Saturday, March 2, 2019

City Notes '19 | Preemptive Love: True Peace Happens When Nemesis Neighbors Prioritize Each Other's Well-Being Over Their Own

"Her daughter's name, Noor, means 'light,' and is often construed to mean 'God's light' or 'light that guides.' ... "

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 Coalitionan international development organization based in Iraq that provides lifesaving heart surgeries to Iraqi children and training for local doctors and nurses.

The first City Notes on Preemptive Love, along with the following two, provide stories from 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

"We have to save her life. I'm at your service. How do we make this happen?"

"Let the governments pursue their cease-fires and treaties. But true peace is more than the absence of conflict. True peace happens in the heart when nemesis neighbors prioritze each other's well-being over their own." I might as well have been speaking a different language. I had veered off the topic of the world we actually lived in. I was speaking of that faraway country again, with its constitution. I was speaking as though it was already among us, but there was no place like Iraq to remind me of the myriad ways in which it was not yet here in its fullness.

"We are waiting on a leader who will stand up and do the risky thing rather than the certain thing. It's certain that these children will die if they are not treated. You are all right: it would be risky to send them to Israel. Your neighbors in the militia might retaliate if they find out. But there are other families who have chosen the uncertainty of terror squads over the certain death of their child from heart disease. And those children are running in parks playing football and going to school today while your children are sick at home. If you are the men of peace you claim to be, we're ready to walk forward with you into things that are risky."

The smoke had cleared as the politicians, plutocrats, and clergy filed out of the shiekh's house with their cigarettes and salaams. I began buttoning the cuffs of my shirt and had grabbed my jacked to leave when Sheikh Hussein took hold of my hand and asked me to stay behind for a few minutes. Our interlocked fingers told me this was going to be serious. In that unsettling quiet that occurs only after a storm, the sheikh gave me one of the greatest gifts I'd ever received. "One of the families in my Baghdad mosque has a little baby girl who is going to die soon if she does not get her heart surgery. I could not admit it in front of all the other men – they are not like me and will not understand – but I will send this baby to Israel. We have to save her life. I'm at your service. How do we make this happen?"

"It isn't enough to speak generally of peace. One must provide the concrete grounds for it ..."

Edward Said, the inimitable (and highly controversial) Palestinian scholar and writer, said something that affected me deeply in my feeble efforts to love into situations where I found myself in far over my head. He said, "It is up to us to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot. It isn't enough to speak generally of peace. One must provide the concrete grounds for it, and those can only come from moral vision, and neither from 'pragmatism' nor 'practicality.' If we are all to live – this is our imperative – we must capture the imagination not just of our people, but that of our oppressors."

One day over coffee in the sheikh's parlor, the sheikh said, "I've called the family with the sick baby and told them about the option in Israel. They are al in. I am all in. It was a stunning development. Not only had Sheikh Hussein, our visionary local leader, embraced our call to preemptive love, but his moral vision had proven to be aligned with a very needy family who lived so near to the hard-liners in Baghdad that it would be seemingly impossible for them to embark on such a journey without being surrounded by threats to their lives and happiness if they chose to risk it with us in Israel in the face of the fatwa.

With the momentum of this great news, I was finally let in on a collective secret as to why my pending meeting with the grand sheikh had been so delayed – in fact, why it was an utter impossibility, in spite of our overtures, requests, and high tolerance for risk. "I have to tell you something about the grand sheikh that you do not know," he began. "The grand sheikh no longer lives in Iraq. He fled the country some time ago and now lives in the safety of a compound outside the country where he drives luxury cars, has a militia of bodyguards, and cannot possibly understand, let alone share in, the sufferings of the Iraqi people as he calls upon us to oppose the occupation and fight against people like you." 

It was alarming to learn that we had been caught up in yet another proxy war, where a man in a difficult world held his finger over a button that had the capacity to trigger punishment and death for Americans across the country, and, ultimately, for our Iraqi neighbors and their little children. Not only did his acts of violence originate from a sterile environment where all truth and perception were mediated to him through intelligence reports and computer screens, but his religious edicts, which were meant to make sense of the turmoil and somehow comfort those in need, did not originate from a place of shared suffering and experience. Since I had grown up seeing my nono sitting at the side of a marriage in crisis or with a child on his or her deathbed, it was a deeply held truth for me that the most lasting change comes from a place of mutuality. Clearly Sheikh Hussein had come to believe the same thing.

I dared to offer my perspective on a different way by relaying a story of some friends – a community of Iraqi Christians – whose archbishop had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda. Running low on support and even lower on cash, the terrorist group reached big and demanded $3,000,000 for his release. From captivity, however, the archbishop managed to deliver a message to his church, prohibiting them from paying, knowing that the money would be used for evil. His body was found in a shallow grave about a month later. "The government is talking about relaliation and capital punishment for those who kidnapped and murdered the archbishop," I explained to Sheikh Hussein. "But his church is opposing any kind of eye-for-an-eye approach because they say it would be so unlike Jesus Christ, who gave away his life to his enemies."

Sheikh Hussein jumped to his feet – I'm not even sure if my story was finished – and began clapping, kissing my hands and head, and praising God that anyone would live this way in defiance of all reason and nature. I just laughed and cheered with him! I did not know what lay ahead for the grand sheikh and his fatwas from abroad, but with men like Sheikh Hussein at my side, it seemed he had already lost.

And here she was, this fifteen-month-old little baby girl in the Baghdad airport, illuminating the way into a new future 

We made haste to get Hussein's gutsy initiative to send baby Noor to surgery under way. A group in Baghdad helped with logistics; a church in South Carolina gave generously. The day of her departure, we spoke one last time with her family by phone. Sheikh Hussein was intoning words of comfort in Arabic as they sat in the airport waiting for their flight to take them out of the country; they would be the first in the history of their entire family to leave Iraq. I'm certain the sheikh's smile was felt as much as it was heard on the receiving end of the line. Suddenly, he said, "Okay, one second ... ," as he passed the phone to me.

Putting the phone to my ear in the home of this cleric where I had never seen a woman, I felt like I was breaking some taboo as I heard Noor's mother on the other end whispering something to the person beside her in Arabic. Turning her face back to the mouthpiece, she took a leap across the Great Gulf of Language in an effort to get to me and convey her gratitude: "Mister ... my child," she said haltingly, "good ... is good. You save my child."

Her daughter's name, Noor, means "light," and is often construed to mean "God's light," or "light that guides." And here she was, this fifteen-month-old little baby girl in the Baghdad airport, illuminating the way into a future where God's light, unlike all the other luminaries by which we live, does not cast a dark shadow across our ethnicity, geography, or history. Light was driving back darkness. The obviousness of it all only made it more profound, as though someone had planned it that way so we would all get the message. Years later, Noor is still alive and well, preparing for her first year of school, because of her parent's willingness to step out into the unknown and because of Sheikh Hussein's boldness in confronting the system that was handed to him in pursuit of a world remade, where adopting Jesus' model of dying to love and serve those who oppose you and hate you is normal, and where being a Jew, Arab, Kurd, or Turk – or not being a Jew, Arab, Kurd, or Turk – does not determine whether you ultimately live or die. 


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: Preemptive Love Means Putting Your Own Blood on the Line

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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