For well over a decade, the evangelical church has paid close attention to an area called the "10/40 Window," a term coined by Argentinean evangelist Luis Bush. This area, demarcated by a giant rectangle between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, stretches from western Senegal to eastern China and contains the "core" of people who have had little or no exposure to the gospel. Close to 4 billion people inhabit the 10/40 Window, including 90 percent of the worlds "poorest of the poor," according to Window International, an organization spearheading much of the 10/40 movement.
In focusing mission efforts on this swath of the globe, evangelicals have come to believe that two spiritual "forces" exist in the center of the 10/40 Window. Missions researcher George Otis Jr. refers to these powers as "the prince of Persia (Iran)" and the "spirit of Babylon (Iraq)." Otis and others believe that these strongholds must be "penetrated" by the gospel in order to be faithful to the commands of Jesus.
But this geographic and spiritual bulls eye has captured the imagination of more than just American evangelicals. It is also a region of utmost importance to current foreign policy-makers within the U.S. government, which has waged two wars during the last three and a half years in the heart of the 10/40 Window.
Many evangelical churches are not only launching bases from which missionaries are sent to the far reaches of the globe, but also wellsprings of support for George W. Bushs foreign policy. It is out of these same communities of Christians that an aggressive political vision has begun to ride shotgun with a pre-existing commitment to reach the nations with the gospel.
Are White House speechesand, worse, many worshipers in American pewsconfusing the advance of Gods kingdom through missions with the advance of American hegemony through the military?
From the White House, President Bush has repeatedly adorned his foreign policy with strong evangelical overtones. Much of the administrations rhetoric surrounding these two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) has imbued its policies with a sense of spiritual and moral urgency. As a result, wars conducted against nation-states threaten to link seamlessly with the spiritual battles missionaries have been engaged in for centuries.
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neoconservative think tank influencing much of the Bush administrations foreign policy, reveals a strikingly similar map to that of the 10/40 Window. This map, however, carries with it a decidedly different agenda: a blueprint for empire. On its Web site, PNAC proposes a return to a "Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity," claiming the need to "accept responsibility for Americas unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."
According to many in the missions community, PNACs map is fundamentally opposed to the one that evangelicals have traditionally placed in their sanctuaries and prayer closets. Yet it is largely from the evangelical community that a great deal of support is fueling this neoconservative visiona vision that many others feel is harming the cause of missions and exacerbating the extremely volatile context in which many missionaries serve.
From the International Mission Board alone, the missionary-sending agency of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, more than 10,000 people are engaged in domestic and international mission, supported by a volunteer force of more than 25,000. In late 2003, the SBC not only sent missionaries to the field, but they also helped draft a letter to the president actually "urging Bush to attack Iraq," according to the Associated Press, claiming that "such an action is well within the bounds of the just war tradition."
Why, if waging war in the 10/40 Window could severely disrupt mission activity, has U.S. foreign policy still received such vehement support from mission-minded evangelicals?
"I think that the media, especially the Christian media, plays a very strong role in confusing Christian mission with the American political agenda," says Eloise Meneses, associate professor of anthropology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. "Some Christians live in cultural enclaves [that] foster this confusion heavily, and vilify any opposing political opinion as un-Christian."
Also, in the early days of the recent U.S.-led wars, many Christians felt that American advances into the Middle East were effectively opening doors for Christian agencies to flood into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was not uncommon for Christians to see the advance of missions and humanitarian work on the heels of the U.S. military as proof that God had blessed the invasions.
Mick Antanaitis, world outreach pastor for Belmont Church in Nashville, Tennessee, a large evangelical congregation involved in Iraqi mission activity before and now during the war, says, "Gods mandate to carry the gospel will be through all of the epochs of time, through all of the ups and downs that are going to visit cultures. We dont stop missions activity because there is a change of regimes. The church continues irrespective of whats going on."
But many question whether much of this Christian activity, impossible under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, has ultimately been effective for the advance of the gospel. Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, California, compares post-invasion mission exploits in the Middle East to the "mammoth and largely misguided rush to Russia and the Eastern Bloc" in the early 1990s, a rush that he says "took place on the part of people with little or no cross-cultural background." According to Winter, we are seeing another "post-glasnost stampede" in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Dr. J. Dudley Woodberry, Professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, this stampede occurs in the shadow of wars that have "increased the hostility of much of the Muslim world, in particular to Christian missions, since these wars have been broadly interpreted as wars against Islam."
In addition to the increase in violence against mission and aid workers, indigenous Christians are now fleeing areas where American-led war has helped to escalate the dangers in which they live and worship. One estimate puts the number of fleeing Iraqi Christians at more than 50,000, more than 6 percent of Iraqs estimated 800,000 Christians. Despite Pope John Paul IIs insistence that Iraqi Christians "continue to offer with generosity their own crucial contribution toward heartfelt reconciliation," a growing exodus of fearful Iraqis is draining the country of its small Christian presence. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times, Jibran Hannaney, an Iraqi civil engineer, describes the situation as dismal. "As much as I thought the grace of God was coming to our people when Saddam Hussein was pushed from power," says Hannaney, "basically its been the wrath of the devil instead. This liberation-turned-occupation has not helped our people."
In light of such postwar trends, it appears that the kingdom of "our security, our prosperity, and our principles" advanced through the United States military might be a different, even opposite, kingdom than the one that many missionaries and indigenous Christians are risking their lives to extend.
If American Christians wear the politics of war on their sleeves as they simultaneously support worldwide evangelism, they will be sharing a "watered-down at best, poisoned at worst, version of the gospel of Jesus Christ," says Eastern University professor Meneses. "Whenever the church allows itself to be co-opted by the political powers of the day," she continues, "it commits the sin of syncretism," or "blending the sacred Christian faith with profane elements of the culture."
David Johnston, an author and teacher who served for 15 years in Algeria, Egypt, and the West Bank, suggests that many "missionaries living in Muslim countries have a very nuanced view of current U.S. policies abroad. The problem is that many of these missions are funded by churches that vote solid Republican and that since 9/11 view the world in much the same way as the Bush administration." While Johnston admits that "patriotism is a good thing," he says, "[American Christians] have crossed the line and have fallen into nationalism, which is clearly idolatrous."
The fears of many in the missions community are based on a century rife with cross-cultural ministry distorted by nationalism. It takes little detective work to find national agendas muddled with mission. We have scarcely moved past eras in which French, British, and even apartheid-ravaged South African mission activity was inextricably linked to national interests.
Yet despite blaring historical precedent, the kind of syncretism described by Meneses is again threatening to run a deep course through our churches. A year before his death, Adrian Hastings, emeritus professor of theology at the University of Leeds in England, wrote, "None of us anticipated that the gravest nationalist threat to Christianity by the late 20th century might come from the United States, essentially a rehash of the traditional Christian imperialism of western European countries. It is just the latest example of a self-appointed chosen people carrying forth a gospel message reshaped by its own values and bonded to its own political expansion."
American Christians with a "chosen people" complex, brazenly supportive of a controversial war, could be guilty of further calcifying an already severe distrust of Western missionary efforts.
One missionary serving in the Palestinian territories, speaking on condition of anonymity, weighs in on the postwar reality: "Those involved in international ministry have become targets [of] extremist groups as a backlash against the policies of the U.S. government. Missionaries are now in much greater danger as a result of the war on terrorism. This has resulted in a diminished effort in many sensitive areas as international workers are returning home." This backlash has already led to the violent deaths of missionaries and humanitarian workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the potential for many more as insurgent attacks continue to intensify.
It is no understatement to say that men and women persevere through incredible circumstances in order to share a savior who transforms through changed hearts, not by policy, legislation, or war. But with a portion of American Christians waving flags around a radical foreign policy and simultaneously sending missionaries to the nations, the danger of a "poisoned gospel" is real indeed.
To "muddle maps" in this way is to taint missionary efforts with the intrinsic violence and self-serving nature of the U.S. governments foreign policy. For Christians committed to the expansion of the reign of God, efforts to keep the missions movement free from the national political agenda are critical. The lines that define the various "wars" raging around us must remain clear for those who still believe in the contextualized and sensitive sharing of their faith.
History, after all, is not only an effective teacher, but also a severe judge.
Josh Andersen is a freelance writer and former intern at the U.S. Center for World Mission and at Sojourners.