The man in this photo is Faris, someone you may have met before.
Faris endured genocide, meaning he isn’t someone I relate to easily, but I love to try. I love him. If you’ve given toward our job creation efforts here in Iraq, you’ve loved him, too. With your help, Faris began making handmade soap—a craft that brought him respect, income, and a level of success many refugees dream of.
So we’re sprawled out on his living room floor talking politics, hope, faith, family, soap—the usual—when Faris stops, looks at me, and asks: “Do most Christians want everyone to become Christian?”
We’d already discussed so many things that evening, but this wasn’t something I expected him to ask me. “Why do you ask?”
He told me about some foreign friends who brought him a Bible, asking him to read it. At first, he said he didn’t think much of it. He thanked them and they went their separate ways.
He downplayed it, saying “They’re nice people. They’re my friends.” But his face couldn’t hide that something about the gift didn’t sit well, so I asked: “Why do you think they gave it?”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But sometimes I think people want to change me to believe like them.”
I asked how that felt, people wanting him to change from his religion to theirs, and he said it’s just something his people, the Yazidis, are used to.
This is the heart of it: will we love people on our terms, or will we love them on theirs?
Most famously, ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis, killing or enslaving any who wouldn’t convert, but the Yazidis have endured persecution for centuries. Sit with any Yazidi for longer than ten minutes, and you’ll hear the strain in their words, hurt buried in their face: persecution stains their whole history.
“I know most people aren’t as bad as ISIS,” Faris added quickly, acknowledging evangelism at gunpoint is on a whole different level. “But aren’t we all just human?” he asked. “We’re brothers and sisters in humanity. This should be enough. Matt, I’m Yazidi and you’re Christian—isn’t that enough? Can’t we still be brothers just based on that?”
I said yes, I believe we can. In my mediocre Kurdish, I tried to translate the phrase: “Love, no strings attached.” As a Christian, I find few ideas as powerful, transformative, and profound as agape, God’s ultimate, divine love—loving people, no matter what.
Faris lit up at my attempts at describing this love and went on to praise people he knows who live this way—he specifically mentioned people on our team, as well as other Muslim and Christian friends he knows who love him with no agenda, no expectations or preconditions, with open-handed agape—and it gave me such joy to know he’s been loved like that.
It’s not that we should just keep our faith to ourselves. What good would it do, never sharing that sacred, intimate part of yourself with people?
Many places of business or study encourage people to withhold part of their identity. “Just keep it to yourself; your faith should be private. Don’t discuss anything that could cause conflict.”
But what do we lose in the process of having to bottle up this essential part of who we are?
Faris knows I’m a Christian because I talk about it. My faith drives me to love him, sit with him, disagree with him, laugh with him. My faith is the reason I moved to Iraq to begin with, it’s the reason we’ve walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters into active war zones—because we believe there are things much worse than death!
This is the heart of it: will we love people on our terms, or will we love them on theirs? I’d be the first to admit I often expect love on my terms—they should talk my way, see the world the way I see it, speak my language, work and celebrate and vote the way I want them to.
This is how people naturally relate to one another. We’re born into the world expecting people to think and feel and see things the way we do, and we cry from our crib when they don’t.
The goal, though, is to mature to the point where we can sit with people of other faiths, races, nationalities, orientations, opinions, or whatever else—and to be able to really, truly love them for who they are. No agenda.
I’m Yazidi and you’re Christian—isn’t that enough? Can’t we still be brothers just based on that?
Imagine that person who makes you grind your teeth—whether it’s some “raging liberal” or an “obnoxious Trump supporter” (not our words—taken from the actual comments of others). It’s OK to disagree with that person—it’s often important that we do! But we can still be present for them. Still listen, love, stomach their hurts, ask questions, take a true interest in them, and love them, no strings attached.
For our team here in Iraq, this has been our goal for over a decade—because people are savvy. When we draw lines in the sand and make our love conditional, people notice.
When our love has a bunch of words after it, people sense it. When we “love so that…” or “love because then…” or “love in order to…” instead of simply “love, period,” people pick up on it.
Alternatively, when we love people on their terms, for their sake, they notice that too, and it’s transformative. We take on their burdens, we become Beloved together, we set our need to be right aside, we choose to love anyway—love especially. Love.
I drove home from Faris’s that evening, but I could’ve flown. Faris is living, breathing witness to the power of infinite agape, a love that can heal, mend, bind up, and restore.
May we live it.