One Texan’s remedy for War: ‘Preemptive Love’

Jeremy Courtney, Author of "Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time" and cofounder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo courtesy of Howard Books.)

Jeremy Courtney, Author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time” and co-founder of the Iraq-based charity, the Preemptive Love Coalition. (Photo by Abigail Criner.)

When a native Texan named Jeremy Courtney took the stage at the 2012 Q Conference he had no idea he would, in effect, be pitching his 2013 memoir, “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”

Q conferences are progressive yet evangelical (yes, both) Christian forums, similar in format to the more secular TED talks. This particular Q (stands for Question) occurred in April 2012 in Washington, D.C., seven months before President Obama was reelected. More than 30 speakers ranging from a peacemaking Palestinian Christian (yes, both) to a hawkish Southern Baptist firebrand descended on Washington to inform, influence and otherwise inspire the nation’s sagging Christian majority (not to be confused with Moral Majority). In talks scaled to fit the capital’s rushed schedule and attention span, each speaker was allotted slots of three, nine or 18 minutes.

Courtney, a slender, shaved-headed humanitarian who looks more like a Buddhist than his native Baptist, had scored one of the conference’s grande sizes. Nine minutes. He’d fly six thousand miles from his home in Iraq to speak for less time than it took to board any of his connections. In the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, three blocks south of the White House, he paced on the stage in front of 700 Q “participants,” as the conference refers to its influential attendees. Nine minutes gave Courtney no time for colorful narratives, long anecdotes or drawn-out punchlines. He hardly had time to clear his throat. He got straight to the point.

“It wasn’t an easy morning,” he began, “when I woke up in Iraq with my wife and kids and found out that a fatwa had been issued against us calling for our death(s).”

You could have heard a phone vibrate inside the palatial seven-story auditorium. If he didn’t have them at fatwa (an official ruling given by Islamic clerics) he had them at death.  

It was an evocative beginning to an amazing story (and now book) about a modern-day Gospel. Courtney’s memoir is the Good News of how mending the bodies of children restores hearts— literally and figuratively; theirs, ours and across “enemy” lines. In a blurb I wrote months ago for “Preemptive Love” (Howard Books, Oct. 1, 2013) I describe how the work of Courtney and his upstart international charity could “rewrite the hard wiring that holds humanity hostage.”

The hard wiring, in this case, is the fear that fractures humanity and keeps us locked in our comfort zones. It poses as pride, prejudice, and, often, as absolute faith. It can pit nation against nation, religion against religion, and, ultimately, it’s what drove an Iraqi mullah to order the death of Americans who were saving the lives of Iraqi children.

Preemptive, what I mean by that is this act when we jump to help someone else, to serve another before they’ve done anything for us,” Courtney told to the Q audience. Early in his book he explains it this way:

“I had not named it yet— that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like ‘Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six’ and ‘Shoot first; ask questions later.’ But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: ‘Love first; ask questions later.’ Today I call it preemptive love.”

Without any medical training and very little prep, he helped start an Iraq-based international development organization, Preemptive Love Coalition, which facilitates the heart surgeries needed for a massive backlog of sick Iraqi children. Iraqis have suffered three decades of war (beginning in 1980 with Iran), Saddam’s chemical weapons, 13 years of economic sanctions (1990-2003), and countless tons of the depleted uranium and white phosphorus used in U.S. munitions. Its healthcare system is decimated, and, contrary to the controversial findings in a recent World Health Organization study, doctors from across Iraq report alarming increases in cancer rates and congenital birth defects.

Not long after moving to Iraq in 2006 to help rebuild it, Courtney, who’d earned a masters degree in international studies from Baylor University, heard about tens of thousands of Iraqi children suffering from heart defects. On average there are 30 new cases every day in Iraq, he said at the sixth annual Q Conference. But to get the children to surgery, he and his Preemptive Love cohorts took a road less (read: dared not) traveled. At the time, they had no other choice.

They sent Iraqi children to doctors in Israel. In other words, American Christians sent Iraq’s Muslim children to the Jewish state. To be saved. Literally.

In the fatwa, an Iraqi religious leader, or mullah, had used a phrase that immediately resonated with Courtney. “We must stop this treatment lest it lead our children to learn to love their enemies,” he recalled loudly at the Q Conference.

He paused, allowed the revelation to sink in.

“I was scared,’ he continued. “But I was thrilled by the mullah’s conclusion. We were saying the same thing: Be careful, preemptive love works.”

This threat from a high-ranking mullah was definitive evidence for him. It proved the efficacy of preemptive love. Hate could be recast by persistent, selfless acts of charity. War’s barbaric diplomacy could be repaired. Maybe, some day, an enlightened generation of Arab children would bridge the Middle East’s vast divide and make the region whole. Maybe the entire world could evolve.

“Every day in Iraq there seems to be an occasion to wake up again and make the decision to love indiscriminately,” Courtney said, describing for Q participants how his office had almost been blown up, his home broken into and bugged, his staff arrested on trumped-up charges. “Through these postures of preemptive love we’ve been able to go on and earn the trust of Muslims leaders across the country. We’ve made friends out of enemies.”

Eventually, a Muslim friend and sheikh in Iraq intervened on Courtney’s behalf and Preemptive Love continues its work in Iraq today. Better, it no longer needs to choose the road less traveled. Today it is helping to rebuild Iraq’s healthcare system by bringing surgeons into the country and training local doctors to perform the heart surgeries.

“I don’t have time to tell you all of the amazing things God is doing in the lives (of people) across Iraq,” he said, concluding his nine-minute talk, “but I’ll just tell you this: Violence unmakes the world but preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love remakes the world.”

As he exited the Q stage and spoke with participants, a woman asked if she could buy a copy of his book in the store there in the Mellon Auditorium.

“I’ve not written a book,” he said. “I don’t have one in the store.”

She smiled confidently. “Would you like to have one in it?”

Turns out she was an acquisitions editor for a publishing house. That conversation led to others, which soon led to a top-tier literary agent (Chris Ferebee) and, several months later, Courtney signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint, Howard Books. He was given five months to write the manuscript’s first draft.

Between frequent trips to his home near Lubbock, Texas and Preemptive Love’s work in Iraq, Courtney, now 34, expounded on his theology of preemptive love. His nine-minute Q talk quickly blossomed into an inspiring 230-page memoir. At its conclusion, near the end of the Afterword, he writes:

“Where you are sitting in the world as you finish this story may influence how you interpret my idea of preemptive love. If you are in the States, you may think first in terms of American kindness toward enemy Iraqis. If you are in Iraq, however, you may be more quick to see the countless times in this story in which the Iraqis acted first, offering protection, intervening, or taking a risk to welcome us in, even though we were often cast as their enemies. The truth is, preemptive love does not begin in the heart of humanity. Neither Americans nor Iraqis are inherently better at loving first than the other. We are all tribal, programmed to protect our own.

 

Instead, preemptive love originates in the heart of God. The one who made the universe and holds everything in it— the one to whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all ostensibly pointing— is the first and the last enemy lover.”

 

See video: JEREMY COURTNEY at 2012 Q CONFERENCE

Promises dashed, poster trashed, can hope in Obama be recycled?

FROM MY HUFFPOST BLOG:

This day four years ago I had a large poster of presidential hopeful Barack Obama tacked to my office wall. He’s wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and the candidates’ perfunctory power tie; this one is burgundy with silver pinstripes. His gleaming white smile looks airbrushed and his right hand is raised in salute to a tide of supporters. So powerful, so commanding, it seemed that with a simple wave he could quiet Washington’s roiling and partisan Red Sea.

“Yes We Can,” the poster reads.

Eleven weeks after the election he presided over an adoring audience of some 1.5 million people crowded onto Washington’s Mall for inauguration day. Freezing temperatures and icy gusts didn’t stand a chance in the face of his radiance. To a nation and a world desperate for change it was like Obama could have fed those masses with two fish and five loaves.

To me, a print journalist wooed by his magnetism the morning after his 2004 convention speech (see “Democrats’ brightest shine at national convention“) the United States had elected a world leader. Finally. Given his multinational upbringing, Obama would surely tamp down mindless rhetoric about “American exceptionalism” and advocate instead for a united world. The White House and Washington would no longer be owned by K Street, Wall Street and Israel.

So I too drank of the Obama Kool-Aid. Tasted like miracle wine. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about his middle name (Hussein), birthplace (Honolulu or Jakarta made no difference to me) or, even, his religious pledge. Give me an earnest and honest Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Atheist over a misled, hypocritical Christian any day. Just, dear Lord, give me a wise and righteous leader.

Five months later, when President Barack Hussein Obama flew to Cairo and addressed the world’s 1.5 million Muslims, he quoted from the Talmud, the Quran and the New Testament. Amen Brother. Woot-woot!

By now I was thanking the heavens for Obama’s mama. Literally. I bowed my head and gave thanks for Stanley Ann Dunham. When Barack had been a schoolboy in Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation, Stanley Ann had sent him to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school. At one he studied the catechism; at the other he learned about the muezzin’s call. On Easter or Christmas she might drag him to church, but she also took him to Buddhist temples, Chinese New Year celebrations, Shinto shrines, and to ancient Hawaiian burial sites. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama recalled how his mother, a stubborn secularist, believed that a good education required a working knowledge of all the world’s great teachings and religions.

So his inclusive speech in Cairo shouldn’t have surprised me. But after eight years of a professed born-again Christian residing over American politics, it did. I’d forgotten that U.S. presidents could be great.

“I come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” Obama said to a rapt audience at Cairo University on June 4, 2009. “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Quran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’”

From where her ashes had been spread along Oahu’s glorious Lanai Lookout, the late Stanley Ann (deceased for 17 years tomorrow) was living large in her son’s enlightenment. I was sure of it.

The election, inauguration, Cairo. Those were heady days. I was Obama intoxicated.

“Yes We Can.”

Of course we could. Why the hell had we waited so long?

Then, two years ago, I took Obama’s poster down. Rolled it up and put it away. No singular event  inspired the action. No fit of anger or irrational spontaneity preceded it. However, I had thought it odd that a Nobel Peace Prize winner was championing the unmanned drones that routinely killed innocents alongside the (alleged) guilty. No judge or jury for either. Also, I’d noticed how the National Debt Clock near Times Square continued ticking off inconceivable amounts of gross debt. And in the wake of his inauguration, Congress had remained as partisan as ever, even more so.

Apparently Obama’s raised hand had quieted nothing. Perhaps no mere mortal could shed the weight of two wars, an economic collapse and Capitol Hill’s frat-house loyalties. Obama was human after all. Go figure. Maybe he was just another silk-tongued politician who had convinced us that he could work miracles. I suspect he’d even convinced himself.

So the poster came down. I was tired of looking at it and being reminded of the broken promise. Not the embellished campaign pledges that all candidates make; rather, the singular hope that had been fully inspired by our new multinational president. Obama inflated us and then let the air scream out. Nothing much changed under his watch. Looking at the poster every day only reminded me of that sorry fact. Of how the miracle wine had turned sour. Of how the hope that had risen in our throats as soon as McCain conceded began to taste like bile. Of how the post-election, post-Palin celebrations that flowed from Washington to London to Amman, Gaza, Baghdad and Tehran eventually went flat.

In Cairo, Obama had injected a decided sense of promise into global politics, Western, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern alike– Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, all of us.

“It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward. It is easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share,” he’d said, finishing his speech to a standing ovation. “There is one rule that lies at the heart of every religion– that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples; a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian, or Muslim or Jew.”

Then he’d corrected the behavior of our world’s three most warring faiths. Used their own words. Seared the lesson on them as if he were branding his mark on the world.

“The Holy Quran tells us, ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’ The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’ The Holy Bible tells us, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’”

Recalling that, I dug out the poster from the closet this week. It’s ripped and wrinkled and doesn’t hold much promise. On Tuesday I’ll vote again for Obama. (What are my choices, really?) But this time there will be no Kool-Aid, no dreaming, no inflated sense of change.

The only hope I hold is that the second time is the charm– not only the charmer.

 

 

Priest walks the talk in Bangkok slums— lives to write about it

New collection of stories by Father Joe Maier

First, full disclosure. I wrote the book on Father Joe Maier, the cursing, curmudgeon, can-do priest of Bangkok. Literally. The Gospel of Father Joe, it was titled. But that 315-page effort doesn’t preclude me from being honest with you about his latest book, The Open Gate of Mercy: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum. Frankly, if I didn’t keep it real he’d probably break my kneecaps. (That part is figurative. I think.)

Father Joe, who turns 73 on Halloween, is a native of working-class Longview, Washington, but he has lived among the poorest of the poor in Thailand for some forty years. In 1971, long before Mother Teresa was a holy icon and eight years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the great nun of Calcutta visited with Father Joe in Bangkok’s flood-prone shantytowns. Father Joe showed her the Klong Toey slums that house tens of thousands of homeless families, and as they walked the rickety catwalks that hold the poor aloft (barely) over dung-brown lakes of sewage, Mother Teresa fell quiet. Seeing mile upon soggy mile of the desperate poor she declared Bangkok’s abyss to be every bit as sorrowful as the squatter camps in Calcutta. Leaving, she made one request of Father Joe. It was a doozy.

“Spend your life working with these poor,” she told him. “If you can.”

For the most part, occasional churchgoers like myself and holy, holy praise the Lord types stay far away from any place where rats the size of house cats squat alongside  squatters. We stay even further away if snakes large enough to eat those rats loiter there. Instead, we pray on bended knee for the deity’s hand to knead the bread that feeds the poor. We tithe in the hope that our godly administrators will do the right thing and invest in people rather than church infrastructure. We might even (wo)man up and go on annual mission trips to the reeking other side of the economic divide, as if two weeks of sweat equity and the Good News of Jesus raises all boats. But these well-intentioned efforts, even when added all together, are relatively lightweight when you consider poverty’s toll and grueling duration.

In Thailand, a hub of global sex trade (“human trafficking” in politer circles), a majority of residents have long worked in the “informal sector” or black market, according to Kasikorn Research Centre, the economic analyst for Bangkok’s large Kasikorn Bank Group. That’s roughly twenty-two million people (about two-thirds of Thailand’s adult workforce) toiling in the black market without retirement plans, health insurance, and other social security benefits found in “formal sector” jobs such as doctor, lawyer, banker, bellhop, bartender, waitress, McDonald’s cashier. These “casual laborers,” as Kasikorn refers to them, include curbside food vendors, garland makers, fortune-tellers, card dealers, drug dealers, and the wretched dealers of flesh. The twenty-two million doesn’t include the nearly 2.5 million children listed by Thailand’s Office of the National Education Commission as absent from school; kids missing the roll call but not exactly missing in action.

In 2000, the first year I visited Father Joe’s Mercy Centre schools and orphanages in Klong Toey, nearly seventy percent of Thai children ages 11 to 14 were not enrolled in school. Then, like now, they were being educated in the street rather than the classroom. They earned their keep in Thailand’s underground economy, according to the UN’s International Labor Organization; and, more convincingly, according to Father Joe. With the help of Klong Toey’s Buddhists and Muslims, Father Joe and his Human Development Foundation had built thirty-two slum preschools in an effort to break the obvious cycle of poverty. Living in the abyss Father Joe had seen firsthand the root causes and consequences of economic injustice. Illiterate parents with no job or steady income would sell themselves or their children to the flesh traders. More often than not, the kids showing up at Mercy had been neglected, abandoned, abused and/or HIV-infected.

“It’s a totally different world where all the kids get hurt and no one gives a shit!” Father Joe had barked to me one day outside a catwalk shanty. We were standing in the gaping divide of our economy— two feet above floating raw sewage.

If, like Father Joe, you dare to reside in Bangkok’s port slums there is nothing underground about the economy. It’s right there; in your face, in the massage parlors, in the alleyways, and on Klong Toey’s hip-wide catwalks. Father Joe absorbed it like a daily beating. Living like this in the stories and their visceral consequences, downstream from downstream, he had to tell others. Had to. Upstream Christians needed to know. But writing for him was something more than a means to raise attention and charity funds. It was and is cathartic; a finger on the valve of his frustration.

Similar to his first book, Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse (Hong Kong: Periplus, March 2005), The Open Gate of Mercy (Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, August 2012) is a collection of these real-life stories reported from inside Klong Toey’s inner sanctum. They were gleaned the only way possible. By living in the grind of it. Most of the forty stories were written initially for the English-language Bangkok Post, and, like the subject of my favorite piece in the book, “The Left-Handed Artist of Kong Toey,” Father Joe proves ambidextrous in his skills as both a priest and a writer.

For example, in a story titled “Miss Pim Gets Second and Third Chances,” he recounts the struggles and ultimate triumph of a Mercy Centre child with whom I’m familiar from my own book’s research. He writes:

Miss Pim had been with us for nine years. She was sixteen, third in her high school class, gentle as gentle can be, with a smile to warm the hardest of hearts. One Sunday morning about a year ago, she handed me a wrinkled piece of paper, a note she had written in her own hand. Pim’s note and her story are important because she is a “throwaway” orphan kid who made it. Lots of kids, but especially these so-called throwaways, need to be walked through the bad patches, not just once but many times before they reach adulthood.

Although I’d told the story about Pim and her miraculous niece, Miss Grasshopper, in The Gospel of Father Joe, my version doesn’t compare to Father Joe’s. His is better. He lived it.

On that Sunday when she handed me the note, I knew the contents were grave. Pim had that limp, wilted, beaten-up look of a teenager in mourning at a temple cremation, standing in front of the furnace when the temple manager zips open the red plastic body bag in the coffin to offer one last glance at a dead friend as the monks are chanting their final chant. Grieving for someone who has died before their time. Utter despair. Absolute misery. It was that kind of look she gave me. If you’ve seen it once, you never forget it.

I’ve never met a preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who’s not also a good writer. The talent comes with the trade. Or is it vice versa? Before most sermons are delivered they are reported, written, edited, and rewritten. And then, often, rewritten again. But Father Joe’s prose and preaching are notches above anything so rehearsed, edited and practiced. Exactly like his loaded cannon of a personality, his writing sounds candid never canned.  It’s as if he’s locked us into a conversation, and together we explore the nooks and crannies of slum life. Readers like myself, living on the consumption side of the economic divide, are taken on a tour of Klong Toey’s underbelly without having to assume any of its dangers and deprivation.

This is where Father Joe’s writing is both a blessing and a curse.

Reading about the slums of Klong Toey is a good start to understanding what life is like in third-world slums. But that’s all it is. A start, a glimpse, and maybe a nudge or shove to learn more. If we close the book or flick off our Kindles and Nooks, and then all we do is return to our iPhone lives, nothing much is achieved. To really understand the deep-rooted miseries caused by economic imbalances we have to go further along the journey. The start that Father Joe gives us needs to startle us awake.

So, at its worst, The Open Gate of Mercy, could serve as an enabler. Its stories allow us to stand off at a distance believing we see, hear, smell, touch, taste the slum life. Father Joe’s writing is that good. But we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, taste. We really don’t have even the first clue.

At its best, the book awakens us to that fact— and arouses our empathy. So in this election season when we American voters demand to know how Washington and Wall Street will improve our standard of living, let Father Joe show us the bigger picture. These stories filed from the other side should serve as an antidote to our myopia.

Through him, and through the people who spring to life in The Open Gate of Mercy, we can point to something far larger than ourselves.

For more on Father Joe and his charity visit www.mercycentre.org.

A younger Father Joe standing outside one of his first homes in the Slaughterhouse district of the Klong Toey slums in Bangkok. Photo by Jim Coyne, 1983.