When the events of 9/11 took place in New York City, it was seen as a direct attack on America’s global power and The West.
Many responded with hate toward the Middle East, and even now the cultural ramifications of that day are being felt, worldwide.
While America launched their “War on Terror” and sent troops to the frontlines, Jeremy Courtney and his wife Jessica took a different approach. They’d just graduated from university, and were young Christian newlyweds contemplating how they’d make their unique stamp on the world. In the aftermath of September 11, they decided to go directly into Iraq with a message of love instead of fear, and a (retrospectively naïve) desire to convince them to embrace Western ideologies.
“A lot of the world was terrified by what was happening,” Jeremy said. “The seemingly impenetrable ‘United Sates’ was now under attack in a way that I think caused a lot of us real fear.
“In this moment in prayer, I realised… I’ve been trying to ‘conquer’ everyone through my way of seeing the world.”
“That fear set into our hearts too, in many ways, as young people trying to find our place in the world – and ultimately got us looking abroad at how we could be a part of diminishing that fear.”
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What emerged, was The Preemptive Love Coalition (now Preemptive Love): a humanitarian organisation taking supplies directly to the frontlines of the world’s worst conflicts, and striving to “unmake violence” across Iraq, Libya and beyond.
As Jeremy reflects on the early days of his and Jessica’s efforts, he realises, though, that what’s now a very a ‘support based’ initiative, was originally inspired by what he now considers an unhelpful evangelical mission.
“I think we were well-intentioned in that earlier stage,” said Jeremy, “but we did a lot of [our work] with an intention to make people ‘be like us’; to make people see the world the way we saw it. It was mission work that was part of the American project, and ‘empire’, in a way.”
Over a decade later, sharing about his new book and documentary of the same name, Love Anyway, Jeremy recalls the moment of prayer that challenged that mindset, and laid the foundation for the new philosophy they now work by.
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“I was kneeling down on the ground in prayer, and I was crying out to God, essentially [asking Him], ‘Why aren’t you making everyone like me?’” Jeremy said. “Why aren’t you converting everyone to my religion; my way of seeing the world?
“When I had set out after 9/11, I think I saw myself as the ‘peacemaker’; I had some other friends who grabbed their guns and went off to war ‘properly’, and I was not like them. But in this moment in prayer, I saw myself as a fighter for the first time; I realised I’m a conqueror just the same—I’ve been trying to ‘conquer’ everyone through my way of seeing the world.
“[Then] an answer to my question emerged: ‘Because you don’t love them, Jeremy. That’s why I’m not making you successful in this thing that you’re trying to do: you don’t love people’.
“After that [my internal posture changed], from a position of fighting and aggression, to an open-armed position of welcome and vulnerability.”
The Dangers of Working in a War Zone
It’s a very relaxed position to arrive at, when you consider the very real dangers of working in a war zone and the significant cultural nuances that complicate the work of Preemptive Love. However, whether or not Jeremy and his family are met with the same welcome they extend, he sees their work as crucial to rewriting the narrative of terror and derision that’s currently being promoted across the world.
“I was very mindful in writing [Love Anyway], that I wanted to write a sort of ‘guidebook’ for others,” said Jeremy, “Because I feel like globally a lot of us are trying to work this stuff out.
“The world feels like it’s being torn apart, our neighbourhoods feel like they’re being isolated further and further from others, and we’re all trying to answer this question: how do we survive? How do we protect our own? And how do we somehow be a meaningful part of a wider and community and society?
“From what I’ve seen on the frontlines of war in Iraq and Syria… we cannot bomb our way to peace. We cannot bomb ideas out of existence; whether those are religious ideas, or political ideologies, or cultural biases and bigotry.
“The way that those things most typically get transformed, I believe – and I have experienced – is through relationship. It’s through empathy, and coming to understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.”
Looking on at Preemptive Love, knowing that Jeremy and Jessica now have their own two children living on the frontlines with them, one might wonder how they’ve made peace with the adrenaline-inducing realities of their vocation.
“Jeremy’s hope is that we’d all choose to grow in our unflinching love of others, and to approach our ideological differences with humility and respect.”
On a recent speaking tour though, Jeremy says his wife Jessica summed up their decision to remain in the Middle East perfectly: “Jessica said, if we want to be able to help people who are in broken situations, we might just have to choose, on some level, to be willing to live broken ourselves. [We know] pressing in to peoples pain, to be present to it, and with them in it, is worth that pain entering our own heart.”
With Love Anyway, Jeremy’s hope is that we’d all choose to grow in our unflinching love of others, and to approach our ideological differences with humility and respect.
“I invested the first couple years of my adult life out in the world, trying to pretty much force [people to love Jesus],” said Jeremy. “Ultimately I had to surrender that idea; I can’t make anyone be friends with anyone; that’s not how friendship and relationships work… What became more powerful to me was to live from my faith, rather than spend so much time trying to convince people of my faith.
“On the other side of preemptive love is not the absence of pain, it’s not the absence of trauma, it’s not that we always get to keep our lives… but we get to choose to take action, even in the midst of conflict. The one thing our enemy can’t take from us is our capacity to love anyway.”
Jeremy Courtney’s book ‘Love Anyway’ is available now. The half-hour documentary of the same name can be viewed at LoveAnyway.com.