By Mindy Belz, in World magazine, May 27, 2017, page 28 (www.wng.org).
An Iraqi boy prays inside St. George’s Church in Baghdad
Months into the invasion of Iraq by ISIS, I emailed a friend in Baghdad to check on his family and his church. Islamic State militants by that time controlled one-third of the country and could reach Baghdad by car in 40 minutes. Bombings were up in the city.
Dawlat Abouna is a deacon in St. George’s Church. He had a library in his home where he kept documents tracing his Christian ancestry in Iraq to A.D. 1117. He loaned me history books and translated documents for me as I wrote a book about Iraq. So I asked: How is your family? With so much turmoil, are worship services continuing?
Dawlat answered: “Oh yes! We have started two new groups here at the church— one to pray for our persecuted brothers in the north, and one to pray for our enemies.”
I don’t know any churches in the West with meetings dedicated to praying for enemies. And if the enemy breathing down my neck were ISIS, starting such a group would not be the first thing to come to mind. We live in a society so polarized that loving one’s enemies in any active, intentional way is foreign, maybe even a little absurd.
Yet Dawlat and the faithful at St. George’s know and practice something deeply important, if rare, something history and Scripture tell us is what Christians do, what makes them distinct.
Not long before Dawlat’s email, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, preached from a mosque in captured Mosul: “Terrify the enemies of Allah and seek death.”
ISIS teaching on terrorizing enemies isn’t a distortion of Islam; it’s woven into the Quran, the sayings of Muhammad (the hadith), and its history, which began as brutal conquest.
Preaching in Egypt last month on a Muslim Brotherhood channel, Egyptian Salafi leader Mohamed al-Saghir said “suicide bombers” are the greatest resource in the Muslim community, boasting that they are found nowhere else.
Writer Nabeel Qureshi, himself a former Muslim, writes in No God But One, “The historical Jesus never sanctioned violence and endorsed absolutely nothing like the Crusades, whereas the historical Muhammad engaged in jihad as the greatest deed a Muslim can perform.”
Jesus made “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” a byword and reconciliation the essence of his ministry: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Like all things that aren’t natural or easy (or safe), loving one’s enemies and praying for those who persecute you is a discipline, the work of weekly prayer meetings and day-to-day service in a potentially hostile community. And potentially hostile communities can inflict real harm, no matter the prayers or good deeds.
At St. George’s over the years, Islamic militants aimed crippling bomb attacks. The church built blast walls, planted hedges over them, and continues to hold services and to serve the community. Hundreds of mostly Muslim women line up to collect food parcels every month as part of one program.
In the United States we live in a time of political upheaval, social fracturing, and racial strife. Calling out one’s enemies has become high art. Checking into social media requires dodging a barrage of insults and ire. How many of us pause to pray before we post? How many of us pray for those who make our lives hard, whether they live nearby or far away? Commit with me to praying for such an enemy this month and next, for someone who is a real pill, making your life hard, undermining a faithful witness in your community.
Praying for enemies has a dividend: It tends to cast out fear. Over and over in the book of Acts we see the early church praying boldly, suffering mightily, thanking its persecutors for scattering its people, and doing it all over again. It may look as if the church is being pushed around, but in reality it’s how the church moves the world.
Matthew 5:43-45a — (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Luke 6:27b-28 — (Jesus said), “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Romans 12:17-21 — Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I Peter 3:9 — Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
Heavenly Father, we pray for those who do not know you, and for those who hate you, and for those who hate us. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do; open their hearts to the work of your Spirit so that they may come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior; and may they, and we, learn to love all people as Jesus did. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.