Seldom has giving a cup of cold water in Christ's name been so controversial.
Evangelical relief workers have yet to set foot in postwar Iraq in significant numbers because of ongoing security and logistical hurdles. But their intentions, motives and plans have been cross-examined for weeks by critics inside and outside the church.
It's not the "cup of cold water" part that bothers the critics; it's the "in Christ's name" part.
Some worry that the timing is terrible, that Western Christians entering a mostly Muslim country in the wake of a victorious American military will look too much like colonial-era missionaries, or worse, medieval Crusaders. Others see evangelicals as too closely tied to the Bush administration.
Still others cite widely reported derogatory statements about Islam and Muhammad made by evangelist Franklin Graham and former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry Vines. The statements, they say, disqualify evangelicals from working in the volatile Muslim region, or at least damage their credibility.
Then there are voices within relief and humanitarian circles -- including some Christian groups -- that categorically oppose "proselytizing" in the course of relief work.
The criticism has ranged from the respectful and reasonable to the ridiculous and mean-spirited. You can always trust Texas pundit Molly Ivins to provide the latter.
Fundamentalist Christians "are salivating over the prospect of going to Iraq to convert the hapless heathen," Ivins declared recently in her syndicated column. "The Southern Baptists are poised to deploy en masse, reminding us of Texas newspaperman William Brann's famous comment, 'The trouble with our Texas Baptists is that we do not hold them under water long enough.'"
Well, isn't that heartwarming?
A subsequent comment by Ivins is even more revealing. These "proselytizing fundamentalists," she warned, "plan to offer physical aid as well as spiritual enlightenment, which will make life difficult for traditional aid workers who do not proselytize."
That statement is hypocritical, for starters, since Ivins and her ilk delight in attacking evangelicals for caring only about saving souls while ignoring hungry bodies. It also reveals a profound ignorance -- unfortunately shared by many less sarcastic secularists -- of both the history and the present of humanitarian relief work.
Until very recent times, most "traditional aid workers" came out of the church.
From the earliest days of the faith, Christians have visited orphans and widows in their distress. Christian workers and missionaries have taught the uneducated, healed the sick and fed the hungry throughout the ages.
They did it then -- and they're doing it now. Fair-minded members of the relief and development community know that evangelicals are carrying out creative and effective human needs projects worldwide, from basic food distribution to long-term community development, from water purification to teaching better farming methods, public health and AIDS prevention.
I've personally seen Southern Baptist workers and volunteers do simple and amazing things to improve daily life in some of the poorest parts of India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Brazil, to name just a few places where they serve.
But don't take my word for it. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of the few members of the elite media who's taken the time to observe evangelicals at work around the world, calls them "the new internationalists."
They are "saving lives in some of the most forgotten parts of the world," Kristof wrote last year. "(A)ll in all, we should welcome this new constituency for foreign affairs in Middle America. I've lost my cynicism about evangelical groups partly because I've seen them at work abroad."
For the record, Southern Baptist volunteers hope to feed hungry people in Iraq, where more than half the population depended on U.N.-sponsored food distribution before the war. They hope to help thirsty Iraqis gain access to clean water. They hope to help some impoverished villages develop into self-sufficient communities. They hope to send medical and dental workers, construction workers, agricultural and livestock workers and other helpers.
"Reaching out to people in distress is at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Wanting to help ease the suffering of Iraq's people is the natural response of the Christian heart," says Larry Cox of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. "At the same time, the relief projects will be supervised by experienced workers who live in the region. They understand the culture and Islam and are fluent in Arabic. They are very qualified to design the efforts in a way that will not offend Muslim sensitivities.
"Yes, we are unapologetically Christians," he adds. "But we also are committed to freedom. We believe no one should ever be coerced in matters of faith, either unduly influenced to accept or prevented from exploring a new teaching. In places where other religions dominate, our approach to relief efforts is geared to making information available for those who want it. Ministries are conducted with no strings attached because, after all, that is how God loves us."
Love, practically demonstrated, with no strings attached. What's so controversial about that?
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