Stranger in a Strange Land
I never met Bonnie Penner Witherall, the 31-year-old American Christian who was killed on November 21 at an evangelical clinic in Sidon, Lebanon where she worked as a nurse's assistant. I wish that I had. Maybe I will someday.
In an email message sent to prayer partners and friends on October 21, Witherall wrote:
I am so excited to be a part of what God is doing in this part of the world. Really, I feel blessed to be here and the longer I'm here the more I love it. For some time now, I have felt an increasing burden for the Palestinians in Saida [Sidon]. The ministry at our clinic is more then half to Palestinian women from the Ain Helowe [Ein el-Hilweh] Refugee Camp. This camp is actually the largest in Lebanon and perhaps the largest in the area. The situation in the camp is very bad. There is extreme poverty and constant tension and the women who visit the clinic from the camp tell me that they live in fear constantly. The camp is in some ways like a prison.
She went on to lament restrictions that prevented foreigners from entering the camps: "It takes a lot of visits … in order to really communicate the gospel to these women [—] you need to have a relationship or friendship with them."
At the time of this writing, it has not been established who killed Witherall and why. But the ministry that she and her husband, Gary, shared was a holistic one which included person-to-person evangelizing. Muslim leaders in Sidon had spoken out against this ministry.
Indeed, The New York Times' report on the killing (November 22, 2002) implied that Witherall herself and other Christians were ultimately responsible for her death:
"We told her she might be vulnerable to insults or even being hit and she answered that she would consider it an honor," said Bishop George Kwaiter, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic diocese, speaking at a gathering of Christian and Muslim religious leaders who condemned the shooting.
"We don't accept this kind of preaching," he said of the proselytizing. "We reject it totally."
One pastor who knew Mrs. Witherall said that derogatory remarks about Islam and Muhammad made by leading evangelists like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson had added to the ill feeling toward Christian evangelists working in Sidon.
We've noted before in this space ("Proselytizers," May/June 2000) that accusations of "proselytism" are routinely applied indiscriminately to all sorts of evangelism. Islam, like Christianity, is of course a conversionist religion. You'll recall the wave of post-9/11 stories about the growing number of Americans who are becoming Muslims. The Times devoted two glowing reports (December 17, 2001; January 2, 2002) to Latinos who have converted to Islam. For Muslims to protest against "proselytism" is the height of hypocrisy.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Witherall and her coworkers employed coercion or deceit in their witness to Christ. Rather, they were seeking to share their faith by ministering to the community they served, forming relationships built on mutual respect. "My burden and my question," Witherall wrote in that October 21 email, "is how will these women and men ever hear about Jesus unless they are told."
In a provocative essay in the weekly Ideas section of The Boston Globe ("The Phantom Empire," November 17, 2002), Alan Wolfe took up the question of America and empire. Should America frankly accept its destiny and go about the business of doing what empires do, as Andrew Bacevich argues in his much-discussed new book, American Empire? Wolfe answers by reframing the question, from should to will. And the answer is no:
For many years Americans have resisted any expensive and long-lasting involvement with countries whose ways of life are thoroughly unfamiliar. We resist an imperial role for America not because we are humanitarians and internationalists but because we are stingy with our government and lack genuine interest in the rest of the world. Our best defenses against empire, as it turns out, lie not in our virtues but in our vices.
There is truth in Wolfe's observations, but isn't his we a bit sweeping? A visit to Moody Bible Institute, where Bonnie Witherall studied (and my grandmother too, before going to China as a missionary), or Fuller Theological Seminary, or others among a vast number of Christian institutions might suggest that a fair number of Americans do take a "genuine interest in the rest of the world."
How that translates into debates over American foreign policy I'm not at all sure. But the compassion, self-sacrificial love, and desire to share the Good News that took Bonnie Witherall to Lebanon will always be needful, as long as we live in a world darkened by sin.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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