Written Friday evening, my last in Erbil (for now):
I don’t know when you had a moment or an experience that simply changed you or how you experience the world. I just know you’ve had them. Typically, and hopefully, there are lots of such occasions. But some just shake you up in a great way that leave you different.
These last 2 weeks in Iraq have been that for me, and such is the effect that it’s weird for me thinking that in a little while I’ll be back in my safe and warm house, with my dear wife and our dog. And I am grateful beyond words for this. It just puts me in mind of exactly what almost every person I have spoken to here says they want for their own lives: safety, family, peace. That things go so terribly wrong for so many people in so many places just begs the question, What is wrong with us—as a species, I mean?
Not really asking that question. The answer is always just as close as the nearest mirror. But sometimes life just offers new questions that require deeper, and almost always more meaningful discernment and moments of choice. And the chance to act.
I would say of all the voices I hear about what is going on in the Middle East, particularly regarding Christians, the ones that ring most hollow are those singing for more violence. Yes, of course, the governments and militaries have to do their work. The barbarity of Daesh simply must be brought to a stop. That’s part of the job of the governments and militaries, hopefully with wise and thoughtful leadership from the societies they represent.
But that is not our job. At least not mine, as someone who is trying to live this absurd Christian imperative (as in “not negotiable”), to love human beings no matter what. I try to do this (very poorly at times) not because it comes naturally. It does not. But it is the only hope I see of helping to create here on earth God’s dream of peace and reconciliation for all people, and with all the creatures to whom we are both indebted and responsible. Maybe that is why it was Jesus’ central, constant and final message. I don’t know. You decide.
Frankly, this seems an impossible order for most of us most of the time. But I interviewed two sisters tonight, Krsteena and Carolina, who just made me feel like a sham Christian. These two, along with their family, lost everything in Mosul to Daesh. They lost a good life and a lovely home, everything they had ever known and built for themselves in half an hour of utter chaos—”Leave or die.”
Today, though, speaking to them there is no bitterness, anger or vengefulness. Both Krsteena and Carolina, 18 and 17 respectively, are committed to being doctors, like their parents, their clarity convincing me that they will be. Krsteena is not sure what kind, but Carolina is crystal clear: she will be a dentist. She tells me with a smile so bright and wide you have to shield your eyes, “I don’t know why but I love teeth, they are my passion!”
But their reasons are what caught me off guard. Without a trace of irony or posturing Krsteena said, “Jesus tells us to love and serve all people. Not some. Everyone. We even must love Daesh. We hate their ideas, of course, but never them as people. Jesus is my mother and father, everything to me. How can I not listen?”
I’m sorry, but to be hearing this from an 18-year-old young woman who needed to borrow clothes from a cousin in Erbil because she had run for her life taking nothing with her but what she was wearing, just cut me to the core.
In that moment I recalled the one theme that emerged no matter who I was talking to in all my travels among the wildly and beautifully diverse and varied Christians of Iraq. No matter their church, background, or current circumstances, every single person at some point said that the loss of everything that they thought was important, instead of destroying their faith, only strengthened it. God and only God had never abandoned them, but had walked with them, and walks with them still.
Well, along with God, we are walking with them now too. We are known to them, and they are known to us. Whatever it is that brings about true and inalterable change in your life, I hope it’s about mind and heart-splitting compassion. I hope it’s about growing in unsentimental and saving love. I hope its about making a difference in the lives of your sisters and brothers in crisis, who, I promise, will teach you more than you can ever hope to teach them.
You have sent me to discover something profoundly important and to begin a relationship with human beings in a rich and vibrant faith, and traditions that are now imperiled. The central motivating force for me, and one I have shared with you before is, “If it was you in their situation, what would you want others to do?” It’s as simple, challenging and freeing as the Golden Rule itself.
I hope that as we move forward and answer that question together, whatever it is for you, taking that action in love and kindness becomes life-changing, and a taste of building the Kingdom of God right here, right now, on earth.
Thank you for this whole thing.
Grace and peace,