Posts tagged ‘Egypt’

ISIS and Sufis

Because it was over the long Thanksgiving weekend, the ISIS attack on an Egyptian Sufi mosque that killed 305 people a week ago Friday received some attention, but not as much as it might have normally.  But it is important.  The sheer scope of the tragedy is gut-wrenching.  The mass shooting at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas claimed 59 lives.  The mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs claimed 26.  The attack on this mosque killed over 300.  It is sobering to try to fathom.

Part of what makes this attack so disturbing is that one group of Muslims – or at least self-identified Muslims – in ISIS perpetrated this attack against another group of Muslims who are Sufi.  At its heart, this attack was driven not by political or cultural differences, but by an all-out holy war.  Rukmini Callimachi, in a report for The New York Times, explains:

After every attack of this nature, observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith. But the voluminous writings published by Islamic State and Qaeda media branches, as well as the writings of hard-liners from the Salafi sect and the Wahhabi school, make clear that these fundamentalists do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all.

Their particular animus toward the Sufi practice involves the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act of praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as “shirk,” or polytheism.

Certainly, the veneration of the dead is a problem – not only for many Islamic systems of theology, but for orthodox Christianity as well.  When the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, God warns them:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

On this, many Christians and Muslims agree: venerating the dead is not only superstitious and paganistic, it smacks of polytheism by exalting a departed soul to the position of God, or, at minimum, to a position that is god-like.  Yet, one can decry the veneration of the dead without creating more dead, an understanding that many others in the Muslim world, apart from ISIS, seem to be able to maintain with ease.  Theological disagreements can be occasions for robust debate, but they must never be made into excuses for bloodshed.

There are some in the Christian world, who, like Sufi Muslims, venerate those who are dead in ways that make other Christians very uncomfortable.  Catholicism’s veneration of the saints, for instance, is rejected as unbiblical and spiritually dangerous by many Protestants, including me.  But this does not mean that there are not many theological commitments that I don’t joyfully share with my Catholic brothers and sisters, including a creedal affirmation of Trinitarian theology as encapsulated in the ecumenical creeds of the Church.  I may disagree with Catholics on many important points of doctrine, but they are still my friends in Christ whom I love.

Jesus famously challenged His hearers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Part of what I find so compelling about Jesus’ challenge is not just its difficulty – though it is indeed very demanding to try to love someone who hates you – but its keen insight into the devastating consequences of hate.  If you love your enemy, even when it’s difficult, you can most certainly love your friends, and, by God’s grace, you may even be able to make friends out of enemies when they become overwhelmed by your love.  But if you hate your enemy, even your friends will eventually become your enemies, and you will hate them too.  Why?  Because hate inevitably begets more hate.

ISIS has made a theological system out of hate.  Thus, they have no friends left to love.  They only have enemies to kill, including other Muslims.  Christians, however, worship a God who not only has love, but is love (1 John 4:16).  For all the Sufis who are mourning, then, we offer not only our condolences, but our hearts, and we hold out the hope of the One who is not only the true God, but the one Savior, and who makes this promise:  ISIS’s hate that leads to death is no match for Jesus’ love and His gift of life.

December 4, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Death Is Dying

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Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

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[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Breaking Down Brexit

London.jpg

It was a shocker of an outcome. British voters backed Brexit.

In a move that sent markets stumbling and the pound tumbling, Britons voted to leave the European Union 52% to 48%.  The fallout from the exit was nearly immediate as David Cameron stepped down as Britain’s Prime Minister, saying:

I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the EU. I made clear the referendum was about this, and this alone, not the future of any single politician, including myself.  But the British people made a different decision to take a different path. As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.[1]

In support of Brexit was Boris Johnson, a member of Parliament and the former mayor of London, who explained:

In the end this question is about the people…it is about the very principles of our democracy…I think the electorate have searched in their hearts and answered as honestly as they can.  They have decided that it is time to vote to take back control from an EU that has become too remote, too opaque and not accountable enough to the people it is meant to serve.[2]

Back here in the United States, the Obama administration had announced its support for Great Britain remaining in the EU and expressed disappointment at the vote while still pledging its ongoing support for the UK.

As with many things of this nature, there were probably good reasons for Great Britain to stay in the EU and good reasons for it to leave.  On the one hand, fraternal cooperation between nations who support each other in their humanity and not just in their nationality is good.  On the other hand, a governing body as large and as political as the EU is simply too inherently prone to corruption to exercise its power without problems and concerns.

Regardless of how you may personally feel about the Brexit vote, it is important that we, as Christians, pray for the British people.  This much is certain:  this vote has launched that country into turmoil.  The price of gold has surged as jittery investors clamor to find safe financial havens.  British millennials are also broadly upset with the vote, with one millennial tweeting, “A generation given everything…have voted to strip my generation’s future.”[3]  According to one poll, 64% of Britons ages 25 to 29 wanted to stay in the EU.  It was the older Britons who carried Brexit to victory.  But even in the wake of victory, the United Kingdom is still divided.

Ultimately, Brexit can serve as a reminder that no human coalition or government, no matter how seemingly strong, is impenetrable or eternal.  Every earthly kingdom eventually fails and falls.  This is why our hope can never be in nations, international unions, or leaders.  Our hope must finally be in the Lord.

After the Egyptians free the Israelites from the shackles of their slavery to them, and after God miraculously parts the Red Sea so the Israelites can escape the Egyptian army when the Egyptian Pharaoh changes his mind about releasing the Israelites, and after God causes the wheels of the Egyptian chariots to fall off as they pursue the Israelites into the parted Red Sea (cf. Exodus 14:25), and after God swallows up the Egyptians in the Red Sea by causing its waters to fall back on them, Exodus 14:31 says, “When the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him.”

Eventually, the wheels of every kingdom fall off.  Brexit is just the latest example.  Thus, if we trust only in human kingdoms and powers, we will be left with nothing but fear when these kingdoms collapse.  This is why we must put our trust in the Lord.  For when we trust in Him, we can move through even a time of international uncertainty knowing that one kingdom – God’s Kingdom – can never be shaken.  In the words of Martin Luther:

The Word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through Him who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

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[1] Heather Stewart, Rowena Mason, and Rajeev Syal, “David Cameron resigns after UK votes to leave European Union,” The Guardian (6.24.2016).

[2] Kate McCann and Laura Hughes, “EU referendum live: Boris Johnson hails ‘glorious opportunity’ of Brexit as David Cameron resigns,” The Telegraph (6.24.2016).

[3] Ivana Kottasova, “British Millennials: You’ve stolen our future,” CNN Money (6.24.20216).

June 27, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

In Response to ISIS

Credit:  Christian Post

Credit: The Christian Post

The video was titled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” In it, 21 Egyptian Christians, dressed in orange jump suits, were gruesomely beheaded by ISIS militants along a beach in Tripoli. One of the final frames of the video zooms in on the waters of the Mediterranean, red with the blood of these martyrs.[1]

Christians aren’t the only targets of ISIS’ rage. Just last week, ISIS released images appearing to show gay men being thrown off buildings only to be stoned after they fell to the ground. A statement released by ISIS explained that the organization is “clamping down on sexual deviance.”[2]

The reaction to such savage killings has understandably been one of untempered ire. Egypt’s president pledged retaliation against ISIS for the slaughter of its Christians. Indeed, Muslims and Christians together are raising a unified chorus of disgust at ISIS’ actions. Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, noted, “With their blood [these martyrs] are unifying Egypt.”[3]

Though the slaughter of Egypt’s Christians has gotten more press than ISIS’ heinous injustices against gay people, both demand a response in addition to whatever political or military responses may be offered in the national and international arenas. Here are two responses that, I believe, are appropriate and important for a moment such as this.

First, we need an anthropological response. After all, whether we are Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, we are all human. Indeed, as Christians, we know and believe that we are all created in God’s image, which affords us not only a shared humanity, but a necessary dignity. This collective humanity and dignity, in turn, involves certain shared hopes and desires. We all desire safety. We all desire respect. We all desire love. When these shared desires are so violently violated, as ISIS has done, basic empathy leads to visceral revulsion. Thus, we can join the world in condemning these acts, if for no other reason than that we are all human.

Second, we also need a theological response. This response is especially urgent because far too many in the broadly secularized West have refused to admit that there are theological drivers behind ISIS’ actions. Writing for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains:

We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature … The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.[4]

I should point out that parts of Wood’s history of ISIS’ theological origins – especially his claim that ISIS’ theology is of a “medieval religious nature” – are questionable and, thankfully, have been appropriately critiqued. Nevertheless, his basic premise still stands. ISIS is acting in a way that is robustly and rigorously driven by a certain religious understanding. For ISIS, theology is no mere veneer to cover up some naked ambition for power.   Theology is at the heart of who they are. Thus, it does us no good, for the sake of some self-imposed, naïve political de rigueur, to pretend that at least some of ISIS’ drivers are not theological.

This is where Christians are in a unique position to lend their voices to the challenges and crises presented by ISIS. For we can offer a better theology than ISIS’ theology. We can rebuke a theology that allows the slaughtering of people with whom they religiously and culturally disagree, as Jesus did with His disciples when they wanted to destroy the Samaritans because they were a people with whom the disciples religiously and culturally disagreed. And when a theology leaves room for stoning those who live outside of traditional sexual ethics, we can say with Jesus, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).

Blessedly, the parts of this “better theology” I outlined above are ones with which the majority of the Muslim world would agree – because even though this “better theology’s” origins are explicitly Christian, its implications are broadly ethical.   And even if ISIS’ understanding of Islamic theology is real, it is certainly not catholic. Plenty – and, in fact, the vast majority – of Muslims share our higher ethical aspirations. Indeed, perhaps what was once a Judeo-Christian ethic can expand into a Judeo-Muslim-Christian ethic.

Ultimately, of course, although theology includes ethics, it is more than just ethical. It is finally soteriological. And this is good. Because this means that even as ISIS continues its campaign of terror, it cannot thwart the promise of God that the faithful who have died at ISIS’ hands are now safe under heaven’s altar.  For this we can be thankful. And because of this we can continue to be hopeful.

______________________

[1] Leonardo Blair, “Heartbreaking: Egyptian Christians Were Calling for Jesus During Execution by ISIS in Libya,” The Christian Post (2.18.2015).

[2] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Hurls Gay Men Off Buildings, Stones Them: Analysts,” NBC News (2.15.2015).

[3] Jayson Casper, “Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’Christianity Today (2.18.2015)

[4] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015).

February 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

From CBS News: “An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012.”

Libya.  Yemen.  Egypt.  Last week was a rough one on the other side of the world.  First, in an attack deliberately timed to correspond to the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, Libyan Islamists staged a military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans.  On Thursday, Islamist protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.  Riots also erupted in Egypt, with people climbing into the embassy compound in central Cairo and ripping down the American flag.

One of the inciting factors of these protests is an obscure movie with a less than positive portrayal of the Muslim prophet Muhammad titled, “The Innocence of Muslims.”  Clips from the low-budget film have been making their rounds in cyberspace for weeks.  In the movie, Muhammad is portrayed a womanizing, homosexual, child-abuser.  For many Muslims, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous – hence, the reason for these violent protests.

As I have watched these protests unfold, two things have struck me.  First, I have been struck by the fact that our Constitutional right to free speech does not carry with it a guarantee that such speech will be charitable or even accurate.  As Christians, we are called speak charitably and accurately to and about others not because our Constitution legislates it, but because Holy Scripture commands it.  As the apostle Peter reminds us, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).  Patently offensive and inflammatory caricatures of other religions, though not civically illegal, are certainly theologically sinful.  After all, we, as Christians, do not appreciate having our faith lambasted by flimsy straw-men half-truths.  So we ought never do the same thing to other faiths nor should we encourage others who do.

Second, I have been struck by the intolerance – in fact, the violent intolerance – of these Islamist protesters.  These protestors breach embassies and kill ambassadors who have no relation whatsoever to those who made this outlandish film except that they all happen to be citizens of the same country.  This makes no sense to me.  And yet, for a few too many people, it seems to make all too much sense.  The headlines tell the story.

In the face of such intolerance, it is important to remember that Christians uphold the value of tolerance and its significance in public life.  Granted, the Christian conception of tolerance is not that same as its secular counter-conception.  Christians consistently do and have accepted the existence of different points of view.  We know that not everyone believes as we do.  Moreover, in general, we do not support the suppression – especially the violent suppression – of different points of view.  In this sense, then, we believe in “free speech.”  What is troublesome for Christians is not tolerance in this sense, but the secular conception of tolerance which not only advocates for acceptance of the existence of different views, but demands the acceptance of the truthfulness of these different views.  D.A. Carson explains this tolerance well:

The new [secular] tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own.  We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid.[1]

Of course, the great irony of this tolerance is that if one refuses to accept this definition of tolerance or play by its rules, that person will not be tolerated!  As Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ottawa, wryly noted, “Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.”[2]

One of the most striking lessons in true tolerance comes from Jesus in His Parable of the Weeds.  Jesus tells of a master who plants some wheat.  But while everyone is sleeping, the master’s enemy sneaks in and sows weeds with the wheat.  When the master’s servants see what has happened, they ask, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”  But the master replies, “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:28, 30).  The master in this parable, of course, is Jesus.  The wheat are those who trust in Him while the weeds are those who reject Him.  But rather than immediately destroying those who reject Him, Jesus is tolerant:  He allows the weeds to grow with the wheat.  Martin Luther comments on this parable:

Observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do.[3]

Violent oppression of those with whom we disagree is not an option for the Christian, Luther asserts.  He goes on to state that if we violently deal with someone who is not a Christian and kill him or her, we take away that person’s chance to trust Christ and be saved by Him.  We thus work against the gospel rather than for it.  This echoes Paul’s sentiment in Romans where he speaks of God’s tolerance as kindness which leads to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).

Finally, Christianity teaches an even higher virtue than just tolerance – it teaches love.  And after a week that has seen so much hatred, perhaps that is what we need to share with our world.


[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), 3-4.

[2] Cited in D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, 12.

[3] Martin Luther, The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House 1906), 100-106.

September 17, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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