Missions after Abu Ghraib

Series: Window on the World

by Bruce McDowell May 23, 2004

Many people around the world hate the United States for a variety of reasons. For some it is that the US is so dominant financially in the world that American companies can affect the economies and politics of many poorer countries. For others it is that they vehemently disagree with our foreign policy, especially in regard to the Middle East. They see America as acting arrogantly and unilaterally. What America does with its military, trade agreements, loans, foreign aid, and media does in fact greatly affect many millions of people around the world. Most Americans are not aware of the impact of our country of the rest of the world. For the most part, American policies are directed towards what is best for America, not necessarily what is best for the people in the country being directly impacted by our policy. The leadership of this country directly affects funding of family planning, which in the past included forced abortions, AIDS prevention and relief, peace efforts in Sudan and Liberia, and human rights of minorities, including Christians being persecuted for their faith in such places as Uzbekistan and China. Recently many pastors at a conference were shocked to hear a pastor from Uzbekistan say that the government officials in his country were afraid of our president and therefore have been more lenient towards the Christians in their country, where it is illegal to have a church.

Although many are critical of American policy, they still see our country as a place they would like to move to because of the freedom and economic and educational opportunities there are here. Even before 9/11 radical Muslims moved here and recruited here because they were outlawed in their home countries and enjoyed freedom to operate subversive charities in our country. Although our government makes many mistakes since it is run by sinful people, it does still maintain more of a check and balance on abuses of power than are in place in most countries. At least the Abu Ghraib abuses have been recognized as such and corrective action is being taken. However, some in Iraq remain unsatisfied with the level of punishment for the guilty for taking away their dignity as a country. Concern about shame and honor are significantly higher values in Middle Eastern culture than in our own. That is why one of the abused prisoners could say that the abuse he suffered in Abu Ghraib prison from Americans was much worse than what he had suffered being tortured in prison under Saddam Hussein. The scene of an American woman guard holding a nude Arab man by a dog leash around the neck is of ultimate humiliation and shame. Wide publicity of this in the Muslim world only fuels the underlying resentment of many against our country and our allies and bolsters the cause of al-Qaeda that the Muslim world needs to overthrow their domination by the infidels.

The abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison have disgusted and dismayed the vast majority of Americans. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than most of the rest of the world. Actually, the rest of the world also holds us to a higher standard as the world's superpower-while they may ignore or excuse far greater abuses of mass murders and torture under Saddam Hussein's regime. Countries that have been at the top of our list violating human rights, such as China and North Korea, now are able to say that we are hypocritical. Middle East leaders have recognized that what happened at Abu Ghraib were incidents but not an American policy. Polls tell us that 64 percent of Americans believe that our country is exceptional, being generally fair and decent while 22 percent see it as being unfair and discriminatory. Those who see our country as exceptional see the Abu Ghraib scandal “as aberrant misconduct, a betrayal of the high standards we hold ourselves to and usually uphold.” President Bush has explained that we hold to “nonnegotiable demands of human dignity” that are not just American, but universal because they are the gift of God [Michael Barone, “No, It's Not the American Way,” U.S. News and World Report (17 May 2004), 40]. As a country, we have the obligation to uphold, strengthen and advance these ideals around the world. Many oppressed people around the world look to our government's leadership for human dignity to be upheld in their country. Among the estimated 400,000 survivors of foreign torture living in the United States, pictures from Abu Ghraib prison brought flashbacks to the torture chambers they endured. For them it is difficult to comprehend that these inhuman tortures were being perpetuated by the United States because it represents the values they are looking for of human rights, safety, and security. The abuses in Abu Ghraib prison, even if the victimized prisoners were sworn enemies of our country, are contrary to the ideals we are fighting to be established in Iraq. Moreover, they actually represent just the most recent example of what are seen by much of the world as many examples of American injustice.

How does what our country does around the world affect the work of Christ's Church and missions? Certainly, abuses against inmates in Abu Ghraib prison have a negative impact on the church, especially in the Middle East. This was confirmed recently by an email from a Christian worker in Egypt ministering to Muslims where he notes that what has been done to Muslims in Abu Ghraib is combined in their minds with Israel's policies in Palestine using American military equipment as all part of a Christian crusade to destroy Muslims. Why? One major reason is that in the Muslim world the United States is seen as a Christian country. Our president and the vast majority of our members of Congress are professing Christians. Whatever our country does is seen as reflecting what Christians do. For many in the Muslim world our invasion of Iraq is seen as another Crusade to take over Muslim lands rather than as liberation from a tyrannical dictator. Dictatorship is all they have known. Muhammad ruled in a similar way during his leadership in Arabia. Even for the majority who want democracy in their country, the concept of democracy is vague. Some of the principles of democracy, such as the rule of law and every person being allowed to live according to their conscience with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly come from the Bible. This is largely unknown in Islam.

As it was publicized in the media that Christian organizations were preparing to enter Iraq to convert Muslims as the American military machine was conquering the country, the Muslim world was offended by the image of Christian crusaders coming to not only take their country but also their religion. Of course, prior to the change in government in Iraq there was no freedom to evangelize or freely practice one's faith as a Christian. Although Christians could worship, pastors were closely watched and told what to say to their congregations in praise of the regime. Consequently a large percentage of the Christian minority in Iraq emigrated out of the country to the West. However, now the task of evangelizing the country and feeding the flock must be undertaken by Arab Christians. It will be difficult for Western Christians to be very effective in the present environment of being seen as occupiers of the country. What is needed now are our prayers, financial support of effective ministries led by nationals, and training of national leadership.

For foreign workers trying to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ in a Muslim context, avoiding discussion of politics is the best policy. If one does discuss politics, inevitably it will raise disagreements and widely differing perspectives that may hamper one's ability to clearly present the gospel in that context. As a foreign Christian just allow the national of the country you are in to express their frustrations with our government policies and recognize with them that we all commit errors. They of course know the many faults of their own government too without you having to point them out in defense of your own country. Rather, as believers, we must remember that our citizenship is in heaven from which we await our Savior to deliver us from the evil and injustice in this world (Phil. 3:20). Even as believers with a common faith we may have widely diverging views of international politics. Therefore, let us focus on the unity we have in Jesus Christ, the foundation of our faith. Let us make sure that Christ, not American culture and politics with either its good or bad points, is our message to a lost world. Let us demonstrate what it means to love our enemies, even as Christ did. Only then we will have a believable message that is for the whole world.

For some who are called to serve in difficult places like Iraq, it may even lead to martyrdom. A few weeks ago five Baptist missionaries doing some development projects in Iraq were ambushed in their car and killed. One of them, Miss Karen Watson, wrote in a letter to be opened only in the event of her death. “To obey is my objective. To suffer is expected. His glory will be my reward.” That is the attitude we all need to have as we go forward in serving the Lord despite opposition, knowing that we are serving the sovereign King of the universe. He will accomplish his purposes through our suffering.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Bruce McDowell. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org