by Jennifer Carpenter
preemptive—|prēˈemptiv|: serving or intended to preempt or forestall something, esp. to prevent attack by disabling the enemy.
From Central Texas to the heart (and hearts—literally) of Iraq, Jeremy Courtney brings a surprising kind of hope and healing to the Middle East. He crosses cultural and “enemy” lines as the founder and executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides heart surgeries for children and trains local Iraqi doctors and nurses to be able to care for their own.
Jeremy Courtney’s 2013 book, Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time, from Howard Books tells amazing stories of how Preemptive Love, along with its partners, is helping to build shalom in the Middle East.
ESA caught up with him to ask him to share some insights on the genesis and embodiment of Preemptive Love.
ESA: Where did this idea of loving “preemptively” come from?
Jeremy Courtney: The seeds of it are buried deep, deep in the Christian message and the Christian story. It’s certainly not something that we came up with. But I think we stumbled upon the language in a way that was timely with the things that were going on in the world with regard to the Iraq War, and the “War on Terror” in particular. I didn’t move to Iraq questioning the war or anything like that. It wasn’t until I got to Iraq and started meeting people who had experienced the war much differently from what my background told me that I started seeing some of my worldview and values challenged, and some things started to unravel. It was in that context, here in Iraq, that I started reading things that were outside of my comfort zone and listening to some artists and music—notably Derek Webb and his Mockingbird album was a huge challenge for me—and actually Ron Sider, too—some of his work was huge for me at that time. Certainly the idea of preemptive love is something that we learn from Jesus himself, but the language was born in that time.
ESA: How does that phrase communicate cross-culturally for you in Iraq?
Courtney: That’s a great question. It can be very difficult to translate. We’ve not always been able to find a perfect dynamic equivalent in the various languages across which we’ve worked—Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Arabic, etc. So it hasn’t always done really well in terms of translation. But when you have time to tap into the history of preemptive war—whether it be Sadaam’s preemptive wars or America’s preemptive wars, whether it be preemptive tribal gang violence against one another—that communicates cross-culturally really well. And then, to turn that story on its head and say that we want to be about something different—that’s actually an extremely strong counter-cultural message. It’s counter for all of us. It doesn’t just challenge terrorists; it challenges would-be Christians just the same.
ESA: How do you think the idea of preemptive love might be implemented in a place like Syria?
Courtney: Well, I think we first need to ask Syrians that question. I am leery of various kinds of intervention, especially the kinds of interventions where people who might not know the least bit about the lay of the land just go in and try to loft our ideas and priorities and values on people. I think there’s a way to share ourselves that is actually loving, and then there’s a way to do that that which sounds loving but is actually very domineering.
Syria is a confounding situation right now. There are a lot of Syrian Christians out there who could probably answer that question better than me, and I want to be careful not to imply that this needs to come from governments. What I know is that preemptive love has been a remarkable and deeply rewarding way for my family and our community to live as we’ve sought to follow Christ in this context. So, the foreign policy discussion is a different discussion from the one that I’m primarily trying to have. This has more to do with how individuals, communities, and churches relate to the people around them [including] mosques [and] communities of faith in general. I find it easier to talk on the communal level than the foreign policy/state level.
ESA: What has been your response with working with local faith communities in Iraq? How has the interfaith dialogue been in your experience thus far?
Courtney: I think a lot of Americans in general, and—because they’re my people I can say a lot of conservative evangelicals in particular—probably have a big misunderstanding of Muslims. [There seems to be a general belief] that these questions of faith are completely off limits and to even walk into a Muslim country/home/community and talk about faith is a bold, crazy thing to do. But nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that to be a person of faith and live among Muslims and not talk about it—now that would be the crazy thing to do. For most of the Muslims that I’m around, matters of faith and practice flow out of them like matters of tabloids and sports flow out of a lot of Americans. It’s just the air that they breathe and the overflow of their heart […] There aren’t these firewalls between politics and religion, and money and everything else that we’re allowed to talk about. They seamlessly flow from food to faith to politics to football, and I think that’s been really instructional for me in a lot of ways. It’s helped me to develop more of an integrated life of faith and discipleship myself.
ESA: For the people of Iraq, but also for all of us, what do you believe is really at stake if we don’t begin a practice of preemptive love now?
Courtney: I think our own happiness is at stake. Maybe just to turn on its head one of the most cynical of US foreign policy responses: “We have to intervene in Syria because our own National Security is at stake.” If you take that line of reasoning, I could very easily say: “We have to stop living from a paradigm of fear, and have to start living in a paradigm of love because our own capacity to enjoy life is at stake.”
Watch Jeremy Courtney’s TEDx Talk, “Save Lives, Change Everything.”
I can take a calculated risk by moving my family to Iraq, and we can suffer perhaps the greatest betrayals and incursions into our life and our home and our physical integrity, and we can endure those sufferings with joy because we chose to act on faith. We chose to act preemptively in love. We walked forward in values that are consistent with who we want to be as a family and what we understand to be incumbent upon us as followers of Jesus. To live differently than that? To have to open up our Bible everyday and see these words declaring that we should live this way but we know we don’t? We end up doing these ridiculous theological acrobatics to try and come to grips with the fact that our faith in practice doesn’t look anything like what it’s supposed to look like in theory. And ultimately, I think that gnaws away at us. I think that deteriorates our ability to live joyfully and happily and … radically. When we can’t reconcile our lives with what we claim to believe, it undercuts our happiness. So, I think that one of the most joyful things we’ve ever done is to walk into this dangerous, confusing place and say, “Come what may.” Because it’s just been a really enriching, rewarding thing.
Now, I guess that answers the question from the US perspective or the American-Christian perspective. For Iraq, I think it’s no different for them. I think somehow they still suffer from fears, and there are tribal concerns, and there are sectarian differences and divisive politics, and ultimately a lot of their domestic and neighborhood problems in the region come down to the same kind of personal insecurities and vendettas that plague us as well. And I think that their own future wellbeing is at stake if they don’t have local leaders rise up to say, “We have to learn to love our enemies.”
And the good news is that they have those people! One of the most severely underreported things perhaps about Islam is that there is a strong thread of nonviolence and a strong community promoting nonviolent resistance. There’s both a popular and an academic stream that studies Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus as models of what it would mean to be a Muslim peacemaker. So these things are happening, they just aren’t going to make headline news in Western media.
Check out the Preemptive Love blog for updates on the Middle East and lots of ways that you can help.
Jennifer Carpenter is a Sider Scholar at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.