The Pen

Bigger than Ergun Caner? The Amazing Case of General Butt Naked

In 1989, Liberia plunged into civil war.  The horrific conflict would last eight years and be followed by a second, shorter civil war in 1999.  Its two civil wars have left Liberia, a nation originally founded by freed American slaves and modeled after the United States, in political and economic shambles.  According to the BBC, roughly 250,000 people were killed in the first conflict.  Many of them were civilians.  During the chaos various local warlords rose to power.  Child soldiers were recruited as combatants.  Rape, murder, and mutilation were common occurrences.  The drug and arms trade were prominent.  One of the more infamous warlords who emerged during this first Liberian civil war was a man known as “General Butt Naked.”  He earned this nickname because of his unit’s practice of running into battle without clothing.  He terrorized the capital city of Monrovia and was responsible for the brutal death of numerous people.  Butt Naked is more commonly known these days by his given name, Joshua Milton Blahyi.  In peacetime, he has become perhaps the most well-known Christian evangelist in West Africa.

Blahyi claims to have been responsible for the deaths of no less than 20,000 people during the war.  He also claims (in his autobiography) to have been trained in his youth as a pagan priest who was required to perform monthly human sacrifices.  His wartime accounts include recruiting and training child soldiers, murdering and cannibalizing the hearts of children as a pagan battle ritual, and converting to Christianity after seeing a vision of Christ.  As a Christian convert, Blayhi has forged a living in a war-torn (and heavily Christian) land as an intinerate evangelist and the director of a rehabilitation program for former child soldiers.  Blahyi’s message is a simple one: if a murderous militant cannibal like himself can be saved, then anyone can.  Such a message is hardly unbiblical and immediately calls to mind the example of Saul, a murderous persecutor of the church who was led to repentance after a vision of the risen Christ.  Saul the persecutor of the church is better known to history as the Apostle Paul, the prolific author if scripture and first century missionary.  In His sovereignty, God can take the most fearsome enemy of the cross of Christ and turn him into the loudest proclaimer of the gospel.  Is this precisely what happened in the case of General Butt Naked?

Perhaps, but is it relevant?  Christian congregations seem to have a strange fascination with outlandish conversion stories.  There are more than a few professional evangelists who make a living out of preaching about just how wicked they were before coming to faith in Christ.  Stories of preconversion drug-addiction, fornication, prostitution, devil worship, and even murder titillate evangelical ears all over the globe.  Such stories manage to draw a crowd and fill the offering plate.  It’s as if the worst sins make the best testimonies.  To be sure, sins such as rape and murder carry with them greater temporal consequences than more culturally benign sins such as telling little white lies and underreporting income tax liability.  Nevertheless, all sins carry with them the same level of spiritual damnation.  The wealthy American child who is guilty of no more than lying to his parents about taking from the cookie jar before dinner stands just as condemned before God as the most feared and reviled genocidal African warlord.  So then, why is the conversion of the former somehow more dramatic or radical than that of the latter?  Theologically speaking, it’s not.  If people thought this way, perhaps there would be less charlatanry in the pulpit.

Consider the case of Ergun Caner.  He was a Baptist preacher with a relatively compelling backstory.  He was a immigrant to the United States from Sweden, the son of a Swedish mother and Islamic father.  Despite not being raised in a Christian home, he and his brother Emir overcame their father’s influence to become biblical scholars and Baptist preachers.  Over time, and after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Caner’s story began to evolve.  He began to present himself as a native of Turkey who learned English from watching American television.  He claimed to have been trained for Islamic terrorism in a madrassa in Beirut, famously proclaiming to the SBC pastor’s conference that “Jesus strapped a cross onto his back, so that I wouldn’t have to strap a bomb onto mine.”  After making quite a name for himself as a former Muslim terrorist turned Christian preacher, Caner’s many lies were exposed.  However, Caner’s tales pale in comparison to those of General Butt Naked.

Ergun Caner

Joshua Blahyi’s story is as compelling as it is dubious.  In an article about Blahyi published in The New Yorker a former Liberian rebel commander named Mohammed Toure refers to Blahyi’s claim to have killed 20,000 people as an impossible “lie.”  In the same article, Nicholai Lidow, a scholar of global conflicts was quoted as saying that “(Blahyi) never had more than forty people under his command.”  Given that 250,000 died in the entire conflict, Blahyi’s claim to have killed 20,000 seems like a gross exaggeration.  The New Yorker article also reports the claim of Blahyi that Steven Spielberg personally offered him $900,000 for the rights to his life story, a claim which a representative of the famed filmmaker later denied.  In his autobiography, Blahyi claims to have flown through the air during his days as a pagan priest.  This claim is, of course, utterly unverifiable.  What is verifiable is that Pentecostal Western beneficiaries have supported Blahyi to the degree that his monthly salary has been over 1000% more than that of the average Liberian.

Blahyi has publicly taken accountability for his action and continues to preach in public despite numerous death threats.  He has sought the families of his victims and asked their forgiveness.  There is no doubt that he was a vicious warlord and stone-cold killer.  Such facts are historically indisputable.  There is also no doubt that Blahyi preaches all over Africa that sinners can be set free by the forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  Whatever exaggerations there may be in his story, God only knows.  What observers can know is that there are people throughout the world who believe in Blahyi enough, tales of flying and seeing Jesus and all, to support him with thousands of dollars.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

Seth Dunn

Masters of Divinity in Christian Apologetics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Member of the Evangelical Theological Society Certified Public Accountant