Jeremy Courtney: Missionaries should stop posing as aid workers, teachers and businesspeople
It undermines religious freedom and puts Christians at risk, he says
CNN's "Declassified" reveals U.S. rescue of Christian aid workers held hostage: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT
Editor’s Note: CNN’s “Declassified” reveals a secret U.S. mission to rescue Christian aid workers held by the Taliban, Sunday August 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. Jeremy Courtney is president and founder of the Preemptive Love Coalition, a faith-oriented community including Christians and Muslims that provides lifesaving heart surgeries for children, food and shelter for those persecuted by extremists, education for at-risk children, and small-business grants. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
I’ve lived and worked in the Middle East for a decade, providing medical care, emergency relief and economic opportunity for refugees.
Growing up in American Baptist churches, I was awed by missionaries: those larger-than-life heroes who go into hostile territory, risking body and limb to tell the Jesus story in countries where doing so is dangerous at best and illegal at worst.
In order to get inside these “closed” countries, some missionaries pose as aid workers, teachers and business owners. Under the guise of work they think a hostile government or population will find valuable, they sneak in, concealing their true aim: to convert as many as possible to their religion.
I used to think this was height of faith. Now, I’m starting to think they are liars. And I think they need to stop.
1. It’s fundamentally dishonest.
Covert missionaries say one thing to one group and something entirely different to another. They tell churches back home they’re going “over there” to convert people. To government officials, local media and neighbors in their host countries, they insist they are simply here to teach or provide aid.
It’s one thing to be an aid worker and a missionary – as long as you’re transparent about both, so people know who they are dealing with and why. But don’t use one to hide the other. And never condition the receipt of aid on a transaction involving your faith.
Covert missionaries create the appearance of risk while trying to mitigate actual risk by concealing their identity. Their intentions might be good, but their actions are duplicitous.
Many argue they have no other choice; it’s not their fault they have to lie. If repressive governments would just allow more freedom! But even so, how is playing with words and half-truths really demonstrating a different way to live and love?
2. It undermines the cause of religious freedom.
During the hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2011, CIA operatives in Pakistan posed as aid workers and even faked an immunization campaign. To many of my Muslim friends, this CIA spycraft is no different from what covert Christian missionaries do.
What happens when the missionary’s cover is blown: for example, if their business proves to be a front for something else? Such duplicity reinforces the local suspicion and mistrust that led them to engage in secrecy and spycraft in the first place. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, and true freedom of expression and assembly gets hurt in the process.
Make no mistake: I am ardently committed to the free exercise of religion.
I believe Muslims should be free to convert to Christianity. Christians should be free to convert to Islam. Both should be free to de-convert or reconvert without intimidation or reprisal.
People should also be free to share their religious beliefs with conviction and respect, no matter where they live. That’s presently not the case in many of the countries where I work, and this lack of freedom directly contributes to human suffering.
But secrecy and duplicity will not increase religious freedom.
They only sow the seeds of mistrust. They give paranoid regimes an excuse to crack down on local religious minorities. They make it harder for foreign investment to grow. And they make it harder for real aid groups with no hidden agenda to do the work we’re here to do.
3. It puts a target on the backs of local Christians.
Many of my Syrian and Iraqi Christian friends are fiercely critical of Western missionary intervention.
I wish churches in America would pause to consider why.
These local, indigenous communities represent tiny minorities in their countries. Most would never dare to advance their worldview using the techniques common among Western missionaries. Sometimes, there may be cultural or legal reasons behind this reticence. Religion in the Middle East is often tribal and family-based.
The covert missionary might be troubled by the “passivity” or “acquiescence” of local Christians and other religious minorities when it comes to sharing their faith – and maybe for good reason.
But their reality is different.
This is how religious minorities, like the shrinking Christian community in Iraq and Syria, have endured for centuries.
I’ve heard Western Christians almost celebrate the persecution of local Christians by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, on the the grounds that persecution will make them real believers or ignite their faith. This kind of attitude sickens me.
Often, it is the local Christian community that pays the highest price for covert missionary interventionism. As long as we hold on to our passports and our round-trip tickets, allowing us to escape when things get tough, we don’t get to decide how indigenous Christians should cope with their reality.
You might think I wish Western churches and Christians would just get out of the way. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want them to do even more to embody the message that God, in Jesus, is a love great enough to unmake violence and make all things new.
Will American churches rely on secrecy and spycraft to infiltrate countries that aren’t receptive to them? Or will they find a different way? Will they choose the path of radical transparency instead?
“But what if they never let us in? What if they kick us out or kill us?”
These are valid concerns.
But there’s another question we should ask: “Why can’t we provide enough value to society that it outweighs the perceived threat of our Christian identity?”
Here is my challenge to those who want to bring their faith into the hard places: Stand in the open, in the light of day. If you want to convert others, open churches or engage in religious debate, be honest about that.
If honesty comes with higher risk, own it. And if you dare to say you are a businessperson, a teacher or an aid worker dealing with people at the height of human suffering, then by God, be great at it. Drop the shell game.
Show the world there is something worth living – and dying – for.
Love big enough to change nations is a love that listens and learns. We don’t “add value” by asserting our values. We do it by accepting people where they are, serving them in ways that seem most valuable to them.
Those whose presence and investment yield tangible, transformative results, they will win the marketplace of ideas. Those who try to win through covert tactics should remember: The same cultural forces making it harder for autocrats to hide their secrets from transparency activists will make things just as difficult for us.
Most of all, if we really want to remake our world, let’s choose radical, inclusive love and never abuse the sacred responsibility of providing life-saving food, education and economic empowerment by dangling them in exchange for attendance at religious meetings, acceptance of religious literature or acquiescence to prayers and presentations.
What would it look like for Christians to actually look Muslims in the eyes and say “I love you,” period?
I used to think that covert Christian spycraft was the only way for people of faith to engage in a closed public square.
It wasn’t until I adopted the more radical way of transparent, pre-emptive love that I learned to listen to the concerns of those I care most about.
What I’ve discovered since then is that when we show up for people in need – when we seek their well-being, flourishing and justice, whether they ever convert to our religion or not – we might just see the transformation we long for in ourselves and in hard-to-access places around the world.