The US Embassy in Jerusalem: What’s the Big Deal? السفارة الأمريكية في القدس: ما الخطب في ذلك؟

By Mike Kuhn*

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isa 2:3b-4).

US President Donald Trump has moved to fulfill his campaign pledge, one that others made before him and failed to fulfill—to declare Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel and move the US embassy there. The initiative did not begin with President Trump. Continue reading

A Modest Proposal for Changing the World اقتراح متواضع لتغيير العالم

By Mike Kuhn

While traveling recently through North America, it struck me frequently that normal Christian folk are increasingly face-to-face with people of other faiths, especially Muslims but also with Hindus, Buddhists and others.

I watched Somali women line up for childcare outside a center in Seattle, WA. Syrians were picnicking in a park in Langley, BC, Canada. I stopped into the LA area with its incredible mix of nations from all over the world. Even my Tennessee and Carolinas stops were punctuated with stories and conversations about Iraqi and Rwandan neighbors and ESL classes for refugees.

It was good for me because I stopped watching news media and listened to people. Continue reading

Getting the Trinity out of the Ivory Tower

By Mike Kuhn

Are there any “ivory tower theologians” out there?

I’ve never seen an ivory tower…and I suppose that’s the point. Ivory tower theologians are presumably dealing with things nobody cares about, things that make no practical difference in day to day life.

I remember chuckling at “Owl” as I read the Winnie the Pooh books to my children (a long time ago). Poor old Owl, supposedly a symbol of wisdom, was inclined to pontificate in ways that failed to connect with life.

Sometimes I felt a little like Owl with my kids. Maybe that’s why I hesitate to write this blog. I wonder if the Trinity is an “ivory tower” issue in theology that, in reference to the Muslim world, should not be brought into the conversation. However, since my hesitation owes more to the rancor that has dominated the conversation than to conviction, I’ll go with conviction. Continue reading

The US Immigration Ban: A View from the Kingdom

By Mike Kuhn

Thus the so-called outsiders are really only “insiders” who have not yet understood and apprehended themselves as such.
(Karl Barth, ”The Humanity of God”)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
(Engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus,1849–1887)

It was a day of jolting irony.  I stood beside Atallah as the priest pronounced the marriage rites. My wife stood beside his bride. Our friends looked on. Together we drank the cup of blessing…just the four of us. Together we clasped hands and processed around the altar of the church nestled in a crowded quarter of Beirut known as the local home to several refugee communities. I was the shabīn—the best man and my wife, the shabīna—the matron of honor. So it goes without saying that we have become close with this special couple. The honor they showed us was almost embarrassing—one of those honors you feel you can never deserve. It’s just given to you. They wanted us to stand beside them on their wedding day in front of their siblings, cousins, parents and friends.

Atallah is from Dara’, Syria. Gladis, his bride, is from Aleppo. Continue reading

The Commodification of Mission in the Muslim World

By Mike Kuhn

A commodity—something that is bought and sold.

Mission—the loving and joyful response of Christ’s followers to disciple the nations, holding forth Jesus’ life and teaching among all the peoples of the world.

In theory the two appear to be very distinct concepts. In reality, mission is intricately related to the resources (finance, personnel and information) that fuel it.

There is much to celebrate in that relationship. The generosity of Christ’s church enables her to assist brothers and sisters throughout the world to make Christ’s love known in seeking assistance to the poor, justice for the oppressed and reconciliation of human beings to God through the gospel.

Despite all the good that has been done by generous giving, there is also a dark side to this inter-dependence between mission and money. Continue reading

Takfīr and Church Unity: A Lesson from an Unlikely Source

 by Mike Kuhn

A new word keeps showing up in the news describing radical Islamic groups—takfīr.  It’s the English transliteration of an Arabic word that means “to anathematize” or “to declare someone apostate or an infidel.”

The ideology of takfīrī groups (e.g. ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc.) draws a very tight circle around what is acceptable belief and practice.  In order to belong to the group, one must repudiate moderate interpretations of the Islamic faith in order to conform to takfīrī values and behaviors which are compulsory with very little room for variance.  Any divergence is “unbelief” and carries the stiff penalty of exclusion at best or death at worst.  Takfīrīs control through power and enforce conformity.

And how is that working for these groups?  Continue reading

The Seduction of Binary Thinking

by Mike Kuhn

“Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate.“ (Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction)[1]

“There are two kinds of people in the world…”  That’s the opener.  Then a clever, self-appointed guru proceeds to divide the entire population of the world (7.4 billion by the way) into two distinct categories.  The dividing lines could fall at any number of angles depending on the speaker’s point of view—liberals and conservatives, spenders and wasters, gay and straight, embracers and homophobes, blue-collar and white-collar, God-fearers and God-haters, introverts and extroverts, decent citizens and riff-raff, believers and non-believers, righteous and sinners, right and left, haves and have-nots, collectivists and individualists and the list goes on ad nauseam.

It’s tricky though, isn’t it?  Continue reading

Rethinking Hospitality: Pondering the Sexual Harassment Scandal in Germany

By Mike Kuhn

[1]Germany photo

 

Not that long ago, German Chancellor Merkel made news by flinging the door open to immigrants seeking refuge from the Syrian war and the pandemonium unleashed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  In an ironic twist, the sexual harassment fiasco of Cologne (also Stuttgart and Hamburg) has refocused media attention on this policy and ignited a tinderbox of reaction to immigration in Germany and throughout Europe.[2]   The reaction, by any analysis, is justified—European women accosted by immigrant males shooting fireworks into a public square while surrounding the women, overpowering them, stalking, robbing, groping, raping…  It is difficult to imagine a more repugnant scene—immigrants finding a new home in Europe and returning the favor by unbridled sexual deviance directed toward the citizens of their new homeland!

Surely, in the name of decency, Germany should close the doors of hospitality to these intruders who show no respect for her dignity and civility.  If hospitality to migrants and asylum seekers comes at the price of sexual violation of young women, then better to leave the doors closed!  The open door policy was a tragic mistake and the evidence is Cologne.

As we would expect, demonstrators are asking Germany to revoke the open door policy and embark on a new path of protecting her own from the menace of intrusion.  Time for Germany to rethink hospitality!  Right? Continue reading

Jesus and the Overthrow of Religion

by Mike Kuhn

Having grown up in the West, I was aware that a trend emerged in the post-World Wars era towards a rejection of religion.  The brutality and sheer evil of the World Wars led many to reject belief in God.  If God is good and all-powerful, how could such evil proliferate in the world this God created?  Much of the debate with atheism in the West has centered on this “problem of evil.”   Though Christian intellectuals have responded, the hemorrhaging of mainline churches in the West demonstrates that skepticism is here to stay and too obvious to be denied.  A culture that recoils from faith in God has increasingly become the environment in which we live and move.

Then I relocated to the Middle East and learned that in this culture, religious faith is ubiquitous.  Continue reading

The New Face of ISIS

Things are not always as they seem…

A recent article in Spiegel sheds new and significant light on the inner workings of ISIS.  The article is based on documentation discovered in the home of one of the Islamic State’s chief architects—Haji Bakr—a former Colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Forces—after his demise at the hands of Syrian rebels.[1]  Based on new evidence presented in the article, it seems that the prevailing narrative of ISIS as an offshoot of al-Qaeda whose top leaders are deeply motivated by religion must be revisited and indeed revised.  Read the article to fill in the gaps, but to summarize briefly…ISIS’ highest echelon of leadership may be a cadre of elite Iraqi former military whose dismissal after the American invasion resulted in their captivity and eventual release.  Haji Bakr was one of these who later moved into the anarchy of Syria to establish a beachhead from which to attack Iraq.  The flowchart of ISIS leadership is inspired by totalitarian regimes such as the former East German domestic intelligence agency—“Stasi”.  To be sure, the architects realize the power of religion to mobilize fighters and strike fear into the hearts of dissenters.  They also exploit the Islamic system of jurisprudence to manipulate and control the population.  Thus the name “Islamic State”—a rebirth of the ancient Caliphate of Islam complete with a Caliph who becomes the visible spokesperson.  However, if Spiegel’s report is accurate, the Islamic identity of ISIS is a tactic carefully crafted by former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s military.

Admittedly, the leadership structure of the Islamic State is not altogether clear.  Nevertheless, in light of these new findings, perhaps it is time for a few penetrating questions.  I ask them as a Jesus-follower whose primary concern is how Jesus is understood among Muslims.  First and foremost, I ask these questions of myself.

First question: Have I at any time smugly congratulated myself that I do not belong to a religion that beheads Christians, slaughters Yazidis and other minorities, displaces thousands and mercilessly annihilates even other Muslims who dissent? 

I have a tendency to compare the worst aspects of Islam with the best aspects of my faith.  Over quite a few years of interacting with Muslims, I’ve realized how harmful that tendency can be.  So when I hear the news of the most recent beheadings, how do I react?  Do I succumb to the effect of the media tidal wave and simply castigate Islam as the culprit for this senseless perversion?  If I have done so, I must now realize that identifying the culprit requires a more nuanced understanding.  It is certainly true that crimes have been perpetrated in the name of Islam and sometimes the perpetrators draw their inspiration form the core texts of the religion.  However, in this particular case, the masterminds of terror and fear-mongering—the brains behind the operation—do not appear to be religiously inspired.  Rather they are attempting to regain the power base they lost when Saddam’s regime fell.  To do so, they strike fear into the hearts of millions in order to dominate and subjugate anyone who resists them, including Muslims.  Of course, they have successfully recruited a band of disenchanted warriors, possessed by a passion to re-establish the religious, social and economic superiority of Islam.  Still, if the Spiegel article gives us an accurate picture, we can see the militancy of misguided individuals as a pawn on the chessboard of regional power-play and political machination.

Second question: Have ISIS’ antics in any way contributed to my reluctance to personally relate to and interact with Muslim people?

Stereotyping: “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.”[2] I tend to think I know them all because I have a general impression.  In our media-driven age the impression is usually based on news reports or documentary, not personal encounter.  Right?  Consider Jesus.  How did he respond to the stereotyped peoples of his day?  The dreaded Roman military occupiers—“I have never seen such faith, no, not in Israel.”  The religiously deviant and ethnically compromised Samaritans—“My food is to do the will of him who sent me.  Look at these fields!  They are white—ready to harvest.”  The despised and impure woman—“Take heart, daughter.  Your faith has made you well.”  The turncoat Jewish tax collector: “Come down from there.  I need to stay at your house.”  The Pharisee persecutor of the Way: “I’d like you to represent me!”

Even though Jesus had some tough words for the religious elite of his own people, it seems he never succumbed to the stereotype.  He always overcame it, saw things differently, looked into people’s souls, not their religious affiliations or ethnic features.

Let’s make it clear…that Muslim guy who stocks the shelves at the local big box store, he just may have a delightful sense of humor.  The veiled woman waiting in front of you in line may have a very interesting story to tell.  The student, son of a refugee, may be inspired by a keen sense of social justice.  But we’ll never know if we can’t get beyond the stereotypes to interact with them in a personal way.   Jesus’ method for interacting with a prejudiced people group is simple, direct and personal.  He lingered by the well.  He had a conversation.

Third question: Am I willing to critique my own religious heritage first before criticizing the religion of others?

Over-familiarity has perhaps robbed us of the humor of Jesus’ imagery.  “How can you say ‘let me take the speck out of your eye’ when there is a plank protruding from your own eye?  You hypocrite!  Get the plank out of your own eye and then you can see to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  Jesus’ use of metaphor makes his point with stunning clarity.  Appropriate self-critique can spare us the deep embarrassment of falsely and ignorantly critiquing others.  If Islam, as a religious system, bears some guilt for perpetrating violence, it is not the first religion to do so.  In fact, as I call myself a Christian, I need look no further than the protracted wars of religion in Europe or the Inquisition to find a plank about three meters long jutting out of my eye socket.  Yes, I hear your protest “but that’s not what Jesus taught!”  You’re right.  He didn’t.  So why do we—his followers—get it so wrong, so often, even to this very day?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  The questions I ask are not meant to absolve the Islamic State of its atrocities.  Justice should be served.  My concern is how the identification of ISIS with the religion of Islam is impacting our active engagement in representing Jesus’ kingdom fairly and honestly amongst Muslim peoples in the entire world.  While the Islamic State has taken the religion of Islam as its tactic, its front, we must realize that Islam is every bit as diverse and multi-faceted as Christianity and other world faiths and philosophies.  The radical posture adopted by ISIS fighters represents the extreme right side of the socio-political-religious spectrum of Islam.   In fact it seems fair to say that Islam is experiencing a unique moment in history in which many of the foundational tenets of the faith adopted in medieval times are being questioned openly and forcefully.

I contend that this moment of transition and re-evaluation presents a unique window of opportunity to Jesus-followers.  Islam is in the throes of change, as indeed is our world.  A survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations reveals embarrassing episodes when Christians were so caught up in the power struggles of their day that they failed to understand the importance of representing the Lord they professed before their Muslim contemporaries.  Our era is similar to those early centuries of the Islamic empire when Muslims and Christians were mingling in the great cities of the Middle East.  Today, however, Muslims live beside us on a world-wide scale.  We attend the same schools, work in the same businesses, view the same social media and download the same books and movies.  Never has the interpenetration of Christians and Muslims throughout the world reached such global proportions.  Never before has the need for honest and humble face to face conversation been greater.  Are we seizing the moment?  Are we lingering by the well?

One final question:  Am I terrorized by the terrorists?

Jesus has something to say about that:

“Fear not.”

_____________________________

[1] Haji Bakr is pseudonym.  The article records his real name as Samir Abd Muhammad Al Khlifawi.  Read the article  here:  Also for another article describing the Baathist roots of the Islamic State, click here.

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype