Posts tagged ‘Terrorism’

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?

____________________________

[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

Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge

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Baton Rouge police block Airline Highway after a sniper kills three and wounds three officers.  Credit: AP Photo/Max Becherer

Death is grimly efficient.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of a tree about which God had said, “You must not eat…for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17).  By Genesis 4, death has already had its way as Cain kills his brother Abel.

That didn’t take long.

The grim efficiency of death has loomed large over these past few days.  First, word came from Nice, France last Thursday that 84 people had been killed when a terrorist drove a large, white paneled truck at high speeds into a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day.  Then, on Saturday, we learned that around 290 people were killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now arrested over 6,000 people and has vowed to root out what he calls the “virus” that is plaguing his country.  Then, yesterday, tragedy hit Baton Rouge as three police officers were killed and three others were injured when a sniper ambushed and shot at the officers who had responded to a report of trouble near the Hammond Aire Plaza shopping center.

Three stories of death in nearly as many days.  And these come on the heels of another week before this last week that was also packed with three stories stories of death from Saint Paul, from Dallas, and, again, from Baton Rouge.  Yes, death is grimly efficient.

These are terrible times.  There was a time when weeks like these – with so many major stories of unrest and death – were nearly unthinkable.  But in the summer of 2016, weeks like these are becoming all too predictable.  Indeed, I can sometimes struggle with how to process all of these types of tragedies precisely because there are so many of these types of tragedies.

In processing this week’s worth of carnage, I would point to what I have already pointed to in the past.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas, I pointed people to the importance of being empathetic with those who grieve, of receiving Christ’s peace in the midst of unrest, and, most importantly, of remembering that death does not have the last word.  Christ does.

As I look back on this week of tragedies, all of these reminders still hold.  And yet, I wish I didn’t have to remind people of these reminders – again.

Even though I feel a little overwhelmed by so much death in such a short period of time, I am not particularly surprised by it.  After all, death, as Genesis 3 and 4 teach us, is indeed grimly efficient.  It works fast and it works tenaciously.  And it has no intention of giving up on its prey.

What is most striking to me about Abel’s death in Genesis 4 is that even though God condemned Adam and Eve to death because of their transgression against His command, it was their son, Abel, who first suffered under the fruit of their sin.  It who their son, who, ostensibly, did nothing particularly wrong who dies.  Indeed, the reason Abel’s brother Cain kills him is because he did something right.  He made an offering that was pleasing to God.  Cain became jealous of that offering and murdered him.

The first death in history, then, was that of an apparently innocent person.  This is why, when God finds out what Cain has done to his brother, He is furious and asks Cain, “What have you done?” which, interestingly, is the same question God asks Eve when she eats from His forbidden fruit.  God continues by answering His own question: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

Ever since that moment, the blood that cries out to God has been getting deeper and deeper as death has been spreading farther and wider.  Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge have now added their blood to Abel’s.

Finally, there is only one way to stem the flow of death and blood. The preacher of Hebrews explains:

You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:23-24)

Just like Abel, there was a man who was not only ostensibly innocent, He was actually innocent.  Just like Abel, this was a man who did what was pleasing in God’s sight.  And just like Abel, this was a man who had His blood spilled by those who were jealous of Him.  But Jesus’ blood, the preacher of Hebrews says, is better than Abel’s blood.  Why?  Because Jesus’ blood did what Abel’s blood could not.  Instead of just crying out, as did Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood saved us.  By His blood, Jesus solved the problem of Abel’s blood…and Nice’s blood…and Turkey’s blood…and Baton Rouge’s blood.  For by His blood, Jesus said to death’s grim efficiency: “Your reign will end.  My blood will overtake all the blood that cries with a blood that can save all.”

In a week that has seen far too much blood and far too many tears, Jesus’ blood is the blood that we need.  For Jesus’ blood is the only blood that doesn’t wound our souls as we mourn loss; it mends our souls as we yearn for salvation.

July 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Terror Hits Brussels: How Should Christians Respond?

Brussels

It happened again.

Just four days after Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was captured by Belgian law enforcement officials, two coordinated attacks – one at the airport and another on a subway – were carried out in Brussels at approximately 8 am local time.  ISIS is taking responsibility for both.

Most of the scenes on the news right now are coming from the airport attack, and the pictures are ghastly.  Physicians treating the wounded are describing severe nail injuries, indicating that the explosives were packed with materials designed to inflict maximum injury.  As of the posting of this blog, CNN is reporting the provisional death toll at 34:  14 dead at the airport with 20 people killed in the subway bombing.  We do not know whether or not the toll will rise.

At a time like this, it is always worthwhile to pause and reflect on how we, as Christians, are called to respond and react to a tragedy such as this.  Christians are, after all, in a unique position to respond and react to tragedy, for our very faith was born out of tragedy, as this Good Friday will remind us.  Our faith is rooted in “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) – a gruesome thought if left by itself.  So here are a few things to keep in mind.

Pray for Brussels

When terrorists attacked Paris, I wrote, “Pray for Paris.”  The first thing we should do in an event like this is pray – always.  For the vast majority of us, there is no help we can offer Brussels physically – we are not omnipresent.  And there is no way we can thwart another attack in this beleaguered city – we are not omnipotent.  So we must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who is omnipresent and omnipotent.  We must entrust Brussels and its future to the One who can actually help.  Such is the power of prayer.  It not only offers real help to hurting people because it turns to a God who is in the business of helping hurting people, it also grows our faith when we cannot take charge of a situation like this because it teaches us to trust the One who is in charge of every situation like this.

Mourn for Brussels

The old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  We have become all too familiar with terror attacks.  With another one in the news this morning, although we may not be tempted to become outright contemptuous of what has happened, we may be tempted to respond to it with a mild dismissiveness.  We see.  We react with a bit of a groan.  And we move on.  I would encourage us to saunter at the scenes from Brussels for a bit.  Look at the damage done at the airport.  Look at the horrified faces of the people escaping from a bombed subway car.  And grieve.  Terror may be common nowadays, but that shouldn’t make it any less tragic in our hearts and minds.  What has happened in Brussels is worth our grief.  It is worth our sadness.  It is worth our pain.  We worship a Savior who shares in all our pain.  He never passes us by “on the other side” (Luke 10:31).  We should be willing to share in each other’s pain as well.  For when we do, we “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

Hope for Brussels

Christianity may have been borne out of the tragedy of death, but it is carried forth by the glory of life.  This is what this Holy Week is all about – death on a Friday followed by life on a Sunday.  The hope we have for Brussels, then, is the hope we have for all the world – that no matter how many people terrorists may kill, they cannot win by death because “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).  Christ portended our ultimate ends when, on Easter, He conquered His would-be end by walking out of His grave.  We now share in the promise that our graves will not be our ends.  Resurrection is coming.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of Armageddon – that great cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of days.  The reason I love it so much is not just because of who wins, but because of how the battle is fought.  The forces of evil, John says, are gathered “to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘It is done’” (Revelation 16:16-17).  And that’s the end of the battle.  There are no swords drawn.  There are no bullets fired.  There are no bombs dropped.  The forces of darkness combine to bring their worst.  But they are no match for God’s simple declaration: “It is done.”  In Greek, the declaration is just one word:  gegonen.  It turns out that even just one little word, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, really can fell Satan and his sympathizers.

We live in a world where deranged terrorists wage twisted jihad.  But as Christians, we hope for a kingdom where battles are not won by an armed detachment, but by a divine decree: “Gegonen.”  “It is done.”

And it will be.

March 22, 2016 at 10:53 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

Peace and Justice in the Face of ISIS

Credit: NBC News

Credit: NBC News

First it was James Foley. Days later, it was Steven Sotloff. The beheading of two journalists by ISIS has certainly thrust the travesties of this terrorist organization to the forefront of our minds and our news cycle. But these are just ISIS’s latest crimes. At the beginning of August, some 50,000 Yazidis were forced to flee into the mountains of Iraq or face death at the hands of ISIS militants. ISIS also kidnapped hundreds Yazidi women, selling them as sex slaves for as little as $25. Last week, The New York Times profiled the gut-wrenching story of Iraqi soldier Ali Hussein Kadhim who was captured along with hundreds of other soldiers by ISIS militants.  Christians too have been in ISIS’s crosshairs, being threatened with death if they do not convert to radical Islam or pay a tax.

Back home, President Obama is grappling with how to deal with a terrorist threat and crimes against humanity that are half a world away. And he’s been getting pressure from all sides. On one side, a coalition of religious conservatives has signed a petition calling for decisive military action:

It is imperative that the United States and the international community act immediately and decisively to stop the ISIS … genocide and prevent the further victimization of religious minorities. This goal cannot be achieved apart from the use of military force to degrade and disable ISIS … forces.[1]

On the other side, a group of Catholic and Protestant leaders has written a letter to President, urging caution and restraint:

While the dire plight of Iraqi civilians should compel the international community to respond in some way, U.S. military action is not the answer. Lethal weapons and airstrikes will not remove the threat to a just peace in Iraq. As difficult as it might be, in the face of this great challenge, we believe that the way to address the crisis is through long-term investments in supporting inclusive governance and diplomacy, nonviolent resistance, sustainable development, and community-level peace and reconciliation processes.[2]

This is a crisis no president wants to face. This crisis also presents an ethical dilemma no Christian finds easy to confront. On the one hand, my preference and prayer would be that ISIS repent of their crimes and peace be restored to Iraq. On the other hand, I am sober-minded enough to know that ISIS shows no signs of softening. When even the Taliban is concerned about ISIS’s extremism, things are not on the right track.

So how do we understand this problem theologically?

A curious feature of biblical theology is what scholars refer to as “proleptic eschatology.” In short, proleptic eschatology asserts that bits and pieces of what will happen on the Last Day show up in our days. For example, the apostle Paul claims that Christ’s resurrection is only “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). In other words, the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day has shown up in the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. Likewise, Jesus describes His return on the Last Day to judge the earth thusly: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). But before a cosmic judgment on the Last Day, Jesus describes a smaller judgment in the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in His day: “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). Jesus’ words come to pass when the Roman general Titus decimates Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The judgment of the Last Day shows up in the destruction of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

It is this theology of proleptic eschatology that Paul has in mind when he exhorts his readers: Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Paul promises that even if we see miscarriages of justice in our day, God will avenge evil on the Last Day.

But that’s not the only day God will avenge evil.

Paul knows the evil of our day, if left unchecked until the Last Day, would yield unspeakable horrors. This is why Paul continues by explaining that bits and pieces of God’s judgment on the Last Day show up in our day through the actions of world governments: “[The governing authority] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). The judgment of God against sin on the Last Day shows up through world governments in our day.

This, then, brings us to the Christian’s ethical dilemma. Because, on the one hand, we are called to wait patiently until the Last Day for God’s perfect judgment and justice to be revealed. On the other hand, governing authorities – including our own governing authority – can be used by God as His agents to bring temporal justice to the criminal problems of our day. This is why two sets of Christians can write two very different letters to President Obama.

I, for one, am praying that perhaps ISIS will have a Jonah moment – that they, like when Jonah preached to Nineveh, will hear the warning of God’s judgment, repent, and be spared of His wrath. But I am also very aware that after the preaching of Jonah to Nineveh came the preaching of Nahum to Nineveh – and with the preaching of Nahum to Nineveh came God’s wrath against Nineveh.

The clock is ticking on ISIS. I pray for peace and reconciliation. But I also pray that justice against these terrorists will not tarry long. The spilled blood of thousands is crying out.

__________________________

[1]A Plea on Behalf of Victims of ISIS/ISIL Barbarism in Iraq,” iraqrescue.org.

[2]53 national religious groups, academics, ministers urge alternatives to U.S. military action in Iraq,” Mary Knoll Office for Global Concerns (8.27.2014).

September 8, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Searching for Scapegoats

Boston Bombing SuspectsAs investigators continue to probe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev concerning his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, his motive, though not fully understood, nevertheless seems to be driven at least in part by an al Qaeda agenda.  Consider this from NBC News:

It is as slickly designed as any magazine you would find at the supermarket checkout line, or in the seat pocket in front of you on an airplane. It even has snappy cover headlines – teasing articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.”

And now Inspire, the recruitment magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, probably has its next cover story:  It allegedly helped inspire the two brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the hospitalized suspect in the marathon attack, has told federal investigators that the brothers got information on building bombs from Inspire, law enforcement officials told NBC News.[1]

Before Dzhokhar and his brother Tamerlan were identified by the FBI as the suspects in this bombing, confusion – and, I should add, speculation – as to who could have done such a thing abounded.  There was the damaging gaffe from the New York Post which published a cover featuring two young men who, according to the Post, were sought by “the Feds” when, in fact, they were not suspects in the bombing.[2]  And then there were those who speculated – and even hoped – that the bomber would either be or not be a certain race, religion, or political persuasion.

Two articles, published before the Tsarnaev brothers were identified, are of special interest in this regard.  The first article appeared in The Guardian carrying the headline, “US Muslims ‘holding their breath’ as Boston investigators hunt for bomber.”[3]  The article opened:

US Muslims are “holding their breath” as the investigation into the Boston Marathon attacks develops, amid fears of increased racial profiling and attacks if an Islamic link is confirmed, according to advocate groups.

The second article was by David Sirota, writing for Salon, and was titled, “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.”[4]  Sirota, who I should point out is himself a white American, offers the rational for his demographic hope thusly:

If the bomber ends up being a white anti-government extremist, white privilege will likely mean the attack is portrayed as just an isolated incident – one that has no bearing on any larger policy debates. Put another way, white privilege will work to not only insulate whites from collective blame, but also to insulate the political debate from any fallout from the attack.

It will probably be much different if the bomber ends up being a Muslim and/or a foreigner from the developing world. As we know from our own history, when those kind of individuals break laws in such a high-profile way, America often cites them as both proof that entire demographic groups must be targeted, and that therefore a more systemic response is warranted. At that point, it’s easy to imagine conservatives citing Boston as a reason to block immigration reform defense spending cuts and the Afghan War withdrawal and to further expand surveillance and other encroachments on civil liberties.

Interestingly, both of these articles share this in common:  they both hoped the bomber was not a Muslim.  But Sirota’s article takes it one step farther.  He wants the bomber to be “a white anti-government extremist.”  The Guardian’s article has only a negative hope for who the bomber is not.  Sirota, on the other hand, holds out a positive hope for who the bomber is. 

I can sympathize with the sentiments of those interviewed for The Guardian’s article.  After all, I cringe whenever I hear another Christian merely say something wrongheaded, hypocritical, or bombastic.  To have someone who claims to follow Christ plant and detonate a bomb in the midst of a crowd of marathon onlookers would break my heart.  After all, such a tragedy would harm the Christian witness and put up a Satanic barrier that could very well be a powerful preventive against people coming to the truth.  I can only imagine the stress, anguish, and embarrassment that some in the Muslim community must be feeling right now.  And when these feelings are coupled with the potential of reckless retaliation against mosques and Muslim religious leaders, my guess would be that many in the Muslim community are also feeling fear.  Thus, those in the Muslim community deserve our prayers for their protection against such retaliatory attacks as well as our prayers that they continue to be afforded the basic human dignity implicit to the imago Dei.  Whether or not a person is a Christian, everyone should be afforded a basic amount of dignity and respect, for we are all creations of the Almighty.  A tragedy like this can make a certain people group feel as though they have lost even this basic modicum of dignity and respect.

I have a much harder time understanding the sentiments of Sirota’s article.  Hoping that a particular person or people group has committed a heinous crime is beyond me.  As a Christian, the prayer is never that a particular person or people group would sin, but that a particular person or people group would be guarded from sin.  The words of Jesus come to mind:  “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13).

The fundamental problem with Sirota’s argument is this:  he is trying to identify a scapegoat that will most readily suit his own political machinations and interests.  The message of Christianity is that a scapegoat, not for politics, but for sin has already been provided – Jesus.  Thus, rather than trying to lay blame at the feet of a particular person for the sake of a political agenda, we can lay blame on the cross of Christ where it will be taken away.  For Christ not only takes the blame for human sin by His death, He conquers it by His resurrection.  And so, when sin rears its ugly head as it did in Boston, which would you rather have:  someone you can blame or someone who can save?

I know what my answer is.


[1] Erin McClam, “Slick al Qaeda online magazine aims to train a generation of killers,” NBC News (3.23.2013).

[2] See “NY Post claims these are the two men police are looking for in Boston bombings – but one is a local teen who’s in shock,” The Blaze (4.18.2013)

[3] Karen McVeigh, “US Muslims ‘holding their breath’ as Boston investigators hunt for bomber,” The Guardian (4.17.2013).

[4] David Sirota, “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” Salon (4.16.2013)

April 29, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Week of Tragedies

Boston West TexasWhat a week it’s been.  Monday the headline was carnage at the Boston Marathon as a pair of terrorists planted and detonated two bombs, though they planted more, at the race’s finish line.  Three lost their lives.  More than 170 were injured.  I awoke Wednesday morning to the news that the tiny town of West, Texas, north of Waco, erupted in a fireball in an explosion in a fertilizer plant.  Dozens lost their lives because of this tragic accident.

On the heels of so much tragedy and loss of life, two questions inevitably arise, both consisting of just one word:  “How?” and “Why?”

“How did these two terrorists manage to plant numerous bombs at the finish line of a major race in seemingly plain sight with so many law enforcement officials standing by for any sign of trouble?”  “How did a small blaze at a fertilizer plant get so out of control in a literal split second?”  Investigators specialize in answering these “How?” questions.  Already, expansive and detailed investigations have been launched to try to figure out how these tragedies happened.

The “Why?” questions are a little tougher to answer.  “Why would someone premeditatedly work to cause so much pain and anguish in the bodies, hearts, and lives of so many?”  “Why would God allow any of this to happen?”

Though we have partial answers to our perennial “Why?” questions, our answers are inevitably incomplete because of our finite perspective.  But there are some things we can know and say in tragic times like these nonetheless.

First, we must say that tragedies like these are spawned because of sin.  The attacks in Boston are an example of the darkest corners of human depravity on display.  Two individuals took it upon themselves to actively break God’s law and our nation’s laws in order to coldly calculate a catastrophe.  The fertilizer plant explosion in West is an example of creation’s sinful brokenness.  Because we live in a world that has gone wrong (cf. Genesis 3:17-19, Luke 13:1-5), wrong things happen.

Second, we can also say that tragedies like these testify to God’s patience, albeit in a strange and backwards way.  After all, God is under no particular compulsion to allow this sinful world to continue on.  But He does.  Why?  Because He loves the people He has made and wants to give them as much time as possible to repent of their sinful state and turn toward Him.  As the apostle Peter reminds us, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Peter 3:15).

In the days ahead, steps will no doubt be taken to try to assure that the tragedies of this week will not be repeated.  This is good!  We ought to learn from tragedies like these for the sake of everyone’s safety and wellbeing.  But no matter how many steps we might take to try to guard against similar situations in the future, no human being can root out the underlying cause of all such situations:  sin.  Though we might be able to prevent a particular tragedy from happening again, we cannot take out tragedy’s foundation of sin. Only Jesus can do this.  Only Jesus can conquer the wickedness of this world and restore His creation and His people back to the way He originally dreamed and designed them:  perfect.

April 22, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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