Ivy League Education vs. Middle Eastern Racism

Melissa* sat in a metal chair next to the overgrown pool, clearly distressed. She turned from Farhad* to try to catch her parents’ eyes, looking for reassurance. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school, she didn’t know what to do with what Farhad was telling her. His forceful accented words were not fitting within her worldview, within her moral framework of highly-educated liberal New England.

I was manning the grill nearby and could see the dynamics. By this time I knew Farhad and could have guessed what he was going on about just by his body language. As a member of a minority people group who had suffered genocide when he was a teenager, Farhad harbored a deeply-rooted hatred of the majority Middle Eastern people group who had slaughtered his own. And a deeply-rooted hatred of Islam, the faith they used to justify their atrocities. Farhad was not a Christian, but he was definitely post-Islamic, and had been willing to study the Bible with me and Reza* and even to attend church with us.

Tall, in his forties, with slicked-back shoulder-length black hair and a narrow angular face, Farhad liked to wear a suit to church with a Hawaiian shirt underneath, generously unbuttoned at the top, 1970’s style. He had kind dark eyes and a genuine smile, though he was missing one of his front upper teeth – the result of a mugging incident soon after he had arrived in the US as a refugee.

“I get kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I almost die. But I keep all my teeth. I come to America. I lose my tooth! Why?!” he was known to ask when telling the story of how he got mugged in the apartment complex where he was placed by his resettlement program.

Now, he was unloading on Melissa, who had simply come down to the Louisville area to visit her parents during a school break. Her parents, both professors at Ivy League schools, would come down periodically to the area to stay in their second home, where my mom was a long-term house sitter at the time. Because they lived in the same house as my mom during these visits, our two families had gotten to know one another well and become friends, even though our worldviews were drastically different. We were a family of evangelical missionaries, studying at the Calvinistic Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were a family of staunchly liberal Harvard-educated progressives. But there was an openness to conversation, even friendship, with others who were different from them that set them apart from the more radical progressivism that is in vogue today.

This professor couple believed that as much as possible, nature should be allowed to take over the property, hence the overgrown pool from the 1960s, now full of lily pads, algae, frogs, and a snapping turtle. When the weather was warm, we liked to have cookouts on the cement patio next to this pool, and I would often invite my international friends. My mom’s creative cooking was a real treat for them, as well as for me, a college student at the time living on my own. We’d eat by the fire pit, swapping stories from all around the world until long after the lightning bugs had come out. A map on the wall contained pins from all of the different countries where my mom’s many guests had come from.

But swapping stories with refugees can get intense very quickly. The barbecue chicken wasn’t even done grilling when Farhad was dropping stories on Melissa of genocide and passionately espousing his seemingly-racist and Islamophobic opinions. She didn’t know what to do with it. Melissa was a sharp woman, and getting a world class education. But when your education and worldview is framed to believe that racism and oppression can only really be perpetrated by white Christians, by the oppressor class, what do you do with a Middle Eastern society where various people groups have hated and killed each other for thousands of years? What do you do with a brown-skinned Muslim who is eager to convince you of the evils of his own religion, and has first-hand accounts of genocide to back it up? Victims are supposed to be inherently virtuous, the oppressed are not supposed to be able to be racist. But Farhad was calling members of the dominant people group names like “dogs” and “filth.” He clearly hated them. All of them. Islam is supposed to be the misunderstood and maligned religion of peace, but Farhad was pointing to examples from recent history of massacres literally named after chapters of the Qur’an. Of Muslims with power slaughtering Muslims and other minority groups with less power.

Melissa caught her mom’s attention and tried to appeal to her. “But… but… mom… this can’t be right, can it?”

“No, honey, you’re right, it can’t be right, it’s, well, it’s…”

They were grasping, intellectually brilliant though they were. Their moral lenses had taught them that the world was full of people who were basically good, and evil only really exists in the oppressor class, or in those who just haven’t had enough education. But Farhad was a fly in that ointment, a big angry fly, prominently missing a tooth. His logic was strong. There was clear victimhood and suffering in his story. There was also clear darkness in his heart.

I turned the barbecue chicken legs over on the grill and thought about the scene before me. I thought about how adept Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees are at messing with the categories of popular Western morality. I am amazed at how Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghans can say all kinds of politically-incorrect things and get away with it. What progressive Westerner is going to be so bold as to call them out and risk exposing themselves to accusations of racism or Islamophobia? Some still might, but many, like our friends, will find that they have instead stumbled upon some kind of loophole, some kind of short in the moral circuitry.

I also thought about how grateful I was to be able to live in the real world, the world I had learned from the Bible. In that world evil and darkness are not limited to the few, to the oppressor class. They exist in every human heart. We are all evil, we are all on the spectrum of darkness. So we are not surprised when it shows up in the poor and marginalized, just as it does among the wealthy and privileged. While God’s word is clear about the evils of true oppression, the Bible calls both both the oppressor and the oppressed to repent of their hatred (murder) in their hearts toward one another, and to become part of a new redeemed humanity together.

The Bible has a category for people like Farhad. It shocks him by calling him to love his enemies (Matt 5:44). And when he finds that impossible to do in his own strength, to repent and to cast himself on God’s mercy in Christ. And if he does this, then he will be given the Holy Spirit who will empower him for the first time to do the impossible – to love those who committed genocide against his people. He’ll be able to do this because God’s justice is coming, and because he will know that he was forgiven when he had committed even worse against God himself.

An Ivy league education is no match for the realities of Middle Eastern racism. But the Bible can handle it – yes, more than handle it. It can transform it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

A Proverb on Debt Between Friends

Debt is the scissors of love.

Regional Oral Tradition

This Central Asian proverb speaks to the danger of friends going into debt with one another. Borrow money from your friend, this wisdom claims, and risk the love between you getting cut up.

I’ve experienced the great strain that friendships can come under when money I’ve loaned out to friends in Central Asia isn’t returned or acknowledged in an honorable way. Even though our family tried to be very cautious in loaning out money, it is still an expected practice in a patron-client society where the foreigners are often much wealthier than the locals. Some foreigners take a “never loan money” approach to the culture. But over the years we’ve developed more of a practice of conservatively lending money the first time, and then letting that experience determine if the door is still open or not for future requests. For those who repay their debts, this can greatly increase the trust in the relationship. And it is a wonderful thing to have friends you know you can trust with money, especially between believers who must function as a new household for one another. For those who don’t repay, we know not to extend the same trust in the future, at least when it comes to money. The money may be lost, but wisdom in the relationship is gained. But even with this general approach, we tried to spare our dearest friendships this debt/trust test whenever possible. It’s stunning how money can so quickly come to divide people.

In general, Central Asians are much more comfortable than Westerners with having money be a part of their close relationships. So much so that many feel they can’t honorably say no to a friend asking for a loan. So it’s curious that this proverb also exists in the culture, standing as a wise warning, even if many will struggle to feel they are free to heed its advice.

Some local believers are seeking to change this culture. Harry* once told me his response to requests for loans. “I’m honored that you would ask me this, my respected brother. But I value your friendship so much that I dare not risk it by getting money involved.” This kind of response takes an action viewed as shameful – saying no to a loan – but explains it by appealing to the value of the relationship, something very honorable and close to the heart of the culture. To me, this seems like a very wise way to say no. The goal is to communicate that my refusal is not a rejection of our relationship, but rather a statement of just how important it is to me. So important, I would protect us from the money that might cut our bonds of friendship.

*names changed for security

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Why Americans Don’t Trust Sad People

Americans don’t trust sad people. Daniel Nayeri makes this insightful observation in his hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Everything Sad is Untrue. As an Iranian refugee, it makes sense that Nayeri would notice this. Because in the Middle East and Central Asia, the opposite tends to be true. They don’t trust people who are overly happy or optimistic.

This tendency to trust (or not) tends to be reflected in which kind of stories end up being most popular. For a story to be truly great, most Westerners want a happy ending. The good guy almost always wins in the end. But Central Asians call for a tragic ending in order for a story to achieve true greatness. The Western movies my Central Asian friends like the most are Titanic (where Jack dies of hypothermia), Braveheart (where William Wallace from disembowelment and beheading), and Forrest Gump (Where Jenny dies of AIDS). As for movies made in Central Asia? Dark endings. Almost all of them. I think I’ve only ever seen one with a happy ending.

This orientation toward tragedy vs. comedy seems to reflect the deep-down worldview beliefs of each culture – what each feels is most true about real life. Westerners really believe deep down that life will have a happy ending, that if we just believe and try hard enough, everything’s going to be alright. Central Asians really believe that no matter how good things get, it’s all going to end in tragedy, just as it always has.

Even our histories tend to strengthen these worldview narratives. Think of the meteoric rise of the power of the Christian West over the last 500 years. Then consider the incredible decline of the power of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia. 1,000 years ago, the centers of global wealth and culture were not cities like London and New York, but Baghdad and Samarkand. Perhaps back then the Europeans would have been the pessimists, and the citizens of the Silk Road those who believed in rosy endings.

When you meet someone whose bearing contradicts the primary narrative of your culture, you tend to distrust them. This is because they seem to be out of touch with reality. Many a Western aid worker arrives in Central Asia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing that with just a little bit of money and some fresh ideas transformation can be a simple thing. Meanwhile, locals just shake their heads at this naive foreigner, knowing that for all their frenetic activity these Western plans will be about as effective as a dirt clod thrown at a passing tank. I have had countless conversations with my friends and students in Central Asia where I’ve been dumbfounded by their lack of belief in the possibility of change, while they in turn are dumbfounded that I actually believe real change is possible.

The West, for its part, and especially America, traditionally believes in the inevitability of progress. And we are deeply committed to the belief that things really will work out for those who work hard enough. Successful people function as our prophets and idols, the ones who confirm for us what we already believe – that the story of life ends in happiness. So we find ourselves uncomfortable with sad people, with those whose lives seems to be a relentless movement from one season of suffering to the next. We don’t trust them to be prophets of the way things really are. We don’t want to.

Biblically, both cultures are wrong, and both cultures are right. The ending of history will indeed be good – yes, as good even as resurrection. But resurrection is impossible unless preceded by death. It’s got to all die before it can all come back to life. Creation must groan, and painfully so, before the revealing of the sons of God. As such, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes go hand in hand. The wheat and the tares grow together. Suffering and death are inevitable. Hell is real. But eternal life is also inevitable for those who entrust themselves to the one who suffered and died – and now lives forever.

Paul speaks of us as being a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This means that Christians are those who can be fully awake to the grief and suffering of life, and those who can also be fully awake to the joy and delight of it. This means that a Christian who is shaped by the Bible’s view of reality is one who can be trusted by both kinds of cultures, the optimistic West and the pessimistic East. We know the depths of sadness. So we are not dismissed as naive. But we also know the heights of true hope and joy. So we are not dismissed as fatalists. We are, in one sense, Western and Central Asian at the same time. Or at least we should be.

And yet I find myself very lopsided. I have some idea of what it means to be always rejoicing. But what might it mean to be always sorrowful? And can it be that faithfulness in this age actually involves both at the same time? What might that look like when it boils down to things like daily spiritual disciplines, church services, and our “How’s it going?” conversations with other believers? I at least still have a ways to go in learning how to faithfully lament, not just with my mind, but also with my heart and emotions. I still have a hard time trusting sad people, in spite of spending half my life in cultures where grief and sadness are far more acceptable than here in the US.

Yet I have tasted aspects of this at funerals, when laughter comes easily during stories told of a departed loved one. Or at weddings or concerts, where joy and beauty are so strong they lead to tears. I felt it yesterday at a poetry recitation at my kids’ school. The kind of joy that makes you serious, as Lewis once put it. Joy and sadness intermingled, and something that feels so very right about this.

Americans might not trust sad people. And Central Asians might not trust happy ones. But believers from both worlds have come to trust a man of sorrows who is also the embodiment of purest joy. He holds both perfectly together at the same time, always able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He does this authentically, with no whiplash or disjointedness. He can show us how to laugh and cry at the same time, welcoming both with hearts that are somehow more whole for their embrace of these seemingly-opposite postures.

As we draw near to him the promise is that we will become like him. And that will make us also those that sinners come to trust, whatever their cultural bias. Not because we are so impressive, but because we are the ones who are the most real, those who walk in the truest story. One where grief and joy also walk, hand-in-hand.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

The White Martyrdom

…by century’s end Isidore was building a real library in Seville, which consisted of about fifteen presses (or book cabinets), containing perhaps some four hundred bound codices, an amazing number for the time. The only other continental library known to us in this period was in Calabria [S. Italy] and the fate of this library is lost in the blood and smoke of the sixth century. Gregory of Tours wrote this sad epitaph on sixth-century literacy: “In these times when the practice of letters declines, no, rather perishes in the cities of Gaul, there has been found no scholar trained in ordered composition to present in prose or verse a picture of the things which have befallen.”

Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.

Columcille provided that step. By stepping into the coracle that bore him beyond the horizon, he entered the Irish pantheon of heroes who had done immortal deeds against impossible odds. As he sailed off that morning, he was doing the hardest thing an Irishman could do, a much harder than than giving up his life: he was leaving Ireland. If the Green Martyrdom had failed, here was a martyrdom that was surely the equal of the Red; and henceforth, all who followed Columcille’s lead were called to the White Martyrdom, they who sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.

In this way, the Irish monastic tradition began to spread beyond Ireland.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 183-184

When the civilizations which Christians have made their homes begin to collapse, look to the fringes. God is often at work there, and just may use the most unexpected peoples and places to restore the light to lands once bright, now overrun by darkness.

Photo by Jay Tran on Unsplash

How to Eat a Thistle

It was on a trip to Underhill village where I first learned that thistles are edible. It was late summer. The mountains had turned brown from the summer heat. But they were not completely colorless. Amazingly, certain hard-scrabble plants chose the height of these rainless months to bloom. Their colors were not the bright shades of spring, like the gold and white of the small narcissus flowers or the blood-red poppies. No, they were much more subtle – pale violets, aloe greens, dusty yellows. Late summer in the high desert was a different theme, and brought with it its own unique color scheme. I was reminded of Lilias Trotter, the missionary artist to Algeria who would comment on God’s artistry in pairing understated colors together in the Sahara, an environment where bright shades would come across as gaudy and ill-fitting.

Our guide was Zoey*, a longtime friend of my wife’s. Zoey was very proud of the village lore she had inherited and delighted to teach us things like how to make village cuisine, how to handle farm animals, and how to eat what grew wild on the mountainsides. This is an entire category of food in our local culture, one that to us initially looks like eating weeds. I remember once being on a spring picnic and observing an older couple as they pulled out knives and began to cut the grasses next to their picnic blanket, popping them into their mouths and chewing like a pair of happy elderly goats. Before long they had cut a decent-sized swathe out of the hillside behind their blanket, and, satisfied, lain down for a nap. There seem to be dozens of edible grasses, herbs, and other small plants that grow wild on the slopes of our corner of Central Asia. And a skilled local will be able to snack on the bounty of the mountains on any given picnic or day of shepherding on the slopes.

Zoey was taking us to an ancient swimming hole tucked into a nearby valley where Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims had all once lived side by side. We were descending a dusty trail when Zoey motioned for us to pay attention. Grabbing two flat rocks, she snapped off the head of a nearby thistle, a spiky ball still partially covered in tiny violet flowers. Setting it on one of the rocks on the ground, she then proceeded to use the other rock to smash the sharp spikes off of the core of the bud. What emerged was a cream-colored ball, pock-marked like the center of a dandelion when you’ve blown all the wispy things off, and about the size of a marble. She gave it to us to eat and proceeded to harvest several more.

The thistle core had a nutty taste, similar to the flavor of an almond, but with grassy notes. I had the sense that if it were roasted and salted, it could make for quite the yummy snack. As I munched, I looked around the dry hillsides. Thistles were everywhere, growing wild and swaying in the wind. I thought to myself that this was very useful knowledge if one ever found themselves on the run in the mountains, as so many generations of local freedom fighters had once been forced to do. In a season where the green grasses of spring and fruits like loquats were all gone, yet it was too early for pomegranates or olives, it was good to know the humble thistle could provide some sustenance if necessary.

I enjoyed thinking about the curious nature of this plant. Here was something that grew wild and needed no tending. It matured in the worst part of the summer heat. It armed itself with fiercely sharp spikes. And yet a secret edible treasure was hidden in the middle of its imposing crown. Apparently, even in a world overrun with thorns, common grace means that some of these thorns can provide food for the needy. And though the knowledge of edible wild plants is increasingly an obscure field of study, they are still out there, growing and blooming just in case. How very kind of the creator to populate our world with so many thousands of these small acts of care.

Several years later I was out driving in the mountains with some teammates and local believers. We had come to see a waterfall, but it was a drought year and it had unfortunately all but dried up. I did find some baby toads in the mud to bring back for my kids, but for a while our crew just wandered around in the rocks trying to figure out what we should do now, with Mr. Talent* guiltily trying to explain how yet another outing he had planned had gone awry. We were several hours into the mountains, it was getting toward supper time, and we were starting to get hungry. As it was once again late summer, I noticed all the spiky balls poking up out of the dry grass. My edible mountainside lessons from Underhill village suddenly came back to me.

“Hey guys! Anyone want a snack?” I said as I started gingerly plucking off the heads of several thistles by the side of the road. I looked around for some good rocks to serve as my hammer and anvil. Rocks are never hard to come by in the stony limestone terrain of that region, so I soon had my own setup going similar to what Zoey had once showed us. The foreigners with me were perplexed, but to my surprise, so were all of the local guys.

“They’re thistles, we can eat these!” I said, expecting nods of comprehension from the local men. But these were city boys, and apparently the gap between village knowledge and city folk was wider than I had expected. True, eighty five percent of our people group now live in the cities and only fifteen percent in the villages, the direct opposite of forty years ago. A lot of traditional knowledge was bound to be lost in this kind of huge demographic shift. But I was still surprised that I was the only one in the group who didn’t seem weirded out by the concept of eating a thistle nut.

I beat the barbs off of a small pile of thistle cores and popped one in my mouth, and once again enjoyed the nutty, grassy flavor. But my audience of skeptics was a hard crowd to win over. In the end, only one TCK and one local brother was willing to try my wilderness snack. The reviews were mixed, but not entirely bad. And I consoled myself that if any of these brothers did ever find themselves stuck in the mountains without food, perhaps they would remember, as I had remembered through Zoey, that they could indeed eat the spiky painful plants growing wild all over the mountainsides.

The same goes for you, dear reader. Should you ever happen to be stranded in a Central Asian wilderness, or other similar terrain where thistles grow wild (Scotland?), know that with the aid of a couple good rocks you too can eat the hillsides.

*names changed for security

Mr. Talent’s Surprise

Mr. Talent* had been on Mark* and me for a long time about going on an outing with him. A soldier with a retired four-star general for a father, our local friend kept laughing and telling us he had a surprise for us. Even though we weren’t quite sure what to make of all this, Mark and I knew that going would mean a lot to Mr. Talent, a new believer at the time. So, after a considerable amount of nagging, we finally got it on the calendar.

The day began by driving out of the city into a valley to the north, past the military academy where Mr. Talent had studied instead of going to university. Shortly after passing the academy, we pulled off the road for an early lunch at a large restaurant.

“Alright, I wanted you to try the kebabs at this place. They are exceptional! … and well-price too.” he said as our vehicle crunched into the gravel parking lot. There were many other military-looking men walking in or already seated at the tables. The thick black mustaches of the seated men were bouncing as they chewed, and they repeatedly made half-standing movement, raising their right hands to greet other men they knew who were entering. Several men did this for Mr. Talent, and he responded in kind with his right hand raised toward each of them, phrases such as “My lord, my soul, my elder brother,” effortlessly flowing off his tongue in rapid-fire succession.

“Aha,” I thought to myself, “This must be his surprise.” After all, Mr. Talent and Mark shared a mutual passion for excellent food, especially local kebab. Mark had even structured Mr. Talent’s early discipleship around a weekly local restaurant crawl. Study a chapter of John during the week. Meet up at a new restaurant each week to discuss it. Not a bad strategy, as far as discipleship plans go. Together they were becoming quite the authority on the local restaurant scene. Mr. Talent must have wanted to introduce us to one of his favorite places outside the city, a regular haunt of his academy days.

But Mr. Talent knew what I was thinking as we sat down and sipped the customary appetizer of creamy mushroom soup. “Just so you know, this is not my surprise. Just wait, you’ll see. It’s going to be fun.”

As was my custom when eating out with Mark and Mr. Talent, I let them pick my entree for me. When accompanying two such food aficionados, I had learned the benefits of trusting their expertise. And once again I wasn’t disappointed. The spicy kebab they ordered for me was indeed delicious – a rich and savory mixture of ground lamb, spices, and hot green peppers. I sprinkled the kebab with some salty and sour spice ate it in the local fashion, by pinching a bit of meat in a small piece of hot flatbread, and shoving both together into my mouth.

Over lunch we discussed Mr. Talent’s reading of the book of John and fielded some of his questions about theology and Christian living. He hadn’t been a believer for that long, but he was growing, realizing more and more of what it practically meant to be part of a tiny minority of Jesus-followers in a society dominated by Islam. I was glad to see his passion growing, and his willingness to speak about it so openly with us in a public setting.

Eventually we drank our respective cups of post-meal chai, rose to wash the kebab smell off our hands, fought over who would pay the bill (Mr. Talent forcefully insisting on paying the whole thing), and made our way back out to the car.

After a short drive through the foothills, Mr. Talent seemed to find the place he was looking for. We pulled off the side of the road into a yellow field flanked by low brown hills, Mr. Talent looking at us with a mischievous grin.

“Now for my surprise!”

He moved to the back of his car and opened up the trunk, pulling out an AK-47 and several empty glass bottles.

“Surprise! Ever shot one of these before? We are going to do some target practice,” he laughed, enjoying our uncertain expressions.

“Don’t worry!” he continued, “I used to come out here all the time to practice shooting. No one will bother us. I wanted to see if your aim is as bad as I think it is. Ha!”

I didn’t grow up with guns, but the adventurous part of me didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to try shooting a Kalashnikov, the most popular rifle in the world – favorite of terrorists and freedom fighters everywhere. Allegedly, you can even predict conflict in a given region solely by the price of an AK-47 on the black market.

Mr. Talent walked twenty paces or so into the field, setting up one of the green glass bottles on a small stump.

“That should do it,” he said, as he walked back to us. “And make sure someone films each of us shooting. I need proof to show your wives!”

So we began, each shooting several rounds in turn, attempting to hit the little glass bottle. It proved to be much harder than Mark and I were expecting. I had heard once that AK-47’s are notorious for the bullet following an unpredictable curving path after it’s shot, but even accounting for that, something seemed to be off. Even Mr. Talent – a trained soldier – was not hitting the bottle. And while I have little faith in my marksmanship, I felt that this time around I was shooting even worse than usual. We moved the target considerably closer, but continued to fail to make contact. We had almost used all our bullets when Mr. Talent finally hit the first bottle, glass shards shattering in a bright satisfying sound.

“There it is!” he shouted, “But I think something must really be off with this rifle’s sight. I knew you guys would be bad, but I’m never this bad of a shot. Yes, must be the sight… maybe my brother messed with it. Okay, one last shot for each of us!”

We had just finished our final shots (missing again) when we noticed two vehicles pulling off the road and driving toward us across the dusty field. I noticed, suddenly alarmed, that each was a tan military Land Cruiser truck, their beds full of armed soldiers. They pulled to a stop close to us, sending dust clouds wafting past us. All the soldiers hopped out of the truck. Their commander, wearing sunglasses, walked over to us.

“You are to come with us to the local security station. Nearby villagers reported a bunch of illegal shooting coming from this field. Clearly, we have found the culprits.” He said this looking unimpressed, staring at Mr. Talent, the AK-47 still in his hands.”

Mr. Talent was incredulous. “I have shot here many times in the past. What do you mean, illegal shooting? Since when did this become illegal? Was it that house far away over there? I’ll show them illegal shooting!”

“Sir, it became illegal when terrorists nearly took over our country a couple years ago, remember? Many laws about firearms have been tightened since then,” the commander said, still looking nonplussed.

“But I’m a soldier! Look at my ID. Surely it’s not a problem for me to do target practice in an empty area like this? With respect, what are we coming to in this country?”

The officer continued to hold his ground, and Mr. Talent kept getting more and more animated. “Do you know who my father is? This is shameful, I tell you! And I have these Americans here with me and all. Shameful!”

I grimaced, not sure how these armed men would respond to Mr. Talent playing his various cards. And would the mention of Americans help, or make our situation worse? At least we could all plead ignorance and hope that they would go easy on us. Though unavoidable, finding out for the first time about a law by breaking it is not one of my favorite cross-cultural experiences, though it has happened many, many times.

The officer was finished listening to Mr. Talent’s protestations. He held up a hand, indicating that he had had enough. “Get in your car now and follow us to the station. We’ll figure out there what to do with you.”

So we piled back in our vehicle and followed the trucks of armed men down the road to a small cement building, painted orange-ish tan. The country’s and regional flags flew from its flat rooftop. In its driveway was another tan Land Cruiser, this one with a mounted machine gun in its bed.

We were escorted inside. Mark and I sat in the reception room, a typical room of uncomfortable gaudy couches that lined the walls and faced the large desk of the station’s commanding officer. Mr. Talent was ushered into a back room, already back at his animated references to his father and insistence that we had done no wrong.

Soon the commanding officer of the security station walked in. He was a heavyset man, a veteran of past guerilla campaigns against the former dictator. He wore a suspicious look, and I wondered if he was a little worried that his men had arrested some CIA agents. Mark, built like a linebacker, can sometimes give this impression. But I am far too skinny and history-nerd looking for most to worry too much about if I’m a spy or not – unless they’re the sort that say, “Well, that’s just what a good spy would look like, isn’t it? Unassuming, just what you wouldn’t expect, eh?”

The commander looked back and forth at Mark and me, trying to put the pieces together. Eventually we started talking, beginning in English according to the speak-English-to-the-men-with-guns security practice most of us had adopted by that point. But the commander’s English was atrocious, so we quickly switched to the local language. This helped things a great deal as we were able to explain ourselves more fully. And soon the commander seemed more at ease, complementing our knowledge of the language, ordering chai for us, and adopting the posture of a man who has to rebuke some teenagers, but doesn’t really want to because he quietly finds their prank amusing.

“We can’t have people randomly shooting guns anymore. It frightens the villagers, you know. What with the close call we had with those terrorists. They thought you were radical Islamists! Good thing they couldn’t tell from a distance you were Americans either. Definitely would have reported you as CIA. Either way, dangerous for you.”

Mark and I nodded empathetically, trying to look appropriately sobered by our misdeeds.

“Where did you learn your English, sir? It’s very good.” said Mark. I’m pretty sure I impulsively shot him a look of confusion and surprise. The commander’s English was many things, but it was definitely not very good. Mark was apparently trying to butter him up in hopes of making our release quicker. The commander, for his part, looked charmed, and started going on about the inadequacies of his English education. I had never seen Mark, the straight-talking linebacker, adopt this tactic before, and made a note to tease him about it later.

Soon another soldier came in the room and handed a phone to the commander. It was Mr. Talent’s father, the four star general. We listened in on the commander’s side of the conversation.

“Peace to you, respected one. Is your son Mr. Talent? … He is, huh? … Well, you know he was illegally shooting guns in a village field… yes… with some Americans too… yes… We rounded them up… Not the same since the terrorists came, no, new laws and such… I see… well, I suppose because of our long friendship… yes, understood… kids these days… yes, of course, I am at your service… We’ll release them right way… Yes, my elder brother… my lord… respected one… God be with you, God protect you, you are my eyes, goodbye, goodbye, farewell, goodbye, bye now.

The commander finished his long chain of phone farewell pleasantries and hung up, motioning for the soldier to bring Mr. Talent back into our room. Mr. Talent’s dad had indeed bailed us out, leveraging his prestige to get us a welcome exception. Everyone was relaxed now and even exchanging contact info. The commander was asking about English classes and the soldiers wanted to get some selfies with us.

“You are all free to go now,” the commander said, “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“Well, sir,” I asked, smiling, “I wonder if it would be OK to have your men handcuff us just for a minute, just so we can get a picture. You know, for the wives. If we really did get arrested today then we should go all the way, you know, make it official with photographic proof and all. Might make for some fun reactions.”

The soldiers laughed, thinking this was a great idea. But then someone mentioned how this kind of thing tends to end up on Facebook and Instagram, and might then lead to awkward conversations with superiors, and ultimately they decided against it.

“It was worth an ask,” I shrugged, grinning at Mark and Mr. Talent.

We said our warm farewells to the soldiers and the commander, and promised to visit again if we were ever in the neighborhood. Then we headed off down the valley for some mountain roads that Mr. Talent wanted to show us.

“So,” I said once we were back in the car. “That was some surprise, brother. I knew it would be exciting, but getting arrested! You have outdone yourself.”

Mr. Talent laughed. “Oh no! Don’t say that! That was not my surprise. Don’t think that will always happen if you accept my invitations – getting arrested, ha! No, I plan fun stuff! I’m a fun guy! That was… well, thankfully my dad bailed us out… if not… well, anyway, what a shame though, what are we coming to around here? Can’t even shoot a gun in an empty field anymore…”

And with that we sped off into the mountains. We had avoided getting arrested for illegal shooting. Now, I quickly realized, the next step of surviving Mr. Talent’s surprise was going to be avoiding puking kebab all over his nice car. The man was driving like he was in a Formula One race, whipping around hairpin turns and gunning the acceleration.

“OK,” I thought to myself, clamping my eyes shut. “Maybe I’ll wait a while before taking Mr. Talent up on any more of his surprises.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by vin on Unsplash

The Honorable, Shameful Service of True Leaders

My local friends in Central Asia really believe in authority. We could generalize and say that most Eastern cultures lean this way. They view society as hierarchical and they understand each tier of authority going up the social pyramid to be both necessary and worthy of great respect. They can teach us a lot about honoring authority. However, they also hold very strongly to the view that some kinds of tasks or service are not only below a leader’s dignity, but even shameful for him. Leadership is to be honored and supplied with its privileges. However, leaders are not to bring shame on themselves or their community by stooping to do the dirtiest, most menial jobs. Humble service is for those on the bottom, not those on the top.

My Western culture, on the other hand, is thick with anti-authoritarian feeling. Authority and hierarchy are often viewed through the crude lens of oppressor/oppressed. Westerners want to believe that the true nature of society is flat and egalitarian. Hierarchical leadership is to be done away with when possible, and only tolerated when necessary. The real thing, the West feels, is for us all to treat one another as equals and for no one to feel that they are above the most basic, even dirty, work. In Western society, we express these values by sometimes mocking our leaders (keeps them in their place) and by often glamorizing the work of the little guy. Even in the Church, the teaching of mutual service can be wielded in such a way as to deny the goodness of authority.

Interestingly, in John 13, Jesus honors authority while also transforming that authority through humble service. In doing so, he holds two things together that we tend to drive apart.

[12] When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? [13] You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. [14] If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [15] For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. [16] Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

John 13:12-16

Notice how Jesus says in verse 13 that his disciples are right to call him teacher and Lord. Jesus, by washing his disciples’ feet, is not doing away with the hierarchical relationship that exists between himself and his disciples. They are right to honor and respect him as their leader, and he does not want them to lose sight of this. However, he has just done something positively scandalous for a Jewish religious leader of the first century – he has washed his disciples’ feet. This was a job not only reserved for slaves, but for gentile slaves. Jesus, the respected authority, humbled (even shamed?) himself and did one of the dirtiest, most dishonorable tasks of all. Then in verses 14 and 15 he tells his disciples that he wants them to serve one another in this same way. Here Jesus models and commands something that breaks the leadership paradigms of all fallen cultures: servant leadership.

This passage serves up a rebuke to both the East and the West. The East is rebuked for its penchant to privilege leaders so that they exist to be served, rather than to serve. Pride and entitlement in leaders is called out, but interestingly, not their role. This is where the West then gets rebuked. Leaders and their roles are still to be respected. The values of humble servant leadership do not negate the reality or the goodness of a world full of hierarchies. Jesus does not support some eventual Christian future where the priesthood of all believers means leadership is no longer necessary nor honored.

The balance that Jesus models so well for us is one in which leaders are honored, but they respond to this honoring by embracing sacrificial and costly service. This service in turn generates more respect, and that respect spurs on more lowly service, in a dance of sorts of mutual submission. Ancient Roman patrons were known not to address their clients as such, but as “friends,” meaning equals. But Christian leaders are called to go even further than this, not merely using different titles to communicate that they are gracious patrons, but embracing work that actually puts them lower than their followers.

What might this kind of lowering look like? In the West, it might mean staff pastors sometimes helping out with different tasks that are commonly delegated to the interns or to volunteers, similar to how in Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, the high king of Anniera was known to often go out and work the totato fields alongside the farmers. In Central Asia, it might mean a pastor refusing the seat of honor, and instead sitting closer to the door, or helping to clear the dishes from the floor after a meal is finished. Yes, the leaders of the church need to be free from waiting tables in order to focus on the ministry of the word and prayer, but this shouldn’t mean a complete separation from the kinds of service that would be our equivalent to foot washing.

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you” (Jn 13:15)

True leaders should be honored while also engaging in service that is viewed as below them – yes, as even shameful.

Photo by Danique Tersmette on Unsplash

Strongmen vs. The Structures of a Healthy Church

When modern dictators fall the societies they ruled tend to flounder and splinter. This is because they have previously been gutted. A dictator, in order to increase and maintain his power, needs to systematically weaken all other institutions of civil society that might serve as independent centers of power and organization. So he goes after religious institutions, the media, voluntary societies, other branches of government, etc. He will often permit a shell of these institutions to continue, but will appoint loyal cronies to head them up so that they no longer pose any legitimate challenge. The longer this goes on, the more a society is gutted of healthy systems and structures that it could use to organize and unify itself once the dictator is removed. Like some kind of ravenous fungus, a strongman consumes and replaces healthy systems and institutions as he feeds off his people, slowly choking the organizational life out of society.

This explains why certain Middle Eastern countries have done so poorly since the removal of their dictators in recent decades. During long decades of dictatorship, true civil society was turned into a zombie of its former self or driven underground. Often, the only network of institutions strong enough to endure the long stranglehold has been the conservative mosques, buttressed as they are by their religious ideology. Thus, when a dictator of a Muslim country falls, the West’s hopes for the emergence of a unifying liberal coalition are disappointed again and again. They liberals can’t seem to organize effectively, and it’s no wonder. All the institutions of the liberals and moderates were practically destroyed ages ago. Into this power vacuum then steps the Islamist fundamentalists, the only ones placed to organize and take over the uprising – even if said uprising began as a majority liberal movement.

An interesting parallel exists here between these political realities and the state of many churches in the Middle East and Central Asia – indeed, anywhere in the world where the culture tends to reward domineering leaders. As in society as a whole, a strongman over the church tends to take the rightful place of other legitimate systems and structures. Look at the few churches that exist in these areas, and you will notice a curious absence of things like healthy membership, responsible giving and finances, congregational accountability and discipline, and plurality of leadership. Instead of covenanted members, belonging to the church is equated with those who are loyal to the strongman. Instead of transparent finances, the pastor controls all the money. In the place of congregational discipline for its own members, you have the favor or displeasure of the leader. And there is no healthy plurality, just one charismatic, domineering personality that leaves no room for any legitimate pushback or accountability.

If we return to my preferred napkin diagram of a healthy church (described in a previous post), we see that a strongman completely replaces all of the characteristics of a healthy church that we would see in stage two, in what I’ve called an organized church.

Now, this diagram is simply a tool I’ve used to quickly summarize the characteristics of a healthy church as they relate to the typical stages a church plant goes through. Not all of the characteristics are rigidly sequential, but I would contend that the three stages of Formative, Organized, and Sending are a common pattern in how church plants develop – and, for our purposes today, that there is a qualitative difference between what is present in a formative church and what is there in an organized church. That difference lies in the intentional organization and systematization of what had previously been a gathering of believers functioning more organically.

A bible study that has really taken off might gather regularly for fellowship, worship, teaching, prayer, and discipleship. They might share the gospel regularly with their friends and neighbors. All of these things are biblical and good. And while they can be organized into systems, they don’t have to be organized in order to be done well. They don’t demand careful planning and organization. They can exist in an organic fashion for a very long time with only basic plans put in place. The same cannot really be said for the characteristics in stage two. These require careful thought and planning and implementation if they are to even exist in a church plant. And they will not ever exist in a healthy way without great intentionality that leads to the birth of good systems. In fact, to simply wing the structures of stage two is to play with deadly fire that will burn many.

This required intentionality and creation of systems and structures explains why the elements of the organized church stage are absent or so underdeveloped in many house churches. These characteristics are complicated and time-consuming to figure out and it’s simply easier to keep punting their development until some future date. Often, there is a great deal of ignorance about how to actually begin to teach and then roll out things like membership, plural leadership, and discipline. This is why groups like 9 Marks focus so heavily on reviving both the knowledge and the practical details of good ecclesiology for the Church. Even those committed to these things in principle can often botch the implementation. I’ve often heard it said that the number one mistake of reformed church planters and church revitalizers is appointing elders too quickly.

However, this is so far assuming that the church planters, missionaries, and members want to see these systems developed. But often, past experience and current methodology commitments mean that the preference is for things to stay organic and natural (And this often has roots in Westerners’ own cultural moment of being post-institutional). Stage two will just happen naturally, it is claimed, as the Spirit eventually gets around to leading the locals into how to be a biblical church. Missionaries can live in a fantasy where the kinds of intentionality and organization required in their own culture for the church to function well are actually considered bad, or at least not really necessary in the more pristine cultures of foreign lands. Some even view focusing on the characteristics of stage two as bad for church multiplication, the kind of thing that leads to the terrible “I” word that is alleged to kill movements of the Spirit, institutionalization.

When you pair these Western postures with cultures already prone to domineering leadership, you get a lethal cocktail. The missionaries aren’t interested in pushing for organized church characteristics in their church plants. They want things to stay organic and rapidly multiplying. Locals, never having before known the power of a spiritual family organized in a healthy way, default to how their families, mosques, and government are run – strongman rule. Soon, a strongman does emerge who then goes on to make the church his own little fiefdom. The missionaries become perplexed and discouraged at what has happened, and either fall in line themselves or are eventually run off when the strongman feels they are a threat to his monopoly. The end result is a sick church, one without biblical membership, giving, leadership, or discipline. Biblical mission, often the final characteristic to be developed, will also never happen through this kind of church where a spiritual dictator has settled down to feed on the sheep.

If we do not plant churches with a willingness ourselves to lead in the development of stage two characteristics, we do a great disservice to the local believers we are claiming to serve. Like a society naively asked to go vote after decades of dictator rule, we set them up for failure. A power vacuum will always be filled. And in strongman societies, little dictators spring out of the ground like so many narcissus flowers in the Central Asian fields of spring. Local churches all over the world desperately need systems of healthy giving, leadership, discipline, and membership. How will they know what these structures look like if we do not intentionally teach and model them? Or do we really believe that these systems will somehow contaminate indigenous churches more so than the inevitable strongman who will take over in their absence?

Should stage two characteristics of a healthy church be contextualized? Absolutely. And yet here we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. An imperfect effort to contextualize a system of membership is far better than never initiating formal membership because we are afraid of some kind of Western contamination taking place. Covenants can be modified for the pressing needs of specific contexts. Membership lists and vows can be oral rather than written and signed. Leadership can be chosen and honored in ways that are locally sensitive. The Scriptures provide ample room to carefully apply the principles of church organization to a given culture. “All things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40) does not mean you should simply copy/paste the systems of First Baptist Church back home. But it does mean we should give serious attention to the right ordering (organizing) of the church. As Paul said to one church planting team member, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What was asked of Titus in his cross-cultural setting is still asked of us today.

Strongmen will never coexist peacefully with healthy systems that can hold them to account. They will always seek to prevent their emergence or to choke the life out of them if they are present. On the other hand, the best way to prevent the people of God being ruled by these domineering men is to order the church wisely, even if this involves great intentionality and careful organization. Protecting the church means organizing it so that it might fully display the glory of God – not only in its organic love and obedience, but also in its wise systems and structures.

Photo by Rob on Unsplash

Drinking Hot Tea in the Desert Actually Cools You Down

I was twenty, sitting in a tea house in a far-flung desert town. It was summer, so the temperature hovered around 120 degrees (48 C) in the dusty bazaar. My friend had suggested that we stop for some tea as he gave me a tour of the marketplace of his hometown, famous for its castle, its hard workers, and its heat. “Welcome to hell,” another local friend had quipped earlier as we drove into town, wiping the sweat off his brow.

Always one to prefer heat to cold, I had been eager to see if the summer weather in this town was as bad as everyone made it out to be. Rising early our first morning, shortly after sunrise, I had stepped out of the house and into the sunlight. Immediately, I was hit by a rush of blasting, hot wind and oppressive radiant heat, as if the entire sky were a giant hair dryer aimed right at me. Mind you, it was only 6:30 am. I quickly stepped back into the protective shade of the cement house. If I had ever doubted before why so many desert cultures wore so much protective fabric, now I understood. At a certain level of heat, you do whatever you can to keep the sun’s rays off your skin, even if it means going around covered in many folds of cloth.

As we later made our way through the bazaar, and then found our seats at the tea house, I was beginning to adjust somewhat to the constant feelings of living in an oven and clothing always soggy from sweat. I gratefully received a bottle of cold water alongside my scalding black chai. I chugged the water eagerly.

“Are you hot, my son?” asked a mustachioed older man, sitting across from me and smiling in his turban and flowy local robes.

“Yes, I’ve been told about the summer heat here, but now I see how true it is!” I responded, gulping.

“You know how we stay cool?” he asked me, raising his small steaming chai cup and saucer. “We drink this all day!” he said, laughing.

I looked at him, a little puzzled, wondering if he was joking or serious. He picked up on my expression and explained further.

“We drink the hot chai and it makes us sweat. And our sweat cools us down. That is how it works,” he said, seemingly satisfied that he had just handed down an important life lesson to this young foreigner.

I could tell he believed what he was telling me, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. My love for local chai was intense, and so I was willing to drink it all year round, even in the fever heat of summer. But surely hot chai doesn’t actually cool you down in the desert. Maybe it was just a trick of the mind, a placebo of sorts that these desert men had learned to tell themselves in order to justify downing so many cups of sugary caffeinated goodness seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon. The logical thing to believe is that hot drinks raise your core body temperature and cold drinks cool it down. I left our interaction mostly sure that I was right and the locals mistaken. But a part of me has always wondered if there was something to what the old man was saying.

Then this week I came across an article in The Smithsonian that would make the old desert man crack a big smile, exposing all of the teeth he’s missing because of his chai habit. Turns out a hot drink on a hot day really does cool you down. And this has now been scientifically verified with the help of a bunch of scientists and cyclists. Somehow, the cooling effect of the sweat produced by a hot drink on a hot dry day is actually greater than the warming effect the drink has on the body, making it a net win for a cooling effect. The article gets into the likely biological process for those interested.

So now I know. Hot drinks warm you up in the winter. They also cool you down in summer. How strange and wonderful. No wonder I like them so much.

There is one big caveat in all of this, however. In order for a hot drink to cool you down, you must be in an area of dry heat, not one of humidity. Since a humid environment prevents sweat from evaporating, the hot drink will actually raise your body temp, not decrease it. But as long as you are in some kind of desert or low humidity setting (and able to sweat), the trick should work.

All of this reminded me of what a tricky thing it is to interact with local lore and tradition. By default, we want to dismiss local knowledge that seems bizarre to us as superstition or old wives tales. But quite often there is something to it after all. Not in every case, but often enough that we ought to reserve judgement on local claims until we’ve looked into them somewhat. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, “Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.” Oral tradition should not be dismissed out of hand, simply because it initially strikes us as absurd.

A missionary friend in Cameroon shared with me this past week about a volcanic lake in that country. At some point in the 80’s, large amounts of toxic gas were released from the lake, killing all who lived in the villages around its shores. However, all of those villages had been founded and populated by newcomers to the area. The long-time residents did not live close to the lake, since they had an oral tradition that it was spiritually deadly to dwell too close to the water. Apparently this lake is prone to these kind of toxic gas releases every 150 years or so, meaning that the indigenous villagers had an oral tradition that preserved a deadly historical event from the distant past, although it had become clothed in their animistic worldview.

I remember another story from my childhood in Melanesia, where a village pastor, eager to prove the local traditions wrong, had decided to cook and eat a bird locally believed to be poisonous and used in witchcraft. The pastor ate the bird, and almost died as a result. Turns out this black and orange bird is the only poisonous bird known in all of nature. Local oral tradition wins again.

Why do we so often assume that local tradition is untrustworthy and bogus? Because sometimes it really is, and it keeps locals in bondage to empty and dangerous lies. Consider the Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief in patrogenesis, the idea that offspring one hundred percent come from the father, and the mother is merely a carrier, a vessel. All kinds of bad stuff has come from this cultural belief, including laws that disadvantage the mother when it comes to custody of her children – even if the man is abusive. Or, the cultural belief that the honor of the extended family is most dependent upon the sexual purity of the women in the household, resulting in honor killings which almost-exclusively target erring female family members. In Melanesia, tribes until recently believed that if your enemy was strong in something, you could kill them and eat their corresponding body part for that ability, thereby getting stronger in that ability yourself. This local tradition led to widespread cannibalism and all of the dark effects associated with it.

However, what often happens is that Christians of the reformed camp approach culture with eyes only for these cultural lies. We often have a default posture of Christ-against-culture when it comes to local knowledge and traditions. We know that all cultures, like all people, are fallen and under the curse of sin. We know that this affects every aspect of a person, and every aspect of the culture – that total depravity is not just individual, but corporate as well. The mirror which once reflected the image of God so well has been shattered, and gross distortion has resulted. And yet a shattered mirror has not ceased reflecting entirely. No, if you lean in close and focus on small individual shards, a somewhat accurate, limited reflection can sometimes be found. The fact that the fall has damaged every aspect of a culture does not mean that the image of God is no longer present at all, shining out – sometimes dim, sometimes bright – through the distortion. Just as the restoration of the image of God in believers will not be perfected until the age to come, so the utter loss of that image in unbelievers and their cultures will not be complete until that same coming age.

This means that we cannot approach the culture of an unreached people group only prepared for the gospel to begin rejecting and discarding local beliefs and culture. We must be prepared for much of this, but not only this. We must also be ready to discover local beliefs and customs that fit quite well with a biblical worldview – that at times fit even better than those of our own culture. In these cases, the local cultural practice or belief is to be retained, but filled with a new motive, that of the glory of God and love for neighbor.

Few contemporary missionaries are at much risk of the kind of overt cultural pride present in the colonial era. In fact, we are more often at risk of the opposite, an unbiblical open denigration of our own cultures as we seek to embrace the local one. But pride is a slippery thing, and if our only setting is Christ-against-culture, then we will find ourselves prematurely scoffing at local wisdom that will eventually prove to be just that – wisdom. And scoffers don’t win trust. Those who sneer at local methods of chai drinking are less likely to find a hearing when it comes to the bigger questions of life and death and eternity.

Such is the challenge of engaging local lore and tradition. You may find lies straight from the pit of hell. Or, you may find truth that has been marvelously preserved, against all odds. We must learn to anticipate both, and to humble ourselves when we get it wrong. We should listen carefully to the old men of the desert, ready both to learn and to stubbornly upend the traditions of ancestors when needed. We are tasked with this great untangling, with the laborious task of seeking to glue the shattered mirror back together. It will take a long time and countless conversations. And hopefully, lots of cups of chai. Even when it’s hot outside.

Photo by Zeynep Sümer on Unsplash

The Justifications of Polygamists

“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”

Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.

And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.

The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.

Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.

This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.

Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.

Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.

Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.

A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.

The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.

At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.

Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.

For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?

The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.

Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.

*Names changed for security

Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash