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FIRST-PERSON: Some count missionaries as ‘American Taliban’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–What’s the difference between “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh and any zealous young missionary preaching the gospel overseas?

Not much, to hear some folks tell it. In their view, Lindh is a dangerous fanatic — and so are evangelical missionaries.

Lindh, 20, sits in a federal jail in Virginia awaiting trial on charges of taking up arms against Americans overseas and supporting terrorists. Pundits already have noted the obvious ironies surrounding him:

Named after late Beatle and peace activist John Lennon (remember “Imagine no religion”?). Raised in hyper-liberal Marin County, Calif. Encouraged by open-minded parents to experiment with various forms of “spirituality.”

Lindh experimented, all right. He ended up ditching mushy Marin County, his family and his country to look for the most extreme form of Islam he could find. The quest led him to Yemen, Pakistan and finally into the arms of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The quest apparently was okay with his enablers — at first. Mom and Dad even financed his trip to Yemen. His transgression was picking an ideology marked by intolerance and absolutism. Those are possibly the only two unforgivable sins in the cathedral of postmodernity.

The Taliban wanted to kill or imprison anyone who disagreed with their definition of truth. Every civilized nation should oppose that kind of intolerance. But America’s pluralist establishment has no use for any belief system that embraces absolutes — particularly religious faith.

And missionaries who dare to proclaim absolutes abroad — such as “Jesus Christ is the only way to God” — are positively anathema.

Christianity is a missionary faith. Yes, the church (like the mosque) has historical chapters of violence and forced conversion we would prefer to forget. But Christians are clearly commanded by their Lord and their Scriptures to spread the gospel.

The very word “gospel” means “good news.” Good news is supposed to be joyfully shouted from every street corner and housetop, not just politely murmured in churches.

Wherever Christ’s command to evangelize all nations is rejected or redefined, the church begins to settle down, get comfortable — and die. The final gasp may take decades or centuries, but death is assured.

It happened in Europe. It can happen here — regardless of the size and wealth of our churches — through apathy, unscriptural priorities or outright disobedience to God.

The pluralist police would like to see the American missionary movement shut down altogether. For years they have portrayed evangelical missionaries as little better than medieval Crusaders, bent on converting all non-Christians — or destroying their cultures.

Since Sept. 11, media types have begun “casually equat(ing) evangelical Christians with the murderous Taliban and their hero … Osama bin Laden,” James A. Smith Sr. has reported in Baptist Press, citing multiple examples.

Smith calls it bigotry, and he’s right. It’s also dangerous.

National Public Radio recently reported on a missionary group that parachuted tiny gospel recordings into tribal villages whose leaders forbade any other form of evangelization. A listener responded with this chilling thought: Those who dropped the recordings are no better than the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center — and should be treated as such.

Meanwhile, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has declared America’s “real war” is not against terrorism. “Terrorism is just a tool,” Friedman says. “We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism. World War II and the Cold War were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism — Nazism and communism. World War III is a battle against religious totalitarianism, a view of the world that my faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated. That’s bin Ladenism.”

Friedman quotes Rabbi David Hartman, who contends that the three major faiths of the biblical tradition — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — “have the tendency to believe that they have the exclusive truth. When the Taliban wiped out the Buddhist statues, that’s what they were saying. But others have said it too.”

“The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism — an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth,” Friedman writes. “America is the Mecca of that ideology, and that is what bin Laden hates and that is why America had to be destroyed.”

So there you have it. America is the Mecca of pluralism, and the fanatics among us who preach exclusive truth are essentially bin Ladens who must be enlightened — or somehow silenced.

There’s just one problem, besides the obvious threats to freedom of religion and speech: Christianity without belief in — and proclamation of — Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Savior of all nations bears little resemblance to what the Bible declares, what Jesus himself (and the apostles) preached, what countless millions have believed for 20 centuries.

Meanwhile, young people are as hungry as ever for truth, meaning and purpose. As Mother Teresa once said, “Today’s youth are looking for the challenge of self-denial.”

John Walker Lindh sure was. My guess is that he was so hungry for meaning and purpose that he traded the meaningless existence of Marin County for the brutal assurance of the Taliban’s Afghanistan. If he had experienced the love of Christ in his own country, he might not have lurched from one absurd extreme to the other.

“I submit that our world’s structures of sin are intentionally created to enforce generational patterns in order to trap youth,” says mission researcher Justin Long. “For firebrands [who] simply will not yield to [the usual] temptations, [the devil] offers the fire of spiritual revolution — on his terms, not God’s.”

An estimated 1.8 billion people, by the way, are under age 15. That’s about 30 percent of the world’s population. Three-quarters of them live in unevangelized nations, according to Long.

The youth of the world are looking for truth, not pluralist pap, wherever they can find it. We should offer it to them in the person of Jesus Christ — with love and without apology.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges