Friday, March 1, 2019

City Notes '19 | Preemptive Love: A Guideline of Loving First and Asking Questions Later




"We didn't move here so you could play it safe ... "


Since Emmaus City Church formed in Worcester, Massachusetts a few years ago, we have wanted to embody the joy and justice of Jesus' Gospel locally, regionally, nationally, and globally in however He leads. One organization we have had the privilege to partner with that helps us do this globally is Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization based in Iraq that provides lifesaving heart surgeries to Iraqi children and training for local doctors and nurses.

The next three City Notes will provide stories about Preemptive Love from various chapters in co-founder Jeremy Courtney's book, Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time. I recently had the privilege to hear Jeremy in Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturday, February 16 when he came to share with the Go Conference '19. While I can't quite capture the power of his prophetic call to love first at the conference, I hope some of these excerpts from his book on this blog will help you catch a glimpse of what it was like. If you resonate with what you read below, I encourage you to read the entire book and consider how you might partner with Preemptive Love Coalition

Chapter 6 | The Sheikh

Seasons of yes and why and growing into cultural adolescence

We have a general principle that we try to use in acclimating to the various cultures of Iraq in which we live and work. For the first six months, we say yes to everything.

"Do you want to go eat sheep brains and intestines with me at four A.M.?" a friend might ask. "Yes! Yes, I do!" "Do you want to go with me to my fire-eating, sword-thrusting Sufi worship gathering?" "Yes! Yes, I do!" Saying yes to innumerable invitations around us is an incomparable way to learn and another way to love first and ask questions later.

After six months and a lot of experiences that we might have otherwise avoided, we enter a period of asking, "Why?" By this point we have learned some of the language, we have a greater cultural context in which to interpret and place each experience and invitation, and we have witnessed and experienced certain things for ourselves, rather than relying solely on the testimony of others. 

An old lady might say in her colloquial dialect, "Repeat after me, 'There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.'" When we ask why in response to such a well-meaning (but possibly manipulative) directive, we get a conversation in return, rather than give the erroneous impression that we intend to convert to Islam, and rather than shut down a relationship with an immediate no that gives no room for discussion or understanding of one another. 

After seasons of yes and why, we pass, as it were, into a cultural adolescence, having learned from our hosts why things are the way they are in their own words. We are free to make informed adult decisions about cultural values and practices and determine if and where they depart from the things that we ourselves hold to be most valuable. Of course, our road map is not for the faint of heart. There is plenty of risk with loving first – saying yes – and asking questions later. Indeed, even we use it more as a guideline to urge one another deeper into preemptive love than we do as a set of commandments against which to grade each other. But there is something beautiful about entrusting yourself as an individual and as a community to the people around you and saying yes as a way of showing honor and love. 

"As-salaamu alaykum, peace be upon you."

And so, I sat back down with my new friend and the five imams, sheikhs, and muftis in the delegation who carried out their religious duties and lived in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul – the three most ethnically and religiously diverse, divided, and violent cities in the country. My new friend introduced himself in broken English: "As-salaamu alaykum, peace be upon you. I am Sheikh Hussein from Baghdad. We are conference of Muslim scholars. We are against the terrorists." He was effervescent and magnetic. If the worldwide Muslim community wanted a convincing spokesperson to denounce terrorism and make the case for a moderate Islam that was truly a religion of peace and love, they could do no better than a bearded Arab leader like Sheikh Hussein.

Seven small fenjan cups full of Arab coffee were placed on saucers in front of us as the smell of cardamom signaled that the time for friendship and conversation had officially arrived. I leaned forward as Sheikh Hussein regaled me with stories of the war, politics, the present Sunni-Shia conflict, and the numerous acts of terrorism he and his friends had endured over the preceding four years since the toppling of Saddam's regime. Every time he stood in front of Iraqi TV crews and denounced Sunni al-Qaeda and Shia militias, reprisals were sure to follow. In response to his public calls for Sunni and Shia Arabs to pray together in an effort to stanch the bloodletting around the country, his Baghdad mosque where he led prayers each day was bombed. He barely escaped a high-speed chase in which men with automatic weapons tried to abduct and kill him. And, to cap it all off, his seven-year-old boy's best friend was murdered in front of Sheikh Hussein's house while a soccer ball rolled past his son, who stood frozen, shocked to see his playmate bleeding out on the street.

I would later learn that I was the first American he had ever met. He saw the camera strap sticking out of my bag. "I want to send a message to the people of America." He certainly wasn't camera shy. I pulled out my camera, set it on video mode, and began recording. "Good evening, lady and gentleman ... ," he began with his signature smile. "We are against the terrorists and terrorism. We are with the love to all people: Muslim, Christian, Jewish. We are against" – his voice became really impassioned – "the killing of any people. We love the God ...  We are with peace from the heart. We will work with any people, any country, any religion in service to all the people. We love the people of America, France, Germany, Australia. This is our message: We want peace. Only." The red recording light turned off, and the other men from the delegation clamored to be heard. "Send that to all the people of America!" they shouted, as though changing the minds of all Americans was as simple as reaching into their living rooms through a quick phone call to Big Brother. Their message and desires were spot-on, but they clearly did not understand the rising tide of Islamophobia and what it would take to really reverse the trend in the middle of a conflict that was largely understood as a war on Islam itself, in spite of the many attempts by the presidential administration and commentators to convince us otherwise.

The imam from Kirkuk asked me what we were doing in our organization to help this city. I hated to admit that we were doing nothing. I had some friends who lived and worked in Kirkuk. A number of my Iraqi friends were from there and still had family there. To hear them talk about it, the city was completely off-limits, especially for a new guy like me. No one who wanted to live should even consider working there. The clerics were visibly disappointed in my answer. I asked what we could do to help. "The children," one guy said. "The children need so much. They are sick. They need surgery. They need education. Food. Clean water. If you come to my city, I will put an umbrella of protection around you. You can live and work from my mosque. No one will be able to touch you." I take those invitations very seriously. But everything was so new to me, I did not know what to say. The conversation slipped away, but I never forgot the way he threw the doors wide open and offered to put his reputation on the line for me and the children in his community.

"You forgot to pray that she would be an American woman!"

The coffee was long gone and the time had clearly come to say goodbye, but before I left, one of men asked me to pray. "You are a man of God," he said. I could barely see his lips moving behind his beard. "Please pray that I will find a wife." He was so affable, I did not even notice the pain in his request. Blinded again by my own assumptions of Arab male misogyny – and ignoring my principle of saying yes as a way of extending love to others – I assumed he was joking, aiming to get a second or third wife for purely pleasurable purposes. I made an off-color remark about how difficult it was for any man to make one wife happy and questioned how he could possibly care for another. His countenance changed. His one and only wife had been killed recently in a suicide-bombing, and though he missed her greatly, it was too difficult to raise their children alone amidst daily car bombings, assassination attempts on his life, and his pastoral efforts to mitigate violence and shape the city of Kirkuk as it teetered on the brink of all-out civil war. 

I was humbled by all that these men had been through, by my own presumptuousness, and by their peaceful postures and requests for spiritual intervention and help from someone outside their ranks. I held out my hands in supplication, as though something tangible were going to immediately fall from God, and began my prayer in Turkish: "Oh, God, you know the concerns of my new friend Hussein. You are the creator of the world and the provider of all good things. Please bring a wife to Hussein to love him, his children, and to create a new life together. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen." When I looked up, he had a sparkle in his eye. He seemed pleased enough. And although all spiritual common sense would say that prayer is directed to God and not to be uttered for the approval of others, I must admit, I was relieved to have his approval. Then I recognized the deviousness of his smirk.

"You forgot to pray that she would be an American woman!" The room erupted in laughter. And there it was. The ultimate declaration of peace. "Who am I to presume to tell God whom he should provide for you?" I joked. "It is enough that we let him decide." We stood for ten minutes of man-kisses and good-byes as all the cell phones were passed around for photos and the obligatory exchange of numbers.

As I returned home and relayed the stories to Jessica, the look in her eyes made me wonder if I had let my guard down way too much. I had just given away my full name and phone number and allowed myself to be repeatedly videoed and photographed in an environment where various tribal sheikhs and religious clerics were in league with the Ministry of Interior, tracking phone calls, intercepting e-mails, and staging kidnappings for politics and profit. I pursued the fear in her eyes and asked if I had gone too far or shared too much of our information with these new guys who were only a degree or two (at most) removed from the insurgency and state-sponsored terror. Her response tells you everything you need to know about my amazing wife:

"We didn't move here so you could play it safe. Nothing is going to change that way."


Afterword

Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own. 

Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it is the first and the last enemy lover. And in the end, it is not our love that overcomes hate at all. It is God's. And preemptive love is not just something God does as a one-off transaction. Preemptive love is who God is, constantly overcoming our hateful rebellion and our lesser passions that belie the self-interest we suppose ourselves to be pursuing. In fact, if we were really self-interested, committed to our ultimate well-being, we wouldn't fill ourselves up, saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry." We would empty ourselves out and give ourselves away in service or sacrifice to others, just like Jesus did. That's where they real joy is. Whenever we spend our lives trying to preserve, protect, and shore up security for ourselves, we actually lose the very thing we were trying to save, as it daily flits away while we obsess over insurance policies, retirement plans, and dead bolts on the doors. We lose the joy of living for something bigger, something with meaning. But when we spend our lives trying to lose ourselves in love for God and love for friends and enemies, we actually gain life, no matter how much we lose in the process. This is the paradox of preemptive love!

But I would be so afraid! I could never do what you are doing! I hear that objection wherever I go, from Iraqis and Americans, Muslims and Christians alike. But preemptive love does not require the absence of fear. Jessica and I are not brave or courageous. That is not the take-away we want for you! If anything, we live with a chronic sense of fear: for our physical safety, for our kids, for our financial future, for our faith. In fact, even as I write this sitting in Iraq, I find all those fears pounding on my door after a group of thugs threatened me and insisted I halt publication of this book. As I weight the consequences of caving in to their bullying versus keeping my word and following through with the commitments I've made, I am afraid of the ways they can manufacture "evidence" that would ruin our work here once and for all and leave thousands of children without many of the immediate and midterm solutions they need to survive.

No, preemptive love is not about the absence of fear. We cannot avoid the foreboding storms that loom on the horizon, but we can learn to dance in the rain. And when we accept God's preemptive love, that Christ makes all things new, we can quit playing by everyone else's rules and pursue a long, risky journey with the God who loves his enemies – even enemies like you and me. What Jess and I learned in that broken-down neighborhood so many years ago is still true today: we don't need power to live in peace. Because even though fear, hatred, and violence conspire to unmake the world, preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love fulfills the fears of fundamental fatwas, making children love their enemies. And preemptive love overcomes fear. And before all is said and one, the far country is the near-and-now country for all who enter the marathon, lean on love, and make it to the finish line. 

Next City Notes post: Preemptive Love: True Peace Happens When Nemesis Neighbors Prioritize Each Other's Well-Being Over Their Own

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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