If you want to know what defines an evangelical Christian, look no further than Brother Andrew, the 79-year-old Dutchman who called himself "God's smuggler." He is a revered figure among evangelicals because of his single-minded devotion to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ -- one of the defining points of evangelicalism. Brother Andrew wrote famously in his 1967 best-seller God's Smuggler about transporting Bibles behind the Iron Curtain, sometimes in plain view of customs agents and frequently at risk of his life. You made the blind eyes see, Brother Andrew prayed on one of his smuggling forays; now make seeing eyes blind.
Yet Brother Andrew's latest mission -- supporting the persecuted churches in the Middle East -- will undoubtedly run him straight up against another definition of evangelical: the one that presumes an alliance with conservative American politics. Brother Andrew, who was in Dallas recently to talk about his new book, Secret Believers: What Happens When Muslims Believe in Christ, co-written with Al Janssen, believes that the war in Iraq has been a terrible tragedy for Iraqi Christians -- and, he says, a devastating blow to the church worldwide.
"Under Saddam Hussein," Brother Andrew told me in an interview, "the church was pretty much left alone."
Not so today. Brother Andrew's co-author, Janssen, says more than half of Iraq's Christians are refugees in Syria, Jordan and northern Iraq. That's 700,000 Christians uprooted from their cities and forced to run because of extreme religious persecution brought on in the aftermath of sectarian violence.
"Did anybody ever stop to think about the consequences on the church?" Janssen asked. "And yet the church is being scattered because of the fighting. We're destroying the very solution to the problem."
Brother Andrew picked up this theme in soft-spoken but emphatic words. "It's scary," he said, referring to the destruction of the Iraqi Christian churches. "It's self-defeating, now more than ever before, because of the possibilities we [Americans] have at our disposal to make a change there. But it is not a change toward the kingdom of God. It's a change toward our concept of liberty and democracy, capitalism, materialism, whatever.
"It's not going to bless the people there. That hurts me. It makes me very, very sad."
Right about now I feel a blast of cold air from the hundreds of evangelical church doors swinging shut in Brother Andrew's and Al Janssen's faces.
Oh, and they don't stop there.
Brother Andrew has challenged Christians to pray for Osama bin Laden. The enemy, he says, is not bin Laden -- it is "the Deceiver," Satan.
"Is Osama bin laden more deceived than the farmer in Texas who does not believe in God?" Brother Andrew asked me.
Well, I said, he's a bit more dangerous, don't you think?
"Because [bin Laden] has other opportunities, yeah," Brother Andrew said. "But spiritually speaking, you're either lost or you're saved."
Well, there you have it: another defining mark of an evangelical. Believing that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. So, in this fine free country of ours, just what constitutes an evangelical?
I suspect it isn't comments such as those Brother Andrew and Janssen made earlier in our conversation at a North Dallas hotel.
Janssen distinguished between fundamentalist Muslim leaders and evil despots such as Hitler and Stalin. "There's one big difference," Janssen said. "Hitler and Stalin flat-out rejected God. Stalin shook his fist at God as he was taking his dying breath. Osama and Hamas and these other leaders, they truly believe they are serving God and pleasing God with their actions.
"Paul was a terrorist before he was a follower of Christ," Janssen continued. "Now if that's the case, we have to see them not as nameless, faceless terrorists -- we need to see them as God-seekers. And that changes things. I can have compassion for a person who is doing wicked things because I believe he really wants to please God but he's deceived….
"That's why we have to go and show them the way of peace, the way of Jesus."
Is the American evangelical church ready for "hug a terrorist today?" That, of course, is a simplistic take on Brother Andrew's and Janssen's message, as well as the aims of their international ministry, Open Doors, which assists persecuted churches all over the world -- from Iraq and Iran to Indonesia and the Sudan. But essentially what these men are saying is that Christians -- no, make that followers of Jesus Christ, since the word Christian is virtually meaningless these days -- must focus on winning Muslims to Jesus Christ and building up the churches already in existence in Muslim countries, not dropping bombs.
Brother Andrew calls this fighting "the good jihad" -- which, incidentally, echoes the Arabic translation of the Apostle Paul's famous words that we must "fight the good fight of faith."
How does this play out in practical terms? Brother Andrew and Janssen -- as well as other Open Doors representatives -- personally make contact with leaders of the persecuted churches in their own countries, at no small risk.
"They cannot come to us -- we must go to them," Brother Andrew said.
"We often think that our job is to be missionaries and go win the Muslim world, or whatever the people group is," Janssen added. "But the fact is, in most of these countries, there is a church already. And honestly, they will always be better situated to witness and win their people to Christ than we ever could, because they know the language, they know the culture, they live there."
In his contacts with churches in Muslim countries, Brother Andrew simply asks: "What can we do for you?"
He does not bring programs, initiatives, goals or even heavy-handed evangelical theology. Most of the Christian churches in Muslim countries, after all, are of the Eastern tradition. Evangelical they are not. But such distinctions, Brother Andrew says, are meaningless in the persecuted church. No one ever asks which denomination Brother Andrew represents. A follower of Jesus Christ is a follower of Jesus Christ and as such is always welcomed warmly.
For one thing, they are exceedingly rare.
"Persecution is aimed at scattering the body of Christ, the family of God," Brother Andrew said, "and that's exactly where our ministry comes in. To seek them, find them, encourage them…instead of coming with the solution, because frankly, we don't have solutions to their problems.
"That's our Western attitude -- we know everything. And we don't."
When Brother Andrew asks the churches what he can do to help, "Inevitably, they say pray," he said. "Pray not only for us, but with us. Very seldom do they ask for money or for clothing. They don't ask, because that is not their main problem.
"When everybody is poor, why should they have a nice suit or car? The problem is their isolation that we must not in the name of God allow to become so severe and urgent that they give up on the faith and say that it really doesn't pay, because I thought I joined the family of God, and where are my brothers and sisters?"
Brother Andrew acknowledges that the churches in Muslim countries are often very weak. He likens their situation to a live coal plucked from the hearth. "No follower of Jesus Christ can live on his own," Brother Andrew said. "It's just like a fire of live coal. If you take out one piece of coal and put it a few feet away, it dies. It's the same fire, the same coal, the same substance -- but the fire dies. That is the same in the faith of Jesus Christ. We need each other.
"And that is why the Bible calls us the family of God."
In America, much of the evangelical family rallies around flags and bombs and bullets. Brother Andrew believes they are missing the point. His choice is not liberal or conservative or even political, he said. "We have chosen for the body of Christ."
America's war on terror, he suggests, is misguided. It has only multiplied Muslim enmity against the body of Christ.
"It's a nebulous concept," Brother Andrew said. "Terrorists have no office, they have no state -- what are we fighting?
"Iraq," he added, "was not a danger to any country."
Oh, boy. This time I hear church doors slamming, radio hosts ranting and televangelists raving.
I wasn't sure I was ready to concede the point to Brother Andrew -- that this is a simple choice, of the body of Christ over politics. Can you be for the body of Christ, and, in Nigeria, for example, politically oppose the extension of sharia law -- the Islamic code that has resulted in death sentences for women accused of adultery? (Always women, it seems.)
"That's not [really] a political choice…because the contrast is so white and black it is almost easy to choose, contrary to our country," Brother Andrew said. "I have met people who say there is not one born-again person in the Democratic Party. As a Dutchman, I get totally confused. Is that the choice we are facing -- Democrat or Republican? Or is it for Jesus?"
Just the day before, Brother Andrew said, he and Janssen had met privately with several congressmen in Washington as well as a presidential candidate they wouldn't name. In every conversation, they promoted the cause of the churches -- and told about the Muslims turning to Jesus all over the world.
"We told them about mujahideen that have become followers of Christ, former terrorists in Iraq who have now been baptized," Janssen said. "I can guarantee you, these are people who will not strap bombs on themselves and blow themselves up in a crowd in the marketplace.
"Are we serious about solving the problem of terrorism? Then this will do it."
What will do it? I asked.
"Changed hearts," Brother Andrew said. "Yeah, yeah."
I wondered later, will my son still be alive when all those hearts get changed?
No, this isn't a simple choice, this choosing for the body of Christ. This one has consequences either way, stark consequences.
Brother Andrew told of how he traveled to a madrasa in remote Pakistan -- the same Islamic school that Mullah Omar, founder of the Taliban, had attended, and the same one that graduates 90 percent of its members to the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The visit was arranged by a Pakistan official, and Brother Andrew and Janssen presented the madrasa leaders with Bibles and Bible software. Brother Andrew showed me a photograph, in fact, of two white-turbaned teachers from the madrasa holding and examining a copy of The Message, a popular vernacular paraphrase of the Bible (one that is not always popular with evangelicals, for reasons I won't get into here).
Brother Andrew said he was struck by the madrasa leaders' hospitality toward him. They visited in the day during Ramadan, yet the leaders had arranged a spread of food for them. Brother Andrew declined to eat at first; his intention was to honor the Ramadan fast. But his hosts insisted that he eat while they watched. After the visit, the leaders told him the madrasa would always be open to him as his "second home."
Touching -- or appalling?
"If all we have is an enemy image," Janssen said, "then we're never going to win them -- we're never gonna change this problem."
This, then, is how an evangelical is defined.
In the madrasa, addressing the leaders and students, Brother Andrew opened The Message to Acts 2, where the Apostle Peter is preaching his first sermon at the temple square on the day of Pentecost.
"He speaks about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the sin of the people, and people are really awakened in their conscience -- because the moment you speak God's truth, something happens in people's hearts," Brother Andrew said. "I explain all that, and then the people get very restless, and their reaction [in Acts] is, 'What shall we do?' And Peter says in The Message, 'Get out while you can -- get out of this sick and stupid culture!' I hoped that would get through to them, you know.
"And they looked at me and began to laugh -- ha ha -- 'You should go to Washington and tell President Bush about that!'
"That was the end of that sermon."
Brother Andrew and Janssen chuckled.
"It is a sick culture," Janssen said.
But they had made their choice, to present Jesus Christ.
And no one can say it has not been a costly one. In Afghanistan, Janssen said quietly, the Taliban has killed "at least 10" of the new believers Brother Andrew has baptized. --Julie Lyons
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