Winning the Real War: Reflections on Greg Mortenson’s, Three Cups of Tea

While my recommendation may not pack the punch of say, Oprah Winfrey, I would be remiss not to promote this remarkable story.  Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations…One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  The book offers a simple and powerful message: fighting terrorism through violence is a losing proposition and a stupid idea.  Our real enemy is not terrorism.  Terrorism is a symptom, not the root disease.  Our real fight is against ignorance, and Greg Mortenson’s story is a parable of hope for our time.  Of equal importance to our church, this book is the perfect antidote to the persistent complaint that “we can’t make a difference, let alone change the world.”  Mortenson is actively engaged in the transformation of the world, and we would do well to study his story.

Greg Mortenson’s story begins with mountain climbing and ends with moving mountains.  Not wealthy, well connected, or well versed in the work of launching global movements, Mortenson found himself surrounded by the deep poverty of the Pakistani outlands, and made a simple (simple?) commitment to help build a school for Muslim children (especially girls).  From a subsistence lifestyle, Mortenson begged just enough money to return to Pakistan to get a school built.  Following his first success, he dedicated himself to building more and more schools for more and more children — first in Pakistan, but later expanding to Afghanistan.  All of this occuring in one of the most dangerous and tempestuous global environments (think 9/11).  The Muslim world that Mortenson describes is very different from that most Americans have been spoon fed by the mass media.  Three Cups of Tea describes real, live, flesh and blood people, not caricatures or amorphous “Muslims.”  This book reveals that the fertile ground of terrorism is less about religious intolerance and fanaticism, and more about poverty and a widespread lack of both education and life options.  With deep repect and humility, Mortenson determined to focus on fighting terrorism through construction rather than destruction.  This is a grace-filled book that challenges and confronts some of the more destructive myths, fallacies, and factoids concerning Islam (“The true core tenets of Islam are justice, tolerance, and charity, and Syed Abbas represented the moderate center of Muslim faith eloquently,”) and puts a very human face on an issue that American politicians have reduced to prejudicial stereotypes.

The book is an inspiring and touching story of one man’s passion and the great good he accomplished, but beyond that it is a book of hope, possibility, grace, justice and transformation.  It is a book that folks in our mainline Christian churches need to read and discuss.  For United Methodists, this book has a special message.  Our denominational mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but transformation occurs through more than mere good intentions.  Talking about transformation is not the same as engaging in practices that transform.  The United Methodist mission is not so much about belief as it is behavior.  Our mission draws a line in the sand — we are not simply to be Christian believers but disciples — to be the very body of Christ for the world.  We are to be “doers” of the Word and not hearers only.  We, as true disciples, will be known by our fruit — by the physical value we produce that makes this world more closely resemble the kingdom of God.  This kind of fruit can’t be grown in a sanctuary or a meeting room.  Certainly, seeds can be sown and nurtured there, but if the world is the object of our work, then we’re going to have to leave the comfort and security of our church buildings to share our fruit with the world.  Too often, we feel overwhelmed and throw up in our hands in despair because the needs outnumber our limited means.  But the impact we can make on the world is only limited by our imaginations.  We might not be able to do everything, and in fact, we may not be able to do a lot, but we can always do something.  Mortenson’s story is one of those rare examples of when doing something is like performing a miracle.  But, hey, that’s the business we’re in, right?  We believe in miracles, and we have been invited to participate in God’s wondrous miracles in the world.  Our God is a synergistic God — by God’s grace and Spirit single seeds yield thirty, sixty, a hundredfold or more.  Our sum is always greater than our parts — if only we’ll freely give what we have.

I finished Mortenson’s book last Friday (January 30), then happened to see Bill Moyers Journal on Friday evening on PBS.  Moyers did a stunning report on civilian casualties in Pakistan.  Innocent children and families are suffering “collateral damage” simply because they live on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.  President Obama is escalating our military presence in Afghanistan in our “war on terror”, so the problem of civilian casualties is likely to increase in the near future.  After reading Three Cups of Tea, my heart breaks for all the innocent people caught in a tragic crossfire.

So, what can we do?  I don’t have the answer, but there are a few things I can suggest.  First, read, discuss, and share Three Cups of Tea.  (For more adventerous readers, also look at a book recommended on Bill Moyers: Bombing Civilians: A 20th Century History by Marilyn B. Young.)  Second, write to President Obama to voice concern for the Pakistani and Afghan civilians, and encourage others in your congregation to write as well.  (It is very easy, and the current administration is open and receptive to the opinions and comments of the American people.)  Third, spend some time on the Central Asia Institute website, and when possible, donate!  Fourth, if Pakistan doesn’t touch your heart and fuel your passions, find something that does, and do something about it!  Don’t worry that what you do might not be enough.  You’re not in this alone.  Each disciple is a part of the body of Christ, and together we can (by God’s grace, power, and guidance) transform the world, even if its one life at a time.

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