Without Diplomatic Immunity

It’s not easy being an official representative of one nation to another. Diplomatic emissaries often find themselves in difficult situations- delivering bad news to hostile hosts. Miscommunication, even between friendly states, can be costly. Good ambassadors work hard to learn local culture and language in order to be effective communicators, but when the message isn’t what they were hoping to hear, leaders tend to take it out on the messenger. This it why the Geneva Convention mandates diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is a law that protects official representatives of a nation by not holding them accountable to local laws or regulations. This is why the French Ambassador can smoke Cuban cigars on the steps of the United Nations building (or in the lobby when it’s cold outside). This is why the official representative of the unofficial nation of Kurdistan can drive as fast as he’d like on the turnpike. Diplomatic immunity means that while on “mission,” a nation’s spokesperson doesn’t have to deal with parking tickets, auto registration, or fishing licenses.

Immunity from prosecution insures that diplomats are treated with a certain amount of respect. Honor the messenger, the thinking goes, and you can count on civility between his nation and yours. Ambassadors are given full authority to speak on behalf of the nation they represent, and making China pull over and take a breathalyzer test is bad for business, no matter how badly its Consul might be swerving as he drives his unregistered SUV down the highway.

Christians, of course are representatives of God’s kingdom. Our presence in the world is for the purpose of communicating a Message and fostering a good relationship with citizens of our host cultures. We do this by being present in the community, attending local events, getting to know people, and sharing with them the unique characteristics of the Kingdom we represent.

The difficulty of our mission is that our message is generally offensive. We’re tasked with finding the most effective way to communicate that message, and “cultural translation” requires our exposure to people and behaviors that run contrary to the values of our Kingdom. To make matters worse, our fellow messengers sometimes break protocol and hurt our reputation, risking our access to the societies to which we’ve been assigned. Hostile parties have spread misinformation about us. Some of us may hold tightly to political protection by freedom-of-speech or assembly laws, but the truth is that as spiritual emissaries of the Most High God, we don’t have diplomatic immunity.

Despite the power vested in us by the One who sent us, we have no credibility in this place. We’re not respected as ambassadors- possibly because the consequences for failure to recognize our Kingdom are not immediately obvious to our host cultures.

If we really saw ourselves as representatives without diplomatic immunity, how would it change the way we interact with the cultures in which we move?

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.