Good News to the Poor: What I Learned From an 80-year-old Nun in India.

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During the time I lived in the slum, I sometimes interacted with other Christians who viewed Muslims as spiritual projects. They were confused about why I would choose to live with people in poverty and/or people of another religion for any reason other than to use cloak-and-dagger evangelism to convert them.  If I responded that following Jesus compelled me to love my neighbors and seek to work for justice alongside them, other Christians sometimes concluded that all that neighborly love must be a way of warming up the crowd for the REAL message of Jesus later, and it seemed impossible to explain that–as far as I was concerned–love, justice, community, and belonging in God’s family WERE the message.

At a time when these sorts of conversations had left me feeling discouraged and misunderstood, I met an octogenarian nun with a crinkly face and a compassionate heart. Her understanding of my strange life was a much-needed comfort at the time, and to this day I continue to unpack the wisdom she shared with me in our conversations under the neem trees.  This month, I got to write about my friendship with her in an online article for Plough Quarterly. Here’s an excerpt:

“There were the unjust laws and corrupt officials. There was drought and impoverished soil in the villages our neighbors hailed from, where fields could not be endlessly subdivided between generations of sons. The education and healthcare systems were inadequate. And among those we got to know, malnutrition, family cycles of violence, and psychological trauma all took their toll. Generations of discrimination too often meant that people in poverty didn’t expect much from themselves.

We were discouraged not only by the enormity of the problems faced by our neighbors, but also by the church’s failure to respond. Of the local Christians with whom we interacted, many seemed focused on a “spiritual” agenda – gathering adherents – though to be sure, they had material concerns as well: maintaining historical church buildings and air-conditioned auditoriums…”

Head on over to Plough to read the rest!

 

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When I think of Muslims, this is who comes to mind.

The most frequent command in Christian scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The New Testament even presents fear being the opposite of love, stating bluntly that “perfect love casts out fear.” At first glance, this may seem a surprising idea, but on closer inspection it makes perfect sense. Fear propels us to act first and ask questions later; to reason carelessly; to prioritize self-preservation over compassion. Fear can make us irrational, destructive, violent. When we experience terror, we are often willing to scapegoat or accuse or punish anyone if we believe that doing so will bring our unbearable terror to an end. We become obsessed with restoring our sense of safety and comfort as quickly as possible, and all other concerns can easily take a backseat to that one, compelling priority.

Two nights ago, I dreamt that I was back in the slum in India, hanging out with some of the women and girls I know there. Frequently over the past year, I’ve had realistic dreams about visiting my friends’ homes, eating and talking with them, but this time it was different—the next morning, my former teammate (who is still there) emailed to say that he had visited our old neighborhood and that many of the people there had asked about Andy and me and passed along their greetings to us. He had likely been talking with them at the same time that I was dreaming about them.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, my friends in India are on my mind a lot. Every time someone makes an ignorant generalization accusing all Muslims of being terrorists, I think of the generous and hospitable families in the slum who welcomed me into their lives. I think of the children suffering malnutrition and forced into tedious labor instead at a young age instead of being able to attend school. I think of their parents’ struggles with illiteracy, unemployment, and prejudice from the majority of society. I think about how they could do without any more obstacles placed in the way of living dignified, healthy lives, and I worry about the ways that negatives stereotypes and hatred toward Muslims will affect their lives.

I learned so much from my Muslim neighbors about compassion, loyalty, hope—and, yes, faith. They accepted me into their community despite the fact that we came from different races, different cultures, and different religions. When I remember the risk they took in choosing to get to know me as a person instead of allowing stereotypes to keep me at arm’s length, I can’t help but feel anger at the injustice of others in the West allowing stereotypes of Muslims to erase the humanity of my friends and neighbors in India.

But these are not the only people on my mind. I also think of my refugee friends here in Vancouver. One of them is a young woman from Afghanistan who was forced to flee her country with two young children to keep them all alive. Her daughter, little more than a year old, is nearly the same age as two of my beloved nieces/goddaughters in the United States.

If her case were being handled the way that refugee claims are in my home state of Texas, then she and her children would not be accessing counseling, supportive community, and legal aid to help them cope with the crisis they are in—instead, they would have already been sitting in prison for several months without access to a lawyer, and they would now be looking forward to indefinite detention with no one to help them.

If some of my friends on Facebook had their way, then this vulnerable family would not have even been allowed into North America because they are Muslim. Possibly, they would already be dead.

I think about all of these dear friends every time I hear or read about Muslims being cast as a single, monolithic group characterized by violence. I think about the real people that so many of us are eager to condemn, but whose faces we have never seen, whose stories we have never heard, and whose lives we are willing to hastily cast aside in pursuit of the idol of our own “security.”

The young men playing love songs on their cell phones and flying kites on the roof in my neighborhood in India, my friends’ babies learning to walk and talk, giggly teenage girls walking to school, grief-stricken parents who will risk anything–even a dangerous voyage across an ocean in an inflatable raft–to save their children’s lives: these are all Muslims. Perhaps if we could recognize our own hopes and fears in them instead of directing our fear against them, we would be able to see them for who they really are.

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photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/37890481@N04/6174828711″>Bangladesh, Ramadan 2011.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>

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What American Christians Get Wrong About Israel

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Graffiti art by Banksy on the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Over the past month in Israel, violence has been ratcheting up towards the possibility of all-out war. I’ve noticed that Christian friends on social media have begun voicing support for Israel, or commenting on the inherent violence of Muslims. In bewildering circumstances like these, it’s easy to cling to simplistic ideas of good versus evil, typecasting individuals and societies as villains and victims. But until we deal with our unconscious biases and ignorance, we will not be able to see clearly what is happening, and we will not be able to respond effectively. A wise and faithful response to the crisis requires us to educate ourselves about the history and wider context of the conflict. As American Christians, what assumptions or beliefs may be obscuring our view?

We Equate Modern Israel with Biblical Israel

In Genesis chapter 12, God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you,” which many Christians interpret to mean that believers have a responsibility to offer unconditional political support the modern nation-state of Israel. This is an inaccurate assumption because in reality, there are important differences between the twelve tribes mentioned in the Old Testament and the nation-state of Israel. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, governed by priests based on direct revelation from God; modern Israel is a secular democracy, established through the actions of the British colonial government and the United Nations in the 1940s. Furthermore, the nation of Israel is not synonymous with the Jewish people. Not only is there a global community of Jews who have lived outside of Palestine for thousands of years, but within the nation itself, 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, and Arab Christians and Muslims across the Middle East also trace their ancestry back to Abraham.

The belief that Christians are commanded to “bless” modern Israel tends to imply a divine stamp of approval for particular Israeli policies or military actions. But instead of unconditionally supporting Israel or any other nation, we as Christians should be evaluating a government’s laws and actions through the lens of the Kingdom Jesus taught: do they result in freedom for the oppressed, or protection for the vulnerable? Do they result in the naked being clothed, the hungry being fed, and the homeless housed? Or do they result in the opposite?

We Misunderstand the Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is God’s promise to guide and protect Abraham and his descendants, and to give them the land of Canaan; they are commanded to be circumcised as a sign of faithfulness to this covenant (Gen. 15, 17). God not only promises Abraham that his descendants will become “a great nation,” but declares that “all peoples on earth will be blessed by you” (Genesis 12:3). So, the Jewish people are chosen not as a special ethnic group who are more important to God than all other people, but as a conduit of blessing for the whole world. In the Old Testament, non-Jews like Ruth and Rahab join the covenant community through faithful action, and Jesus mentions Gentiles who were cared for or healed by God even when Israel was in distress (Luke 4:25-27).

Jesus fulfills this promise by widening the covenant to include not only people of Jewish descent, but anyone and everyone who joins the family of God through faith. As the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2, Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles “one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 3:6 that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” God’s loving plan for the whole world has been revealed in Jesus.

We Ignore the Occupation

Israel invaded Gaza and the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, and continues to occupy these territories today. Having their homes demolished, losing their land, facing mass incarceration without trial, and denied equal protection under the law, many Palestinians are losing hope of things ever changing. Gaza’s 1.8 million residents live in poverty, unable to access adequate food or safe drinking water, experiencing 40% unemployment; in the West Bank, Palestinians’ water supply is often cut off or destroyed by Israeli settlers. Crossing into Israel for work, Palestinians spend hours each day waiting at security checkpoints, and in emergencies, this restricted movement sometimes means that people die before they can reach a hospital. Palestinian Christians have voiced their belief that conflict will not end until the occupation ends, and they are calling on the international Christian community to hold the State of Israel accountable for its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

The occupation creates an unequal society in which Israelis hold the vast majority of power, wealth, and land, and in which their safety and well-being is maintained at the expense of the safety and well-being of Palestinians. The segregated inequality in which the two groups live generates the fear, resentment, and hatred that breed violence in the first place, and the occupation is a barrier to peace because it depends upon exclusion and violence for its very existence.

We Forget about the Church’s Mission of Reconciliation

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are called children of God,” and the apostle Paul makes clear that a large part of the Church’s mission in the world is reconciliation. Forgiveness, enemy love, and creative nonviolence are all things that Jesus modeled and taught, and throughout history there are numerous examples of this kind of “Kingdom living” bringing peace and healing in situations of conflict. God is the source of true peace, but He brings peace into the world by working in and through human beings.

Working for peace does not mean being neutral, but it does mean that we move past tribal alliances with the people who are most like us. Peacemaking means that we stand on the side of compassion, of life, and of justice, no matter whose government or ideology we find ourselves standing against.

The truth is that the only way for either Israelis or Palestinians to achieve the freedom and safety they want is for them to recognize the humanity in each other, to understand that their well-being is tied together, and to work towards a future in which all are respected and included, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

The New Testament makes clear that our allegiance as Christians is not to any earthly government or ethnic group, but to God and his Kingdom (Matt. 6:24, Acts 5:29). So, I don’t stand with Israel. Neither do I stand with Palestine. I stand with every human being who is angry and afraid, and I stand against the occupation which blocks their shared future.

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Choosing Love Over Fear When It Comes to the Refugee Crisis

Palestinian refugees in Damascus at Yarmouk camp, 2014

Yesterday I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post about what it means to respond as Christians to the plight of Syrian refugees.

This week, I’ve continued to read news stories about the refugee crisis–a crisis which had been unfolding for quite sometime before the Syrian civil war produced enough refugees and enough shocking images at one time to awaken our collective conscience. I attended a town hall meeting here in Vancouver last Tuesday where I learned that despite that bloody civil war and the expanding empire of ISIL, the vast majority of the world’s refugees still come from Africa rather than the  Middle East. At Kinbrace, I’ve also spent time talking with refugees and refugee claimants from Ethiopia, Nepal, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries, and their stories remind me that even in places that don’t make the headlines, millions of people fear for their lives every day because of oppressive government regimes and armed conflict.

These stories fill me with sadness, but also with frustration and anger over the way that many of us in the West have allowed fear to prevent us from extending compassion to those who are in urgent need of our help. Hungary has now closed its borders to Syrians fleeing the conflict, and the government is arresting those who deem an illegal crossing their best bet for survival. Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean as “Fortress Europe” deliberately refuses to help as a matter of official policy, in order to deter further immigration. But those who are desperate enough to risk the lives of themselves and their children on the rag-tag dinghies of human smugglers will not be deterred from making these deadly voyages, because they clearly have no choice. These journeys are their last hope: either they risk losing their lives, or lose them for sure by staying where they are.

Many in Europe are afraid that the influx of Muslims will threaten the “Christian identity” of Europe, but as Giles Fraser so starkly pointed out in an article for the Guardian newspaper on September 4, the Christian identity of Europe is threatened not by Muslims, but by Christian politicians who refuse to live out the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for the oppressed.

And what about North America? Canada welcomed 19,233 government assisted refugees in 1980, but that number has plummeted to just 6,900 in 2015. Furthermore, despite the government’s promise to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over 3 years, Canada has settled just over 1,000 Syrians so far. Meanwhile, the United States has taken in fewer than 1,000. So far, we North Americans haven’t shown ourselves to be any more hospitable than Europe.

Another security concern that has been raised is the possibility of terrorists slipping in amongst the flood of legitimate refugees seeking asylum. Security experts have already addressed the unlikelihood of this happening. Yet few people have talked about the way that welcoming refugees from Muslim countries actually offers our nations an opportunity to address the root causes of terrorism: poverty, lack of opportunity, traumatization and loss of loved ones in conflict zones, and hatred of the West due to foreign policy and military interventions which negatively impact Muslim civilians in the Middle East. This is a chance to show genuine love and concern to our Muslim neighbors, and to provide a secure future for exactly the kind of children who might otherwise be at risk for radicalization by opportunistic terrorist organizations who prey upon those who are impoverished and discontented.

As citizens of a world increasingly interconnected by economic ties, military involvement, and technology, the refugee crisis is not some distant issue from which we can pretend to be entirely separate. The current situation forces us to confront our political and military contribution to the crisis, and challenges those of us who follow Jesus to live out some of the core tenets of our faith.

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Lessons from Ramazan

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Today I have the chance to share some of the things I learned from my Muslim neighbors in India about life and faith in a guest post for the Missio Alliance blog. Writing about the experience of observing Ramazan and celebrating Eid with my friends in the slum brings back memories of breathtakingly difficult and beautiful times spent with wonderful people. I am so thankful for everything they have taught me, and for the ways that their friendship continues to shape my journey with Jesus.  Head over to MissioAlliance.org to read the post!

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Ramazan and Eid

          We decided to try the fast that first day of Ramazan, just to see what it was like for our neighbors. We set our alarms to wake up at 2:45 am, early enough to make breakfast and eat before the first azan, or call to prayer, reverberates through the the pre-dawn darkness and everyone stops eating or drinking anything for the next 16 hours—until the fourth call to prayer ends the fast a little after 7 pm. It was difficult to do, especially in such hot, muggy weather. We’re used to feeling hungry from time to time, but the most intense thing was the thirst. I was amazed by the way that our neighbors—and especially the women—go about their same routine of housework all day without food or water: scrubbing their family’s clothes, making food for small children or working men in their household who aren’t fasting, hauling water for cooking, bathing, and laundry, walking out in the sun to buy vegetables at the market.

Then, in the early afternoon, preparations begin for aftar (or iftar), the fast-breaking snacks that everyone eats in the evening before going to pray namaz and later having dinner. I spent hours at my friend’s house learning how to make the chana (spicy chickpeas), pakori (onions deep-fried in spicy chickpea flour), tamarind chutney, papar (deep-fried potato chips), and sarbat (lemonade) that people eat at iftar, along with fruit and dates and other tasty snacks. That evening, another family invited us to come over and break the fast with them. The mother of the family waited patiently for the azan, lost in silent prayer, while the younger children restlessly awaited the voice over the loudspeaker that would signal it was time to dig in.  The call rose from the nearest minaret in melodic Arabic, “God is great…” and along with the thousands of others sitting together in their own houses throughout the community, we broke our fast with a date, then lemonade, fruit, and all the deep-fried goodness on the plates in front of us.

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aftar (“iftar” in Arabic), fast-breaking food

          We haven’t fasted since that first day, but we have continued to be welcomed into the celebration of aftar with our neighbors. We’ve tried our hand at making a few pakori ourselves, and we’ve run around delivering fruit and pakori to different families as they send plates of their homemade aftar to our house.

One night, we were invited to the home of a wealthy Muslim lawyer who lives nearby our slum and invites anyone who wants to come—mostly poor people from our community—to eat aftar, biryani, and sweets at his house. Despite our not having fasted and our complete ignorance of how to pray namaz, we were welcomed to eat, to watch, and to talk. That open feast for the poor reminded us a bit of the kind of party Jesus describes in Luke 14:12-14.  Right after that grand feast, we had the experience of breaking the fast in a more humble setting with friends of ours who hadn’t made aftar most nights at all because of the expense. We chipped in supplies and they did most of the cooking, teaching me how to make even more kinds of ramazan treats. I love the patience and the devotion to God, the sacrificial hospitality, and the vigor of celebration that I saw in the way my neighbors observe Ramazan.

          After a full month of fasting came three days of celebration: Eid. In preparation, everyone cleaned their homes from floor to ceiling, painted their houses in bold colors, and decorated with shiny paper with designs cut into it. The women stayed up all night preparing simai (a sugary dessert), pulki (a spicy yogurt curry), and mattar (peas—also spicy), and on that first day everyone dons expensive new clothes and goes out visiting one another, dressed to the hilt. Andy and I ate in fourteen different homes that first day alone, which made us feel very included and happy—but also VERY full, and a bit sick from the ridiculous blood sugar spike that so many servings of simai brought on!
On the second day, we participated in another Eid tradition: big family outings to different parks and attractions around the city. We went with a large family to the zoo, and since one of the sons in the family makes his living as an auto rickshaw driver, all 13 of us piled into his auto for the half-hour trip!  The zoo was, well, a zoo—that’s really the best way to describe the atmosphere of noisy crowds packed in everywhere.  I think at least a hundred other people from our slum must have been there; we ran into people we knew everywhere. It was a lot of fun to go around to all of the different exhibits with these incredibly excited kids (and excited parents) who had never been to a zoo in their lives and were fascinated by each new creature.
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This is what the back seat looks like when you fit 13 people in an auto rickshaw.

 

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Holiday crowd at the zoo

 

          Eid is one of the few times that families in our community get a day off to do something fun together, and the zoo is one of the few fun places in the city that is cheap enough for almost anyone to afford, so we weren’t really all that surprised to see how crowded it was. We were a bit taken aback, though, to see how a giant playground inside the zoo drew even bigger crowds than the animal exhibits—and by the fact that most of the people making use of the equipment were teenage and adult men!
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That is one intense line for the slide.

 

          The third day of Eid was thankfully a bit more low-key, although house-to-house visiting and simai consumption continued. We’re glad to have been able to share another important cultural experience with our friends here, but also tired enough to be happy that all the celebration is over!
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