Posts tagged ‘ISIS’

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

ISIS Takes a Tumble

ISIS’s caliphate has fallen.

This is the news that broke last week when the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the U.S., finally broke the terrorist group’s last metropolitan stronghold in Raqqa.  The New York Times reports that:

Celebrations erupted in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.

One video shows a woman ripping off her burqa and chanting joyfully, overcome with emotion that her city has been liberated.

Even with this victory, Raqqa is still a plenty dangerous place.  ISIS still probably has suicide bombers in hiding waiting to launch attacks.  The terrorist group has also booby-trapped many areas with improvised explosive devices.  Moreover, the city of Raqqa itself has been devastated.  The New York Times published another article featuring images from cities across Iraq, including Raqqa.  All of them lie in ruins.

Still, this is an important milestone victory against a terrorist group whose territory, at its height in 2014, covered 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq and whose tactics against defectors and dissidents were nothing short of gruesomely brutal.  In Paradise Square in the center of Raqqa, later fittingly renamed Hell Square:

Prisoners were tossed from tall buildings, beheaded, lashed or shot while the crowds gathered … Hands and feet were chopped off. Others were stoned to death … Bodies and severed heads were carefully placed around the square by Islamic State militants and would remain there for days. Those who lived and escaped to tell the tale would describe how the bodies were labeled, identifying the victim’s crime in a deliberate warning to others.

Sadly, as chilling as these macabre parades were, we know that, even if scenes like these are in the past for now, they may not be in the past forever.  Wickedness is horrifyingly resilient.  But even if the war against the wickedness of ISIS has not yet been fully won, we can be thankful that a major battle has been.  We can also be thankful that, no matter how brutal a regime may be, we have a perfect Sovereign who, in the words of the prophet Daniel, graciously and often necessarily, “deposes kings and raises up others” (Daniel 2:21).

Daniel’s words about God’s power over world affairs come as he is interpreting a dream for Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.  The king has a dream where he sees his kingdom, the kingdom of Babylon, along with four future kingdoms:  the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians, the kingdom of the Greeks, the kingdom of the Romans, and the kingdom of God.  In his vision, only one kingdom lasts.  Daniel, in his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, reveals to the king which kingdom will endure:

The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Daniel 2:44)

Only the kingdom of God, Daniel says, will endure.  Every other kingdom, including Nebuchadnezzar’s, will fall.

In a world where a kingdom like ISIS’s can have its say, we can be thankful that the kingdom of God will eventually carry the day.  So, as grateful as I am that ISIS’s caliphate is waning, I’m ultimately hopeful for a perfect kingdom that is coming.  For when that kingdom comes on the Last Day, ISIS will not only lose the prospect of further victories like they have now thanks to the brave work of the Syrian Democratic Forces, they’ll lose even their past victories, as the death they have wrought will be swallowed up by the eternal life that Christ, by the cross, has bought.

ISIS has an even bigger loss to come.

October 23, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Terror in Manchester

Manchester Town Hall

Terror struck again, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.  What began as a night of fun for fans of the pop music diva ended with 22 dead, many of them children, and 59 others wounded when a suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of the concert arena.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by 22-year-old Salman Abedi who seems to have become radicalized after travelling to Syria.

Once again, the world is left struggling with what can only be described as a senseless and ghastly act of violence.  As I have after other similar attacks, I want to offer a few thoughts on how to process yet another week marred by a terrorist’s malice.  Here are three things to consider.

Sin is real.

In general, we want to believe that people are good.  Sure, there may an occasional evil outlier, but, overall, we like to assume that people are hardwired for goodness.  The steady stream of terrorist attacks, however, indicates differently.  Indeed, the tragedy in Manchester was the most widely reported terrorist attack of last week, but three additional attacks were also launched this past week – one in Egypt, another in the Philippines, and yet another in Indonesia.  Heinous acts of evil are rampant.  Sin is all too real.

It is true that the vast majority of people, thankfully, will never be party to a terrorist plot.  Every one of us, however, will struggle with some kind of sin.  Whether it be the sin of deception, or lust, or pride, or anger, none of us can escape the sirens of our sinister sides.  Because we live in a broken world, we have to live with the sad fact that the sin of terrorism will continue to be “out there.”  But because we ourselves are broken people, we also have to live with the sad fact that we will continue to struggle with sin in us.  The apostle Paul is right when he writes, “For all have sinned” (Romans 3:23).  Sin is real and is everywhere.

Righteousness is real.

We may struggle against sin, but we also yearn for righteousness.  We recoil in disgust against terrorism precisely because we know it’s wicked and we yearn for what is right.  But how do we know what is right and that terrorism is wrong?  Paul explains that, even if we do not know God, we know what is right and wrong because God has written righteousness on our hearts: “When [people], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).  This is why, in the face of evil, we appeal to and press toward righteousness.

Justice is coming.

In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”  At a time when racism was rampant, Dr. King believed justice would ultimately triumph.  And although racism still spreads its ugly tentacles through our society, justice has been slowly but surely bludgeoning the evil of racism over the 54 years since Dr. King’s speech.  What is true of racism is also true of ISIS and other organizations like it.  The evil of ISIS is simply no match for the justice of God.  ISIS may delight in the death of the innocent, but a day will come when “there will be no more death” (Revelation 21:4), for “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54) through Christ.  Indeed, Christ has already defeated death by His resurrection.  And because of Christ’s resurrection, those who lose their lives in Him do not lose their lives forever.  Death, for them, is but a pause in the drumbeat of life.  Their resurrections are soon to come when Jesus comes.

So after a week when a terrorist did his worst, we can take comfort in the biblical promise of everlasting life.  To quote the poet and pastor John Donne:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

May 29, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Death Is Dying

about 1324-5

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

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

berlin-christmas-attack

Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

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[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The ISIS Atrocities You Probably Haven’t Heard About

isis

ISIS must be stopped.  It’s difficult to come to any other conclusion when story after story of the group’s atrocities continue to pour in.  In a horrifying iteration of violence that has become ISIS’s trademark, a woman named Alice Assaf recounted how when jihadis marched into her town over two years ago, they killed her son for refusing to disown his faith in Christ, murdered at least six men by baking them alive in ovens, and killed 250 children by massacring them in dough kneading machines at a local bakery.

Are you sick to your stomach yet?  I certainly was when I read the news story.

But too many people have not read this story.  Stories about emails and Tweets among the two major party presidential candidates have relegated ISIS’s atrocities to the background.  Certainly, this year’s presidential election with all of its crazy ups and downs is important.  But when many people lose track of, or, I fear, even lose interest in ISIS’s activities, something has gone tragically wrong.

Just last August, it was being argued that we should ignore, or at least downplay, ISIS’s crimes.  During an official visit to Bangladesh, Secretary of State John Kerry explained:

No country is immune from terrorism. It’s easy to terrorize. Government and law enforcement have to be correct 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But if you decide one day you’re going to be a terrorist and you’re willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.[1]

The Secretary of State was arguing that by featuring terror attacks in the headlines, we are only emboldening the terrorists by giving them what they want – free publicity, which leads to more recruiting power, which leads to more killings.  As it turns out, however, even as ISIS’s publicity retreats, the atrocities continue.  A lack of headlines does not seem to temper ISIS’s bloodlust.

We must understand that what drives ISIS, ultimately, is not a desire for fame, for land, or for money.  A theology is what drives the group.  I am sympathetic to Muslim theologians who argue that ISIS’s theology is not Islamic or representative of Allah in any meaningful or traditional sense, but even if this is the case, ISIS nevertheless has a theology.  It has a conception of a god who calls and commands its adherents to do the things they do.  And the things this god calls and commands them to do are horrifying.  But they will continue to do them, whether or not the world is watching, because they think their god is watching – and is pleased with them.

This is why we must continue to pay attention.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who does not order the execution of the oppressed, but cares about the plight of the oppressed and invites us to do the same.  We must continue to pay attention because we serve and worship a God who hates injustice and promises to confront it and conquer it with righteousness.

Perhaps what was most shocking to me about the article I read outlining ISIS’s bakery massacre was the headlines in the “Related Stories” column of the website I was visiting:

All of these articles carried datelines of August and September of this year.  ISIS is still on the loose, even if we don’t see it or know it.  Perhaps it’s time to see and notice once again.  After all, the blood of those it has slaughtered is crying out.

Are we listening?

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[1] Jeryl Bier, “Kerry in Bangladesh: Media Should Cover Terrorism Less,” The Weekly Standard (8.29.2016).

October 31, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Using Kids to Kill

Turkish Attack


Women cry during a funeral for victims of the attack on a wedding party that left at least 50 dead in Turkey.
Credit: Ilyas Akenginilyas Akengin / AFP / Getty Images

Late last week, word came that more than 50 people had been killed at a wedding party in Istanbul when a suicide bomber walked into the party and blew himself up.  In a nation that is always on high alert because it has seen so many of these types of terrible attacks, how did a terrorist slip into this party unnoticed?  Officials estimate that the suicide bomber in question was between 12 and 14 years old.  In other words, no one noticed the bomber at the party because this bomber was, in relative terms, a baby – a child.  And children are harmless – or so we think.

Exploiting kids to kill its enemies has been a longstanding and and cynically promoted strategy of ISIS.  Reporting for USA Today, Oren Dorell, citing the expertise of Mia Bloom, a researcher at Georgia State, explains:

In the initial seduction phase, Islamic State fighters roll into a village or neighborhood, hold Quran recitation contests, give out candy and toys, and gently expose children to the group. This part often involves ice cream…

“To desensitize them to violence, they’re shown videos of beheadings, attend a live beheading,” Bloom said.

Then the children participate in beheadings, by handing out knives or leading prisoners to their deaths, she said. The gradual process is similar to that used by a pedophile who lures a child into sex, “slowly breaking down the boundaries, making something unnatural seem normal,” she said.[1]

In another article that appeared in USA Today last year, Zeina Karam explains how ISIS teaches kids to behead their victims:

More than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his Islamic State captors, told the Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Islamic State training camp.[2]

All of this is ghastly, of course.  The thought of children being trained to commit brutal acts of murder feels utterly unthinkable to us.  But why?

Scripture is clear that all people, from the moment of our births, are sinful.  To cite King David’s famous words: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).  So that a child could or would commit a sinful act should not be particularly surprising to us.  Little kids commit all kinds of sins – everything from lying to defying to hoarding – all the time.  But the thought of a child committing murder seems different.

Theologically, the thought of a child committing murder seems different because, at the same time all people are born sinners, we are also born as bearers of the image of God.  In other words, at the same time we all have sinful inclinations, we also have a righteous Creator who has endowed us with a moral compass.  When this moral compass is violated, guilt ensues, for we cannot fully escape the mark of our Creator.

God’s mark proves to be particularly poignant when it comes to the sin of murder.  This is why God’s image is specifically invoked against the taking of a life: “I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5-6).  To watch one person kill another person is so completely incongruous with who God has created us to be, it cannot help but startle us.

In a human, then, there are two tugs – one that is of sin and the other that is of righteousness.  And these war against each other.  ISIS has fanned into a giant, roaring flame the inclination to sin in the lives of little children.   This is sadly possible to do because of humanity’s sinful state, but it will not escape the judgment of God.  In the words of Jesus:

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.  (Luke 17:1-2)

Christ does not take kindly to those who intentionally and systematically lead children into sin.   After all, He made them in His image and He cares for them out of His love.  May His little ones be saved from those who would harm them.

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[1] Oren Dorell, “Here’s how the Islamic State turns children into terrorists,” USA Today (8.23.2016).

[2] Zeina Karam, “Islamic State camp has kids beheading dolls with swords,” USA Today (7.21.2015).

August 29, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Thoughts on the Martyrdom of Rev. Jacques Hamel

FRANCE-ATTACK-CHURCH-HOSTAGE

A French police officer stands guard by Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray’s city hall.
Credit: AFP Photo / Charly Triballeau

France is under assault.  Less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in Nice when a terrorist drove a large van at high speeds through a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day, word comes that an 85-year-old priest, Rev. Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in front of his congregation in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray as he was concluding a Tuesday morning Mass last week.  ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, though there is no evidence that the attackers had been been able to make contact with the radical group.  In response to the killing, French President François Hollande remarked, “We must realize that the terrorists will not give up until we stop them.”[1]  But stopping them is proving more difficult than anyone imagined.  It turns out that, in this attack, one of the killers was wearing and electronic tag that tracked his motions because he was under house arrest after he attempted to travel to Syria in 2015.  But his tracking device did nothing to thwart his murderous rampage.

France, of course, is gripped by fear. ISIS and its sympathizers seem intent on starting nothing less than a holy war.  And managing an effective military and police defense seems next to impossible.  This is why it is important that, as Christians, we remember that even though physical defenses can fail us, we have a spiritual defense that is sure.  The apostle Paul writes:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10, 13-17)

Paul’s famous words speak of the spiritual defense we have against every kind of evil attack.  Against lies, we buckle a belt of truth.  Against wickedness, we stand with the breastplate of righteousness.  Against violence, we charge forth with the gospel of peace. Against faithlessness, we take up the shield of faith. And against the devil’s attempts to speak condemnation over us, we wear a helmet of salvation and wield the sword of God’s Word.  We are impressively outfitted.

But Paul is not yet done.  He continues:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:18-20)

Even though the NIV translates Paul’s words here as a new sentence, the Greek syntax of this passage lends itself toward being one, long run-on sentence that begins in verse 17 when Paul calls on us to take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.  In this way, then, Paul’s words in verses 18 through 20 tell us how we are to wield the weapons he outlines in verses 14 through 17.  We are to wield them prayerfully.  When we fight against evil, we are not to do so angrily or bitterly or pridefully, but prayerfully.

Granted, fighting against evil’s attacks prayerfully will not always appear to be effective.  Look at Paul!  The very man who is extolling the prayerful use of the weapons of God notes that he is “in chains” (verse 20).  He is being persecuted for his faith and his persecutors appear to have the upper hand.  But Paul knows things are not always as they appear.  Just like Christ when He was crucified, a person who appears to be a victim can ultimately prove to be the victor.  Indeed, one of the fascinating things about the Christian’s posture toward martyrdom is that although it is not to be sought, it is also not necessarily always to be fought.  The apostle Peter, who himself was eventually martyred for the faith, wrote, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16).  Peter says a Christian can find joy even in things as ghastly as suffering and death.  When a Christian fights, therefore, he fights more for the truth of Christ than he does against his own suffering and death.

None of this is to say that the death of Father Hamel is anything less than tragic.  Prayers for his family, his friends, and the parish at which he served are certainly in order.  What happened last week was evil.  And Father Hamel’s voice is now added to the voices under Revelation’s altar that cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:10)?  The cry of Father Hamel’s blood will not fall on deaf ears.  When Christ returns, there will be a reckoning for his unjust death.

Shortly after last week’s events in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a friend of mine posted a quote from the great Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”[2]  This is most certainly true.  This gentle, aged priest, though he no longer leads in a parish, is now ruling “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).

And for that, even as I am sorrowful, I am thankful.

________________________

[1] Adam Nossiter, Alissa J. Rubin and Benoît Morrene, “ISIS Says Its ‘Soldiers’ Attacked Church in France, Killing Priest,” The New York Times (7.26.2016).

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, Alastair Hannay, trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 352.

August 1, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Processing the Terror in Orlando

Orlando Terror Attacks

Credit:  The Guardian

Terror doesn’t sleep.

This is one of the lessons we’re learning from what has become the worst mass shooting in U.S. history carried out early this morning around 2 o’clock at a nightclub in Orlando.

The shooter’s name was Omar Mateen.  He had drawn the attention of the FBI in the past, and before he carried out his terror attack, he called 911 to pledge his allegiance to ISIS.  By the time his AR-15-style rifle and his handgun were silenced, 50 people were dead and over 50 were injured.  Mr. Mateen himself was killed by law enforcement officials while he was holed up in one of the club’s bathrooms with hostages.

News reports have been filled with people expressing shock, sadness, and outrage.  All of these responses are certainly appropriate, but what especially grieves me is that they are also entirely predictable.  We know how people will respond to a terror attack emotionally precisely because we have had so much practice responding to terror attacks emotionally.  ParisSan BernardinoBrussels.   But this tragedy – like the ones that have come before it – is too important not to respond.  When human life is senselessly and violently taken, we should stop and we should reflect and we should respond.  Here are a few things, then, to keep in mind.

Do not be afraid.

This is not the first time I have written this in the face of a terror attack.  But this is also something that bears repeating.  After all, whenever an attack like this one unfolds, our natural and almost reflexive reaction is to ask, “Am I next?  Am I safe?”  But such questions are unhelpful because such questions are utterly unanswerable.  There is no way for us to control the future.  This is why the apostle Paul commends us to be people of prayer rather than people of worry and fear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).  We may not be able to control the future, but we do know someone who holds the future.  We are called to present our fear to Him and place our trust in Him.

I should point out that there is a difference between being afraid and being vigilant.  Fear happens when a person mulls over all sorts of possible, though unverifiable, bad scenarios for the future.  Vigilance is when a person looks for clues of trouble in the present and reports them to the appropriate authorities for investigation.  Being vigilant is helpful.  Being afraid is needless.

Remember, there is a reason attacks like the one in Orlando are called acts of terror.  They are attacks specifically designed to instill fear.  Don’t let these attacks have their way in your heart.  Christ is stronger than terror.

Be careful connecting dots.

One of the major focal points of this story has been the clientele to whom this night club in Orlando catered.  The club at which these attacks were carried out is called the Pulse, which is well-known as a hotspot for those in the LGBT community.  Shortly after the attacks, GLAAD, a gay rights advocacy group, tweeted, “Our hearts break for the victims and families of this horrific act of violence. We stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in #Orlando.”  The call to stand in a solidarity of care, concern, and compassion is well-taken.

At the same time, many in the media and beyond are already wondering and conjecturing out loud concerning whether or not the fact that this is an LGBT club in any way served as a motive for the shooter.  In an article for the Huffington Post, Michelangelo Signorile offers a brief history of attacks against LGBT spaces, strongly intimating that the Orlando attack was probably more of the same.

Whether or not the patronage of this nightclub is somehow connected to the motive of the shooter is certainly a question that needs to be asked and answered.  At this point, however, overly confident pronouncements can do more harm than good.  A good rule of thumb is this:  investigation precedes correlation.  In other words, let’s not jump to conclusions.

As a Christian, this is something that I must regularly remember.  It can be far too tempting to search for some pious, consoling, and grandiose reason why a God who Scripture reveals to be a strong and sure defense would allow a horrific tragedy like this to happen.  But correlating current events to overly specific divine purposes is a theological fool’s errand.  Theologically, I must say only what I can know for sure according to Scripture: (1) that such a shooting is an expression of deep sinfulness and depravity (Romans 3:15); (2) that events of death grieve the heart of God because death is not a part of His design (1 Corinthians 15:20-22); and (3) that God is with and cares for those who have lost loved ones (Psalm 23:4).

Connecting disparate facts now will only leave you looking a fool later.  So be careful.

Remember Christianity’s unique message.

As I have said in the past, I am sympathetic to those who claim that ISIS does not represent Islamic theology, at least in any responsible sense.  Just as I do not see the theological stances of, let’s say, the Westboro Baptist Church to be authentically Christian in any regular sense of the term, I can understand why many Muslim theologians would decry and deny that ISIS represents their faith.  But even if ISIS does not represent the Islamic faith in any theologically and academically rigorous way, it does represent some sort of faith – even if the faith it represents calls on its adherents to destroy those it hates.  And this is where Christianity stands apart.  The beauty of the Christian faith is that it centers around a man who loved those who hated Him and sought to destroy Him.  Moreover, whereas ISIS calls on its fighters to lay down their lives in order to bring death to infidels, Christianity has a Savior who laid down His life in order to bring life to sinners.  In other words, Christianity serves as the perfect foil to all the terror ISIS is dishing out.  Christianity loves when ISIS hates.  Christianity promises life when ISIS seeks death.  This is why, on a day that is full of plenty of reasons to hate and to grieve, I once again to turn to Christ who gives me reasons to love and to hope.  And I ask you to join me in doing the same.

May Christ reveal His love and His life to Orlando.

June 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm 5 comments

2015 In Review

Happy New Year 2016 images download

This past week, I took some time to scroll through my blogs for 2015.  It was, in some ways, an unsettling exercise.  Consider these headlines:

Blogging can be a frustrating discipline because, at times, as my list above intimates, it can become flat-out depressing.  It seems as though I’ve blogged on a never-ending succession of tragedies, controversies, and indignities this past year.  And yet, as tough as these topics might be to tackle, I believe they are vital for us as Christians to understand and address.

A few themes have emerged as I’ve watched the headlines unfold in 2015.  First, it seems as though we are obsessed with sex and oppressed by violence. Between “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Ashley Madison scandal, and same-sex marriage, headlines relating to human sexuality and the sexual ethics have dominated.  But so have headlines relating to violence.  The acronym ISIS is now the stuff of household lore.  Planned Parenthood’s gruesome harvesting of fetal parts sent shivers up the spines of many.  Beatings and shootings with racist tinges dominate the headlines.  As a child, I remember my parents criticizing many movies for having too much “sex and violence.”  Was art imitating life back then or is life imitating art now?

A second theme that has emerged is a search for who we are as humans.  I would be intellectually, emotionally, and relationally naïve if I did not recognize that same-sex marriage is about much more than sex.  It is about the ability of people to define themselves as they see themselves.  This is also the case with the transgender recrudescence.  How internal desires correspond to a person’s biological ordering is key to understanding the existential angst that many people in the LGBT community experience.

Third, issues of race and religion have taken center stage this past year.  From the racist chant by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon to the shooting at the church in Charleston, racism is frustratingly alive and well.  At the same time the LGBT community is trying to figure out who it is and arriving at some spiritually dangerous answers, we seem to have forgotten some of the older spiritually salutary lessons we had to learn about who we are as a nation of immigrants.  And I would contend that this is true across the racial spectrum.  Trumped up charges of racism in the form of the newly minted category of “microaggression” do not help, but neither do denials that racism is real and consequential.  Religiously, we are learning quickly – both from Paris and San Bernardino – that bad theologies have terrible consequences.  The theological drivers of groups like ISIS cannot be minimalized or rationalized.  They must be confronted.

As I reflect on the stories I have covered, I have become convinced more than ever that our world is not just in need of good thinking, but theological thinking on the things that ail us.  The problems we have encountered in 2015 are not just the results of some bad thinking that needs to be tuned up by an enlightened intelligentsia so we can march boldly into a utopian era.  Rather, the problems we have encountered in 2015 are the results of nothing short of a deeply depraved sinfulness that needs to be confronted by the Word of God.  And this is where we, as Christians, have something unique to offer our world.  While the world is trying to solve its problems by political, intellectual, and social gerrymandering, we can be confronting and forgiving the sinners – even when those sinners are us – who create the problems.  In my mind, that’s our greatest hope for a better world.

Human sin, sadly, will probably continue to give me plenty of reasons to write in 2016.  But grace, thankfully, will give me even more reasons to rejoice.  So let’s see where the year takes us.

January 4, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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