Barbecues Vs. Drones

A short story about drones over Pakistan excerpted from an interview with pastor Jim Wallis by Sarah van Gelder, co-founder of Yes! Magazine.

Sarah van Gelder: Let me follow up on the question of American drone strikes, because this is having an impact on the international common good—we’re talking about violence that’s killing civilians in the name of keeping the American people secure.

Jim Wallis: On the one hand, the Obama administration is trying to move away from wars of occupation, which don’t work and don’t make us safe but do recruit more terrorists. The drone policy, allegedly, is an alternative to that, but it’s really spun out of control; there’s no clear framework or rules or procedures, and the loss of innocent lives is recruiting terrorists in Pakistan.

I tell a story in the book that seems unrelated but is very related. In a suburb of Memphis, Tenn., Heartsong Church, an evangelical Methodist church, learned that an Islamic cultural center was coming to their neighborhood. So Steve Stone, the pastor, puts out a big sign on the front lawn of the church: “Welcome Memphis Islamic Center.”

The Muslims were astonished. A couple of days later, they came to the church and they said, “Are you the pastor?” He says, “Yes.” They say, “We were hoping to be ignored and you welcomed us. Why?”

“Jesus says we should welcome our neighbors, and we hear you’re going to be our neighbors, so welcome, neighbors! And we don’t know much about Islam, but we’d like to learn.”

And before long, the church pork barbecue is serving halal meat, and the kids are playing with each other, and the adults are tutoring inner-city kids and feeding the homeless together. On CNN, the imam and the pastor are featured guests, and they clearly respect each other, and you can tell they have real affection for each other.

So I call Steve, and I was so pleased about this and so proud of him, and he said, “Can I tell you about a call I had last night?”

And I said, “Sure.”

“I got a call from Pakistan, where we do drone strikes. Actually from Kashmir, Pakistan. Perhaps the most conflicted area of Pakistan. A room full of Muslim men, who said, ‘Is this Pastor Stone?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘We saw the segment on CNN. There was silence for a long time.’

‘Finally one of us said, ‘I think God may be speaking to us through this man.’ And another one who can’t speak English, but I’ll speak for him, he went up to the little church near our mosque, and with his Muslim hands, he cleaned it, outside and inside, scrubbed it. Cleaned the church.’

‘Now we’re all back here in the room and we called you to tell you, Pastor, tell your congregation, we don’t hate you. We love you. And because of what you did, for the rest of our lives, we’re going to take care of that little church.'”

Now, which works better, that or drones? What’s going to make us safer? What’s going to build relationships? What’s going to win the hearts and minds of people in Pakistan who had nothing to do with 9/11 but know about drones?

I want to commend this administration for moving us away from wars of occupation. But the drone policy isn’t the alternative. We’re hurting too many people.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, NYT bestselling author, a public theologian and international commentator on ethics and religion. He has been arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, builds bridges between polarized politicians and pushes Christians to worry less about gay marriage and more about justice. His most recent book is On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of Yes! magazine.