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Away From the Manger, Out Into the Dangerous World

Nothing’s ever over quite like Christmas. The tree comes down. Decorations go back into the attic. A new year arrives. Life returns to normal.

This quick change isn’t peculiar to our culture. The Gospel of Matthew flashes from the festivity of adoring magi to the ferocity of a murderous king in two verses. As soon as the wise men worshipped Jesus, an angel told his earthly father to flee with the infant into Egypt, so that the homicidally paranoid King Herod could not kill him (Matthew 2:13). This world wasn’t safe for the Christ child, and it hasn’t been particularly safe for Christ’s followers through the intervening 2,000 years.

This sad truth struck with full force last week. A Muslim extremist, Abed Abdul Raza Kamel, pretended to carry an infant into Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen. Inside, he pulled out a rifle and opened fire on defenseless Southern Baptist workers who helped operate the hospital. He killed administrator William Koehn, purchasing manager Kathleen Gariety and physician Martha Myers and severely wounded pharmacist Donald Caswell. Together, they had served the predominantly
Islamic and overwhelmingly poor Yemeni people 63 years.

So much for Christmastide “peace on Earth” and “goodwill to all.” Yemeni officials said Kamel carried out the attack because he wanted to “cleanse his religion and get closer to God.”

In an instant, the Jibla attack became the worst act of violence against workers in the 157-year history of Southern Baptist missions. It would have come as a shock at any time. But the trauma intensified because the assassin struck the workers five days after Christmas, during the season Baptists traditionally have prayed for mission workers and collected money to fund foreign missions. Baptists always are a missions-minded people, but we’re more attuned to that fact at Christmas time. So, we felt this attack acutely. It flew in the face of our prayers for mission workers’ safety. It underscored our understanding that many Christians seek to spread the gospel in hard and dangerous places. It struck home because we realize these believers served halfway around the world, seeking not only to save people’s souls but also to ease their suffering. Even people of other faiths ought to see that these were good people who deserve commendation, not assassination.

The attack raised an issue that generated anger and angst last summer. Prominent Baptist pastors Jerry Vines and Jerry Falwell publicly condemned Islam, claiming it is a religion of hatred, not peace. They countered proclamations to the contrary made by President Bush. They drew the wrath of many Christians, who felt the charges were unfair. They sparked the ire of other faith leaders, who claimed the charges were arrogant and judgmental. Many fellow Baptists and other evangelicals protested, not so much because they disagreed theologically, but because they felt Vines and Falwell played into the hands of those who wish to portray conservative Christians as mean-spirited and vengeful.

The attack points out that, while the tone of Falwell and Vines’ invectives cannot be justified, they do point to a common denominator: Around the globe, radical Islamists are slaughtering Christians and, in some cases, Jews. Militant Muslims have wiped out thousands of Christians in Sudan and Ambon. Evidence points to extreme Islamic hatred for Christianity as motivating factors in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bombing in Bali. The list goes on. And while guilt is bipartisan in Israel/Palestine, rancid religion lies at its root.

Of course, Falwell, Vines and others paint with a too-broad brush. Many Muslims–perhaps those in your community as well as mine–are peace-loving and gentle. They selectively read the Koran, affirming peaceful passages while ignoring those that would command them to kill “infidels.” Quite likely, these peace-loving people represent the majority of Muslims. Characterizing their faith with images of terrorists and missionary slayers is no more fair than characterizing Christianity with posters of Klansmen and skinheads.

Still, the common denominator remains. In the name of Allah, Islamist extremists are killing Christians. They need to be told this is not Allah’s way, and they need to be told by the only people they respect and trust–Muslim religious leaders, particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Denying one’s religion is violent is one thing. Decrying violence done under the banner of one’s religion is more important.

Their message will be echoed by people around the globe who have seen the love of Christ in the face of Christian mission workers. Reports from Jibla last week described local residents lining the street in a show of sorrow and support for Caswell, Gariety, Koehn and Myers. These people, even the ones who have not yet embraced Jesus as Savior, know the essence of Christianity embodied in human form.

Christians can respond in several ways.

First, we can articulate that much of what Islamists find repulsive about Christianity is not Christianity at all. It is Western culture. Christianity is not J-Lo, Britney Spears, beer commercials, random violence and–this hits closer to home now–conspicuous consumption.

Second, we can demonstrate for all the world that Christianity means embodying the presence of Christ that others not only see but feel. This is exactly what Caswell, Gariety, Koehn and Myers did. They paid the price, but God only knows the eternal return on their physical investment.

Someone said blood of the martyrs is the fuel of the church. As we recall these martyrs, let us respond with missions passion that will glow for Jesus’–and a lost and dying world’s–sake.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.