Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the United States' "shock-and-awe" campaign that launched the war in Iraq, the event's message was clear: only by loving our neighbors can we end violence and war.
Washington DC-area Christians and peace activists filled the pews of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church Tuesday night for "Subversive Interfaith Friendships in a World at War."
It featured speakers Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way; Greg Barrett, journalist-turned-author and peacemaker; and Jeremy Courtney, CEO of the Preemptive Love Coalition.
"I can't imagine a better or more appropriate way to honor this day than the way we're doing it tonight," Claiborne told the crowd.
Claiborne was in Iraq for the first nine days of the war and then returned in 2010.
As he likes to recount, he first experienced the love and hospitality of the Iraqi people during his first visit in 2003 after the car he and his companions were driving flipped over in the desert.
"All of us were injured in that car accident," Claiborne recalled. "And we get to the side of the road, and at this point we have no idea what we're going to do. The planes are still flying over, there's not much traffic – we have no one."
Two people in the car had serious head injuries, and Claiborne was afraid they were going to die when Iraqi strangers pulled up in a car and took the wounded to the local hospital.
At the hospital, Claiborne learned from a doctor that U.S. planes had bombed the building several days before and, unable to function, it was consequently shut down.
"But then he smiled, and said, 'But don't worry. We will still take care of you. We just can't do it in the hospital.'"
From that moment, Claiborne became dedicated to fostering love and friendship between American Christians and the Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely through groups like Friends Without Borders, and the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.
Jeremy Courtney says he also came to love his Iraqi neighbors while visiting the country.
While there on business, a man approached him, asking if Courtney could find a way to help a six-year-old girl get a heart surgery.
Initially Courtney said no, but as he began asking around, he found that not only was he able to help the little girl, but that he was able to help what he says are the tens of thousands of Iraqi children in need of life-saving heart surgeries.
Thus grew the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides those surgeries – and also builds bridges between American Christians and Iraqi Muslims.
One of the children the Preemptive Love Coalition helped shared a room with the grandson of a local sheik. The sheik saw what the Preemptive Love Coalition had done for the other Iraqi child and pulled Courtney aside.
He told Courtney that Americans had done a lot of evil in his area and had a bad reputation. But then he told Courtney:
"Because I am a tribal leader and people listen to me, when I'm happy, my people are happy. And when I'm sad, my people are sad. Because of what you've done today, I'm going to go back and I'm going to make my people very happy because of you. You are truly men of peace."
Courtney says this is a small indicator of potential actions for nations like Syria and Iran if Christians could prophetically imagine a different reality where people really do love their neighbors.
"As the church, as the people who are committed to following Jesus … we need to divorce ourselves from the way we have so married ourselves to our government, "
he said. "We need to realize that there's no form of progressivism that's going to make this government, this country, this world into the kingdom of God."
"[Peace] doesn't begin with the nations," he said. "It begins with the people who lie down their weapons … the people of God, the people of conscious who refuse to kill."