’ve either experienced this firsthand or you think I’m a whinging malcontent. Either way, permit me to close by giving you four thoughts to consider about criticism and evangelicalism:

1) Since I am an evangelical, I do claim a right to comment on Evangelical Culture, even if I do not claim that culture as my own. My understanding of God and His interactions with humanity force me into this box, and my displeasure with the furniture herein in no way diminishes my privilege – as an insider, for that is what I am – to comment upon this same culture.

2) Since I am a part of this culture, my criticisms count, even if I don’t yet know preferable courses of action. Sometimes, simple desistance is the first – if not the only – step to take, and the fact that I don’t have all the answers doesn’t obligate me to stay quiet.

3) Christianity – whether of the evangelical variety or otherwise – historically values the wisdom of the community. Early church policy was set by councils, not individuals. Even the papacy – the most authoritarian and individualistic office of Christianity – is assigned to a candidate only after the college of cardinals pray for communal guidance and then vote (repeatedly). The idea that the person who notices a problem is responsible to fix it flies in the face of our history; the Church is supposed to solve problems together, regardless of who notices them first.

4) Criticism can begin a process of communal evaluation. For example, on November 7th of this year – although the Washington Post appears to have jumped the gun – someone in the media will point out what the Republicans or Democrats did wrong and how it cost them the election, others will offer a counterargument, and a conversation will emerge by which the losing party will draw lessons from their loss. It happens after every election in politics, and there’s no reason that evangelical Christianity can’t be at least as mature and introspective as a political party. We can all agree that’s a shamefully low standard, right? RIGHT??

So my first criticism of Evangelical Culture is that Evangelical Culture doesn’t like to be criticized. In this case however, I DO have some advice for the next step: the next time you see an evangelical dutifully shouting down another evangelical who had the moxie to challenge the status quo without specifying a new plan, intervene. Tell the shouter to hush, listen to the dissident, and then respond. Maybe it’s her job to see the problem, and maybe you are the one to come up with a better idea.

ArtPrize, Evangelicals, and the Indelible Stench

Yesterday marked the opening of the voting in the fourth annual ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids, Michigan art festival that transforms the Midwestern city every fall. ArtPrize aspires to inspire an artistic renaissance in Grand Rapids by inviting artists to compete for two massive prizes; one prize – awarded by a vote of the adults of Grand Rapids – is $200,000 and the other – awarded by a jury – is for $100,000. In order to compete, artists the world over need only pay a $50 entry fee and find somewhere in the city willing to host their work of art for about a month. This year’s contest contains over 1500 works of art; the entries include almost every conceivable medium and feature in virtually every public space in downtown Grand Rapids, as well as in many private establishments.

For what it’s worth, ArtPrize is every bit as fascinating and immersive as it sounds. Grand Rapids itself has less than 200,000 residents (although the area has close to ¾ million people), so the presence of 1500+ art installations turns the entire downtown into an art gallery, and that’s without noting that myriad sculptures, murals, and other installations from previous years have found permanent homes in Grand Rapids. You needn’t be an art fanatic to find something that intrigues you on display, and the crowds milling about this massive explosion of creativity at all daylight hours add an ambience of civic goodwill that usually only exists in the most optimistic of science fiction movies. Take it from someone who’s been there: when you add in the river gently flowing through it all – complete with massive salmon jumping their way up a downtown fish ladder in the early autumn – ArtPrize has to be experienced to be believed.

You might assume that such an annual transformation would be a cause for celebration. A rich benefactor birthed a month-long celebration of art in a Midwestern city best known for office furniture and Calvinism, and the result has made downtown Grand Rapids as interesting – for at least one month per year – as anywhere in North America. As some of you will know, however, the September 2012 issue of GQ carries an article (http://www.gq.com/entertainment/art-and-design/201209/artprize-rick-devos) that makes ArtPrize look like a secondary concern in comparison to the religious beliefs of the ArtPrize benefactor’s family members. Note carefully: the story isn’t ArtPrize, and the story isn’t Rick DeVos who has founded and funded ArtPrize (and whose own religious views are never established in the article). The story, according to GQ, is the other members of the DeVos family; people who are attacked by author Matthew Power for funding conservative and evangelical causes, and who presumably scheme as part of some dark ArtPrize conspiracy at which Power periodically hints.

In fairness to Power, he does find time to take other cheap shots too – particularly at Amway, the company from which Rick DeVos’s grandfather earned his fortune. With that said, however, my concern has less to do with the piece Power wrote than with what it symbolizes. I understand that many in the media dislike Christians who use theology to justify political engagement; at the very least, people who aren’t religiously devout find such reasoning inscrutable. That’s fine. But the DeVos political views are neither extreme nor unusual. As Republican-voting Christians, the DeVos family’s views – whether you find them right or wrong – are inarguably unexceptional. But the article in question doesn’t argue that Rick Devos is indelibly tainted by his extended family; it starts with that assumption. My question, therefore, as an evangelical Christian, is when did we get such a stink on us that singlehandedly turning a Midwestern city into an artistic paradise is negated by being related to one of us?

One may try to dismiss Power’s piece as an isolated case written by a malcontent from Brooklyn, but GQ published it – presumably after sitting on it for nearly a year (it was written about last year’s ArtPrize, but timed to run in the month that this year’s began). That shows a level of deliberate consideration on the part of GQ that might as well serve as a public service announcement declaring it OK to regard evangelicals with the scorn generally reserved for animal abusers, pedophiles, and meth addicts.
In which case, permit me to translate this message to evangelicals into language we can all understand: the Culture War is over, and we evangelicals are the equivalent of Serbian war criminals. People of good taste should ostracize us accordingly.

That may seem harsh or lacking in nuance, but after the written hatchet jobs that have followed other visible evangelicals lately (Tim Tebow and Lolo Jones, we feel you), is there really any remaining doubt? The GQ article exemplifies an ongoing trend. With that in mind, I offer you some advice: if you should venture to Grand Rapids this month, try to at least feel a little dirty as you enjoy it; after all, it was paid for by someone related to evangelicals. And that is a stench that won’t wash off.

Arab Spring Governments & Syria’s Christians

For my first real post, I’m going to cover a topic that seems to be getting less coverage every day now: Syria. Rather than focusing on the overall scope of the conflict in Syria, however, I want to highlight one of the parties impacted by the conflict: our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Syrian Christians.

Syria has lots of Christians – 2.25 million, according to the CIA world fact book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html) – and it’s not clear what fate awaits them in the current civil war. Syrian President Assad has been a cruel dictator – as was his father – but the Assad family has protected the rights of the Syrian Christian minority, so Syrian Christians have historically coexisted peacefully with the Assad regime. Now that Assad’s time seems short, the best strategy for self-preservation on the part of Syrian Christians is unclear. Unless Syrian Christians back the ultimate winner of the struggle in Syria, they’re unlikely to escape post-Civil War reprisals. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground is reported to be fluid and prone to reversals in many cases, so backing the ultimate winner in Syria (almost certainly the rebels, but don’t bet your house on it) could prove a Pyrrhic victory, no matter who wins.

With so much uncertainty regarding the Syrian Christian community’s outlook, many Western commentators have simply stayed quiet or advocated a wait-and-see approach. Events in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen this week reveal at least one reason why the future of Syria’s Christians is less ambiguous than we’ve been told. In case you’ve missed the news, groups of people protesting a recent film (made in America) that depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light – any visual depictions of Muhammad are sacrilege to Muslims – have breached the security of American consulates or embassies in all three countries. This is arguably less shocking in Yemen, which is so heavily influenced by Al Qaeda that some regions of the country are essentially anarchic, but protestors were able to breach the walls of the American embassy even in the stable capital city of Sanaa.

In Egypt, the protestors scaled the wall of the American embassy in Cairo in order to rip down and burn the American flag. (For what it’s worth, they couldn’t get the flag to light so they tore it up instead – making them less accomplished if not less intelligent than Beavis and Butthead – and then replaced it with a pro-Islam flag.) Meanwhile, in Libya, the American ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, apparently after a protest over the same movie. The most reliable news sources are reporting that the attack was a coordinated, two-part attack on the consulate culminating in the destruction of the vehicle in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens was riding, killing Stevens and 3 other American diplomats.

What do Yemen, Egypt, and Libya have in common? Apart from the protests over the movie in question, there’s another key factor: all three countries welcomed new governments in the Arab Spring. While all these governments appear to be charting moderate geopolitical courses – or at least what passes for moderate in the Islamic world – none has managed to restore anything resembling the level of civic order present under the previous dictatorships. Understand me: this isn’t all bad. Gaddhafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt did terrible things to preserve order, and it’s to be expected that the democratic regimes that follow such dictators will err, initially at least, on the side of permissiveness rather than authoritarianism. For Syrian Christians, however, that’s precisely the problem.

In both Libya and Egypt, the new governments have managed to keep Islamic extremism more or less suppressed, but only with great difficulty. And as the death of Ambassador Stevens proves, that suppression is susceptible to the risk of a catastrophic lapse, even in countries that don’t have a major problem with Islamic extremism (which Egypt and Libya do not, particularly when compared to Yemen). Obviously, this week’s violence was directed against Americans, and Syrian Christians are not Americans. But Islamist sectarian violence doesn’t seem likely to give Syrian Christians a pass for being Syrians; rather it will target them for being Christians rather than Muslims. And since the emerging pattern proves Arab Spring governments prone to security lapses, those of us who care about Christians everywhere should acknowledge the fact that Syrian Christians are likely in for a few “security lapses” if the rebels win – not because the rebels will endorse violence, but because there are elements in Syria who do and who will likely succeed, at least intermittently, in implementing their agenda.

This is the true picture for the church in Syria. They can continue to back Assad and make themselves enemies of the rebels. Alternately, they can turn on Assad now and be shelled by the Syrian government today, and hope for the future gratitude of the rebel government. In either case, however, the survivors can expect inadequate security and a few “incidents” when the rebels eventually win. They have myriad choices, but the end result is probably going to involve a lot of dead Christians, whether the media is ready to acknowledge this or not.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the probabilities are what they are. It’s not at all clear to me what North American Christians can do about it, but the first step has to be acknowledging the situation. If Syrian Christians are going to be safe, they’re going to need a miracle.