This reading group guide forPreemptive Loveincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jeremy Courtney. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Preemptive Love is the true story of Jeremy and Jessica Courtney and their quest to put love before all else—no matter the risk. Jeremy Courtney shares with readers the journey he took with his wife, their friends, and sometimes even their enemies in order to start the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC). The mission of PLC is simple: save as many Iraqi children as possible who are in need of heart surgery—a prevalent problem in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare, more than a decade of sanctions, and outstanding environmental questions that many have linked to American and British weapons during the 2003 Iraq War; especially since there are few surgeons in the country willing and able to perform surgery on these gravely ill children. Faced with nearly every problem imaginable, Jeremy and his community begin saving lives and seeing glimmers of peace amidst the violence and unrest of present-day Iraq.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The story of Preemptive Love opens with a possible theme when Jeremy says on page 9, “it can be so difficult to see things for what they are; even more to see what they could be.” Discuss this quote in light of the story. How does this reflect the mission of the Preemptive Love Coalition?
2. Jeremy and Jessica coming to grips with life without electricity in Iraq sets the stage for what would soon become their “preemptive love” way of life. Discuss the conclusion from page 9, “We don’t need power to live in peace,” and the various ways it challenges your assumptions about life in the midst of war, in marriage or the workplace, and life in general.
3. The story of the Courtney family is extraordinary and heroic, but in many ways, Jeremy shares how he is just like all of us. On page 14, he says, “everything I do is probably motivated by some sense of guilt or out of a desire to stave off my own demise.” Is this feeling true for most of us? Do we often want to partake in charity out of a sense of guilt or fear? Explain your answer.
4. Preemptive Love is full of surprises, from unlikely friendships to unfailing faith even in the presence of great danger. What surprised you the most in this story?
5. Did Jeremy’s description of contemporary Iraq give you a new perspective on the situation there? Why or why not?
6. Discuss the irony of the Grand Sheikh’s decree: “we must stop this treatment lest it lead our children and their parents to love their enemies, leading to apostasy” (p. 67). Can you think of a similar irony that exists in the United States?
7. Jeremy Courtney introduces us to so many sick children in the book; some recover, others do not. Which child’s story touched you the most and why?
8. Revisit Kadeeja’s story beginning on page 122. What lessons can we glean from it? Why was Kadeeja’s father able to overcome his distrust of the Turkish doctor?
9. “Presence is sometimes a greater expression of preemptive love than any bold action or program” (p. 136). Reflect on a time you were “present” or someone was “present” for you. Do you agree with Jeremy that “presence is . . . a greater expression of preemptive love than any bold action” during difficult times? Why or why not?
10. Do you think that Rizgar’s ten-year journey away from home as a child, and his subsequent return as an adult, was a matter of fate or luck? In what ways do you think his time away from home helped shape his work with the Preemptive Love Coalition?
11. Mustafa proudly displays his tattered soccer ball after his surgery, showing Jeremy and his team that miracles can happen. What do you think this soccer ball might be a metaphor for in Mustafa’s life? What about for Jeremy and his friends? What “soccer ball” do you have in your life?
12. Why do you think that Rizgar chose to go to prison rather than use the “Get Out of Jail Free” card offered to him in exchange for information on Jeremy Courtney and his family? Consider this in juxtaposition to his later choices, and discuss how real people can sometimes be at once a friend and an enemy. How have you seen this in your own family, workplace, etc.?
13. On page 226 Jeremy quotes the Aeneid: “I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.” How does this quote connect to the story of the Preemptive Love Coalition?
14. Discuss the afterword. On what note does this story end? What impression do you have for the future of the Preemptive Love Coalition and what they’ll be able to accomplish with their efforts?
15. How has reading this book affected you? In what ways are you inspired to reexamine your life and your presuppositions about people? How will this change the way you approach others going forward?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Jeremy Courtney gave a TED talk on November 12, 2011, about preemptive love and the concept of unmaking violence and remaking the world through healing. Gather with your reading group to watch: http://www.jeremycourtney.com/tedxbaghdad.
Over dinner, discuss Jeremy’s message. How does his story touch you? How can you make a difference in your world? What is the greatest lesson that Jeremy’s story teaches you?
2. Jeremy shares his approach to adapting to life in Iraq: “for the first six months, we say 'yes' to everything” (p. 80). Try this radical way of being in the world for one week. Afterward, meet as a group and discuss the results. What was it like to say “yes” for an entire week? How was it different than a typical week for you? Why do you think that Jeremy takes this approach in Iraq? In his life in general?
3. On page 184, Jeremy mentions the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” in order to explain the way that he and Jessica choose to live their life. Read the poem out loud (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536) to your group, and discuss the ways in which the poem enacts the very tenets of faith, love, and joy that distinguish the Courtney family and the Preemptive Love Coalition.
A Conversation with Jeremy Courtney
1. In many ways, this is the story of your life, and as such, it is a work in progress. Why did you decide to begin Preemptive Love with the story of you drinking chai in an Iraqi Hotel? To your mind, what makes this moment the defining moment of the Preemptive Love Coalition?
I am not sure I would say it was the defining moment. Your point about being a work in progress is exactly right. I could have just as easily started with lying on my grandma’s lap three or four times a week as my grandpa preached and my father led the church in worship. In many ways, the story seems to begin for me when I went off to college and wrestled with nearly every aspect of life and faith as I had received it and understood it up until that time. September 11 was certainly a defining moment for so many in my generation—some of us went one direction and some of us another with regard to how we would live in a world full of evil.
But I began the story drinking chai in an Iraqi hotel, because the rest of the story lacks meaning without presence. The hotel scene establishes a few things: (1) our intentional proximity to suffering and need; (2) my conflicted, less-than-heroic response; and (3) my personal introduction to the utter lack of options for children born with life-threatening heart defects in Iraq.
2. What surprised you most about living in Iraq? What has been the best part about your life there? The most difficult?
As with any place in the world, I’d guess all three of these questions have the same answer: people. The people here are complex, and that surprised me, honestly. I was reared on a relatively simple story about Arab backwardness, corruption, etc. Some of my first Muslim friends in my twenties were Turks and Kurds, and there was no love lost between them and the Arab Muslims who would soon be my neighbors in Iraq. So from all quarters, I entered Iraq with a story and a set of expectations that did not incline me to love. On the bright side, my negative perceptions primed me for the best possible response every time I saw an Iraqi break my simple mold. Their love for their children, their earnest desire for peace, their ingenuity to make it through another day—let alone so many prolonged seasons—of violence . . . all these things surprised me and caused love to well up in my heart for the people around me.
The best part of my life in Iraq has been the people. Both the individuals and society as a whole have enriched my understanding of God, my capacity to show honor and respect to others, my self-awareness, my confidence and humility about my place in the world, and my ability to be a better husband and father.
At the same time, the most difficult part of my life in Iraq has been . . . the people! Iraq would be problem-free if it weren’t for all the people! But then, the same could be said for any nation, organization, or family. It seems to me that there is a direct correlation between the level of risk in relationships and the amount of joy derived from them. The people we endeavor to love the most become the ones who are most capable of destroying us. In the end—and I recognize that this may not be true for everyone in Iraq—it was not the suicide bombers, the militias, or the violent clerics who posed the greatest threat to us. It was those who were much closer, whom we loved even more, and allowed to get even closer. And, ultimately, that is why I think preemptive love—and this book—is about relationships, and not primarily about Iraq.
3. When the fatwa came out against you, you write that you sent an email to your team inviting them to your house to pray. Can you share with us the power of prayer in your life? Has prayer been a defining part of your life in Iraq?
There is a part of me that deeply wants to impress you with a mind-blowing answer of personal piety right now. But that part of me is vain and dishonest. The truth is that I have a sort of “love-hate” relationship with prayer—especially with prayer as a means of asking God to do what I imagine God already wants to do. I do not mean to say that I am justified or right in this way of thinking, but that kind of prayer has always confused me and left me wondering why I would worship one so capricious.
While I think it is probably clear from the story that I believe in the existence, the presence, and the here-on-earth activity of God, I often struggle to live at this intersection of belief and doubt, where, on the one hand, I engage in prayer as a form of work because God has decided that the restoration of some things on this earth will depend on me and, on the other hand, I rest from work, even prayers of supplication and intersession, because of a bedrock conviction that God is ultimately in control and is far more concerned than I am with the well-being of my neighbors, the environment, war, peace, and God’s own great name.
But there is at least one kind of prayer that has had a profound impact on me during my time in Iraq, and that is prayer as imagining, prayer as dreaming. This can be a spur of the moment thing while driving in chaotic Baghdad traffic waiting for the next bomb to go off, or an extended morning of quiet meditation. In both extremes, the content is essentially the same, and it goes something like this: “God, give me your vision for this country; this city; this guy I’m sharing tea with right now.”
That prayer resonates within me, because even while it is about Iraq, it recognizes a deficiency in myself that must change before I should expect to be let in on such treasure. This was the essence of my prayers after the fatwa came out. We said, “We already know the broad definition of our response. And we trust, God, that you have a plan in the midst of violence and chaos. So let us in on your envisioned future . . . what good things could we bring about here—and what evil things could we dismantle—as we submit ourselves to loving our enemies?”
4. You describe the difficulty of Baby Hope’s death after surgery and the struggle to comfort grieving parents. What was it like for you personally in that moment? Was this the most difficult moment you had to face so far?
It was absolutely horrible. We had to grow up quickly in a lot of ways. I had just moved us from being a sort of distant, third party financier of other people’s decisions and operations. With Hope, I made the call. I selected her for surgery, I chose the hospital, I signed off on the doctor. I was in the hot seat, in a highly contentious time in Iraq, among a people that still demand extortionary financial remuneration, or even blood for blood, in the wake of death. There are no insurance policies or lawyers to shield you in a time like this. But, to my surprise, those self-referential concerns were not anywhere near the top of my list. I’ve only learned over time to give consideration to those things. In the moment of Hope’s death, the only thing I could think of was Yusuf, his wife, and their irreplaceable loss. I felt a deep sense of responsibility for that and wondered how many more losses we would have to endure on our way to reaching all the children we had promised to help.
In those crisis moments you form a special bond. But what I’ve had to learn is that those relationships (for the most part) cannot last—they are simply too painful for the parents. The trust formed is great. And we’ve heard repeatedly that our responses to their suffering are often much more sensitive and comforting than many of the responses they receive from their own families and friends. But, at the end of the day, for most of these families who endure their greatest losses at our hands, they cannot stand to see us hovering around each week reminding them of hope gone wrong. They never “move on,” of course, but they eventually relegate us from status as “friend” to “service provider” so they can cope with their losses and begin to put their life back in order. For us, the loss of that friendship becomes the second great loss after a child dies.
5. Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this book?
Absolutely! But if I have to name them, I’m probably not doing a very good job as a storyteller!
6. The complications of different cultures arise frequently in the story. If you could go back in time and change one decision you made, what would it be and why?
I refuse to live in the past or entertain any notion of “wasted years.” There are no wasted years, at least, not in the past. The only wasted years are in the future, and they are only wasted if we refuse to learn from our past. So, looking to the future, I have been much more determined to empower my colleagues on the ground to make the real-time decisions they deem best in order to keep themselves safe and enable PLC to continue its mission. If I cannot trust my team to make wise decisions, then they probably should not be a part of the team at all. If they are a part of the team, then they need to be free to read the situation around them and make the decisions required, in keeping with our vision and values.
7. Preemptive Love depicts a part of life in Iraq that we don’t often see in popular culture; that is, ordinary, everyday existence. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view?
Presenting everyday Iraqis in their own hues has been a central part of what we have tried to do since moving here in the middle of the war when “everyday Iraqis” began to destroy my black-and-white vision of war and its various justifications. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and their various copycats were all new technologies that came into their own during the Iraq War. In an age of institutionalized propaganda on all sides of the conflict stood a great opportunity to walk against the current with a more nuanced message about Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims, in general. For some groups, the offending perspective is that we would portray Muslims in a positive light, making them the heroes of this story; for others, that we would call a spade a spade and name Islam and some of its clerics as the principals responsible for so much evil throughout Iraq.
8. What would you name as the theme of the story? What do you hope readers will learn by reading your book?
I was an unbearable partner in the process of writing the subtitle and designing the cover, because I am so resistant to any attempt to reduce the story to a single, isolated theme. If we say the story is about “unmaking violence” or “dismantling fear” or “overcoming hate,” I am insistent that the story is even more about remaking the world through healing, building bonds of friendship in the midst of conflict, and creating an entire realm in which love of self is seen as inextricably tied up with love of neighbor and love of enemy. But even if you will allow all those previous themes to stand as a single descriptor, I cannot allow them to stand as primarily human pursuits, divorced from God, creator of the world, animator of life. That story is the story of a faith relegated to the “far country”—a sort of “by and by” existence that seems so distant so as to not have any bearing on life in this country today. I don’t believe in that story.
Our story doesn’t exist apart from the faith that energizes and causes it to happen. So it is a story about following Jesus and living with the kind of faith that dares to believe in destroying death and the works of the devil and joining God in the beautiful restoration of all things. And that makes it a story about journeying “through many valleys, toils, and snares” on our way to that far country, only to find that it has already arrived.
I hope readers will learn the same thing I hoped to codify for my family in writing it: try to save your life, and you are sure to lose it. Give your life away, and you will save it.
9. On page 221 you discuss the robbery at your home, citing that “the other thing missing after that fateful invasion was our hope of ever fully trusting another person in Iraq the same way again.” Did your trust ever return? Is trust in humankind something you think can be returned to you?
I liken the break-in and that entire season of betrayal to a soul-rape. There was an innocence that was stolen, and things can never be returned to their previous state. But that inability to trust in exactly the same way again does not necessarily have any decisive bearing on how we choose to live. Do we trust people outside of our immediate “circle of sameness” the same way we trusted outsiders before? Probably not. But we still choose to entrust our lives to them over and over again, come what may (and if there is one thing we have seriously considered by now, it’s what may come). The book is peppered with the cautions of others who call this way of living naive. Other people’s opinions of us are really none of our business. From our perspective, it is equally naive to pretend that armored cars, flack jackets, guns, tactical attack plans, and counter-insurgency theories represent the surest, safest way to live.
10. Why did you decide to write this story now? Describe the journey from conception to publication.
The impetus really came after a number of conferences where I spoke and people asked for anything I had written that could help them understand what was meant by this provocative phrase “preemptive love.” This is still not that book. I hope to write that book at some point in the future. On my way to writing that book, however, I felt like our foundational story needed to be written to provide some kind of context for the theological and philosophical explanations that might follow.
My friend, Gabe, was kind enough to put me in touch with his literary agent, and I was humbled that Chris agreed to invest some of his time into the story and represent me to publishers across the country. Chris ran interference for a couple of interested parties, and we entertained a few offers on the book before settling on Howard.
I felt an instant connection with the team at Howard and was very humbled to hear their vision for the book, which aligned very closely with my own. We were talking the same language from the beginning, and that gave me hope for a very great partnership (which it has been!).
Throughout the fall of 2012, we actually took a semester-long break from Iraq to be present for the birth of Cody and Michelle’s first child. But that same stretch of time was our busiest ever with surgical teams coming into Iraq to save lives and train Iraqis. So I was back and forth from the States to Iraq every few weeks with a surgery team. When I wasn’t at the hospital, I was holed up in a hotel room in Istanbul, Najaf, or Basra, writing as much as I could. I found that I am a significantly more focused person on the road than I am trying to write from my in-laws’ kitchen table with “life” happening all around me!
In all, it has been an incredible, humbling experience. We don’t deserve to have this story told. It would have been meaningful enough to have experienced it without much ado. But if this strange, media-saturated world we live in is willing to take a risk on an idea to put before the world, we are grateful that this risky message of preemptive love would rise to the top for this short moment in time. We will take the stage while we have it, however big or small, in hopes of unmaking violence and remaking the world, one heart at a time.