I have a confession: I’m afraid.
I live in Iraq with my family working at the headwaters of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, moving among Sunni jihadist sniper fire, suicide bombers, sleeper cells and Iranian-backed militia. I’ve received death threats, had mobs incited against me, and had friends kidnapped and killed by Sunnis and Shia, Arabs and Kurds. And I’m afraid.
Even on the ground here in Iraq, I hear the zero-sum conversation in the U.S. right now: “Be wise, close the borders, protect our own” on the one hand, or “be loving, welcome refugees, stop being afraid” on the other. If you’re not afraid, you’re either braver than me or significantly less informed.
Terrorism, kidnappings and beheadings are not political talking points for us. I often think first about my American colleagues and what might happen to us and our families if we are captured or killed. Will someone care for my wife, Jessica, and our kids? Will I care for my colleagues’ families if they don’t make it home alive?
But I always end up most afraid for my local friends.
I fear for the guy in the Anbar desert who told us he had just sold his car for a few bags of flour to feed his children. We had flown over ISIS-controlled territory and taken sniper fire to get food to him, but we were just a little too late. We would get back on the C-130 and leave with the Iraqi army. He would be left to fight against ISIS, along with the rest of his dwindling town, until the food we provided eventually ran out.
I fear for our Yezidi friend, Sozan. A few months ago, her family was so poor, sick and desperate, they were begging us to help smuggle them illegally out of the country. After writer Ann Voskamp and Willow Creek co-founder Lynne Hybels visited her makeshift home a few months ago, her story inspired thousands of people to see Sozan and her friends as our sisters above all the other religious, ethnic and geopolitical labels.
People from around the world came together to empower Sozan to start a soap-making business with a small micro-finance grant. Her entire community moved from dependency on aid handouts to making their own money, buying their own food and putting their kids back in school. Today, they are making living wages and caring for themselves. Talk about fleeing the country as refugees hasn’t come up in months.
Still, in the wake of the recent liberation of Sinjar, talk about returning to her decimated home town where various groups from Iraq and Syria spar for control, reveals the uncertainty of her future even still.
When you swim in the headwaters of the refugee crisis, you don’t see Muslims or Christians, Arabs, Yezidis or Kurds. At least, you don’t see those things first unless you are already sectarian and insist on labeling people before you help them.
Almost all of the post-Paris terrorism and refugee conversation is, at best, an offer at a new set of lenses through which the other is urged to view the situation. When we try them on and the world becomes even more blurry, we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group — on Facebook, in the office and in our places of worship. Feeling scared and defensive, we become more entrenched in the things we already hold to be true.
Smart people are working on the refugee crisis and are neither naive imbeciles nor war-mongering scaredy cats. So I do not think it is new lenses or “perspectives” that are needed at all. What is needed above all, is the one thing we cannot attain by force of will: brand new eyes to see.
We absolutely need to be wise, to protect our own and to screen all refugee applicants. And we absolutely must care for those who are on the run for their lives.
Simply putting on lenses urges us to choose a spot between polar opposite ideas by assuming the option is security or insecurity, compassion or callousness. But there is a third option altogether for those who live beyond dualism and exclusive forms of tribalism. With new eyes, we can take both these threads and weave a cord that achieves a security and compassion that is actually strong enough to thrive in the face of terrorism.
Call it Gospel or “good news” — I call it preemptive love, a story held common by Muslims and Christians about a Middle Eastern family of refugees, fleeing violence, whose son changes the world by giving himself over to the enemy. But the story is deeper still, because the refugee is more than a brown Middle Easterner. The refugee is actually a message from God who crosses all barriers and endures great violence to make all things new.
New eyes help us tap into the truth of the cosmos that some things are worth dying for, including going beyond the gates of security to welcome those who are fleeing terror, even if it results in facing terror. Extending a welcoming arm is loving, not only for “the other,” but for our own as well. Because the gap between who we say we are and what we actually do is widening every day. If we love our children and want a better world for them, we have to stop bouncing between these two poles and operate on a higher level.
When we get new eyes, we see babies who need protection. We see boys and girls who need to be rescued from ISIS. And we see able-bodied men and women who need help starting new businesses to provide for their family. We see the minuscule number of wolves among the sheep and admit that we are vulnerable and that our security could fail us. And we love anyway.
“Hell on Earth” is often how people displaced by the Islamic State, militia and dictatorial regimes describe their existence. Hell on Earth is what the carnage looked like after terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara and on 9/11 as well.
It is not right or reasonable to tell anyone, “Do not be afraid.” Terrorism is terrifying. But we should aim to not be ruled by fear. In the face of ISIS, Iran and countless other nemesis neighbors, we commit to love anyway. Punching fear in the face does not give birth to love. It’s just another way of continuing to fight.
Jon Foreman sings me into the darkness on days like these, “I dare you to move!”
New eyes help us die before we die. And that love that leads to death — and the death that leads to love — give birth to a peace, stronger than our fears.
Yes, the world is scary as hell. Love anyway.
Jeremy Courtney is chief executive of Preemptive Love Coalition, working at the headwaters of the Iraq and Syria crises seeking to protect the persecuted and displaced from becoming refugees through aid and small-business empowerment. He is the bestselling author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”