Monday, September 20, 2010

Counting the Cost

I had thought I was finished with Afghanistan, the sequel to Veiled Freedom not only turned in, but enthusiastically approved by my editor, my thoughts already stretching ahead to my latest WIP.

Not that I will ever be done with Afghanistan. Over these last two years of living, breathing, writing Afghanistan, I have come to care too deeply for its people. The injustice and seeming hopelessness of its situation. The many friends who are 'boots on the ground' there, whether in military or humanitarian fields. The small, flickering lights in its darkness who are the Afghan Isa (Christ)-followers the world is told do not exist there. Not a day and often an hour goes by that I am not praying for that small corner of the world sitting smack in the midst of the Prince of Persia's territory (Daniel 10:13). Its people, its problems, its potential are bound permanently to my heart.

But books are not finished by turning them in. This last week I have been matched with a fabulous Tyndale project editor (thank you, Caleb Sjogren!), immersed in the cuts, tightening, trims of the final rewrites. So my thoughts were again gripped by Afghanistan as that nation headed to the polls for parliamentary elections this Saturday.

The elections proceeded exactly as I'd prognosticated. More than 2500 candidates vying for 249 parliamentary seats included hundreds of ex-warlords, mullahs, former Taliban along with more palatable options. Voter turnout was even lower than Karzai's fraud-ridden reelection last year, under 25%. But already reports of massive ballot stuffing, fake voter cards, proxy and underage voting, and violence are flooding in. One man who'd easily washed from his thumb the supposedly indelible ink intended to identify those who'd already voted bragged of casting eight ballots. A village readily admits to handing over more than 600 registration cards to the town elders to decide the communal vote. And so on.

Western governments are already putting a positive spin on what would be considered a catastrophe for any election on their own soil. 'Another step forward towards democracy'. 'One can't expect clean elections during war time'. 'Afghans must be congratulated for holding elections at all'.

Bottom line, does it really matter? The Afghan parliament holds no power to make laws, to enact change. Governance in Afghanistan has become synonymous with corruption, with Afghans today expending an average of one-third of their scant income in the bribes extorted to facilitate the smallest official transaction and even medical care. Violence continues to soar even as international watch-dog bodies rank the Afghan police and army as the nation's most corrupt institutions. This Saturday's elections would seem less cause for rejoicing than one more expensive exercise in futility.

So what hope is there for Afghanistan? For that entire war-racked region? For a planet that seems to be sinking into darkness so much faster than candles can be lit against it?

The same there has always been.

Two summers back I was in Kabul, Afghanistan, finishing research for Veiled Freedom and its sequel. By my arrival, the euphoria had long since evaporated of those early years after the Taliban overthrow when Afghans and their new Western allies alike had believed the fairy tale that freedom, human rights, and peace were just over the horizon, necessitating only enough time, aid, and guns to achieve.

The ratification of a sharia law constitution establishing Afghanistan as an Islamic fundamentalist republic had tolled a death knell for any hopes of real democracy with its freedoms of press, speech, thought, of faith. Gaudy mansions of politicians, warlords, and Afghanistan's 'nouveau riche', built on bribes, opium profits, and siphoned-off Western aid, dotted the landscape while children and widows continued to starve in the streets.

None of which deterred numerous humanitarian workers I was privileged to meet. These were no high-priced contract hires, but volunteers who'd raised their own support to serve as medical personnel, pilots, teachers, agricultural experts and so much more. Many had been in Afghanistan for decades, raising families there through Soviet, mujahedeen and Taliban eras.

I will never forget one particular female humanitarian volunteer I met that summer in Kabul. Despite 100 degree Fahrenheit weather, she was decorously draped (as was I) in hair shawl and long-sleeved, floor-length chapan overcoat in respect to her Afghan hosts. Unmarried and still young, she'd already volunteered several years in Kabul's university system. Now as a foreigner, a woman, and a known Isa (Christ)-follower, she'd begun to receive death threats. Not from mullahs or Taliban, but fellow professors and male students whose very livelihood and education were being funded by Western aid dollars.

I asked her thoughts about the future of Afghanistan. Did she see things as getting better? Would democracy and freedom eventually somehow ooze out of this mess on its own, as Western embassies fantasized? And what did the current deteriorating situation presage for the safety of volunteers like herself?

She looked at me for a long, silent moment. Then, calmly, quietly, she answered, "It's going to come to the shedding of blood."

She paused a full heartbeat before adding, just as calmly and quietly, "And I'm willing for that blood to be mine."

Her words came instantly to my mind when I received news of an International Assistance Mission medical team massacred this last month while returning from treating remote villagers in Nuristan, a remote, mountainous Afghan province near the Pakistan border. Like all volunteer aid organizations in Afghanistan, IAM submits willingly to unjust and oppressive laws restricting freedom of faith and speech in order to serve those in need. But they have never down-peddled that they are a Christian organization, followers of Isa Masih, Jesus Christ, and that it is in the name of Isa they love and serve the Afghan people.

The team--six Americans, one German, one Brit, and two Afghans--were all part of the expat humanitarian community in Kabul, and if I didn't know him personally, I was well acquainted by name and reputation with team leader Dr. Tom Little, an ophthalmologist who'd given thirty years of service in Afghanistan. I knew well the pilot who flew the team into the zone for their trip.

Shortly before the massacre, I'd received word of the death of another Kabul acquaintance, B.E. (for anonymity). A very elderly retired school teacher, she'd come to Afghanistan on a pension to work in literacy outreach among Afghan women. Younger aid workers I knew shook their heads at her indefatigable energy and commitment.

"All I want to do with my remaining years on earth," she told me, "is to let the love of Isa Masih, Jesus Christ, flow through me to Afghan women until the day I step home to heaven."

She received her wish. Friends worried she hadn't shown up for the day's literacy classes found B.E. lying on the floor of her apartment. A fatal heart attack, it was determined. I can only imagine the homecoming party and Kabul reunion heaven-side for these wonderful brothers and sisters in the family of God.

I've heard plenty of rumbling in the media about the motives of the IAM team and other Isa-follower humanitarian volunteers in Afghanistan. Why would anyone risk their lives for a foreign people in a country not their own? Big money? Ideology they wanted to cram down another culture's throats? Religious zealotry?

Here is what I know.

Each of these volunteers was in Afghanistan by choice and at considerable financial sacrifice. Like my friend, each had came to Afghanistan knowing it would be neither easy or safe. They came having already counted the cost. They came recognizing that their commitment might include the shedding of blood. They came willing for that shed blood to be their own.

And therein lies the hope for Afghanistan that neither guns nor aid nor elections have been able to effect. The hope for our planet. A motivation secular media cannot grasp.

Love. Unstinting. Unconditional. Self-sacrificing. Life-transforming.

Love of the Almighty Creator stepping into a troubled planet in the human form of Isa Masih, Jesus Christ, walking our dusty streets to draw us back to himself and in the end laying down His life on a cross in atonement for our sins.

Love of Christ-followers abandoning comfortable homes and lives to step into a troubled nation in some distant corner of the planet, laying down their lives in service to a people who too often do not even appreciate their sacrifice.

Sacrificial love is, incidentally, also the theme of Veiled Freedom's sequel, perhaps why it has been so much on my mind this week. Once you've found true freedom in Isa Masih (Veiled Freedom), just how far will love take you in sharing that freedom with others (Freedom's Stand)?

The IAM team, B.E. and others have answered that question unequivocally in the spilled scarlet of their own blood. And I am so privileged to count them among my brothers and sisters in the family of God. May their willing sacrifice touch Afghan hearts with the love of Isa. May new lights be raised in the darkness because of their testimony. And in this season of loss--no, not truly loss, but only a going on ahead--may their families and friends be enfolded in the loving arms of their Heavenly Father and sweet comfort of the Body of Christ.