Written on 9/11/2002 (American system, that is 11th September)
Published in Christianity Today
Ajith Fernando, Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka
It is a few days after the first anniversary of the tragic events 11th September 2001, and with fear and trembling I took the decision to write something that represents a perspective on world happenings from the other side of the globe.
Perhaps there has never been a time during my lifetime when the opinions of the rest of the world have diverged so markedly from the opinions of the government of USA. This hurts me a lot because many Christians in the Third World are very upset and I believe this is adding fuel to the serious gap developing between Christians in the Third World and in the USA. In fact when I hear some of our Christian leaders speak about America I fear they may have slipped into the sin of racism. This must not be, for we all belong to one body. If one part of the body remains angry with another it hurts itself. This hurts me especially because some of the happiest years in my life were spent as a student in USA. Though I have never considered living there, I am still always very happy when I visit USA. I owe so much of what I am to Christians there. Most of my mentors are Americans, and so are many of my closest and most valued friends.
At the heart of this crisis is the sense that is developing among Christian leaders here that it is impossible for Christians in the West, especially in the USA, to understand what is happening in the rest of the world. There is a wish that they would listen to us, and ask, “What do people in those countries feel?” There is a growing frustration coming from a suspicion that American Christians are listening only to what American experts say about the situation in the world outside their borders. They fear that these experts depend on research rather than the Christian method of incarnational identification and that therefore they miss hearing the heart-cry of the people. As one who has lived happily in both these worlds, I thought that for the sake of the unity of the body of Christ and the desire to see American Christians develop a sense of listening to the rest of the world, I would write down some of my reflections.
Terrorism is the violent response to what the terrorists see as a threat to the freedom and the rights of their people. This perception may be correct or incorrect. The means they use to achieve their ends are certainly wrong, but some of their anger may be justified. Christians are people who must be skilled in listening in love to their neighbours; even if these neighbours are their enemies, for the Bible asks us to love our enemies. Therefore when a group resorts to terrorism, Christian should be concentrating on answering the question, “Why are they so angry?” That is the question I wished most for the West to ask after the events of September 11th 2001. I believe that this question got buried under many other concerns.
Many here believe that these events were a direct response to the humiliation the Muslims have faced during the past few decades over successive defeats they have endured as the West has marched towards the domination of the world.
The Gulf war of 1991 and the continued bombardment of Iraq since then are two such defeats. But there are several other defeats. One is the Western dominance in trade and economics. It is called globalisation, but in order to survive developing nations have been forced to bow down to the Western agenda with its individualism and competitiveness. The Muslim countries that are doing well economically have, in order to survive in a global economy dominated by Western values, adopted economic systems that other Muslims consider anti-Islamic. The Islamic extremists are very angry that Muslims have made so many concessions to this dominance of the world by the West.
Then there is the dominance of Western culture through the media. Some of the values portrayed there directly oppose Asian values such as costly commitment to family, lifelong faithfulness to spouse, and community solidarity as opposed to individualism. Then there is the proliferation of pornography and other sexual deviations, which has hit our people without the preparation through a gradual sexual revolution that the West experienced. It has hit the East suddenly in its full-blown form and our people here have not developed defences to cope with it. They have got sucked in. Recently I heard about a poor fifteen-year-old boy who has seen 500 to 600 pornographic videos. My son told me of a seventeen year-old Muslim classmate who has downloaded from Western web sites and saved two gigabytes of pornography in his computer.
Now, the Muslims–rightly or wrongly–blame all of this on the West. Personally I do not blame only the West for the rise of pornography etc. I think we are also culpable. I believe that all people everywhere are naturally evil and immoral and liable to take steps that send their nations on a downward spiral of destruction. But what I am presenting here is the way the extremists think. To them the West is evil and immoral but so powerful that they cannot fight it’s insidious influence on them. They feel they are losing the battle for the maintenance of what they believe is their “superior” culture. Personally I do not think that any culture is superior to another. All cultures have their good and bad points. But the Muslims believe their culture is superior because they think it’s features were dictated by God and reported verbatim in the Qur’an. So the Muslim extremists are humiliated over these defeats and some of them are responding by hitting out violently in anger.
Now there is a lot of talk about another war. The Muslims see this as another threat from the West. And each time this war talk is intensified the Christians in countries like Pakistan get hit. The trigger for many of the attacks on Christian compounds recently in Pakistan is the present initiatives and statements of Western leaders. The Western leaders say they are fighting evil. The Muslim extremists feel that the West is evil and that they must protect righteousness by battling the West. So they hit targets that they associate with the West.
I do not know the answer to the complex problems of the world. What I wanted to share with you is how people on this side feel. I do not know the answer to the problem of Iraq and its campaigns against the West. I just heard that it has stockpiles of Anthrax and gas that can be used in Chemical warfare. There is talk about the possibility of nuclear weapons also. I just do not know the answer to these problems this side of the Second Coming when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, and he will reign forever.
Let me say that even if a government of a poorer country officially backs a Western war effort against another poorer nation like Iraq, often a majority of the people in that country will oppose it. They would say that their government needed to back America because it would be economically suicidal not to, as America has so much economic power. This is how many people in poorer nations felt when their governments backed the Gulf war of the early 90s.
My heart yearns to see the Muslims accepting Christ as their Saviour. To me working towards that is one of the most important agendas in the world today. Governments come and go; powers wax and wane, but the response of people to the gospel of Christ determines their eternal destiny. That is a choice between heaven and hell–not just for a few decades but forever and ever. This is why I believe that world evangelisation is the most important cause in the world today. It has to do with eternity. The church must put that first, and whatever hinders that must be dealt with legitimately and biblically.
Therefore whatever governments may do, I want to appeal to the church to be careful about lending its support to Western military initiatives. Individuals will need to go out to war as obedient subjects of their country. But the church must be careful about official endorsement of things that may hurt the huge segment of the body of Christ in the rest of the world. Think of the eternal agenda. It looks like perceptions of what is right and wrong are very different among Christians in the West and in the East. Therefore, as members of the body of Christ, please think of what the Christians in the poorer nations are thinking and going through.
Paul said that to reach the weak, he became weak. The extremists see themselves as threatened by the strength of the West. I think that if we are to reach them with the gospel we will have to identify with their sense of weakness. We will have to become weak ourselves. If they see the Christians as strong people coming to hit them, then they will hate us and oppose our gospel even more. While the Bible does speak of the need for a just war, it also talks a lot about the need to be peacemakers. I hope that in this time when many in the West are speaking about war, Christians will concentrate on peace and through that make inroads into the Muslim communities as people who are not their enemies but their friends.
I believe that when the West took the side of the Muslims against the Orthodox Christians in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia it did a great thing for the cause of the gospel because, whether we like it or not, the West is associated with Christianity in the minds of many people. In the past few years of war in Sri Lanka I have often had to take stands that go directly against that of my government and of the majority of the Sinhalese (my ethnic group) people. I have to always tell myself that I am a Christian first and only then a Sinhalese. This is a thing that Christians must always be doing.
Sometimes on matters of war and peace sincere Christians will disagree with each other. My hero John Wesley, who sided with Britain in the revolutionary war, disagreed with another hero, the American Methodist leader Francis Asbury, who supported the American independence struggle.
I think that out of solidarity with the Christians in the developing world Western Christians need to be reluctant about giving blanket support to military initiatives against non-western powers. I believe such an approach will help in speeding the work of the gospel among non-Christians, especially the Muslims. If the Muslims know that, though the West is attacking some of their nations, many Christians are opposing those attacks, they may conclude that the Christians are not their enemy, and they may become more open to the message of the gospel.