Monday, July 28, 2014

ISIS and the Islamic Threat to the West

According to Samuel Huntington, in his book, The Clash of Civilizations, Some Westerners…, have argued that the West does not have problems with Islam but only with violent Islamist extremist.”  Huntington is quick to add: “Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrates otherwise” [my emphasis].  Huntington makes a good point.  Huntington goes on to say, “The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity.”

Do we get it?  A core dynamic within the Islamic faith is the spirit of jihad, which gives rise to Islamic activist such as ISIS.  Viewed as yet one more minority party of radical Islamic extremists, we may overlook the real potential threat that ISIS represents.  If one considers the fourteen hundred years of conflictual history between Islam and the West, as Huntington suggests, one should not be surprised by the rise of militant Islamic groups such as ISIS, seeking to reestablish a hegemonic Islamic rule in the Middle East and beyond—to regain their old glory days.  There is a consistent pattern here.

Islamic states and parties are often very quick to remind Christians of the Crusades that took place in the 11th and 12th centuries, to make Christians feel guilty and become apologetic for attacking and forging into Islamic territory, cruelly killing and plundering along the way.  What is never mentioned is the Islamic jihad that took place in the reverse direction some five hundred years before the Crusades during the 6th and 7th centuries.  And later, in the 15th century, Islamic forces conquered Byzantium (when Constantinople became Istanbul).

ISIS wants to reconquer the old territories that the great Islamic Ottoman Empire once held.  (For example, there was a day when the Ottoman Empire was powerful enough to besiege the Austrian city of Vienna smack in the middle of Europe, back in 1683.)  Whether ISIS, as ISIS, succeeds or not, in this lofty goal of recreating an Islamic Empire, is not the issue.  The issue is that ISIS is acting on a consistent understanding of an Islamic worldview: The historical and ideal Muslim worldview for Islam is that Islam should be a transcendent all-encompassing social-political-religious and earthly power ruling over all others, where sharia law is the law for all.

That is, in answer to the question, “who is to rule,” their answer is: “Muslims are to rule!”  Or, put another way, “who is to define right and wrong, good and bad, in effect who is to define reality?”  Their answer: Islam!  Hence, there will always be an ISIS kind of movement within present day Islamic territories—somewhere, and in some form or other, by whatever name—as long as the Islamic vision and worldview is upheld by staunch fundamentalist Islamic believers.  And whenever they believe that they have enough power and the means to possibly succeed in that endeavor, they will take action and become active militants toward that end.  Thus, it should not really be surprising that, in the midst of Iraq’s instability, a group like ISIS has taken a foothold in the area and is taking militant action to realize such a vision.

This is why it has been and continues to be extremely difficult, if not next to impossible, to establish peace and stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East in general.  As Samuel Huntington has already pointed out so well in his 1996 book, we are facing a clash of civilizations—a conflict arising out of opposing worldviews, contradictory visions for human society, and a clash between core-faith values and principles.  It is a battle for the very definition of government, society, and culture—for its ownership and control.

I sometimes wonder whether we in the West really grasp the depth of this truth.  Note: In Iraq, in areas where ISIS is in control, ISIS jihadists have given three options to Christians and other non-Muslim people groups: (1) convert at gunpoint (2) leave your home and all your belongings and flee the country, or (3) stay, be executed and die.  This is historical Islamic jihad at its worst.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Suing the President: US versus US

We have plenty of critical issues on the table as it is: immigration, a crumbling infrastructure, a severe drought in the Southwest, a potentially explosive international crisis in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.  And what!  Instead of rolling up their sleeves to cooperatively work towards finding positive solutions in the face of these challenges, the big people in congress are busy trying to work up enough steam and momentum to sue the President.  This is our government hard at work!?

Suing President Obama is NOT a political move, says Boehner.  How about those calling for the impeachment of Obama?  Are we to believe that the call to impeach Obama is also neutral, unbiased, and objective—a nonpolitical move as well?  Really!  Are we idiots?  Is that what our political leaders think of the American people?

We have a lot of politics with little substance, much posturing with little real work getting done.  Aren’t you tired of this?  I am.  How is it that we cannot seem to decide what is best for America in the face of the many local and global crises that confront us?

What will unite us?  Do we have a common purpose?  Is there a common cause we can rally around?  Do we no longer share a common vision or destiny?  If we do, what is it?  Where exactly are we heading?  And, wherever it is, do we see ourselves getting there together… in one piece?

We’re splitting apart at the seams.  What is the big picture here, the overarching vision that holds us together as a people?  We are fracturing: Red States, Blue States, North and South, the Haves and the Have-nots, Black and White!  We are divided by varying cultural values (hence the term “culture wars”), divided by race, social-economic class, religious faith (or lack thereof), and ideology—to name a few obvious dividing lines.

So, what unifies us?  Well, we all seem to have the same materialistic goal: obtaining the American dream—the Almighty Dollar!  That is what brings, and has brought, immigrants from all over the world to America—the promise of economic prosperity.

However, the desire for prosperity, the Almighty Dollar, is actually our greatest divider.  How so?  Because, at the national level, we are immediately divided by questions of who shall control the national coffers, by how and who shall be taxed, by how it is to be distributed, by who gets to keep most of it, by how and where it is to be spent, and by how it is to be sourced and resourced.  All special-interest groups want the biggest and best piece of the American pie, while at the same time no special-interest group wants to pay for the rest of America’s needs or interests at the national level.

We have become a nation of personal self-interest, seeking to satisfy personal wants and desires.  As a nation we no longer seem to have a collective interest, seeking to do what is best for the whole, the collective US—so we are fracturing and dividing and fighting among ourselves.  And we are forgetting that a house divided against its self will not stand.  These are old wise words, now a cliché, but still truer than ever.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Seven Myths on Being a Christian (in no special order)

Myth #1
Christians must be politically right-wing conservative and Republican.

Christians are found across the whole political landscape.  There are leftwing socially and economically liberal Christians as well as the more well known, rightwing, conservative ones.  In truth, Jesus belongs to no political movement and can be owned by no political party.

Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world.  Indeed, Jesus will dismiss and remove any and all earthly kingdoms and rulers when He Himself comes to rule in his new kingdom.  When standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus clearly said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And, specifically with regard to Pilate’s social, legal, political, and Roman judicial power, Jesus had this to say: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”  (See John chapters 18 and 19.)  Jesus power and authority will trump all other human authority including their governments and political parties.  Hence, Christians are to give their highest allegiance to the kingdom of Christ.  (See Colossians, the first chapter.)

Myth #2
Christians must hate gays and hope to see them burn in hell.

Jesus hated and condemned no one.  Or, more accurately, he condemned no one but the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees who believed that they were better than everyone else (holier-than-thou).

Jesus put it this way: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).  Jesus is not about hating and condemning, He is about loving and redeeming—regardless of who and what one may be.

Myth #3
To be a Christian: one must first cleanup one’s act and straighten-up one’s mess before calling one’s self a Christian.

The Apostle Paul reminds us: “But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners [my emphasis] Christ died for us.”  Jesus does not save us because we finally got our act together and earned the right to be saved.

Indeed, even as Christians, we are inconsistent, do not live up to our own ideals of right and wrong, fail to do what’s right at the most critical time and often deliberately do what is wrong when we know we shouldn’t.   Jesus saves us—even while we’re still caught up in our own ethical and moral mess of a life.  If it were not for His merciful grace, we’d have no hope of forgiveness at all.

Myth #4
Christians must be anti-science and distrust all scientific discoveries and assertions.

God is truth.  Any knowledge that is right, real, and true about the universe which God created, is good to know.

Science is in no position to categorically deny the existence of God in absolute terms.  Proving or disproving God’s existence is beyond the realm of scientific focus and capability.  Hence, we need not reject science.

Science does enable us to see the mechanics of God’s creation.  Fear not science!  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge,” says the Psalmist (19:1-2).  Live and learn.  God being God, we have nothing to fear about what we may learn of the universe and its workings.

Myth #5
Christians must reject all other religions as absolutely false, as having no truth to teach at all.

All religions teach some, even much, truth.  And even Christian theology gets things wrong, teaching falsehood.  Thus, each and every one of us will be judged according to the truth—as we understand it—and whether or not we lived up to our very own convictions. 

Again, Paul reminds us, that regardless of religion, “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek [non-Jew, basically everyone else!], but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.  For God shows no partiality.  …For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law require, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps accuse them, on the day when, according to my Gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”  (Read Romans the second chapter.)

Myth #6
Christians must have an “us-versus-them” mentality and become harshly judgmental, mean-spirited, and self-righteous, and fight the good fight.  Among other things, this means taking control of the U.S. government (taking back America!) at all levels, from the congress to the law courts to the office of the presidency to local school boards, and so-on and so-forth.  It means making America a Christian Nation, ruled by a kind of Christian theocracy.

Not!  Such an attitude is the co-mingling of American patriotism with the Christian teachings of Old Testament promises respecting the “The Chosen People” entering the “Promise Land,” identifying America as the fulfillment of these Old Testament promises.

This is turning Christianity into an American civil religion—as if to say that being a good American is one and the same as being a good Christian.  It is not.  And it is nothing less than national idolatry.  We’ve already noted the passage where Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world.  Of course, Christians ought to be good Americans.  However, being a “good American” does not necessarily mean that one is also a good Christian—faithful and true to Christ.  The one does not equate with the other.

Myth #7
Christians must join and support the NRA, purchase and collect a variety of assault weapons, and begin saving up a private stockpile of non-perishable food items (along with other survival equipment) in preparation for Armageddon.

Well, when Armageddon comes, no amount of fire-power and food storage is going to prevent the unraveling of this world’s catastrophe in light of the great and awesome “Day of the Lord”—Judgment Day: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse!  Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.  He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called the Word of God.  And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.  From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has a named inscribe, King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:11-16).

Monday, July 7, 2014

Israel and Palestine: Will They Ever Stop Retaliating

“Stop, no more!  We will NOT retaliate.

Choosing not to retaliate: difficult, hard… impossible?  Hard and difficult, yes; but not impossible, I should think.

Three Israeli students are abducted and murdered.  A sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy is brutally murdered (burned alive?!) in retaliation.

We all know that it won’t stop there.  More death and mayhem is sure to come.  Neither side will stop retaliating.

Neither side wants to appear weak and vulnerable or defeated and crushed.  There is anger, pride, hatred, a desire for revenge; each side retaliating in a determined effort to assert their strength and superiority over the other.  As if to say, “We will have the last word.  We will settle this dispute on our terms, in our way, and you (the enemy) will beg for our mercy when all is said and done.  We will conquer or be conquered!”

It is a desire to totally subjugate the enemy.  Actually, it’s worse than that.  For some, it is a desire for the complete annihilation of the enemy—to wipe them off the face of the earth!

This is why the life, works, and teachings of Jesus the Christ are as relevant today as they were over two-thousand years ago when the Roman Empire occupied Palestine: Love your enemies, turn the other cheek; vengeance is mine, says the Lord.  Many think these words of Jesus are ludicrously impracticable, useless nonsense.

But is the alternative any less ludicrous: Fight to the death!  Kill or be killed!  Destroy and annihilate!  That is, has that approach resolved anything?  Obviously not!

Alas, even many Born-Again, Bible thumping, the-Bible-is-the-inerrant-Word-of-God, Evangelical Christians, believe that Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek and all that shouldn’t be taken too seriously or approached too literally.  It goes to show how extra-ordinary are the teachings of Jesus.  Such is the real power (and therefore real threat!) of Jesus’ words.  We’re afraid to take them at face value.

Did Jesus really mean what he said?  Of course he did.  Why would he say it, if he thought it truly impracticable and unrealistic?

Did Jesus naïvely believe that his approach was a simple and easy answer to dealing with conflict?  Certainly not: “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Difficult does not mean impossible or unrealistic.  It just means it is hard to do.  Good accomplishments are often difficult to do.  Being bad and doing the wrong thing is often much easier than being good—doing what’s best, doing what is right.  This is as true for nation-states and people-groups, as it is for families and individuals.  The high road is much, much more difficult to take than the lower road.  And yet!  The higher road is always the most fruitful, beneficial, and successful—having the best possible results.  Indeed!  Any and all great religions teach as much.

This is why we must make a distinction between the teachings, proclamations, and pronouncements made by various religious leaders.  If they teach vengeance, hate, and condemnation of others in a mean-spirited self-righteous manner—especially towards those who disagree with them or reject their beliefs—beware!  Jesus had this to say about such: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?”  No, they are not!  (See Matthew 7:15-16.)

Jesus’ teaching also contradicts the naturalistic survival of the fittest mentality.  In a ruff and tuff all naturalistic world, weakness is bad.  And seeking peace by being forgiving and non-retaliatory, for example, is seen as utterly weak, in both personal and national relations.  The norm is fight or flight: Fight if you’re sure that you can take them down, flee if you can’t.

And so Jesus teaches an alternative, counter-intuitive third-way that appears weak on the surface, but actually requires great inner strength, much depth of character, and a wide breadth of faith: Love your enemies—rather than demand an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.  (See Matthew 5:38-48.)

It’s safe to say that Jesus’ teachings are as relevant in today’s world as they were at the time of the Roman Empire.  And notice, the Roman Empire is gone.  But the life, teachings, and works of Jesus continue to be relevant and influential in today’s world.  And this is despite the fact that many of Jesus’ followers often fail horribly at living up to Jesus’ call toward a better way of living, the Way of Christ.