In the old photo clipped from a newspaper, the bush plane is crashed upside-down. There's a group of Kenyans, standing in a muddy field on an Easter Sunday, looking at the missionaries' wreck.
They're just watching the American Pentecostal spectacle.The missionaries, Loren and Celeste Davis, have created a couple of sizable of spectacles. Pursuing their goal of becoming a "mighty Soul Winning Machine," they have been holding what they call "Mass Salvation-Miracle Crusades" in Africa for at least a decade.
Their latest spectacle, though, is currently circulating through e-mail inboxes around the United States, claiming presidential candidate Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, participating in world-wide jihad, and has funded violence in Africa. It's an e-mail full of rumor, slander and conspiracy-fueled fiction. It was quickly debunked, but continues to circulate and attract attacks from Obama supporters, fact-checkers, people who hate e-mai -slander, and those who want to point and laugh at the freaked-out fundamentalists.
The couple appears to be deeply disturbed: One fund-raising letter alleges a Satanic conspiracy, consisting of five-pointed stars, which, the couple says, are seen on the Communist Chinese flag, the pentagram, the symbol in the middle of the Wal-Mart logo and on the American flag.
"SATAN IS THE GOD OF THIS WORLD," the missionaries write. "WE ARE SEEING A BAAL RENAISSANCE OF ANCIENT EGYPTIAN SYMBOLS."
The couple's Christianity has been corrupted by conspiracies, colonialism, crack-pot visions of the end of the world, and bad readings of the bible.
I want to stop here, having hacked out a harsh paragraph or two on these missionaries, and feel safe in the knowledge I have distanced myself from their Pentecostal craziness. I want to stop, and believe that by adding to the pile-on, I have helped discredit them and their "soul-winning machine," and I want to believe I have cleanly severed my own religiousness from such rapidness. I want to stop here and I want to say, "Thank God I'm not like them, and now everyone will know it."
But I kept looking at that plane. They may be fanatics and belligerent fundamentalists, but they were willing to die to try to reach people. I don't know that I can just dismiss that. Maybe they've caused more trouble and more pain than they have healed, but surely on some level, they're motivated by the best of human impulses, even when they end up with the worst sort of results.
Maybe the two should be judged the way they judge others, but I find myself mentally stuttering, when I repeat the famous phrase of the hypocritical Pharisee in Jesus' story. I find I have to stop, and reconsider. I find I have to question myself a little closer.
I really want to be on the side of the fact-checkers, the good liberals and the sane, civilized Christians. I want to point and laugh at the fundamentalist freak show, the deformed faith and the poor, perverted theology, but I don't know that I get to do that.
We all want to hold everyone to some severe standard, testing them against a vision of an ideological end, where the good and the bad are decisively divided, but I think I have to try to judge with grace. I think I have to grant that this world is a mess, and we're all trying to interpret our way out of darkness and just guess our way to God.
So in a world this confused, this full of muddling and doubt, where we compromise, take half-measures and make do, maybe trying is enough. Maybe at the end, all any of us will be able to say is we tried, we cared and we did the best we knew.
The Davises would reject this, I know, but I'm trying to hold myself to a standard of grace and hope. I just want to grab on to any of the "better angels" flying so low I can catch them.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.