Saturday, February 11, 2012


Soldiers, Evangelists, Crusaders?

Next month the Jailer will begin a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.  This will be my third deployment in eight years, so my family is accustomed to my periodic extended absences, though missing Jailer Jr.'s high school graduation and first trip to college will be disappointing.  More on this later.

Today I think it's appropriate to comment on a kerfuffle that erupted nearly three years ago when a hack posing as a legitimate journalist wormed his way onto Bagram Air Base and put together a video purporting to show military members attempting to violate United States Central Command General Order Number One, in which a variety of forbidden practices are outlined.  These include alcohol, pornography, and “proselytizing of any faith, religion or practice” while in theater.

Any fair evaluation of the video would conclude it is shamefully slanted and dishonest.  In fact, the individuals  portrayed did pretty much everything almost exactly right.  There is prayer for the lost, preaching and teaching to the faithful, and an honest discussion of what to do with a stack of Pasthtu and Dari (the official Afghan languages) which were sent to a member by his church in the US in light of the General Order.  The presence of these Bibles is a problem, except that the soldier who received them in the mail brought them to the chaplains, who use them as an opportunity to discuss the issue.  The preaching is typical of many evangelical worship services, except perhaps the preponderance of military references, which are hardly surprising considering the makeup of the congregation.  He was speaking in terms his flock could relate to.

Still, if you are looking for proof that anything can be made to sound scandalous if you're trying hard enough, and the "journalist" found a willing accomplice in Al-Jazeera, which aired this agitprop in May of 2009:


To its credit, the Defense Department refused to surrender the either truth or the high ground:
The Al Jazeera story showed an evangelical religious service on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and a discussion about distributing Bibles that had been translated into Dari and Pashtu – the two major languages of Afghanistan.

“American servicemembers are allowed to hold religious services,” a Defense Department official speaking on background said. “The clip shows one of those services with an American chaplain leading a religious service for American servicemembers.
In it, he spoke generically about the evangelical faith. That’s all there was to it.”

The chaplain did not urge servicemembers to go among the Afghan people and attempt to gain converts to Christianity, the official said.

In the second instance, a young sergeant received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari and Pashtu from his church in the United States. The film showed a discussion about the Bibles.

“What it did not show was the chaplain counseling the young sergeant that distributing the Bibles was against U.S. Central Command’s General Order No. 1,” the official said. The chaplain confiscated the Bibles. “As far as we know, none ever got off base.”
The debate over the clear journalistic malpractice is yesterday's news, so I will leave it there. I'd rather turn the discussion to a more delicate problem among Christians--namely whether these servicemembers were unjustly muzzled or should engage in civil disobedience for the sake of the gospel.  Put another way, do we have a duty to preach the gospel in all situations regardless of human law or regulation?  This is an argument for which there is apparent basis, to include the Great Commission itself, as well as Peter and John's brave assertion before the Sanhedrin:
Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”   
So there is clearly a command to evangelize which transcends certain lesser human commands to cease.  The question is whether this is universal or circumstantial.  In other words, are there times, places and circumstances in which it is right to obey man and refrain from speaking?

There are indeed.  Let me list a few important facts to keep in mind:
  • In Romans 13:1-7, Paul clearly advocates submission to earthly authorities where appropriate.
  • Jesus Himself recognized there were times to speak and times to remain quiet.  For example, on at least two occasions He commanded witnesses to healings not to speak of it.  He was trying to avoid an onslaught of miracle-seekers who would interfere with His primary mission.  
  • Even in sending out His disciples to preach, He commanded them to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."  There is to be wisdom as well as boldness.
  • Military members take an oath, which includes the promise "to obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice."  General Order Number One qualifies.  If the order were unlawful (such as an order to kill unarmed civilians) then we would have a duty to disobey it.  This one is not unlawful, however, and we are obliged to keep our oaths.  
More broadly, it is key to remember that narratives matter a lot in Afghanistan.  Like most countries in the region, Afghanistan is possessed of a high-context culture, which means that the culture adds a great deal of context to a speaker's words or actions.  To that the extent that the speaker understands this context, he can communicate.  Unfortunately this also means a speaker who is ignorant of the context will find his messages re-translated in mystifying ways.

Moreover, high-context cultures have very long corporate memories, which add a great deal to the context.  History (as they understand it) is extremely important.  In such a culture, the Great Crusades were just yesterday, the British Empire was driven out this morning, and the nation of Israel was planted in the Muslim world five minutes ago in an attempt to shame and ultimately destroy their society.  Into this environment place an ongoing NATO military operation and a determined enemy aggressively hawking this message via a variety of media and methods.

Then drop in a well-intentioned Christian wearing a US Army uniform, M-4 rifle and body armor, giving a "gift" of a Dari-language Bible to a young man in a military hospital.  It doesn't take much imagination to see where this can go.  

What's more, what happens when that young man leaves the hospital and is discovered with the Bible by the local mullah or Taliban commander?  Prison, torture and death are all possible outcomes.  Sure, as Christians we should be willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel, but that doesn't give us the right to put those we're seeking to reach in similar peril while we ourselves sleep relatively securely in our barracks and Constitutional protections.  

Which brings us back to the cause of the gospel in that part of the world.  It is my hope and belief that God has a plan to reach the Muslim world with the gospel.  For this He will use some very brave people such as Yousef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor who remains under sentence of death for his faith.  I also hope He will use the mantle of liberty our military efforts result in to create a more open society in which future Pastor Yousefs across the region may freely practice and minister.


  1. "Thank you" to you and so many others for your service. I'm reminded of the quote that goes something like, "Preach the gospel everywhere you go. When necessary, use words." Thanks to the believers in uniform for being salt and light around the world. Press on.

  2. >> Thanks to the believers in uniform for being
    >> salt and light around the world.

    Yes, most definitely. Amen and amen. Nothing says "Christian charity" and "salt and light" like "armed to the teeth" Christian soldiers bearing the Gospel of Peace to a benighted Muslim world using rifles, grenade launchers, Patriot missiles, depleted uranium tipped tank shells, Predator drones with Hellfire missiles, bunker buster bombs, 'shock and awe' campaigns, torture, etc. How can the Muslims refuse such a "salt and light" testimony?

    Continuing in this theme, there are two excellent chapters in the book "Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America's War on Terror," that provide additional "salt and light" examples of Christian missionary soldiers at work. See Chapter 13, "Missionary Soldiers" and Chapter 24, "Jesus vs. Mohammed". See


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