Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Pretty American Missionary

My lower back ached. Hauling my seven-month pregnant body out the door for my daily walk was becoming more of a chore each afternoon. My belly had outgrown my purple djellebba (Moroccan cover up) so I wore a hand-me-down green pinstriped jumper. I was conspicuous as a foreigner, but it couldn’t be helped. Three miles to downtown. I could take the bus back. I walked, determined to loosen the muscles "down there" in order to have a natural birth. My landlady, the nurse, regularly pinched the medicines from her hospital to sell on the black market in our neighborhood, leaving the hosptial without treatments for admitted patients. She also knitted a sweater a day in winter. Nursing care in hospitals didn't offer a comforting vision of attentive, efficient post-op convalescence to say the least. So, I walked.

I merged with the main thoroughfare that ran from Fes to Meknes. I practiced my breathing and got my pace going, arms swinging, belly bulging. Not five minutes into my routine, I heard cat-calls from behind me.

“Hey pretty American. Where you going?”

"Oo, oo oo. Lady..."

No surprise here. Such harrassment was par for the course. But now I had a secret weapon to humiliate ogling men. From behind, my 24-year-old body didn’t reveal my big tummy. I swung side-ways to surprise my two don-juans; they gaped and then burst into laughter. They slapped each other on the arms and strode right by me pulling faces and making a few funny remarks that I didn’t quite catch. They looked back to double check that they had seen me correctly. And laughed again.

I burst into tears. I wasn't angry with them. I wept for them.

Not because they had tried to “come on” to me.
Not because they were rude.
Not because they were two in a long string of Moroccan men who saw right through my clothes to my underwear.

I cried because they were bound for hell and I had no way to save them.

I tried to fix my gaze straight ahead. I sang praise songs to distract me from the familiar tidal wave of anxiety that was mounting inside. Who was I kidding? Everywhere I looked, Moroccans were on their way to hell.

The taxis passing me were full of hell-bound Moroccans. The women with babies strapped to their backs, hands waving in the air, were heading for hell. The street vendors—going to hell. Everywhere I looked, Moroccans had no idea that they were oblivious to the most important fact they’d never know—that without Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, they would spend eternity in torture. Torture—the kind that we don't even allow our government to inflict on terrorists. Hot flames, eternal solitary confinement, pain, horror unspeakable. I believed it all. I believed it more than most of the Christians I knew.

My tears knew no limit. I sobbed for the entire three miles. I had no way to stem the tide of hell-bound Moroccans, no matter how well I learned Arabic, no matter how many friends I made, no matter how much couscous I ate. Everywhere I looked, happy, bored, hardworking, lazy Moroccans were doing time on earth until they would be justifiably judged as rebels against God and sentenced to an eternity of constant, unrelenting, eternity-sized torment. I couldn't bear the image.

My imagination tried to rescue me. Maybe God would save Moroccans without my witness in some mysterious way. Maybe there would be many who would be given dreams of Jesus. Maybe God was about to pour out his spirit in an unprecedented move that would sweep the nation into the loving arms of the Almighty Christian God and I'd be there to watch and celebrate! I breathed in the moment’s reprieve while I prayed fervently for that to happen, for God to be a better missionary than me, for him to care more than I did… until another suffocating vision occurred to me.

How would I be able to tell these new Christians (assuming God would rescue these in the highways and bi-ways before me) that their grandparents and ancestors had been born too early to hear the good news? Their loved ones were already being tortured in hell. They had been born in the wrong place, at the wrong time. (Missionaries had only been in Morocco about a hundred years at that point. Perhaps a total of about a hundred conversions had resulted.)

More tears. We were a million dollars short and centuries too late. Millenia, in fact.

Morocco isn’t like America in almost any way. But it is especially not like a Christian country. Five times a day, a muzzein calls Muslims to prayer. Christmas is a work day. Ramadan (the month of fasting) is the high point of the year. Religion and daily life fuse at every turn from how they greet each other “Peace be with you” to how they curse “God give your mother a fever!” The core of who they are is Muslim, even if they are backsliders and hypocrites.

I'd always read that to be true, but living in the midst of it is something else. There's no relief from the inescapable evidence that Christianity in that world was not Good News, but Bad News. To convert meant that everything that gave Moroccan lives meaning, ritual, celebration, and relational cohesion would be thrown out the window in favor of an unknown quantity. In America, conversion meant joining a community of people who had potlucks and family nights, weekly meetings with music and a place to belong and serve. In Morocco, conversion meant job loss, alienation from one's family (and possible death), being on the government's "list" with fear of impending imprisonment, losing place in the mosque (the community center) and having to be friends with foreigners who speak accented Arabic, primarily (the worst punishment of all, as far as I could tell). What American would do half so much for a religious faith?

There was no simple answer to the unsaved millions, indeed billions, through history who hadn't heard the message about Christ. I reasoned that if we simply trusted to God’s mysterious ways to save those who haven’t heard, then we would be avoiding facing squarely the essential mission of the church as proclaimed to us repeatedly by pastors, forefathers in the faith and Jesus himself: Matt 28. It would have been much easier for me to live in the States near my mother while pregnant than in a foreign country preaching a message in bad Arabic that no one really wanted to hear! If I had believed that God would save them without my help, then I wouldn’t have gone to begin with.

The entire missionary enterprise would have been pointless.

It’s easy to feel good about a few Jesus dreams that God scatters through the Middle East when they are reported in American midwestern churches during missions’ conferences. But even dozens of dreams won’t compensate for millions upon millions who spiritually sleep through their days and nights without any revelation or insight into what Christians consider the core of reality, the truest message ever, the only message that saves a soul.

And it's not enough to say that faithful people will find God and be saved through Jesus without knowing it, as Lewis wants us to accept in his Narnia Chronicles. The numbers don't add up. Most people aren't "faithful" (Christian and otherwise) and doesn't that move us away from "saved by grace" and put us right back into "saved by works"? What constitutes a "faithful life" if we take away faith in Jesus Christ? How many people in the US, for instance, begin life by distrusting their spiritual heritage hoping that God will find them even though they don't know what they are looking for? It's so ludicrous that it can only work as an argument for those who don't want to feel responsible for the lostness of fellow human beings living in far away places and other times.

No. There was a real problem with the theology I'd believed and tried to practice. And I couldn’t face how deeply tortured this version of God’s love was until another ten years went by.


australisa said...

This reminds me so much of the struggles of Hannah Whithall Smith.

Sections from The Unselfishness of God:

I saw at once what a splendid illustration this was of the responsibility of a Creator, and it brought to my mind Mrs. Shelley's weird story of the artist Frankenstein, who made the monstrous image of a man, which, when it, was finished, suddenly, to his horror, became alive, and went out into the world, working havoc wherever it went. The horrified maker felt obliged to follow his handiwork everywhere, in order to try to undo a little of the mischief that had been done, and to remedy as far as possible the evils it had caused. The awful sense of the responsibility that rested upon him, because of the things done by the creature he had created, opened my eyes to see the responsibility God must necessarily feel, if the creatures He had created were to turn out badly. I could not believe He would torment them forever; and neither could I rest in the thought of annihilation as His best remedy for sin. I felt hopeless of reconciling the love and the justice of the Creator with the fate of His creatures, and I knew not which way to turn...

I began to feel that the salvation in which I had been rejoicing was, after all a very limited and a very selfish salvation, and, as such, unworthy of the Creator who had declared so emphatically that His "tender mercies are over all His works," and above all unworthy of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came into the world for the sole and single purpose of saving the world. I could not believe that His life and death for us could be meant to fall so far short of remedying the evil that He came on purpose to remedy, and I felt that it must be impossible that there could be any short-coming in the salvation He had provided. I began to be convinced that my difficulties had simply arisen from a misunderstanding of the plans of God, and I set myself to discover the mistakes...

I seemed to get a sight of the misery and anguish caused to humanity by the entrance of sin into the world, and of Christ's sorrow, not for His own sufferings because of it, but for the sufferings of the poor human beings who had been cursed by it. I seemed to understand something of what must necessarily be His anguish at the sight of the awful fate which had been permitted to befall the human race, and of His joy that He could do something to alleviate it. I saw that ours was the suffering, and that His was the joy of sacrificing Himself to save us. I felt that if I had been a Divine Creator, and had allowed such an awful fate to befall the creatures I had made, I would have been filled with anguish, and would have realized that simple justice, even if not love, required that I should find some remedy for it...

I had been used to hearing a great deal about the awfulness of our sins against God, but now I asked myself, what about the awfulness of our fate in having been made sinners? Would I not infinitely rather that a sin should be committed against myself, than that I should commit a sin against any one else? Was it not a far more dreadful thing to be made a sinner than to be merely sinned against? And I began to see that, since God had permitted sin to enter into the world, it must necessarily be that He would be compelled, in common fairness, to provide a remedy that would be equal to the disease. I remembered some mothers I had known, with children suffering from inherited diseases, who were only too thankful to lay down their lives in self-sacrifice for their children, if so be they might, in any way, be able to undo the harm they had done in bringing them into the world under such disastrous conditions and I asked myself, Could God do less? I saw that, when weighed in a balance of wrong done, we, who had been created sinners, had infinitely more to forgive than any one against whom we might have sinned...

It was a never to be forgotten insight into the world's anguish because of sin. How long it lasted I cannot remember, but, while it lasted, it almost crushed me. And as it always came afresh at the sight of a strange face, I found myself obliged to wear a thick veil whenever I went into the streets, in order that I might spare myself the awful realization...

One day I was riding on a tram-car along Market Street, Philadelphia, when I saw two men come in and seat themselves opposite to me. I saw them dimly through the veil, but congratulated myself that it was only dimly, as I was thus spared the wave of anguish that had so often swept over me at the full sight of a strange face. The conductor came for his fare, and I was obliged to raise my veil in order to count it out. As I raised it I got a sight of the faces of those two men, and with an overwhelming flood of anguish, I seemed to catch a fresh and clearer revelation of the depth of the misery that had been caused to human beings by sin. It was more than I could bear. I clenched my hands and cried out in my soul, "O, God, how canst thou bear it? Thou mightest have prevented it, but didst not. Thou mightest even now change it, but Thou dost not. I do not see how Thou canst go on living, and endure it." I upbraided God. And I felt I was justified in doing so...


julieunplugged said...

Great passage. I read Christian's Secret of a Happy Life when I wrote for John Wimber. Our only unpublished manuscript was based on that book. He was a big fan of hers, but her universalism became a stumbling block for the leadership of the church. They didn't feel they could preach /teach her knowing that she didn't believe in hell. After all, theology before compassion, right? Wimber taught a series using her book anyway. But the book we wrote never surfaced for publication. (I still got paid, though [g]).

It's interesting to me that she remained fairly orthodox in the rest of her beliefs. Don't you wonder how people find the peace to stop at various resting places? They will challenge one part of the theological "code" find a solution that sits well and stop. I never seemed able to do that.

Whenever I touched a part of the theological mobile, it would send the rest of it swinging. Suddenly I had to touch another part to slow it down but that would upset the other end.

I'm still in that process, come to think of it. :)


australisa said...

I read a book last year called Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. It was a story of a Muslim family in Cairo after WWI.

At first I felt intimidated about reading a Nobel Prize winning author but I was pleasantly surprised to find that his book was extremely accessible. It was his gift to make such an easy-to-read story that so vividly conveyed the atmosphere of family life in that place and time.

I could not immediately relate to any certain one of the characters. This usually makes it hard for me to enjoy a book, but these characters, this family unit, were so real that I felt like a fly on the stucco wall. I knew these people.

What is my point, you say? By the end of the book I could feel how horrified a Muslim would be at the thought of many of the Christian doctrines. The Trinity? Heresy. God has a son? A horror! It would be beyond blasphemy to even consider such a thing. It would be their duty, their way of showing that they absolutely love and honor God, to close their ears to such evil imaginations.

I don't know exactly what I am trying to say. After reading this book, I felt even more for people of other faiths who are approached by missionaries.

I believe that missionaries feel that they are offering gifts of truth, salvation, freedom, and other wonderful things. But people of other faiths might very well view them as people who are blaspheming and disreagarding the holiness of God in just as real a way as if someone asked the missionary to believe Jesus was just another man who sinned against God like everyone else.

my15minutes said...

I read Palace Walk probably 8 years ago, and it still sticks with me!

I'm enjoying your reflections. I guess I'm one of those people who has found a place where I can reconcile things within the Church. But I'm still mulling everything. Sorry I haven't entered too much into the conversations order to have a peaceful life, I'm paying more attention to RL, and my cyberlife has been dry as a result. I haven't even posted on my own blog in more than a week! But I am reading and following, even if I'm not commenting.

Looking forward to seeing you two this weekend.

my15minutes said...

PS. Lisa, I'm interested in the Hannah Whitehall Smith quote. What's the background on her? I'm gathering by the "King James" prayers that she must have lived awhile ago.

julieunplugged said...

Hannah lived from 1832 to 1911. Her book Christan's Secret was published in 1875. She was raised Quaker (which may be why John Wimber liked her—he was saved in a Friends church).

Here's a little more about her: