Iraq Needs a Heart Transplant

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. It appears here verbatim.

(Adapted from the author’s article published in the Savage Pacer, June 21, 2003)

Whether you supported the U.S. war effort to topple Saddam Hussein and his henchmen or decried that offensive as unjust, foolhardy or both, we should all agree on at least two points. First, the allied armies removed a really bad chap. Let the record show, Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party gestapo gassed, shot, tortured, dismembered, maimed, raped, fleeced and generally bullied an awful number of Iraqis for a very long period of time. An evil dictator has fallen.

Second, removing Saddam from power has created an ominous vacuum in Iraq. Terminating Saddam’s regime was the easy part. Managing the vacuum his removal created and seeing that vacuum filled with something better will prove the greater challenge.

This challenge is obviously much more complicated than simply replacing dictatorship with democracy in Iraq—as if one were merely removing a faulty engine from an old car and replacing it with a better one. The task at hand is more analogous to a heart transplant—a complicated, risky undertaking that will require the consent of the patient, the success of the surgeon, and this particular body’s mysterious capacity to receive, rather than to reject, the donated organ. Anxious pacing and a case of the jitters are justified at this point.

What is the new heart that must be successfully transplanted into the chest of Iraqi culture in order for genuine freedom to fill the present vacuum? Iraq (and the rest of the Muslim world for that matter) will continue to generate repressive governments until she is retrofitted with the conviction that human beings must be granted freedom of conscience.

Whether a democratic government is established in Iraq or not, Iraq must give freedom of religious expression to her citizens. The authenticity of any such grant, it should be noted, cannot find confirmation in a mere promise. It must be demonstrated in the freedom of Iraqis to convert from Islam to another religion without reprisal.

When people are granted the freedom to choose their own religion, to promote that faith publicly, and to honestly critique and dialogue with other religious systems, then, and only then, will Iraq be truly liberated. Until this new heart is beating in the chest of Iraqi society, little will change.

Many pro-democracy groups were ecstatic when Saddam’s regime fell. Surely now the step to establishing democracy in Iraq was only a matter of formality. But this naïve optimism was soon deflated by the saber rattling of Shiite imams in Iraq.

Shiite Muslims were savagely repressed under Saddam’s rule. Finding a voice in the present vacuum, they have clamored to fill that vacuum with their own form of religious oppression. Mouaid al-Ubaidi, for instance, recently declared in a packed Baghdad mosque that jihad against American troops is justifiable to “regain lost rights,” by which he means the right to physically enforce his brand of Islam upon Iraqi citizens (Star Tribune, June 7, 2003). Now that Saddam has been kicked off his pedestal, the Shiites want to mount it.

At this moment, Iraqi Shiite clerics are not only undermining American efforts to establish a secular democracy in Iraq, they are relentlessly promoting Iranian-style committees for the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue. Such efforts are causing vice-preventing, virtue-promoting people of non-Islamic religions to quake in their sandals.

If the new Iraq fails to promote freedom of religion, she will be only a short step away from filling the present vacuum with repressive policies such as are found in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and similar Islamic nations where citizens are legally bound to embrace Islam and where conversion from Islam is considered treason. Under such repressive conditions people suffer unspeakable atrocities for simply following their conscience. Iraq must strive to escape this dark dungeon.

Granted, Iraq’s need to provide genuine religious freedom to its citizens is a tall order for a Muslim nation to fill. It is not, however, an unreasonable demand. In fact, every nation on earth must face this very decision sooner or later. America herself has had to undergo this same heart transplant.

By way of background, we should recognize that all pre-Christian societies were what Leonard Verduin terms “sacral” societies (cf. Verduin, Reformers and Their Stepchildren). It went without saying that the duty of the state was to promote the official cult while citizens of the state were responsible to participate in that cult, or at least not to subvert it. Jesus’ teachings radically conflicted with this standard mode of operation.

Jesus’ followers were not created by natural birth into a family under the jurisdiction of a sacral state. His followers were created by spiritual rebirth through personal faith in the gospel, irrespective of their national identity (John 3:1-31; 4:1-13). Such transformation could obviously not be enforced at the point of the state’s sword.

In Jesus’ way of thinking, people could cooperate peacefully in the marketplace while worshiping at different shrines (Verduin, pp. 21-22). Everyone needed to listen to one another; no one needed to get hurt. As far as Jesus and his early followers were concerned, the state was God’s tool to secure peace and to punish wrongdoers. The state was never intended to serve as a sword in the church’s hand by which to secure external religious conformity from non-Christians. The only sword the church was to wield was the sword of Scripture. The gospel was to spread only by means of the witness and moral influence of its adherents (Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Peter 2:11-12).

Jesus’ perspective held sway in the church for three centuries. There was no other option. The Roman Empire into which the church was born was a sacral society with a notoriously firm grip on the sword. Rome tempered her pagan zeal with a stout measure of toleration for other religions, even monotheistic ones. But Rome grew exasperated from time to time with Christians’ lack of pious regard for the imperial cult, to say nothing of the success Christians enjoyed in converting pagans from that cult into the border-less faith of Christianity. This exasperation routinely bubbled over and the state’s sword was unsheathed against multitudes of Christian martyrs.

Ironically, the sacral orientation of Rome was eventually adopted by the church. When the Roman Empire embraced a nominal form of Christianity at the start of the fourth century, star-struck church leaders disregarded Christ’s teaching and embraced the entrenched methods of the empire. It was not long before the once persecuted church was wielding the sword of the civil powers to establish the sacral society of Christendom.

This sacral model informed the church’s way of life throughout the Medieval era—although Christ’s vision continued to survive underground. When the Protestant Reformation rocked Europe in the sixteenth century, the Reformers were unable to shake themselves free from the sacral view of society that had been perpetuated for the past twelve centuries.

John Calvin, for instance, meted out stiff physical punishments against citizens of Geneva for matters as trivial as card playing. Adulterers were expelled from the city. Heretics were executed. Such measures were simply consistent with the sacral view. As Roman Catholicism had enforced religious conformity among its citizens for centuries, Protestants established their own sacral cultures wherever they were able to wrest political control of a region from the Roman Church.

Like Calvin, Martin Luther was also unable to divest himself of the sacral view of society. Luther was impaled on the proverbial fence as he lobbied, on the one hand, for a confessional church in Germany (i.e., a church comprised of regenerate members), while at the same time arguing for a regional church encompassing all people under a specific jurisdiction. Under this latter provision, things did not often go well for non-Lutherans living in a region governed by a Lutheran magistrate.

The black sheep of the Reformation were the Anabaptists who insisted on the ancient belief that the church comprised a sacred, regenerate body of believers living within society. Emboldened by the Protestant uprising, Anabaptists came out of hiding during the Reformation to promote anew Jesus’ vision of a society free from state controlled religion.

The Anabaptists argued that unregenerate man is capable of operating the state under the common grace of God (Romans 13:1-7). The church’s sword, they maintained, was not the state, but the sword of moral suasion. By use of this spiritual sword, the regenerate people of God proclaim the gospel, spreading their influence across all cultures and in varied marketplaces, as citizens of many governments, and as pilgrims and strangers everywhere on earth.

Such a relationship, they held, is ideal as long as the state does not intrude upon the privilege of the church to call sinners into the family of God, and as long as believers do not use the state to impose belief. It is just as evil, after all, for Christians to compel conformity to Christianity as it is for the state to persecute Christians.

As Verduin contends, it was the Anabaptist’s willingness to break with twelve centuries of tradition at this very point that earned them the designation, “radicals.” It was their refusal to support the sacral view of Christendom that led to their denunciation and persecution at the hand of all the sacralists—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed alike.

In the seventeenth century, belief in sacral society—coupled with the external enforcement that position necessitates—was transported by ship to the American colonies under the skulls of devout Protestants in particular. Early American colonists typically lived in settlements which embraced their particular form of religious conviction. Religious dissidents within those communities were routinely punished or expelled by the authorities.

As case in point, a certain Roger Williams (1603-1683), a member of the Protestant Plymouth Colony, began to argue in defense of freedom of conscience. While vigorously debating groups he deemed heretical such as the Quakers, he defended the necessity of their freedom to believe as they chose. Since regenerate faith cannot be imposed, Williams maintained, even a Christian society is duty-bound to permit honest religious expression.

Williams was expelled from Plymouth Colony in the dead of winter, 1635, for refusing to renounce his “heretical” views. But with much persistence he eventually secured a charter from the English crown granting full freedom of religious expression to all citizens of the territory that would later be called Rhode Island. (Perhaps Rhode Island’s diminutive boundaries serve as apt metaphor for its place in this historical transition).

There was little patience for Williams in his day. He died a lonely man. But a seed had been planted. Nearly a century after his death, Congress passed the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights which provides that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…”

In the world of nations, such a provision was radical thinking for its day. It is still radical thinking in the Islamic world today. But without transplanting this very notion in the breast of Iraqi culture, the vacuum that now exists will soon be filled with something different than Saddam’s regime, but with something no better.

A successful heart transplant starts with the willingness of the patient to yield to the procedure, and thus a little hand wringing would be in order with respect to the future of Iraq. Such a willingness is not unprecedented in the Islamic world, however. King Mohammed VI of Morocco, an Islamic state that has long oppressed non-Muslims, recently pledged to promote human rights in this North African nation. One can only hope he means to include the right of Muslims to convert to other religions without fear of physical retribution. And one can only hope his resolve translates into action. If that happens, perhaps it will indicate the transplant has worked there, encouraging efforts to attempt the same operation in Iraq.

Non-Muslims in Iraq are praying that just such a transformation takes place in their country. Lovers of peace and justice would do well to pray with them.

We would also do well—we who inhabit a land where religious freedom is a constitutional right—to offer prayers of thanksgiving. Many “surgeons” along the way (thank you, Anabaptists, Roger Williams, et. al.) paid a heavy price to effect this heart transplant. Today, by God’s grace alone, the new heart of religious freedom pulsates behind the rib cage of American society. By God’s grace it will continue to do so, and be joined in future days by the sound of similar pulsations emitting from distant shores.

Dan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.
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Irfan Abdullatif's picture

I am someone who is grateful everyday for the freedom of religion that was offered to my father in this country, I read your article with great curiouosity but to be honest without much hope. You see it is not just a government that stands against any type of religious freedom but a society as well. A society that has been conditioned to see anything Christan as "western" and evil. I think the irony of your article is that it highlights how we as Christians must stand up for the rights of Muslims, Buddhists, and even Atheist if we hope to maintain the wonderful liberty that has made us the greatest of all modern nations. We must never forget the freedom that God has given all men to choose him.

Ironically we seem to only have strengthened the stronghold of the most fanatical portions within Islam with our campaigns for peace. Creating a boondoggle that may have a ripple effect for many many years to come. Strengthening those who see faith not as an individual liberty but as a cultural duty. They tell us Islam a religion of peace, but I disagree with the liberal media and there need for political correctness. Islam is a religion of the sword. Don't believe me? Well then take time to read the Koran and allow it to speak for itself. When my father embraced the grace of Christ over the works of Allah, he was jailed and physically beaten. Abandoned by his family. Is this a religion of peace I ask you?

However I must echo your words in that the glimmer of hope is that the church in Iraq, the Bible preaching church, which is so wonderfully unencumbered with our denominationalism and infighting is beginning to grow. In basements and farmhouses those who have been crushed by the tyranny not just of government but of the law are beginning to see a better way. They are beginning to understand, like my father did, that no matter how many of Islam's pillars they diligently follow, they will still be found guilty on the day of judgment. As a child my father taught me that there were 99 names for God in Islam. God is strong. God is great. God is all powerful. However there is no name for God is love. We have that name..than name is Jesus.

Let us pray for this country. We have to often seen it as our enemy, but it is not. It is a country where the people need the grace of an all mighty God just as much as we do. It is a country that is broken. It is the least of us, and as we know, it was Christ who came expressly for the least of us. It is a field where the laborers are very few and the work is life threatening, but the reward is salvation. Iraq, along with the rest of the Middle East was once a Christian nation until the sword of Islam changed all that., Let us pray that the two edged sword of the gospel springs forth and changes again the hearts of men.

Mike Mann's picture

It is refreshing to have your insight concerning this nation. Your father is a great example of our need to pray and what the results can be.

Irfan Abdullatif's picture

I would wonder if Pastor Miler and others who read SharperIron on a regular basis would see the Middle East (Iraq,Iran,Lebanon,Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudia Arabia, etc) as the most hostile place to the gospel and if there is any organization within the Bible believing community which has a gameplan for reaching uch a hostile place?
I know personally that my father has remarked to me that the fact that the Unites States and Europe have a policy that allows many Arabs to immigrate to there land as a wonderful opportunity to reach the Muslim world.There is no way to proselytize in the Middle East, so do we have a gameplan to reach Arabs here among us?
If not, then why not?

rogercarlson's picture

I have a friend in Lebanon doing a great job. But it is very dangerous. I do wonder if there are concerted efforts going on in my home area of Det? That is a good question you raise Irfan.

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Irfan Abdullatif's picture

Detroit actually has a strong presence along several denominational lines of indigenous Arab churches which are supported by American churches , preaching the Gospel in the Detroit area. I believe many know Detroit is the largest Arab presence outside of the middle east, and therefore the greatest mission field. It makes me wonder however though, why don't we try this with Asian, African, or Latin communities that are strong in the U.S. and fertile for evangelism. Seems like we would be better served to spend our money training mission churches on our own land populate by foreigners than just concentrating all our efforts overseas.

rogercarlson's picture

You are seeing more of that. I know of many that are planting inter-city churches, for example. I have often sought the Lord about going back to Detroit and planting an inter-city church. So far the Lord has kept me here. But your point is well taken. We should be making a more concerted effort of reaching ethnic communities in our own country.

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church