Evangelizing Iraq: The Christian-missionary question.

In postwar Iraq, urgent decisions need to be made about the Christian missionary groups that stand ready to rush supplies to Iraqis in need of water, food, and medicine. Islamic law makes conversion from Islam a capital offense; and many non-Muslim Americans share the concern that it is wrong to use food and drink as a medium for spreading the gospel. While these organizations insist they attach no strings to their aid, Muslims and others, including in our own government, are suspicious.

With U.S. efforts now having turned to feeding the Iraqi population and restoring civil life, it needs to be understood that missionary groups are simply following in the footsteps of a figure from the ancient past revered equally by Muslims, Christians, and Jews: the patriarch Abraham.

Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations states the case against the evangelists: “They hold a blanket in one hand and a Bible in the other and say you can’t get one without the other…. It’s the deceit I don’t like.”

Actually, this isn’t the strategy at all. The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, a leading group, raises money from 42,000 congregations nationwide to send boxes of dried food to Iraqis. The boxes include no religious literature — which could cause the aid to be turned back at the border — but will bear a label quoting John 1:17 in Arabic: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”

However even if the Christians, such as Rev. Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, do link relief with religious instruction, a case can be made for this which no monotheist should easily dismiss. Christianity, Islam and Judaism equally acknowledge Abraham as the first exponent of monotheism — its first missionary.

The earliest account of his career is in the Hebrew Bible, a cryptic text full of ambiguities and ellipses — instances of crucial information that was apparently left out. Tradition, as in ancient Jewish works such as the Talmud, claims to fill in the blanks. One ambiguity is in the book of Genesis. It begins narrating Abraham’s life with the strange statement that he left Harran (in today’s southern Turkey) with an entourage including (literally) “the souls that he had made” (12:5). The Talmud offers the tradition that he converted them: He “took them in under the wings of the Divine Presence. Abraham would convert the men and [his wife] Sarah would convert the women. Scripture thus considers it as if they ‘made’ them.”

Islam likewise pictures Abraham as an evangelist, calling all men to participate in the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslim tradition portrays him as stuffing his fingers in his ears and shouting at such a supernaturally enhanced volume that everyone in the world heard his voice.

Christianity and Islam both have long histories of evangelism. Judaism too, in theory at least, demands it as an obligation. In his great work the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides lays out the rather aggressive means by which Jews should seek converts — not to Judaism but to monotheism as the Torah conceives it.

Abraham was pretty aggressive. In another cryptic verse in Genesis, he’s said to have planted an “eshel” in Beersheba (21:33). If that is just a kind of tree, as many translators say, who cares that he planted one? According to the Talmud, this eshel refers to an inn Abraham established in the wilderness, a hospice where he taught wayfarers to acknowledge God. The patriarch would give them food, then ask them to say grace.

Sound familiar? As Christian missionaries understand, food creates fellowship. We eat with our friends. And it is friendship that, more than food itself, leads to conversions.

How could any religious believer, who thinks his faith has the answers to ultimate questions, not share those answers with others? The patriarch operated in a free market of ideas, where he was able to share his conception of the One God. Part of his legacy is missionary work. Another part is the liberty to make friends by offering food, and then to tell them about your God.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews disagree about details of theology, but the basic point is beyond dispute: We are called to share our God. If Muslims deny Christians the right of a free hearing, and if other Christians and Jews go along with this, citing the need to “respect” other traditions, what’s accomplished is in fact a betrayal of the legacy of monotheism on which all three faiths were founded.


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