The last two months have provided bloody reminders that following Christ can be deadly. In July, brothers Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel were murdered outside a courtroom in Faisalabad, Pakistan, where they had been charged with blasphemy. Rashid was a gospel preacher affiliated with an Acts 29 Network partner. Then last week, Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan killed 10 aid workers on a Christian medical mission. The Taliban claimed the victims had been evangelizing Muslims.
In response, International Assistance Mission, which sponsored the trip to provide eyecare in a remote area denied any evangelistic intent.
IAM is a Christian organization—we have never hidden this. Indeed, we are registered as such with the Afghan government. Our faith motivates and inspires us—but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan. We are signatures of the Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs Disaster Response Programmes, in other words, that, “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.” But more than that, our record speaks for itself. IAM would not be invited back to villages if we were using aid as a cover for preaching.
Even so, Western media have investigated whether IAM is really telling the whole truth. The Associated Press followed up with IAM director Dirk Frans, who said the Christians probably did not even carry Bibles in Afghan languages. Rather, they read translations in their native tongues of German and English. The AP also reached the Mennonite Central Committee, which lost a member in the attack. According to AP reporter Kathy Matheson, the Mennonites “joined a chorus of protests” against allegations of evangelism.
John Williamson, a representative with the Akron, Pa.-based aid group, dismissed those claims as “rubbish” after a morning news conference about the death of member Glen Lapp. Lapp, a 40-year-old nurse from Lancaster, had been in Afghanistan for nearly two years.
Lapp was a “very kind, loving, respectful person” who spoke Dari, a local language, and enjoyed sharing stories with the Afghan people, Williamson said.
Behind these protests, we find a disturbing implication. Ed Stetzer voiced it in a tweet on August 9: “Media keeps saying medical workers weren’t proselytizing. OK, but is [it] OK to murder if they were?” Indeed, would evangelism have disqualified these Christians from honorable treatment in death?
Maybe the caution against evangelism reflects a realistic assessment of the harsh conditions in Afghanistan, where resurgent Taliban fighters have escalated the conflict. Maybe Western media want to be sure IAM abides by national law and doesn’t run covert ops. Or maybe some Westerners see evangelists in Afghanistan as picking a fight and getting what they deserve.
Even non-Christians will grant that the men and women who lost their lives for treating eyes demonstrated their love for Afghans in their good works. But love turns to imperialism when eye camp gives way to Bible school. Evangelism is perceived as arrogant disregard, even hatred, for the Afghans or anyone else who does not yet believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.
Talking about these recent murders, author and friend Stan Guthrie reminded me that Jesus foresaw the hardship his followers would endure. Jesus told his disciples in John 15:18-20:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
The Christians serving with International Assistance Mission loved in a way much of the world still recognizes. Together we mourn the loss of selfless doctors and nurses. But the Taliban still hated them and killed them. This tragedy wasn’t merely a clash of values, a clash between tradition and freedom. Whether the aid workers preached or not, this was a clash over the gospel. The Taliban said as much simply by alleging proselytism, however cynically in their effort to explain a senseless robbery and murder.
While rejecting the Taliban’s tactics, Western unbelievers have no sympathy for the gospel, either. Both cringe over efforts to explicitly proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners and raised from the dead. Yet Christians know no greater love than this, that Jesus Christ died so we might be his friends (John 15:13). And we worship a God who can turns hearts of stone, whether Afghan or Western, into hearts of flesh.
Those who trust in Christ don’t get what they deserve. No, believers get what we most certainly don’t deserve, eternal fellowship with the holy, just, righteous, triune God. We don’t expect that unbelievers will understand why we treasure this priceless inheritance even more than health and why we want others to share it. But Jesus’ example unto death on a cross and the work of the Holy Spirit empowers us to lay down even our lives so they just might come to know God, too.