One of the more interesting parts of attending first-grade in a private Christian school was the daily recitation of the Christian hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Every morning, we’d gather in a small classroom and pray before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the hymn in quick succession:
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war/ With the cross of Jesus, going on before/ Christ the Royal Master/ Leads Against the Foe”
As a young boy, I found the words intoxicating. Unsurprisingly, six-year old me thought faith and fighting was a good combination.
The online magazine The Intercept recently revealed a disturbing connection between a Christian humanitarian organization and the Pentagon. Early in his tenure as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration, Lieutenant General William Boykin entered into an agreement with Kay Hiramine, founder of Christian relief organization Humanitarian International Services Group (HISG). This agreement provided funding for HISG in exchange for the organization agreeing to operate as a clandestine Pentagon outfit. It sounds like something from a Clancy novel, too surreal to be true. Yet the situation, strange and sobering as it was, was all too real.
As Christians, the act of doing good, of loving our neighbors whether they live next door or halfway around the world, should never be compromised by another motive. From 2001–2003, HISG operated as a small relief organization before partnering with a Pentagon branch named “Afghanistan Reachback Office,” an outlet tasked with coordinating Afghan reconstruction efforts post-American involvement. This department fell under General Boykin’s oversight, and HISG’s presence led to the creation of a hidden “special access program,” where Boykin used established NGOs and created several others as covers for Pentagon intelligence operations. Using Pentagon funding and tasked with OPE (Operational Preparation of the environment), HISG entered North Korea at least twice between 2007 and 2010 under the pretense of humanitarian work. The extent of other OPE assignments is unclear, but what is known is that HISG operated in over 30 countries from 2004 to 2012 before now-retired Admiral William McRaven terminated funding for the organization. Unsurprisingly, with its source of funding gone, HISG announced it would also shut down in January, 2013.
What’s striking about this particular situation is how much I knew about the program without really knowing anything at all. From 2003 to 2010, my summer job consisted of traveling around the country representing Rosetta Stone at various state homeschooling conventions. Over that time, I came to know the Hiramines since they were a homeschooling family, and I would see them at various expos and conferences. Kay wasn’t always there, but when he was his presence was unmistakable – he would often share stories about clandestine operations, and I heard verbatim the very story quoted in The Intercept about smuggling Bibles into North Korea. Kay and his HISG co-workers impressed me as Christian men who risked their lives to bring relief to nations in desperate need of it, and the stories I would hear over several years only furthered that impression.
I don’t say these things to defend any of the various individuals involved in this situation. I say them because I’ve seen the joys that good work and humanitarian efforts can bring; when you share the Kingdom of God and bring good to people in a tangible way, the stories you tell reach beyond yourself and impact those around you. These efforts bring the Kingdom to those who may otherwise struggle to see God’s work in this world.
Yet despite the good that was accomplished by Hiramine’s organization, the actions of a few men could potentially lead to other religious organizations facing undue scrutiny and lessened access to places where they are needed most. As Christians, the act of doing good, of loving our neighbors whether they live next door or halfway around the world, should never be compromised by another motive. As much as we attempt to rationalize the good accomplished by time, money, and resources, the short-sighted agreement to receive Pentagon funding casts doubts about the motivations of other Christian relief organizations.
The backlash in the wake of the disclosure of HISG’s government connection has been immediate, and various voices have condemned the alliance as unnecessary, dangerous, and, perhaps most damning, useless. At The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that “[i]t seems that the operation had provided little useful intelligence, not a particularly surprising outcome: Using unwitting and unfocused humanitarian charity volunteers and employees to smuggle in spy gear was a non-starter right from the beginning and should never have been attempted.”
Beyond the political foolishness, the exposure has caused Christian Crisis International to denounce the idea of conflating humanitarian work with any political organization or military interest. CCI’s executive director, Bob Klasmer, believes “it’s unlikely this story will simply go away,” and his condemnation speaks to the lasting damage this situation will cause to longstanding and future Christian humanitarian efforts:
“Perhaps the most insidious component of activities such as those described in The Intercept article is that the fallout – the risks and dangers – extend to the entire missions community. Consequences of the foolish and unwise actions of a few are imputed to the rest. It is one thing to seek thrilling and risky behavior for one’s personal reasons. It is inexcusable to do so when that behavior endangers others.
There should not be a line between missionary activity and acting as a spy for the government – there should be a deep, wide impassable chasm. There simply is no reason that justifies missionaries (no matter what term we use to describe ourselves) acting as spies or agents of a government and no reason that justifies the government co-opting missionaries to act in those roles. Our mission – to go and make disciples – is both clear and unchanging.”
At a more immediate level, it should be a concern that Boykin, who currently works for the Family Research Council, would so easily assume the mantle of a Christian warrior in order to further a militaristic agenda. Boykin no longer serves in Washington, but his ease in mixing faith and political interests is another mark in a long history of questionable and alarming decisions. Our Editor-in-Chief has written about Boykin in the past, so it is not surprising to see his involvement in this situation. His FRC position allows him to speak as a supposed Christian voice, but his historical lack of discretion, skewed personal theology, and willingness to endanger the long-term efforts of Christian humanitarian work speaks for itself. I’ll never know the motivations behind HISG’s initial decision to take government funding, but it’s tough to see Boykin’s role as anything but purely nationalistic. There’s no evangelic or missional end here; he simply abused faith for power.
While the government is free to disperse relief money where and when it chooses, Christians should be outraged that Boykin turned to faith to infiltrate these countries. The Kingdom of God is a relational one, and bringing the Cross to those in need of physical salvation takes time and lasting efforts. By usurping long-term work in favor of short term goals, Boykin and Hiramine single-handedly have cast doubt about Christianity in places where it’s most desperately needed. Whatever good HISG accomplished in those countries now appears tainted, and the fallout leaves organizations who still attempt humanitarian work in these closed countries on uncertain ground.
Long after my time at Christian school, I’d often hear “Onward, Christian Soldiers” playing in the middle of whatever convention I happened to be working. Some other booths would fly American flags above our heads, and the people working those areas would play the song while selling homeschool history curriculum and grey, self-printed shirts that read “Take America back for God.”
At the time I considered those booths little more than annoyances and part of a goofy, misguided homeschool subculture. But it’s the mindset represented in those booths that allowed Hiramini and Boykin to manipulate faith for temporary good and political goals.
When Christians talk about the cost of advancing the Kingdom of God, we acknowledge there are times when what it takes to do good can be ambiguous. But even in those circumstances, the line between the message of the cross and any nationalistic agenda should never be blurred. We must recognize that our role as citizens of the Kingdom of God usurps all other identities; the work of the Kingdom demands that we condemn the desire for personal glory and the impulse toward nationalism.
Whatever happens from The Intercept’s report, Christians should ask ourselves an important question: at what point do we demand a better ethic from those who call themselves Christian soldiers in our own culture and around the world? Nothing less than the eternal good of all men is at stake.