Evangelism and Recent Western Military Efforts

Early 1999

By Ajith Fernando

I may be way out in what I am saying below, and I am certainly not a qualified political analyst. What I am recording here and sending to some of my friends are perspectives coming out of our experience, they are not convictions coming out of a clear understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps it would help western Christians to know what many of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the world go through when the West engages in military offensives.

Ever since the Gulf War I have had the nagging feeling that the recent western military efforts may be doing more harm than good. I have been thinking of this these days when NATO forces are bombing Yugoslavia. I know that the so-called (Orthodox) Christian Serbs have treated the Muslim ethnic Albanians terribly. I was relieved that for once “Christian” powers were fighting to protect a group of Muslims. I believe we are called to “love the Muslims into the Kingdom,” but so often we see them as enemies. But I kept wondering whether this bombing, with so much loss of life and suffering, is the answer to this problem.

What prompted this writing is the report I saw on TV of the tragic shooting incident in Denver. I was so troubled that I went to the computer and jotted down my thoughts. It would be naïve and probably wrong for me to draw a direct connection between the war in Yugoslavia and the shooting in Denver. But this tragic shooting resurfaced this feeling that the use of force–outside the laws of a given country or state–to fight “wrong” can cause serious precedents and dangerous attitudes which will prompt the use of force in an overtly terrible way, as happened in Denver. It can help foster a gun culture where people we consider bad are indiscriminately bumped off outside the legal procedures of the land. This unfortunately is what we are seeing in my country. Some years ago we saw state-sponsored bumping off of the “wicked” outside the law of the land. Now we seem to have given birth to a culture that looks to the gun to get all sorts of agendas fulfilled.

On the other hand I remember that so many on the outside were silent when the Nazis were exterminating Jews, and when the Kmer Rouge were exterminating millions of their own people in Cambodia. So to me this is a dilemma. I do not know what to say. I am aware of the fact that Serb rulers have been committing genocide and that people like Saddam Hussein are a threat to the stability of the world. Yet let me give some perspectives of one who is trying to preach the gospel in a poor Third World country.

The Sentiments of Third World People

We get our news about these wars from the Western news media. We know that the moment a Western soldier is captured or injured or killed a lot of attention is given. I suppose this is inevitable as media personnel will always think first of their own. But when I, who am not from a western country, think of the suffering and loss of life on the other side, and when I note that comparatively less attention is given to the suffering of these civilians, I begin to wonder. I ask whether we, as Christians who are called to love all people, should be focussing on the other side to what the media are focussing. After all, the civilians in Iraq and Yugoslavia who suffer from these military offensives are not to blame for the actions of their despotic rulers.

I suppose my feelings about these wars were influenced by the fact there are many poor Sri Lankans working in the Middle East. Most of them are women working as housemaids. This work force is, I believe, Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign exchange earner. However, many of these workers, especially women, suffer much from wicked employers who treat them as slaves. We usually considered Kuwait as having the most brutal record in this regard. In fact today’s news highlighted the return to Sri Lanka of about 20 women who had been ill-treated in Kuwait. There are several more in the Sri Lankan embassy awaiting their trip back home. Sri Lankans working in Iraq were, we thought, generally treated with more kindness. Then the powerful Western world attacked “kind” Iraq to protect “unkind” Kuwait (the quote marks point to the fact that “kind” and “unkind” are just perceptions of some people).

Christians in many Muslim countries were treated severely during the Gulf war. I know that in one country some Christians were killed just because they were Christians and because “Christians were attacking Muslims in the Gulf.” Most of our people were mad about the war. So you can imagine our embarrassment when our newspapers and TV showed my hero Billy Graham with George Bush on the day the war started. We tried to tell people that he was there as a pastor and not as a politician. But I don’t think many were impressed by that argument. I still think that Graham was right to offer support to his President at a crucial time. I am simply reporting how hard this was for us on the other side of the world.

Though most of the people in third world countries did not like the Gulf war most of our governments supported it. This caused more problems. It told us that the West is so powerful that we must align with it whether we like it or not. At a time when trust is lost and people don’t believe that countries get involved in other countries for purely altruistic reasons, this leaves us poor nations feeling very vulnerable. We ask what motives really lie behind these offensives. I guess we will know this only in heaven!

The Affect on Evangelism in sri lanka

To us Christians this brings up another problem. The bombing of Iraq and Yugoslavia seems to remind many here of the attempts of the Western nations to dominate poorer nations during the colonial era. Our concerted efforts to get people to separate western political powers from the Christian enterprise are not meeting with much success. The opponents of evangelism keep reminding us of this era when “Christian” countries dominated us not for our benefit but for their national interest. Recently I watched a two-hour debate on the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. A learned professor of Mathematics kept blaming it all on the “Christian” colonial powers who, he said, furthered their missionary, political and economic ambitions by ruining the social fabric of our nation. I thought this was ridiculous. But that is the way many of our people think. And when we evangelise the Buddhists they say we are back to our old tricks.

We tell these opponents of evangelism that we are people committed to being servants, seeking only to help others at great personal cost to ourselves. They remind us of the colonial past and then point to the use of military and economic force by Western countries in different parts of the world “to serve their own ends.” Christians are not servants, they say, they always want to master others. They say that our evangelism, which they assume is entirely funded by the West, is simply another tool of the West aimed at furthering its goal of domination at our expense. There have been a few articles in our newspapers recently with this type of thinking.

I have been rambling. But I thought I would jot these thoughts down and send them to some of my friends. We are in a very vulnerable situation here, as Christians are associated with the West and with colonialism. Now that we are doing a lot of evangelism among non-Christians, this association with the West is causing us a lot of problems. I am convinced that an important way to respond to the growing opposition we are seeing world-wide to conversion-oriented evangelism is radical servanthood. I am fearful of things that make people think that we are using force to grab people to serve our own ends.

This is particularly relevant today as Christians are talking a lot these days about warfare and defeating strongholds and the forces of evil. When non-Christians in Sri Lanka hear this, they do not understand it in the way the Bible intends it to be understood. They think we are trying to attack them in the same way that the Christians did during the Crusades. I think the world must see us, as they saw Jesus, as servants who die for others, not as conquerors who defeat others. They must see the power of our love which will challenge them, rather than the power of our political clout which will repel them from the gospel.