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Beauty for ashes

April 2017

No doubt you saw pictures on the news when it happened: Yezidi and Christian refugees fleeing from the savage onslaught of ISIS; concrete shells hastily tarped up as makeshift accommodation; huge refugee camps set up to care for those who have sought refuge in the much more welcoming, self-autonomous Kurdistan region.

But there is another tragedy which goes largely unreported: the economic catastrophe that is still unfolding in Kurdistan (located in the north of Iraq). Teachers and other public sector employees are six months behind on wages, and some have had their salaries slashed by up to 75 per cent.

Shops are closing left, right and centre. Those who built big apartment blocks, thinking they would have a guaranteed income from the rent, are now left with huge debts. Yes, the poor refugees in their tents are poor, but at least they are in the black.

Catastrophe

A catastrophic worldview problem is at stake here. Iraqi society, not least here in Kurdistan, has come to expect the government to dole out money to them. This is the very opposite of a healthy economy, in which citizens create wealth and then willingly pay some of their hard-earned income to the government in taxes.

Many are selling their houses and cars and taking their wealth with them to Europe — if they ever make it there safely on the people smugglers’ route. Instead of investing in agriculture in their villages, with abundant sunshine and water for fruit orchards, and green mountains for grazing livestock, Kurds are losing hope in the future of their homeland.

They previously looked to their leaders as demigods and now they are distraught that the oil wealth has been embezzled by the elites and squandered on luxuries.

Only the Bible can really educate our minds about where we have gone astray. The situation here shows how disastrous it is to be ignorant of Genesis. The majority faith is hostile to the teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Yet this is a glorious truth.

We are unlike the animals, because our Maker has given us the ability to create wealth. Some Kurds exemplify this admirably: shepherds, for example, who through their own hard work multiply their flocks and sell fleeces for wool and sheep’s milk for yoghurt. A lamb is their prize product, but even sheep dung is of value as fuel!

Dependency culture

The Kurdish mountains are a paradise for fruit orchards, and the rosy Berwari apples used to be exported and sold far and wide. Now the apples fall to the ground and hardly anyone buys them. The government has not invested in roads as they should, and there are few entrepreneurs who live up to their calling to subdue the earth and run profitable, competitive businesses.

Since the 1990s Kurdistan has been awash with oil money and this has sapped initiative. The dependency culture is everywhere and the entitlement mentality that is its bitter fruit.

God’s order has been tragically turned on its head. Citizens should work and create goods and services that generate wealth, from which taxes can be raised to support a government. Instead, Kurds have grown accustomed to the government parcelling out the oil wealth and paying an unsustainable number of salaries to many people who are doing little to help society to be more productive.

But now oil prices have dropped from $100/barrel to $30, and there is not the money around to pay the 1.4 million public sector employees (38 per cent of the population).

We have taken time to sketch out the situation. The situation is very bleak. But we trust that our Father is working out his good purposes in all the heartbreak. Human princes have been shown to be false gods; they are not the Providers. And people see that Kurds themselves have done great injustices; it’s not just the Arabs who can be cruel.

New Adam

In these dark days, Jesus shines forth very brightly. He came as the New Adam, to create a new humanity in him. How? Through his perfect obedience. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he resisted temptation, where the first Adam in his garden gave in.

He calls us to come to him and receive rest; rest from the pain and toil of this fallen world, through the One who forfeited his rest in the agony of the cross. He bore the exile we deserved, so we could enjoy the rest that he had enjoyed from all eternity.

What we preach to people here in Kurdistan is that the only real rest in this world of pain is found in the Saviour. Hear his cry, as he is shut out of the rest he enjoyed with his Father, as he bore the curse we deserved.

Think of the crown of thorns (thorns being God’s judgment on Adam’s work) and the sweat he dropped for us in Gethsemane (think of Genesis 3:19 and the sweat of work in this fallen world). What a Saviour!

Now it’s very striking that in Matthew 11:28-29, the rest Jesus provides is not a lounge-on-the-sofa sort of rest, but is a rest that involves putting on a yoke. Clearly work is envisaged. But his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Jesus is the humble and gentle Saviour. He is able to provide us with the peace and joy and contentment that proud rulers in their palaces cannot give us. This is the fulfilment of Ecclesiastes 3:13: ‘that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man’.

Note it is joy in all our toil, not by escaping from hard work. The desire to be a fat cat with a big block of flats and a big car is really a false salvation: simply to sit back and expect others to do all the hard work and cough up their hard-earned rent each month.

Gospel shoots

So, we try to model hard work. We follow the carpenter and his apostle, the tent-maker. We strive to encourage education in many ways. I have become a great champion of Wiktionary — the Kurds now have half a million pages on this open-source dictionary. Without a good dictionary a nation can never succeed educationally and economically.

This last year we have seen more doors open for the gospel, and have even started to gather a few believers together on Sunday nights for worship. Could this be the start of a church planted in this city of shattered hopes?

And most of all, we give what time we can to testing and providing improvements to the draft New Testament. In the next months we will pull out all the stops to help make this Behdini Kurdish translation as good as possible, before it goes to press in 2017.

Edited, with kind permission, from the Summer 2016 edition of 4 Corners, the magazine of UFM Worldwide