Bible Translation map for Afghanistan from Mission Atlas Project

So much for the secular state. When the founding fathers envisioned the transformation of the thirteen original colonies into the United States of America, the explosive baggage of a state religion was wisely foregone. Contemporary Fundamentalist preachers may bemoan the historical fact, but we do not live in a “Christian” nation. Other states have chosen to maintain a formal religious identity, with varying levels of tolerance for those who are not in the majority. Take Afghanistan, for example. Indeed, the Bush administration did just that, or at least did so partially. Although the Taliban were sent packing into the hills, much to the dismay of Pakistanis who value sovereignty in Swat, Afghanistan is still a solidly Muslim country. The American military is present in Afghanistan in order to ensure security and protect the development agenda. Obviously this takes guns. But the latest addition to the peace-on-earth-keeping mission arsenal appears to be Biblical.

A report on al-Jazeera reveals that an American military chaplain is exhorting evangelical men in the ranks to tote more than their rifles. “The Special Forces guys, they hunt men. Basically, we do the same things as Christians. We hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the Kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business,” he said. Military spokespeople acted swiftly in denying that the military allows proselytization. But there is a thin line when it is admitted that “you can’t proselytise, but you can give gifts”. The televised report showed U.S. soldiers with Bible translations in Dari and Pashto. Clearly they were not the Gideon Bibles given to the servicemen in Boot Camp or lifted from a hotel on R&R. Who exactly are these gifts for? There are virtually no indigenous Christians in Afghanistan, and few Muslims would be likely to want to convert to the religion of some members of an army that in a real sense is occupying their country. The issue is not what Afghans think about the Taliban; they are all Muslims and by all accounts have little interest in seeking a new religion.

But really, the “hound of heaven”? Considering the disdain of most Muslims for dogs, this seems a bizarre metaphor. The reference is to a late 19th century hyper Christian poem by Francis Thompson:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbéd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

This sounds more like the Taliban running to their caves than an armored Biblemobile rescuing lost souls.

The amazing thing is the stubborn naivete of Great-Commissioned Bible believers, who think that anyone who looks on a Bible translation in his or her own language will immediately be convicted to accept or reject Christ. Has anyone bothered to inform the military preacher that Muslims already accept the Torah and Gospel as sacred texts, but firmly believe they have been superseded in the Quran? The Quran treats Jesus as a prophet, a human who was nevertheless born of a virgin. Ironically, this is a doctrine that many in Christendom have now abandoned. This is not a case of taking Bibles to Amazon natives who have had little choice but to listen to the missionaries. Throughout the almost millennium and a half of Islam, there has been virtually no inclination for Muslims to turn Christian. Indeed, there is historical evidence that Europeans plagued by the religious wars on the 17th and 18th centuries were more likely to turn Turk.

Smuggling Bibles into backpacks is nothing new. During the Cold War, the call was for getting Russian Bibles into the Soviet Union. As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, several missionary groups were filling up lorries in Jordan to roll in the Scriptures to Baghdad. The fact is that Muslims the world over drink Pepsi and wear blue jeans; there are even those who listen to hip hop. But why should any Muslim prefer a Christian message brought by the same believers who are waiting for the Jews to rebuild the temple (guess where?) and for the world to end with a big bang in the Holy Land? Hounding Afghans to leave their faith is one of the best recruiting ploys the Taliban could ask for. As difficult as the Afghanistan crisis is, with rampant corruption on all levels and insurmountable ethnic grievances, the U.S. really should not have any such dog in the race.

Daniel Martin Varisco

This commentary has also been posted on History News Network.