Years ago now, centuries ago, worlds ago, in 2001, eight workers with SNI, (a fairly evangelistic organisation here in Afghanistan – which also did very good shelter work), were arrested by the Taliban. They were imprisoned. A week or so after that, all the other Christian/ faith-based organisations were kicked out of Afghanistan. A week or so after that, was 9-11.
I know that there are a few people who read this blog who are people of faith, and others who probably aren’t, but what I guess that all 10 of you have worked out that I am a person with a sort of faith (albeit a fairly uncertain, muddy, what-is-going-on-here? kind). I expect that you all know as well, that many of the excellent NGOs around the world were started by persons of faith. The Red Cross. OXFAM. CAA (now OXFAM in Australia). Christian Aid. CRS. Mercy Corps. And so on. They didnt start these NGOs because they wanted the beneficiaries to think or believe or act like they did, but because they believed that humanity had intrinsic, inherent value. They were humanitarians.
My point is that not all Christians, or followers of Christ (as I prefer to call myself) are interested in religious tyranny or building theocracies. Some of us are here out of a commitment to take Jesus seriously, when he tells the folk around him to speak up for the voiceless and work with the powerless. To live like human life, everywhere, mattered. (Of course, faith based aid workers have never had a monopoly on doing good, and they have sometime had a strong suit in the doing-bad section too).
But, the agency I worked with in 2001 was an agency which took Jesus seriously, in the same kind of way.Life mattered, regardless of the individual’s persuasions. Anyone who wanted to evangelise took their business elsewhere, and that was ok too, though some of us were still uneasy. We just didnt share their assumptions. As it turned out, some of the SNI people imprisoned by the Taliban had been with my agency, but left, in order to be more free to ‘do the Lord’s work’.
Well, late August 2001, and we all got kicked out. All the agencies that looked, sounded or smelt Christian. We lost millions of dollars of plant and property. Projects were shut down, doors slammed shut, bags grabbed, as we were all given 72 hours to leave the country. Our Afghan staff went into hiding and were scattered to Iran, Pakistan, as the Taliban came hunting them, simply for working for us. We personally lost our entire home and contents, and a lot of irreplaceable stuff that we never got back and it has hurt ever since. Friendships I had made never recovered. It was a hard, pointless time.
Sometime after the US invasion, the SNI workers were rescued. No doubt, they had had a bad time too. It can’t have been fun. But – they went home. And then, they became celebrities. Some of them met President Bush, some met our Prime Minister (I would have taken the opportunity to strike the man). They wrote books, they spoke at hundreds of conferences, some of them were paid tens of thousands of dollars for exclusive scoops. Two of them released an album. They were real celebrities. They survived the most evil people on the planet, the Taliban.
We survived them too, and meanwhile, we slowly went back to Afghanistan and picked up the pieces. We – the workers of my old agency, and others – paid a high price for their evangelistic enthusiasm. We, and countless other national and international staff. It took me years to regain my confidence. It was horrible and the smiling blitheness with which some people refer to that time as ‘God’s plan’ for this country makes my eyes smart with tears, and my gut recoil.
But as a result of that assumption, that it was Jesus driving the Humvees, there are here today, many people who continue to claim that it is God’s time for Afghanistan, that it is a harvest time. These people tend to work with agencies that are known world-wide for crusading evangelism, and as a result, these agencies have different names which they work under in Afghanistan. Some of their workers come here for short times only. But some are here for years, and have a fantastic commitment, to culture, to language and to service. Some of them do reasonable development and health projects. And they are nice people. They also teach the Scriptures, pray in public, and win converts. (Interestingly, such agencies also often have pretty strong ties to the military. They take military funding. They use military resources. They get together for special national days and eat lunch together.)
But this country is not a liberal democracy. This week, a 23yr old journalist had his death sentence commited to only 20 yrs imprisonment for ‘blaspheming the Prophet’. Apparently. His actual crime? Sparking debate about the role of women in Islam, using downloaded resources. This is not an untraumatised country, where ordinary people have the chance to learn to tolerate and protect minorities, promote diversity and allow dissent. It is an emotionally traumatised place, where fear, intimidation, bigotry and superstition still dominate. This country is not a pluralist society. Last year a bunch of South Koreans came here, believing it was God’s time, and several of them were killed. It is not liberal nor democratic, it is not free from trauma, and it is not pluralist, and someone will pay a high price for those who think so. We paid a high price in 2001, and yesterday, Gail paid the highest price. For her own actions, or the actions of others, I am not sure. But in this country, in these years, someone is always paying a high price for other people’s evangelistic fervour, ideological zeal and mistaken assumptions.