DATE May 5, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: R. Albert Mohler discusses his support for allowing
Christian evangelist missionaries to proselytize in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
American evangelical groups want to send missionaries to Iraq to do
humanitarian work and proselytize. But this raises the question: If
evangelical missionaries try to convert Iraqi Muslims, will that contradict
President Bush's message that our war against terrorism is not a war against
Islam? A little later, we're going to talk with Charles Kimball, a Baptist
minister who has reservations about evangelizing in Iraq. He's chair of the
Department of Religion at Wake Forest University, and author of "When Religion
Our first guest, R. Albert Mohler, believes it's important for missionaries to
evangelize in Iraq. Mohler is an ordained minister and is the president of
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern
Baptist Convention. He was recently described in Time magazine as the
reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the US.
Would you like to see Southern Baptists go into Iraq?
Reverend R. ALBERT MOHLER (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): Well, I
would certainly like to see evangelical Christians go into Iraq and every
other nation, in the name of Christ, and with the most sensitive presentation
of Christian truth, along with a very urgent need and desire to meet the most
basic human needs of the people in that area, so the answer would be yes, I do
hope to see in Iraq, as in other nations of the world, a freedom, a spiritual
religious freedom, what we call in this nation religious liberty, for persons
to worship God in the way they see fit, according to the law, and we would
like to tell them about the Gospel.
GROSS: Are you concerned at all that Christian evangelism and trying to
convert Muslims to Christianity will be perceived in Iraq as a lack of respect
Rev. MOHLER: Well, that is a very good question, and of course, it plays out
not only in Iraq with the question of Islam, but anywhere else in the world.
The Christian Gospel is the good news about salvation, which is accomplished
on our behalf by God through Christ, and that salvation is offered to all who
believe in his name. And of course, there are very many religions of the
world. What makes Christianity distinctive is that there is nothing you can
do to be saved. The work of salvation is accomplished by Christ. What we are
called upon to do in response is to believe, and to repent of our sins, and to
exercise the gift of faith in Christ. And you raise the question, which is
very sensitive. This means telling people that according to what we believe,
that God has told us in his word that what they believe presently is wrong,
and you know, that will be felt by some persons as disrespectful, and
especially as religion as is present through centuries in so many of these
lands comes so deeply embedded in the culture, of course those sensitivities
will always be present. But it was that way when the first Christians began
witnessing to the Gospel in the first century.
GROSS: Do you understand why some people are concerned about evangelical
Christians going into Iraq and trying to convert Muslims, when the president
has said that this war isn't an anti-Islamic war, it was an anti-Saddam
Rev. MOHLER: Well, I do think that extreme sensitivity is called for here,
but I fully expect that there will be evangelical missionaries from many other
nations of the world, so that it will not be an American effort but a
Christian effort. But I'm not naive. I understand the political context of
which you speak, and it is clear, I think, that it is incumbent upon us to
make very clear as Christians will be in Iraq or in any other nation of the
world that we are not there in the name of American government, nor, frankly,
representing the American people. We're there in the name of Christ.
Christianity is transethnic, transpolitical, transnational, and that is
essential to the Christian Gospel.
But you know, Terry, with all due respect, I think the question could be
turned around to say: What would it mean if Christian missionaries were not
allowed to go into that land? It would mean, perhaps, nothing less--or it
could be reducible to the fact that the Iraqi people are not going to be
granted the same kind of freedom that we have in this country. In this
country, we have so much spiritual freedom that anyone, frankly, can knock on
our door, and if you turn on the radio, there's no telling what you will hear.
The people of Iraq have been hearing one message. They've been hearing only
one version. They've been propagandized and brutally oppressed for all of
these years. If they're really going to taste freedom, freedom means hearing
what others have to say and then making their own decisions based upon what
GROSS: Does religious liberty mean to you the right to practice any
religion--Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity--or does religious
liberty mean to you the right to practice Christianity?
Rev. MOHLER: No. Religious liberty means freedom of conscience, and that is
especially true in the freedom of the conscience spiritually. And so I would
contend, as an American who believes in religious liberty, for the right of my
Jewish neighbor to practice Judaism if that is his heartfelt belief and
conviction, and the same for every other citizen of this nation, regardless of
his or her spiritual convictions. But that does not mean that any of us would
have the right to say, `I will not hear what another believes,' and as
Christians, we have a responsibility to share the Gospel, but we do not
believe in evangelism by coercion, much less by legislation.
GROSS: Franklin Graham, who is the son of Billy Graham, and the head of the
missionary group Samaritan's Purse, he has described Islam as a wicked
religion. Do you agree with that?
Rev. MOHLER: Well, as a Christian, I would have to say that I believe that
any belief system, whether it's Islam or any other form of world philosophy or
world view, that leads away from the cross of Christ and toward another way of
ultimate meaning, is, indeed, wicked and evil, and that it leads unto
spiritual death rather than unto spiritual life. I think we have to be
careful, because what we are, of course, not saying is that Muslims are evil,
or that all Muslims represent an ambition to be a terrorist or that kind of
mode of life. But we have to be honest and say that I believe it is a
horrible thing when one turns away from the Gospel of Christ and turns to
anything else, and in our current context, Islam is, you might say, one of the
major competitors to Christianity for the convictions and the souls of human
beings around the world. And so there is an opposition between Christianity
and Islam, and there has been for so long as Islam has existed.
GROSS: I think one of the concerns that other people involved with aid work
have is that if evangelical Christian missionaries go into Iraq with the idea
of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity because Christianity is the only
true way, then other relief workers and aid workers, particularly other relief
and aid workers who are Christian, might also be perceived as proselytizers
even if they are not there to convert, and that they might be treated with
suspicion or skepticism by Muslims because of that, and in fact, that they
might even be endangered by people who are hostile to the idea of conversion.
Rev. MOHLER: Well, I guess that remains to be seen. I would say first of all
that there's good evidence on the ground in Iraq that anyone who is perceived
as Western might face a certain resistance, because so many things are read
into the intention of any Westerner, much less American, much less American
evangelical, and so certainly there could be some real confusion there. I
think it will take time for the Iraqi people to understand what we are about,
and to trust that.
I think again it comes down to the fact that evangelical Christians have been
about this task for centuries. And you know, it's interesting that as
recently as the military operation in Afghanistan, Christian organizations
were in the front line of trying to rebuild that country, and Samaritan's
Purse you've mentioned, and missionary agencies were there to set up food
service facilities and medical hospitals and other emergency provisions, and
it's interesting that no one seems to have protested that. It's only now with
Iraq--and I think in many ways, this is a symptom of a secular age--all of a
sudden awakening to the fact that there are people who believe in the Gospel
and who really hope to see persons convert to Christianity. We do not believe
as Christians that religion is--that faith is tribal or national, and so we're
not seeking to convert countries, but individuals, to Christ.
GROSS: President Bush quoted Scripture before the war in Iraq. What's your
reaction when you hear the president quote Scripture?
Rev. MOHLER: Well, I think we have to be very careful. And I have tremendous
admiration for this president. And as I've come to know him, I have great
respect for his spiritual and deep Christian convictions. I do think that the
commander in chief has to be very careful not to be the theologian in chief.
And yet when he quotes Scripture, I think the American people recognize in
that Scripture a part of our own heritage. And, of course, as you look back
through presidents of the United States, you'll find that most of them have
quoted Scripture at one time or another--Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even
Lyndon Johnson and all the way through President Bush--so this really is not
only not unprecedented, it's really not unusual.
GROSS: Would you like to go to Iraq yourself?
Rev. MOHLER: I would. I look forward to the say when I can visit that
country. And I hope that when I arrive there I would find a healthy, vibrant
society where all the liberties of the citizens of that land are respected and
they have order and prosperity, and I hope there's also the freedom to bear
witness to the Gospel, to tell people about Jesus Christ and to have the kinds
of freedoms there that we enjoy here.
GROSS: Do you know what the Southern Baptist Convention is trying to do now
to get approval to send its representatives into Iraq?
Rev. MOHLER: No, I do not. And I cannot speak on behalf of our mission board
and its operations. I will say, again, that putting all this aside in terms
of what may happen in the immediate months or weeks following the military
action, Christians historically, driven by the Gospel and by the command of
our Lord, do not ask for permission. And so you will find Christian
missionaries all over the world where no permission is granted, and that's
been true from the first century until now.
GROSS: So are you suggesting that you'd like to see Southern Baptist
missionaries go into Iraq even if permission is not granted?
Rev. MOHLER: Well, I guess I'd have to wonder, again, who would presume to
grant such permission. I don't understand the concept. No one has to have
permission to come to the United States as a missionary, either sending or
receiving, on that basis. And so I presume perhaps you're speaking of some
immediate term following the military action, but eventually it'll be in the
hands of the Iraqi government. And then mission agencies and Christians will
have to decide how they will deal with that.
GROSS: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
Rev. MOHLER: Well, the Christians who are seeking to go to Iraq or to any
other nation with the Gospel are driven because they really believe the Gospel
of the Lord Jesus Christ. They believe that he is the way, the truth and the
life and that no one comes to the Father but by him. Those who are from, for
instance, the Protestant left or who are Christians who differ with us have to
explain how they will be faithful to the Gospel in that way. We do not offer
Christianity as one option among many; any as good as any other. The Gospel
tells us that Jesus is the only way, and that's why we are driven by a real
compulsion to be obedient to the command of the Lord. And those who critique
us, you know, I wish they would be honest in telling the people in their own
pews that they really do not believe that Jesus is the only way, because I
think they would find that most of the people who are in the pews of their
churches really believe what we believe when we go into the world with the
GROSS: How do you reconcile your sense that there's only one true faith and
that's Christianity with the idea of pluralism?
Rev. MOHLER: Well, that is a difficult question.
GROSS: I mean, pluralism and diversity...
Rev. MOHLER: Sure.
GROSS: ...which is one of the basic building blocks of democracy.
Rev. MOHLER: Well, it is in one very real sense, and that is a respect for
the necessity of pluralism as a constitutional reality. That is, I respect
that the only way religious freedom really is religious freedom is if others
have a right to disagree with me and to worship as they see fit and to
organize their own assemblies and have their own denominations and all the
rest and live according to their own creed. But that does not mean that I'm
glad to see them following another way. It means I have the right to witness
to them, but again I do not believe in evangelism by coercion nor by
And so, you know, this runs right up against--I recognize one of the main
creedal affirmations of the moderate age, which is that different is good.
Well, different is different, that's for sure, but we are driven as Christians
by the hope to see every single man and woman and young person come to faith
in the Lord Jesus Christ, and there still will be differences because
Christianity is transnational, transcultural. In the book of Revelation we're
given a picture of all those who come to Christ in that end day, and they're
from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. And that's the kind of
pluralism that the Christian seeks on the authority of God's Word.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Rev. MOHLER: Terry, you've asked some very good questions about a very urgent
issue. And I'm very glad to have been on your program.
GROSS: R. Albert Mohler is the president of Southern Baptist Theological
Coming up, Baptist Minister Charles Kimball, author of "When Religion Becomes
Evil," expresses his concerns about evangelizing in Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Charles Kimball discusses his concerns about Christians
evangelizing in Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
We just heard from R. Albert Mohler, who wants Christian evangelicals to
proselytize in Iraq. My guest Charles Kimball has serious reservations about
this work. Kimball is an ordained Baptist minister and is an alumnus of the
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the seminary headed by Mohler. Kimball
is also the author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil." In the 1980s, he
directed the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches. He
received his doctorate from Harvard in comparative religion with a
specialization in Islamic studies.
I asked Kimball to explain his concerns about Christian missionaries going
Reverend CHARLES KIMBALL (Professor of Religion; Author): I have a number of
very serious concerns. The impulse to response to try and help people who are
in great need, whether it's in war situation or in the context of a natural
disaster, is, of course, a central human concern and right at the heart of
Christianity, and so that's very normal and indeed highly appropriate. My
concern moves at the level of those who are poised to go in with a strong
missionary and proselytizing sort of mission as well. I think there are
enormous problems with that, and it moves at really a couple of different
GROSS: What are some of the problems you see with proselytizing in Iraq?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, in the first place, this is an area that is living with
the history of the Crusades and in the shadow of colonialism. It's an area
where people are already very suspicious, as we've seen in the past few weeks
and months even leading up to and during the war itself, where people are very
suspicious of what US intentions and US motives are. And to go into an area
especially to tie aid to some kind of proselytizing initiative would be to
fuel the worst sort of fears that this is a new kind of crusade, that this
really is a kind of Christian imperialism. And I think that is tantamount to
a lighted match in a room full of explosives where we can clearly see every
day virtually in the news that comes from Iraq the currents and crosscurrents
and various factions and religious groups jockeying for power and so forth.
This is a very precarious situation and one where already people on the other
side, especially extremists within Islam, are trying to portray the conflict
here and the larger conflict since September 11th, 2001, as a kind of
Christian and Muslim war. And so this would feed right into that sort of
The other thing you have to remember, too, is that many of the groups who've
been poised and most visible, like Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, which
does a lot of good humanitarian work around the world, the Southern Baptist
Foreign Mission Board or International Mission Board, the largest Protestant
denomination, many of the leaders of these organizations have been highly
visible and highly vocal for a number of months, talking about Islam as an
evil and wicked religion, calling Islam--people within those organizations,
people like Jerry Falwell calling Mohammed a terrorist and others saying he
was a demon-possessed pedophile. These kinds of words, while they may have a
short life span in the United States in terms of media attention, they
continue to reverberate throughout the Muslim world and are on the front pages
for weeks and months at a time. And so these people and these organizations
are already attached at a popular level in the minds of people and assistance
that comes connected to people who have been making these sort of
proclamations is a very volatile, very volatile dynamic that is sure to cause
GROSS: Let's look at a couple of the main missionary groups wanting to work
in Iraq. Samaritan's Purse, headed by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy
Graham. What's Franklin Graham's connection to the White House?
Rev. KIMBALL: Franklin Graham has repeatedly talked about Islam as an evil
and wicked religion. Franklin Graham, many Muslims in the Middle East readily
point out, is the person who prayed, who gave the invocation at George W.
Bush's inauguration, and so he is linked in their mind. And, of course, this
past Good Friday in a highly visible ceremony at the Pentagon, he was the
invited featured speaker. So in the minds of people, even though President
Bush continually has said--and I appreciate this very much--that the conflict
here is not against Islam, that Islam is a good and peaceful religion--he has
reiterated that message many, many times since September 11th--symbolically
this sort of linkage with Franklin Graham is something that many Muslims
around the world look at and say, `Words are one thing, but this person
continues to call Islam an evil and wicked religion,' and so that carries a
lot of symbolic power.
GROSS: Franklin Graham's group is called Samaritan's Purse. What's their
track record as missionaries in Islamic countries? What have their priorities
Rev. KIMBALL: They certainly have been at the forefront of humanitarian
assistance, very much so in the Sudan. They've been a very large presence in
the Sudan, where the needs are enormous. And from what I know of their
activities on the humanitarian side, they've been enormously helpful. I have
no doubts or qualms about their intentions and desire to really help people.
And Franklin Graham himself has said on a couple of occasions now that they
want to help in Iraq with no strings attached. He's also publicly said a
number of times that, `We will always proclaim the Gospel. And the reason
that we're there is to share the good news and invite people to join and come
to the church.' When you combine that with the comments about Islam is a
wicked and evil religion, I'm afraid from a practical standpoint that that
compromises severely the ability to do the kind of humanitarian work without
strings attached. The strings are there. You really only get one chance to
make a first impression, and I think in his case he's made a very strong
impression by these repeated comments about Islam as an evil and wicked
GROSS: The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the large groups hoping to
do missionary work in Iraq. What's their track record of missionary work?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, the Southern Baptists, of which I used to be a part--I
now call myself a Baptist in the South, as do many of the others--and many of
the churches that were formerly Southern Baptist are now independent of the
convention--certainly the mission emphasis all over the world has been a very,
very central feature of the Southern Baptist Convention since its beginning in
the 19th century. And they have, indeed, had missionaries working in many
parts of the Middle East. In most of the countries, they've been unable to
proselytize openly, and so they have engaged in a variety of other kinds of
activities. For instance, there was a lot of attention a few months ago to
the hospital in Yemen where there was an attack and three people were killed;
three health-care workers were killed. That's a Southern Baptist missionary
activity, one that, I think, represents the best of what Christian mission can
be. In Yemen it's illegal to proselytize, and the Southern Baptist hospital
has been there for a number of decades serving the needs of Yemeni people and
bearing witness through that. So you'd find a range of things being done.
Increasingly, the Southern Baptist are insisting that all of their
missionaries spend a large portion of their time in overt proselytizing
activities. And this, of course, is where some of the tension comes in a
place like the Middle East.
GROSS: Charles Kimball. He's the author of "When Religion Becomes Evil."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, Charles Kimball talks about his travels through the Middle
East and his meeting with the Ayatollah Khamenei. Kimball is a Baptist
minister, a professor of religion and author of the book "When Religion
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Charles Kimball, an
ordained Baptist minister, chair of the religion department at Wake Forest
University and author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil." He completed
his doctorate in comparative religion at Harvard, where he specialized in
Islamic studies. In the 1980s, he directed the Middle East office of the
National Council of Churches. When we left off, we were talking about
American evangelical groups who want to proselytize in Iraq.
Islam and Christianity both have a history of conversion. What do you think
are some of the assumptions underlying conversion?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, in the case of these two, it's a very interesting
dynamic. Christians and Muslims together make up over 40 percent of the
world's population, and these are two traditions whose histories are very much
intertwined. From the Islamic side, it's important to understand the notion
of revelation that they understand, the Koran understands and Muslims have
always understood the Christian tradition to be the same religion as Islam,
that God has revealed through many prophets and messengers. And if you read
the Koran this includes Abraham and Moses and David and Noah, Jesus, John the
Baptist. Jesus is mentioned 93 times by name in the Koran. So Muslims are
always a little puzzled that Christians don't simply embrace Islam as the same
religion that Jesus brought.
Obviously not many Christians have done that. Some did initially.
Historically many did. It seems in the first century or so of Islam a lot of
Christians didn't really see the difference between Christianity and Islam in
major terms and came over into Islam. So to convert to Islam, Muslims
wouldn't even probably speak quite in those terms, but rather to re-embrace
the same true religion. Then you, of course, have to let go then of the
divinity of Jesus.
In the Christian tradition, which began before Islam as we know it, Jesus is
understood as the final revelation and as the one who brings salvation to all.
And so Christians have traditionally been puzzled by the idea of a prophet
coming after Jesus and so have tended, historically, to understand Islam as,
by definition, false. There are many of us, and I'm one, today who believe
it's possible to rethink those sort of questions in constructive and positive
ways, but that has been a kind of operating assumption throughout most of the
centuries of Christian existence.
GROSS: I'm wondering what you thought of President Bush's use of quotes from
the Bible in his speeches leading up to the war in Iraq.
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, certainly as a historian of religion, someone who's
studied world religions, it is not unusual at all for political leaders to
cite either their personal faith or to cite religious sources as kind of
rationale, justification or empowering, in this case, the struggle of good vs.
evil. I think the president has used that imagery quite a bit. And he, to
his credit, I think, has tried to keep the conflict from being Christians vs.
Muslims, but he still used religious language very prominently in seeing
things in more cosmic terms as a struggle of good vs. evil in the larger war
on terrorism and now the brutality and the danger posed by the regime of
Saddam Hussein and so forth.
So I think, on the one hand, it's a very natural thing to do. It's also
something that we see repeated throughout history and often abused by
religious leaders. One has to always be a little bit wary. Saddam Hussein,
back in 1991, and he was a secular thug of the first order, got religion in
1991 when he thought it was to his advantage and had `God is the greatest'
sewn on the Iraqi flag, began talking about liberating Jerusalem from the
infidels; anything that could pull at the religious heartstrings of people, he
And this, unfortunately and sadly, is a pattern that you see, people invoking
religion and God being on their side. I don't doubt the sincerity of
President Bush, but it's the kind of thing that, as a historian of religion,
I'm always a little wary when political leaders resort to or pull religion in
as a justification or a rationale or to back up what is happening politically
GROSS: Do you think it's difficult to believe deeply in one religion and also
believe deeply in the legitimacy of other religions?
Rev. KIMBALL: That's a struggle that many of us, I think, have. And those
who are honest will wrestle with that. It's certainly something that I've
spent a great deal of my life thinking about and wrestling with: how to be a
person of faith with depth and integrity and commitment, but at the same time
recognize that my experience certainly doesn't exhaust all the possibilities.
Indeed, if I'm honest, I'm a different person in some ways than I was five
years ago, than I was last year, maybe last week. If I'm growing and learning
and changing, then some of that involves my religious world view.
When I talk to clergy or do this myself--go back and read your own sermons
from 10 years ago--many, if they're honest, will admit it's a fairly painful
experience to do that, that your ideas change, that your way of phrasing
things or what you've learned in the meantime would help you nuance something
in a different way. So I think we have to all be very wary and recognize that
we are shaped not only by our experience of religion but by our cultural
context, by the place and time in which we live. I learned this working with
the Middle Eastern Christians a great deal; that I often found that I might
have more in common with a Muslim in the United States than even a Middle
Eastern Christian, even though we're part of the same religion. Just the way
I would frame questions or think about issues might have as much to do with
the fact that I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1950 in a Protestant family as
opposed to the fact that I was Christian.
So there's a lot of interplay between religion and culture, and I think we
have to all be very wary of the kind of absolute-truth claims. It doesn't
take these factors into account and our own humanity into account.
GROSS: You grew up with different religions. Your parents were Christian,
but one of your grandfathers was Jewish. Could you describe how the two
religions came to be in your family?
Rev. KIMBALL: Sure. It's a wonderful, colorful story. Too long for--it
would take the whole hour of an interview to tell you. But in a nutshell, my
grandfather's one of nine children in a Jewish family that immigrated, was
forced out of the Poland-Russia area. They settled in Boston. He actually
became a song-and-dance comedy person in vaudeville. And during the course of
his vaudeville days, he met and married my grandmother, who was a Presbyterian
chorus girl in the vaudeville show.
They eventually settled in Oklahoma. She was from the Missouri/Oklahoma area.
But all of his eight siblings married and stayed within Judaism, so my little
pocket of the family became Christian. I grew up with a Jewish grandfather in
Tulsa, who was the most wonderful person I knew, and my parents really imbued
in me and my siblings the notion that to be Jewish was not just OK, it was
good. When I began to discover along about third grade that not everyone else
in Tulsa shared that same view of Judaism, that really was an important kind
of point of beginning to ask that question of what it means to be a person of
faith, in my case a Christian. But certainly had I been born into any other
part of my own family I would have been Jewish. And what do you do with that?
Where's God in that?
That, I think, helps open you up to these wider questions of your own faith
and your own tradition, but recognizing that the world, indeed our country,
indeed our communities are very religiously diverse, and none of us chose to
be born where we were born and to whom and to what family we were born. So
that should help us to think more deeply about these questions and be a bit
more humble in the way we approach truth claims in the context of religion.
GROSS: Now didn't you go through a period when you were young of practicing
fundamentalism and believing that your approach to Christianity was the one
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, I did, and I think a lot of people do. In my own search
for truth and understanding I was very active, both within the Southern
Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist churches and with Campus Crusade for
Christ, a very evangelical Christian group. And in some ways, I developed a
deep love for the Bible in that context, and I still cherish that experience.
The difference for me, and I think a lot of other people, is that I also
learned to ask questions, to think for myself, to think critically and to keep
asking questions and to seeking out truth both within my religious tradition
and beyond. Why is it there are 1.3 billion Muslims who for 14-plus centuries
have found meaning and been able to guide their lives on the basis of their
understanding of religion? I think that's an important question to ask, as
opposed to simply saying, `Well, they're wrong because my experience is
right.' I find that to be a sort of silly and dangerous way to approach these
And so fortunately in my own growth and experience with religion, I
learned--and had good teachers and mentors along the way who helped me learn
how to think for myself and ask critical questions and to wrestle with the
tensions of what it means to be engaged deeply with one's own tradition but
also open to the fact that my experience does not exhaust the mind of God or
all the possibilities.
GROSS: Was there a turning point in your life when you feel like `This is
where I learned to think critically about the Bible; this is where I really
learned to really believe that there wasn't just one true way'?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, I think certainly while I was in college, that began to
become clear to me because I gobbled up everything I could. I read all the
literature. I read all the things, particularly in the most conservative and
even fundamentalist circles, that you were supposed to read and yet I still
had questions, questions like, well, when you look at the book of Genesis, it
looks like in the first two or three chapters you have at least two different
creation accounts there. Or if you read the Gospels carefully, you see there
are different interpretations, or different versions, of what happens at the
time of the resurrection, or even the various stories in the Gospels. And I
wanted to know, well, why is that?
And I would often begin to find people saying, `Well, you can't ask that
question. God will explain it to us when we get to heaven.' I'd say, `Well,
I am asking the question. I read four Gospels, not one. I'm curious to know
why, you know, these are different? I believe it's, you know, part of God's
revelation, but I want to know the answer to these questions.' And when I
began to run into resistance that you can't even ask critical questions, that
raised warning flags to me something's wrong with this picture. You memorize
the system and then you stop.
And that, I think, is one of the flaws of all fundamentalist systems in a way,
is that there is a kind of closed codified body of knowledge, and there are
certain keepers of that knowledge. And when you challenge them or learn to
think for yourself, then you begin to see the system coming apart. They don't
want any kind of criticism. And you see this with certain, you know, very
extremist leaders within the Islamic community as well. It's not unique to
Christianity by any stretch. You see it in a variety of traditions where
people know exactly what is true and you're not allowed to think outside the
box. That, to me, is a very, ultimately, unhealthy form of religion.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Kimball, chair of the religion department at Wake
Forest University and author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Charles Kimball is my guest. He's an ordained Baptist minister. He's
author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil," and he's also chair of the
department of religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.
You met with the Ayatollah Khomeini after the Islamic revolution in Iran. Why
did you get to meet with him and what did you talk with him about?
Rev. KIMBALL: This was actually on Christmas day of 1979, less than two
months into the hostage crisis. The quick version of the story is that the
ayatollah had indicated that he would meet with some American clergy, not with
any US government representatives. At the time the shah was physically in the
United States. The shah of Iran was in the United States, and so tremendous
tension between the countries, obviously, with the hostages being held.
And so through a series of circumstances, I turned out to be one of the people
invited, among a number of very prominent religious leaders. I was a
29-year-old doctoral student at Harvard specializing in Islam and
Christian-Muslim relations, and so I was included in this group. And really
we were the only seven Americans invited to meet the ayatollah. It was a very
warm meeting. He welcomed us, thanked us for coming on Christmas, which he
knew was a major sacrifice to leave our families.
And it was a remarkable meeting where he welcomed us and encouraged us to go
around Iran and learn for ourselves what people were feeling and thinking.
And we did do that, and over the course of the 444 days, I was one of two who
were invited back on a couple of other occasions to bring letters to the
hostages, to facilitate communication. And so that meeting with the ayatollah
was very, very important in giving us and me a kind of credibility and a
safeness that people wouldn't think that we were CIA agents or something. And
so we were able to move and help facilitate what ultimately became a
non-violent resolution to that very tense situation.
GROSS: How did you reconcile the fact that the ayatollah was being very nice
to you, very respectful of your religion, but at the same time, he was behind
holding people hostage and he was in the process of cracking down on Iranians,
particularly those who weren't fundamentalist Islamic?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, it was a revolutionary situation and a lot of fluidity.
There were a lot of groups vying for power and doing things. And certainly I
wouldn't absolve the Ayatollah Khomeini of any responsibility in that. I
think there were a lot of things happening that got attributed to him because
he was the head of the state, but there were many forces at work. He
certainly could have had the hostages released. He is the one person who
could have ordered that and it would have happened, and so he did bear
responsibility for that.
But it's also important to put things in some kind of a context. He was also
a moral voice of authority over several decades against the shah and the
excesses of the previous regime. He had suffered greatly. His own son was
killed by the secret police. And the kind of thing that we look at Iraq today
and say, `You know, people should organize and rise up against a brutal
dictator like Saddam'--well, I wouldn't put the shah in quite the same
category, but there were a lot of excesses in the previous regime in Iran, and
he was one of those moral voices of authority. And so, like a lot of leaders,
a complex figure, and there someone who certainly united people and was
uniting force and a revolution. That is, as we know throughout history, a
different thing than leading to government. To be a revolutionary leader
isn't necessarily the best credentials to be the government leader. And so
those were the tensions that were operating.
I didn't reconcile all of that. My concern was to try and find ways to move
forward and to build bridges of communication to try and help get the
hostages out safely and keep Iran and Iraq from going to war. Whatever we
could do to facilitate that kind of reconciliation in the midst of a lot of
chaos and confusion, we hoped would be helpful, and I think it did play a
GROSS: During your travels through the Middle East, did you ever feel that
you were distrusted because of a distrust of Christian missionaries? And if
so, how did you deal with that?
Rev. KIMBALL: Personally not really. There were probably a few occasions
where that was the case and I wasn't perceiving it, but I was pretty
well-known as somebody who had studied Islam, who spoke some Arabic. I often
was in the context of Middle Eastern Christian and Christian leaders, as well
as Muslim leaders, and it was well-known that I had been with the ayatollah,
with the mufti of Syria and the mufti of Jerusalem and the top religious
leaders around in various countries and was someone that was appreciated.
Indeed, the dynamics within these countries is very different than what many
people here perceive because there are Christians who are there in large
numbers, in Lebanon and in Israel, within the occupied territories, and Syria
and Iraq and Egypt and so forth. And so Christianity is not unknown, and
indeed people have lived together for centuries. And so connecting with the
Middle Eastern Christians, and as someone who is a student of Islam, I found
always people were very warm and appreciative of that. And so I was not
attached to people who might be seen as outsiders who came in with a kind of
cultural arrogance, but rather someone who was concerned for the indigenous
people, Christians and Muslims, in those places.
GROSS: You've told us some of your concerns about Christian missionaries
going to Iraq where they can evangelize and proselytize. Do you think that
there should be any United States guidelines for missionaries going into Iraq
now? Or would you like to just see the Christian missionary groups going in
on their own decide to not evangelize in a way that would aggressively try to
convert Muslims to Christianity?
Rev. KIMBALL: Well, I think in the best of all possible worlds, we will see
societies where people are free to practice their religion, free to proclaim
their religion, to invite others to join or invite others to pursue whatever
they wish to pursue, that there really is freedom of religion and freedom from
religion. But that certainly is not the situation we find in Iraq today, and
so I think one has to be very careful and thoughtful about how to move
And I believe it is incumbent upon the United States, having toppled a
government and having taken on the moral responsibility of facilitating the
process to rebuild that society with societal government structures, including
economic and political and humanitarian kind of assistance. It's incumbent to
have the same kind of collective wisdom and leadership on the humanitarian
side as it is on the government-building side, or the social structure and the
government structure side. So I think the United States cannot simply back
off and say, `Well, whatever you want to do. Use your best judgment.' That
would be highly unwise in that kind of volatile situation.
And I would encourage that the US government insists that initially the
humanitarian assistance come primarily through recognized aid agencies--there
are many who have been there during the 12 years of sanctions prior to this
war, that those are groups that are known--work through indigenous
communities, Christian and Muslim groups themselves, which also makes a lot of
sense because it will enable them to find ways to work together and maybe
fashion a more helpful future themselves in the process.
GROSS: My guest is Charles Kimball, chair of the religion department at Wake
Forest University, and author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Charles Kimball, chair of the religion department at Wake
Forest University, and author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil."
Are you afraid that if Christian groups evangelize in Iraq that Iraqis will
become suspicious of other aid groups, afraid that they too will try to
Rev. KIMBALL: Oh, I think so. I think we have to understand that while most
Americans who are not Muslims know very little about Islam and often operate
with stereotypes and with distorted and highly misleading sort of images of
Islam. The same is true of most Muslims around the world. And so it's very
easy for religious extremists or people who have a particular agenda to
extrapolate from particular experiences and cast a wide net around other
mission and service kinds of enterprises. So you certainly don't want to feed
that kind of image.
This is one reason why I think it is highly irresponsible for people like
Jerry Falwell, who takes to the national airwaves two and three times a week
as a kind of self-appointed leader of Christianity, to talk about Islam as an
evil religion and Mohammed as a terrorist. When he does that, he literally
puts at risk the lives of Christian missionaries all over the world, not just
in the Middle East, so much so that you even had letters come back and
statements from the missionaries. Southern Baptist missionaries have issued
statements saying to Falwell and others, `Knock off this kind of hostile
rhetoric. You're making life impossible for us who are trying to work
together with Muslims in very difficult situations.' So I think that the
danger of images and perception being expanded widely, and used for nefarious
purposes by people who want to paint the most negative picture of Christianity
and Christian mission is something we have to be very much aware of.
GROSS: Is there an example from your own experiences traveling around the
world where you feel that you've witnessed a missionary crossing the line into
a kind of evangelism that almost became like a cultural imperialism?
Rev. KIMBALL: Yeah. Unfortunately I've seen that a fair bit, especially in
the context of Israel and the occupied territories. There are an awful lot of
Christian missionaries and parachurch groups who are convinced that the Second
Coming of Christ is just around the corner. They have many of the pieces of
the puzzle in place, they think, a certain theological view which is really
embraced by millions in the US, the kind of view that you see in the "Left
Behind" series; you know, 50 million copies of these books out there that has
a kind of theological framework that sees many of the points of biblical
prophecy, as they understand it, coming together, and so they want a ringside
seat when Jesus comes again and the battle of Armageddon takes place. And so
they're there with the kind of cocksure certainty. Much of what they're
proclaiming, of course, looks a lot like American Protestantism and really
ignores the indigenous communities.
Pat Robertson, who's another major player, used to broadcast on Middle East
Television out of southern Lebanon a kind of American view of Christianity and
his particular view that Israel could do no wrong and Israel was God's agent.
Well, this was going out to Lebanese Christians and Muslims who have lived
together for centuries at that particular time while Israeli jets were flying
bombing missions over southern Lebanon every day with American-made F-16s.
That message, I thought, and others too, had an incredibly detrimental effect
on the Christians and Muslims themselves in southern Lebanon who were looking
at each other and most of them saying, `Why do you believe this?' And they're
saying, `We don't know who this guy even is.'
And that's a message that comes in with a kind of cocksure certainty and a
kind of imperialism that somehow we in the United States know what is best,
and our political ideas and our theological ideas are the ones that should
dominate. I think people need to be a lot more humble than that and recognize
the world can look very different from different points of view, and there are
Christians all over the world. Christians themselves, and myself included,
need to be much more cognizant of how the world looks to other people and even
to other Christians around the world, and it's not just an American
phenomenon. The church doesn't stop at the borders of the United States.
GROSS: One last question. You have studied Islamic history, as well as
Christianity. You're an ordained Baptist minister, but you know a lot about
Judaism and Islam. Why follow one religion if you love several?
Rev. KIMBALL: That's a great question. I have studied deeply in the major
religious traditions, including the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and find a
great deal in these traditions that is deeply meaningful and rich and
eye-opening and attractive. But I've also found, and I think that some in
other traditions might be able to say the same thing that I'm about to say,
that when I see something beautiful and deeply meaningful in the teachings of
the Buddha, or in the practice of the Five Pillars of Islam--say fasting
during the month of Ramadan or their ritual devotional duties of prayer--when
I see something there that is very, very powerful and compelling, what I often
find is that same truth or that same teaching is right at the center of my own
tradition; I just didn't see it quite that way before.
And so my experience of God, my experience of what ultimately matters most has
come through my understanding as a Christian. And in all of my study, I have
never encountered things that would lead me personally--some have found
this--to want to embrace another religious tradition and leave my own behind.
Rather, what I've found is that the study of other traditions has helped me to
think more critically about aspects of my own tradition and indeed see things
within the Christian tradition that are powerful and moving and very much
parallel what I found so attractive in another. So some of that may be a
givenness of what one grows up with and where one finds meaning and context in
one's own tradition.
And so it's difficult, but some people, of course, do embrace other
traditions. That hasn't been the case for me. The study of other religions
and appreciation for other religions has really, I think, deepened me as a
Christian, as a Christian minister and as someone who sees the work of the
church being part of a ministry of reconciliation and peacemaking among all of
GROSS: Charles Kimball, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Rev. KIMBALL: Terry, it was great to be with you.
GROSS: Charles Kimball chairs the religious department at Wake Forest
University and is the author of the book "When Religion Becomes Evil."
Earlier we heard from R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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