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Lessons in Diplomacy

May 4, 2009

When we were stationed in Bahrain through the start of OIF, I had the dubious honor of witnessing Americans making asses of themselves by proselytizing their evangelical beliefs to the local population. Luckily for them, the locals tended to take a paternalistic position, granting them an indulgent smile while acknowledging their shared religious roots. I’m sure the situation didn’t always end that way, but the locals I knew were very good at diverting the conversation, so we lovely Americans just looked like sweaty-palmed big mouths with an embarrassing amount of religious fervor.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll point out that I’m not a Christian, and I abhor proselytizing that is uninvited and that does not come with a reciprocal exchange of information and opinion. I imagine my stance on this issue colors the way I process stories about American evangelicals defying lawful orders because of ethnocentric (and, dare I say, egocentric) attitudes. However, when the issue is rooted in mutual respect, diplomacy, and even common decency toward a country we have invaded – rightfully or not – I have a difficult time containing my cynicism.

General Order One in Afghanistan (and probably in Iraq, as well, though I don’t know that for sure) prohibits alcohol, drugs, pornography (or anything that might be considered such according to the laws of that country), sex, and proselytizing. This is a handy rule for a couple reasons. First is the idea, as I’ve mentioned, of respect for a country’s laws and social mores. Second is the idea of maintaining good diplomatic ties to the country in the interest of cooperation and progress toward our end goal. If our service members spent their weekends boozing it up, hooking up with locals, and keeping or even posting pornographic photos or videos, there’s one more thing the Taliban can use for recruitment. There’s one more reason for the locals to at least refuse to cooperate when they have information we could use.

So when military evangelicals enter an Islamic country and do not leave their personal religious beliefs in their private spaces, there are issues. Afghanistan and Iraq are not like Bahrain, which is considered the road trip vacay spot for Saudis who want to live it up on the weekends. Even with Iraq’s small Christian population paving the way for greater acceptance of that religion, there’s the rather small matter of Americans having invaded the country and of a great number of Middle Easterners who see that invasion as being an attack on Islam. Given Afghanistan’s post-Taliban mindset and Iraq’s post-invasion turmoil, is it really a good idea to run around handing out Bibles and Christian propaganda?

US soldiers have been encouraged to spread the message of their Christian faith among Afghanistan’s predominantly Muslim population, video footage obtained by Al Jazeera appears to show.

Military chaplains stationed in the US air base at Bagram were also filmed with bibles printed in the country’s main Pashto and Dari languages.

In one recorded sermon, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief of the US military chaplains in Afghanistan, is seen telling soldiers that as followers of Jesus Christ, they all have a responsibility “to be witnesses for him”.

Granted, there’s no evidence that any proselytizing was actually done:

It is not clear that the Bibles were distributed to Afghans, but Hughes said that none of the people he recorded in a series of sermons and Bible study classes appeared to able to speak Pashto or Dari.

But why else would a chaplain – or any evangelical – distribute Pashto and Dari versions of the Bible to English speakers who aren’t trying to learn the local languages?

Perhaps the most disturbing quote in this article comes directly from Lt Col Hensley, the head honcho of chaplains in Afghanistan:

“The special forces guys – they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down,” he says.

“Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business.”

As a trained lay leader for military members, I can honestly say I’m shocked that any chaplain would say his job is to “hunt people for Jesus.” According to DOD Directive 1304.19:

It is DoD policy that professionally qualified clergy shall be appointed
as chaplains to provide for the free exercise of religion for all members
of the Military Services, their dependents, and other authorized persons.

In other words, it is not the duty of the chaplain to increase his or her herd. The chaplains’ primary duty is to ensure that all military members (plus anyone else who comes under their purview) are assured of their right to practice their religion.

The argument I most often hear is that a primary duty of Christians is to witness and to bring the Good News to the world. Free exercise of their brand of Christianity would mean they are free to pass on their beliefs, even if their bully tactics mean informing folks of their imminent residence in hell if they refuse to convert. This is a valid argument. Religious duty is sacred and, unless their work treads on the rights of another, should be respected. However, when it comes to the military, there are set regulations and expectations. There are orders that must be obeyed, and many of them are there for a very good reason.

So when our country’s evangelical service members attempt to spread not just Christianity but a viral version thereof*, what representation do they give our country to the Iraqis and Afghanis whose lives are in tumult right now? What does their overt Christian face  say to a citizenship who already suspects that America has declared war on their religion?

We can, of course, hope that the documentary, which has not yet made the news here in the West, recorded a fluke. However, when I can recall comments from my fellow Americans in Bahrain commenting that they volunteered for that tour so that they could witness to Muslims, I have a hard time holding out that hope. Instead, I pray that the actions of a few evangelicals has not endangered the lives of our service members or citizens.

*Here I refer to the idea of viral marketing, not to a disease.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2009 1:12 pm

    My first thought as I read the article was how disrespectful it is, but of course the proselytizers don’t see it that way.
    How can they not see this as DANGEROUS to the United States? Any idea of us being there to stamp out Islam can only work as another recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
    I think you did an excellent job here.

  2. May 4, 2009 1:36 pm

    Thanks for making my head spin so early on a Monday morning.

    It’s disheartening to me to read that the stereotype so many civilians have of the military is actually true, that there are those who would be so dangerously stupid and tone deaf.

  3. May 4, 2009 3:33 pm

    anyone else remember the numbskull usage of the term “crusade” to describe the GWOT?? Most Americans don’t understand that the historical connotations of that word, echoing the century or two of invasions by the Christian Kingdoms lead by the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, the English and all under the auspices of the Pope. They don’t realize that this isn’t just a medieval piece of long ago, it’s still preached about in the mosques! To then have “invaders” who are now going to “convert” or “preach” the Gospel to them… talk about idiotic!

    I certainly hope that Command in both areas puts this issue under the microscope. It doesn’t help our military, who will be suspected of doing exactly this when they try to help rebuild a school, or run a clinic for children. Put your beliefs where they belong, in your head, your heart, your own family. Leave them there, they don’t belong in the work we have to do in either Iraq or Afghanistan.


  4. michelle permalink
    May 4, 2009 4:59 pm

    speaking as a Christian, I still find it remarkably intolerable that there are members of our military who do this and who think that these wars are wars of good vs evil which boils down to Christianity vs Islam. Just unreal. A while ago I watched a show on tv and they showed a group of soldiers ready to go out on patrol in Iraq. They all prayed before they went out, nothing wrong with that at all, but then the prayer – led by their commander (which I do have problems with) was ended with the reminded that they are there in Iraq to do Jesus’ work. My jaw sort of hit the floor. Like I said, as a practicing Catholic, liberal, army wife (How’s that for confusion) I just found the whole idea that some of our soldiers think they are there for any purpose other than for Uncle Sam, repulsive.

    • May 5, 2009 10:58 am

      Michelle — thanks for joining us! And trust me, I am right there with you (life long practicing Catholic, liberal Army Wife!) and I totally agree with you. We’re not on a crusade. It’s a war. There’s a difference. We as people wouldn’t stand for it if someone from the Islam Faith invaded our country and then told us that Islam was the correct religion to follow.

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