William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” We often think about time and history as a straight line leading from the past, running through the present, heading into the future. With this conceptualization, the past is past and gone. However, there is another way to think about time. Tree time. When we cut down a tree, the rings of the stump are concentric circles of time. The first year exists at the center and each succeeding year surrounds it.
So it is with the meeting of Christianity and Islam on the battle fields of Afghanistan and Iraq. The historical center of the present conflict is the history of the Crusades. Many in the Muslim world consider the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as another Crusade. The Crusades were wars between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Pagans, Christians and Christians over four centuries. It was a tragic time when armies of the state fought to promote a religious cause. Crusaders travelled far from home as warriors and pilgrims, warriors and penitents, warriors as walls to stall the spread of Islam. They won and lost battles. They destroyed and plundered and raped. They were sometimes brutally massacred when the Muslims won on a particular day.
This historical core has not passed from the consciousness of some observers. Enter the U.S. military. The military is full of Christians. Many of these men and women consider themselves as fundamentalist and evangelical. An important part of their religious commitment is to witness to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior and to win souls to Christ. At the same time, the U.S. military has a strict rule against proselytizing. And so the warriors must walk a fine line between obligations to faith and country.
However, in my opinion, at least one soldier has been unfairly characterized in this discussion. From what I can tell from the four minute video of a group of Christian soldiers in Afghanistan, army chaplain Captain Emmitt Furner gave them sound advice. He reminded them of the army regulation and he reminded them that to witness to and for Jesus was more a walk than a talk. It is what we as Christians do that is important. He said: “You share the word in a smart manner: love, respect, consideration for their culture and their religion. That’s what a Christian does is appreciation for other human beings.” Another soldier in the group spoke of love and respect for the people they meet.
Some observers see Captain Furner’s advice as a sly way to spread the gospel, an element of a 21st century Crusade. In my opinion, this interpretation is incorrect. He gave his fellow soldiers the instruction to be living epistles that can be known and read by all (2 Corinthians 3:2). It is an instruction that we who are not on the front lines in Afghanistan and in Iraq can use.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.