Defacing the Image of God: The Children of War and Our Collective Human Failure

By Jesse Wheeler

For what purpose do we older folks exist than to care for, instruct and bring up the young?” – Martin Luther[1]

The Children of War

Martin Luther, the justifiably controversial father of the protestant reformation, poses the above question with regard to our collective reason for being. Amidst the sheer wealth of theological topics about which he wrote, he is led to conclude that our greatest and most defining responsibility as “older folk” is to care for, instruct, and bring up the young. He continues, “It is utterly impossible for these foolish young people to instruct and protect themselves. This is why God has entrusted them to us who are older and know from experience what is best for them.” Tragically, this is a task at which I must conclude we have failed miserably, a failure for which Luther warns: “God will hold us strictly accountable.”[2]

Given the fact that we have been inundated recently by story after story of the most unimaginable, gut-wrenching horror to which young children have been subjected, both within and beyond the region, I can’t help but agree that we must be held accountable. Continue reading

Kerygmatic Peacebuilding (Part 2): What Does Peace Have to do with the Gospel?

By Jesse Wheeler

Note: This is a difficult week to speak of peace. With heartbreaking tragedy in Egypt and unspeakable horror unfolding in Syria just a few hours away, peace now seems more than ever like an elusive dream continually beyond reach – all while I sit here feeling helpless in the face of such devastation. Furthermore, it is never helpful to speak glibly of peace to those suffering persecution, oppression, or violence. For too often, talk of peace has been used to silence very legitimate demands for justice, to enforce quiescence to an unjust status quo. This, however, means that a proper understanding of just peace and its continued pursuit is as imperative, albeit difficult, as ever.

In my previous entry, I explored the question: “What, if anything, does religion have to do with peace?” Asked in response to the historically inadequate, or otherwise superficial, inclusion of religious thinking within peacemaking and diplomatic paradigms, I came to the conclusion that to promote peace by means of secularization is to in many ways challenge the very identity and worldview of those engaged in conflict – with the very real possibility of doing more harm than good. Rather, the central place of religion within the realm of human experience can be instrumental in both the exacerbation and perpetuation of conflict, as well as in its mitigation and resolution.

This realization, however, leads to an equally important question for the church: What, if anything, does peace have to do with the Gospel? Continue reading

Kerygmatic Peacebuilding (Part 1): What Does Religion Have to do with Peace?

By Jesse Wheeler

One reason, among many, I love working at IMES is its heartfelt commitment to peacebuilding and peace education. Yet, in the course of our work, we have often encountered opposition with regard to the task of building peace and its relevance for Christian life and service. As an evangelical organization, “Why,” we are asked, “focus on peace?” Continue reading

Mixed Emotions: Some Reflections on Life and Death

by Jesse Wheeler

Life and Death

At 4:30 AM, 16 February 2016, my wife went into labor. In joyful anticipation, we scrambled out of bed, got dressed, grabbed our bags and rushed to the hospital.

Then… we waited. And waited. And… waited some more.

The baby came two weeks early, but this was no problem. After a month of pre-term labor, coupled with an unfortunate insurance complication leaving the delivery and any post-natal care which might have been required uncovered, we had spent every moment up to this point as if strapped to a time-bomb with a broken timer, each passing second an eternity.

Now, with only two weeks out, we were on cloud nine and more than happy to wait a little longer ‘in eager expectation for the child’ to come. I may be taking exegetical license, but nowhere is Heaven closer to Earth than in the face of a newborn child. For whoever welcomes a child in Christ’s name, welcomes the Author of Life Himself.

So, as has become common in our digital age, I spent many passing hours in the hospital browsing Facebook posts, reading articles, and sharing status updates. And as all my thoughts and emotions were focused on this beautiful new life about to be welcomed into the world, I scrolled upon a profoundly disorienting post forcing me, in the midst of this most holy of moments, to confront the gruesome underbelly of human existence. Continue reading

Allah, God and Wheaton College: Some Observations from Beirut

By Jesse S. Wheeler

“Allah” has been in the news again.

For readers unfamiliar with this discussion, American evangelicalism’s flagship institution of higher education, Wheaton College, recently made moves to terminate Associate Professor of Political Science Larycia Hawkins in response to a statement made on Facebook concerning Christian and Muslim “worship of the same God.”Hawkins made the following statement in reference to her decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim-American women – women who have in recent days been subject to an onslaught of rather intense, public bigotry:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity. As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, [in Chicago], in the airport and on the airplane to my home state…, and at church.

In reference to its decision, Wheaton released an official statement saying that “Wheaton professors should ‘engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.’” Both Dr. Hawkin’s statement and Wheaton’s subsequent response generated a firestorm of online commentary, filled with recriminations of doctrinal heresy on one end and anti-Muslim bigotry violating the example of Christ on the other. Within the Wheaton community itself, the faculty and administration appear to be at odds concerning this issue. Continue reading

Demographic Anxieties, Imperial Compromises and the Crucified Messiah

By Jesse Wheeler

“The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!” Derek Rishmawy

Early April, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth demographic study titled, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of Global population.”

According to the report, “while many people have offered predictions about the future of religion, these are the first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Key highlights from the report include the projections that:

“If current demographic trends continue, however, Islam will nearly catch up by the middle of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase.1 Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall. As a result, according to the Pew Research projections, by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.”

The obvious conclusion from such an important study is that Christians and Muslims, as well as theists and non-theists for that matter, must learn to get along for the sake of global concord, hence my belief in the importance of our work at IMES. (Of course, this reality is already here: I used to pass two mosques, a Sikh temple, a synagogue, and a Buddhist shrine as I drove between my home and the church at which I served in Southern California.) These are the basic realities of our post/late-modern world.

However, my second immediate observation is that tiny, yet religiously complex Lebanon has the potential to serve as an excellent case-study for what such a future world might entail. Not to sound too self-important, but the actions taken, the hospitality shown, and the interfaith relationships formed now in the regional microcosm that is Lebanon can serve as a model, for good or ill, as to the future of our planet. (The irony, however, is the fact that in Lebanon many can drive to and from church without passing a single mosque. Or vice versa… so, we meet at the mall instead.)

Identity Politics and Imperial Compromises

The silliness of such demographic studies, however, derives from the manner by which we use them to buttress our identity politics. There seems to exist a bizarre sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that we Christians remain “Number 1!” and that our top position, for the time being, is secure. Somehow, we are still winning the religion race. On the other hand, the sense of moral panic derived from the notion that Islam is catching up, and might one day surpass us, is likewise silly.

In this, I am reminded of the ongoing feud in Lebanon regarding which buildings have the tallest minarets or bell towers. Apparently when it comes to the mission of God, the bigger the better.

churches downtown

Downtown Beirut: campanile extension project. (Photo source)

Yet, there is a darker story to this competition for numerical, architectural, and often geographical predominance between the world’s most numerous religions. Historian Richard Bulliet poses an important demographic question in The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization:

“Suppose… one were to ask what percentage of the world Muslim community is composed of descendants of people who converted to Islam between 1500 and 1900. The answer would surely exceed 50 percent. [B]y contrast, if one were to ask what percentage of today’s [Christian] populations descend from ancestors who converted to Christianity between 1500 and 1900, the answer would be well under 20 percent.”[1]

What accounts for the difference? In Bulliet’s account “European monarchs trumpeted their intent to Christianize the world, but settled for economics and military might. Muslim rulers… strove mightily to create rich and powerful land empires, but only sporadically thought of converting their subject peoples to Islam.”[2] So counterintuitively, Islam ‘won’ the conversion game. For ultimately:

“Parts of Africa and Asia saw ‘unofficial Islam’ succeed precisely because it was a potent alternative to the Christianity being propounded by the imperialists. If imperialism was a form of foreign tyranny, Islam, unwavering in its vision of a universal and legal moral order, increasingly became the bastion of resistance to tyranny.”[3]

In the face of western colonialism, often undertaken with the tacit approval of Christian religious authorities, a form of ‘unofficial Islam’ took up the banner of the Resistance, and grew exponentially as a result![4]

This innate drive towards numeric, architectural and geographic security often results in the tendency to ally ourselves with empire. The fact, however, is that such alliances have often resulted in the exact opposite of their stated intent. The historic inability of the visible Church to divest itself from imperial power has too often resulted in guilt by association, scapegoating, and flat out rejection, such that the very drive causing us to gloat/panic over demographics is the very cause for our having “lost the race.”

The Crucified Messiah

Even more so, such alliances represent a betrayal of our crucified messiah, who models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial love in his rejection of imperial compromise. In the words of Joseph Cummings:

“It used to be commonly said that Islam was Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I believe that is not true. I believe that Satan’s greatest masterpiece was the crusades.  Why? Is it because the Crusades were the worst atrocity that ever happened in history? I think Hitler was worse. Pol Pot was worse.

What is horrible about the crusades is that it was done under the symbol of the cross, that Satan succeeded in distorting the very heart of the Christian faith.[5]

With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns. To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is to therefore surrender our claim to numeric, geographic, (and even architectural) domination, as we trust in the resurrection and the ultimate Lordship of Christ Jesus.

________________________

[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 40 – 41

[2] Ibid., 43

[3] Ibid.

[4] It’s important to note that this isn’t ancient history, but rather provides the historical context for Pew’s demographic projections.

[5] Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 323

Retiring Tired Myths about the Modern Middle East

By Jesse Wheeler

Thanks to the advent of social media, my access to Western media sources is nearly as good (perhaps even better) than it would be were I not an immigrant living in Beirut, Lebanon, just another sign of the ever shrinking world we inhabit. Yet in my readings I consistently encounter the same myths about the modern Middle East and its peoples; some myths are seemingly innocuous, others less so. And, it is precisely because our world is now so interconnected that such long-standing myths must no longer have a place within our global discourse.

Misinformation abounds when it comes to the Middle East, and certain misperceptions have proven to have profound socio-cultural consequences and destructive policy ramifications. (Nothing I write here is particularly new or inspired, most especially for our Middle Eastern readers, but certain perceptions simply refuse to die.) Some myths are basic, such as the erroneous belief that all Middle Easterners are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists. However, two myths have been particularly vexing as I’ve encountered them in the past few weeks.

They are as follows:

  • MYTH #1: The Middle East is a Desert Wasteland

Now don’t get me wrong, there IS a lot of desert in the Middle East. Georgetown’s Margaret Nydell describes the Middle East as an archipelago of densely populated islands amidst a vast desert ocean.[1] This is an apt, but nevertheless misleading description. From Morocco to Iran and from Armenia to the Yemen, the MENA has its fair share of sun-soaked beaches, snow-capped mountains, and modern metropolises. It also has fertile river valleys, the very ones from which Western civilization sprung. And, the Mediterranean coastline is exactly how you might picture…well, the Mediterranean coastline.[2]

Geography lesson aside, more troubling is how this notion of the MENA as a desert wasteland so easily bleeds into the erroneous notion of the Middle East as a cultural and intellectual wasteland, beholden to a medieval religion hell-bent on world domination, comically backwards sheikhs, dancing harem girls, and throngs of helpless masses crying out for the ‘benevolent’, yet nonetheless ‘superior’ hand of Western intervention. Edward Said has said this all before.[3] Yet such misperceptions refuse to die.

Perhaps the most staggering image highlighting the gulf between perception and reality comes from a 2012 episode of the award-winning American drama “Homeland.”

(Photo source)

Either the producers didn’t know how to google ‘Hamra’, or they clearly had ulterior motives. And yet, the sheer amount of ‘culture’ per square km in the Levant is staggering, both ancient and modern. Ancient monasteries sit within minutes of the most modern, diverse, and technologically sophisticated cities one could imagine, replete with art, film, music, literature and scholarship. A quick internet search lists over 32 universities within two hours of my apartment alone.

Subsequently, this notion of the MENA as a geographical and cultural desert feeds in to the second myth.

  • MYTH #2: Islam is in need of a Reformation

As a student of modern religious history, I am always puzzled by this declaration. I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a profound crisis of religious authority within the Islamic community, nor that recent events haven’t inspired a revaluation of core religious texts among certain segments of the ummah. But, Islam has been ‘reforming’ for generations.

Revival movements have been a quintessential part of all religious traditions since their respective beginnings, Islam included. Yet the advent of European political and economic domination in the 18th-19th century triggered within the Islamic community a period of deep introspection and the reexamination of core methodologies[4]. Later, Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1923, sending shock waves throughout the Muslim world from which it has yet to recover. The ensuing epistemological crisis set the stage for the events of the 20th century, witnessing the growth of Islamic liberalism, ethnic secularism, and reformist Islamism each offering a different response.

I was surprised to learn recently that Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue of the Salafi movement, was an admirer of Martin Luther and saw himself in a similar vein regarding his own hermeneutical revolution within Islam[5]. The behavior of ISIS, most evidently its strident iconoclasm, clearly indicate that they see themselves as an Islamic reform movement. In essence, when Westerners call upon Islam to reform in response to the proliferation of Islamic radicalism, they are forgetting that such movements are themselves the byproduct of modern Islamic reform movements, and that such movements developed largely as a reaction to western colonial aggression. The irony is that movements such as these also encompass dramatic calls for the West to reform itself!

Furthermore, such misperceptions represent an acutely white-washed version of Christian history, wherein the Protestant Reformation represents the emergence of an enlightened, modern religiosity from the chains of medieval barbarism and ignorance. Whereas in reality, the Reformation unleashed one of the most fratricidal and tragically bloody eras of Western history culminating ultimately in the 30 Years War. In reference to the religious wars, Christian philosopher Brad J. Kallenberg writes,

“The Calvinist reasons that if a war satisfies certain just-war criteria, then it is their duty, as God’s stewards of creation and culture, to fight such a war for the honor and will of God… [T]his outlook gives Calvinists a certain resoluteness in their conception of duty. As one seventeenth-century observer of the religious wars remarked, ‘I’d rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist [convinced] that he is doing the will of God!’[6]

Sound familiar?[7]

In failing to acknowledge the bloody remains of our own past, we ultimately perform a true disservice to our global neighbors. In failing to examine our self-serving narratives, we too easily project our misinterpretations upon the ‘non-western world’, with all the socio-cultural and policy ramifications therein entailed. Sometimes, I think that we project the boogeyman of our own dark past upon the playing field of the modern Middle East. If this is the case, could ISIS then be the specter of our own creation, reshaping the modern Middle East in imitation of our own worst nightmares – nightmares unjustly thrust upon our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters?

Conclusion

In the end, if we purport to follow the gospel of Truth we must be persons absolutely committed to truth, about ourselves as much as others. I conclude therefore with the words of Musalaha’s Salim Munayer:

[P]art of seeking after the truth, and part of righteousness, is to take a closer look at some of the things we believe and assume, especially about history, and particularly our history, and examine more closely some of what we believe to be truth. Some of what we are asserting could be very close and dear to our hearts, but if we discover that it is not the truth, or that it is not the whole truth, we are obligated to admit it.

This can be a very painful process, but it is needed if reconciliation is to occur. In conflict situations, people on both sides of the divide must seek after the truth, and challenge any assumptions made about the past or about the ‘enemy’. If we do not challenge these assumptions, narratives or myths, we become enslaved by them, and will only be made free by embracing the truth:

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).[8]

__________________________

[1] Margaret Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society, (Intercultural Press, 2012)

[2] We mustn’t forget too that there is a lot of desert in a place like California.

[3] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (Vintage, 1997)

[4]Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), ( Routledge, 2011) 179

[5]Jan Slomp, “Christianity and Lutheranism from the Perspective of Modern Islam” in Luther zwischen den Kulturen: Zeitgenossenschaft, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004) 281

[6] Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age, (Brazos Press, 2002) 100

[7] This is not an attack on Calvinism, but a recounting of history. Prior to moving to Lebanon, I served three years as a pastor in a Reformed Presbyterian Church.

[8]Salim Munayer. Musalaha: A Curriculum of Reconciliation. (Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, 2011)

“Will These Hands Never Be Clean?” The CIA Torture Report and Futile Apologies

by Jesse Wheeler

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” – Lady Macbeth

In response to the release of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report (click to read in full), all I can say is that I am overwhelmed. Like the leading lady in Shakespeare’s iconic Scottish play, American hands are stained in blood. No amount of whitewashing can expunge this guilt perpetrated in my name and that of my fellow-Americans, both Christians and Muslims, white, black and others. No apology will do. How in God’s Holy name can we possibly atone for this?

The Torture Report

The Senate Torture Report reveals a sick combination of brutality, ineptitude and ineffectiveness in the manner by which it undertook its intelligence gathering practices during the so-called “War on Terror.” In the words of Ron Steif, Execute Director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture:

“The report shows that the CIA’s torture program involved acts of horrific brutality. The CIA water-boarded a detainee to the point of inducing convulsions and vomiting and they left another cold and mostly nude to die of hypothermia while chained to a concrete floor. That this was done in our name should shock the conscience of every American. The report clearly documents that these immoral acts often failed to produce intelligence or produced false information. Even when intelligence was provided, nothing was provided that could not have been obtained by lawful means. Finally, the report shows that the CIA misled both Congress and certain members of the Bush Administration in order to obtain approval for its torture program.”

According to Vox.com, “Listing every horrifying detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary report on the CIA’s torture program would be impossible. To get a sense of the gravity of the abuses, however, here are 16 of the most egregious behaviors detailed by the report:

  1. The CIA put hummus in a detainee’s rectum
  2. Interrogators forced detainees to stand on broken feet
  3. CIA interrogators threatened to sexually assault the mother of a detainee
  4. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded at least 183 times
  5. KSM and Abu Zubaydah nearly drowned to death during some of their torture sessions
  6. Abu Zubaydah lost his left eye in CIA custody
  7. The CIA conducted torture sessions knowing they’d worsen detainees’ injuries
  8. Detainees were kept awake for as long as 180 hours — over a week
  9. CIA interrogators broke down a detainee until they judged him “clearly a broken man”
  10. The interrogations probably killed at least one person
  11. The CIA tortured people before they even tried asking them to cooperate
  12. CIA interrogators objected to the torture but were told to keep going by senior officials
  13. At least 26 out of 119 known detainees were wrongfully held
  14. The CIA lied to the White House about the effectiveness of torture
  15. The CIA refused to vet participants in the torture program who had admitted to sexual assault
  16. They refused to impose disciplinary sanctions on an interrogator involved in a detainee’s death.”

This list includes lies, psychological, emotional and physical violence, wanton acts of sexual assault, and murder. The fact that we allowed this to happen should haunt us all.

A Kingdom Come – A Christ Crucified

The Advent season is a time for expectant waiting. It is a time to reflect upon the sheer magnitude of sin and human suffering as we wait in hopeful anticipation for the return of our savior.

This advent season must be a time to sit with and truly contemplate the gravity of these crimes perpetrated in our name. For today, the crucified messiah hangs in solidarity with the victims of our idolatrous hubris. In a recent article on FaithStreet.com, Patton Dodd refers to a 2009 Pew Report that indicated that 6 out of 10 white Evangelicals supported torture against “suspected terrorists.” He rightly finds this shocking ratio “extraordinary because it is in such obvious conflict with Christianity’s foundational story.”

“The God evangelicals believe in is a God who was tortured. Jesus was arrested unjustly, promptly tried and convicted in a kangaroo court, and then tortured. He was savagely, sadistically beaten, his body ravaged. Jesus was tortured to death. Evangelicals believe their God bore as much suffering as it is possible for a human to bear, and he bore it at the hands of men in military gear who relished the cruelty.”

In this story, the crucified Christ hangs in solidarity not with those who allow for such horrors, even when they claim to belong to him. In this story, many of my American coreligionists represent the corrupt religious establishment proclaiming “We have no King but Caesar” (John 19:15). Even if we proclaim that our true loyalty is not of this world but to Christ alone, what does this do other than absolve us of a responsibility which is rightfully ours? It should be clear from scripture that this world and its inhabitants are our collective responsibility. And we have failed.

This advent season, we must sit with the magnitude of our sin. From all those who have suffered by hands acting in our name, all we can ask for is forgiveness. It is certainly not deserved.

Yet this advent season, we must once again commit ourselves to the active pursuit of justice and peace, to the self-evident truth of universal dignity, and to God’s Kingdom come and His Will done on earth as it is in heaven, regardless the personal cost. I see no other option.

Otherwise, we are mere pretenders.

Bad Theology Kills: How We Justify Killing Arabs

By Jesse Wheeler

Bad theology kills.

For many, the subject of “theology” invokes the image of old white men with impressive beards and antiquated ideas sitting in ivory seminary towers writing really big books that nobody reads. Yet within everything we think, say, and do can be found a variety of implicit theologies, even if we are unconscious of them. For theology (along with its secular twin – ideology) encompasses our very core beliefs as to how the universe functions and how we function within it. It drives our very sense of purpose and provides us with the interpretive lenses through which we make sense of and find meaning in our daily lives.

And, some theologies are good. Others are bad.

Hermeneutical Fruit

So, in an age of deconstructed absolutes, how then is it possible for one to distinguish the good from bad?[1] For the follower of Jesus, the answer is amazingly simple:

Fruit.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us:

1“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-17 NIV)

To distinguish the true from false prophet, or anyone claiming to represent the will of God, Jesus does not implement a doctrinal litmus test. Instead, he tells us this: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Likewise, to distinguish between a true and false theological system, one must simply look at its fruit:

  • Does the fruit of that system lead us to LOVE God, neighbor and enemy as ourselves? Or, does it result in self-aggrandizement, or separationist and supremacist attitudes?
  • Does it seek God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven? Or, does it seek to promote the hegemony of some other Lord, Pharaoh, Führer, or flag?
  • Does it stand up for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the refugee? Or, quite plainly, does it not?

Distinguishing good theology from bad theology theology - lovecomes down to this: Good theology brings life. Bad theology kills.

Rotten Fruit and Dead Arabs

I wish therefore to highlight three interrelated theologies which have been particularly destructive in the Middle Eastern context:

  • First, Colonialist Paternalism

From the “white man’s burden” and “mission civilisatriceof the 19th century to the modern American desire to “export freedom by force of arms” in the 21st century, the tragic history of Western imperialism in the Middle East is rife with examples of theological and ideological systems which have sought to promote, justify, downplay, and excuse that which in reality is little more than violent and deadly conquest, theft and exploitation.

With complete sincerity, yet degrading paternalism we colonialists have justified our aggression by convincing ourselves that we have been acting, often on behalf of God, for the betterment of the colonized peoples. Of this, Brian McLaren writes:

“[Colonial theology] would explain — historically or theologically — why the colonizers deserve to be in power — sustained in the position of hegemony; It would similarly explain why the colonized deserve to be dominated — maintained in the subaltern or subservient position; It would provide ethical justification for the phases and functions of colonization [and] it would camouflage or cosmetically enhance its ugly aspects and preempt attempts to expose them.”

Not only does bad theology kill, but it has justified the death of many Middle Eastern persons.

  • Second, “Henotheistic” Crusaderism

Henotheism, at its most basic, declares: “My God can beat up your God!” It is the “warrior tribe” theology which pits one’s own god against those of its neighbors. Of this, Joseph Cumming asks:

“If the Christian faith is primarily a tribal identity, where does that take us? It takes us to the belief that, ‘We must fight to defend the survival of Christian civilization. If necessary, we must kill the enemies of our civilization before they kill us. We must pray that our God gives us victory over their Allah-God.’”[2]

This mentality can be found throughout the history of human warfare, even among professed monotheists. In this way of thinking, one’s own “tribe” becomes the chosen of God fighting an epic struggle against the forces of darkness and their sub-human minions.[3] We see this in the crusades. We see this in the tragic massacres of the Lebanese Civil War and in Lebanon’s deeply sectarian politics. We have seen this in the religiously tinged language of the War on Terror.[4] And, we see it now in Syria. This is the theology of “God and Country.”

  •  Third, Manifest Destiny

Referencing the origin of the term manifest destiny, evangelical activist Jim Wallis writes: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” Likewise, the Afrikaner Calvinists of South Africa understood their settler-colonial project as a direct calling from God, “not unlike the people of Israel in the bible.”

At its most basic, manifest destiny seeks to conquer, cleanse and colonize.

In the MENA context, French colonization of Algeria was profoundly destructive for the native Algerians. Furthermore, the colonial Zionist project has been absolutely catastrophic to the lives, property, and psyche of the native Palestinians, sending shock waves throughout the entire region which reverberate to this day. “Christian Zionism,” a default position within western evangelicalism until recently, has provided theological justification, financial capital, and political cover for decades of land confiscation, ethnic cleansing, settlement activity, and apartheid-equivalent practices.

As Colin Chapman asserts, “Our very understanding of God, our witness to the gospel, and the credibility of the Christian church” are at stake when it comes to our theology of Israel-Palestine. [5]

Speaking as a western evangelical, there is far too much blood on our hands.

Precisely because bad theology kills.

Good Friday

So, as we prepare to remember the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior this Friday, may we always remember the true meaning of the cross. As Joseph Cumming writes:

“The cross is at the heart of the entire Christian faith, and for the Muslims and Jews of the world, what does the symbol of the cross now signify? The cross now signifies, ‘Christians hate you enough to kill you.'[6]

“What is the cross supposed to signify? It is supposed to signify, ‘God loves you enough to lay down his life for you, and I would love you enough that I would lay down my life for you.’ Satan succeeded in taking the very heart of the Christian faith and turning it around to mean not just something different, but to mean the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to mean.” [7]

This year, let us each carry our cross in everlasting service to a broken world in desperate need of God’s love, justice, and deliverance. Like the messiah, let us spend ourselves in self-sacrificial love.

_________________________

[1] Glenn Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount: A Practical Hope for Grace and Deliverance, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bassit, 2006) Kindle Edition.
[2]Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 320  
[3] Simply watch “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” with this in mind. Clearly, I have been.
[4] Joseph Cummings reports the following: “Recently, a U.S. army general was speaking to a large evangelical Christian church, describing a battle with a [Muslim] warlord from northern Africa, and he said ‘I knew that I need not fear, because my God was the true God, and his God was a demon!’ That is henotheism!”
[5] Colin Chapman, “A Biblical Perspective on Israel/Palestine” in The Land Cries Out: Theology of the Land in the Israeli/Palestinian Context, ed. Salim J. Munayer et all. (Eugene: Wipft and Stock Publishers, 2012) 238
[6] The cross was emblazoned on the shields and banners of the crusaders and many Muslims still sense crusader tendencies in American economic expansionism and Zionism.
[7] Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” 323.

Alternate Light: Christian Witness in Imitation of Christ

This is the fifth post in the ongoing series: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World. Follow the links to read the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

By Jesse Wheeler

Principle 2 of the Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct document states:

  • Imitating Jesus Christ. In all aspects of life, and especially in their witness, Christians are called to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, sharing his love, giving glory and honor to God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to Christian Witness, perhaps few other passages are as instrumental in shaping my personal understanding as are Christ’s own words in Matthew 5: 13-16:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built upon a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Salt

This seemingly simple statement has long mystified readers. What does it actually mean to be the salt of the earth? Yet when you think about it at its most basic, salt has a powerful, distinctive and at times overwhelming taste to it.

In my research,[1] I came to discover that salt had long been a metaphor for covenant faithfulness. So, when God rescued the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt, he made a covenant, a contract, setting them apart as his own holy people. They were to be distinct from the other nations. They were to act different, look different, and be different. They were to show the world that there was a different way to live, neither as slave nor slave driver, a way defined by love for God and love of neighbor.

And, this is exactly what Jesus is telling his disciples to be. Disciples of Christ are to offer an alternative, a new way to be human not conformed to the destructive, violent, and sinful patterns of this world. We are to be a community defined instead by self-sacrificial love. We are to be a community defined by the cross of our messiah.

We are to be salt. Yet, what happens when salt loses its saltiness? It loses its very purpose for being. It loses that which makes it distinct.

It becomes dirt.

We may construct as many colossal monuments to our own sectarian self-importance upon as many hills as we like, but if we in no way stand distinct from the destructive patterns of this world then what’s the point? We might as well keep our mouths shut and our witness to ourselves, because our faith “is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

Light

Yet at the time of Jesus, many contemporaneous religious groups began to take the idea of being salt to the extremes, with some groups completely withdrawing themselves from society. They were distinct. They were “holy.” But, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:14, they were “holy” to the point of worthlessness.

So, Jesus tells us in verse 14:

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” 

Simply imagine the sublime power of a single candle piercing, shattering the darkness of a pitch-black room. Yet if you cover the candle up, it goes dim. What’s the point?

Sometimes we religious people get so focused on holiness, on separateness that we no longer have a viable, credible witness for our communities or the world. We become so fearful of that which is different, of that which doesn’t have a “Christian” label on it, or of that which isn’t securely within our “Christian” neighborhoods and behind our “Christian” walls. We construct defenses, both ideological and concrete, to safeguard us from God’s beautiful world and the beautiful people living within it, beautiful people we have conditioned ourselves to fear (and at times even hate).

As the followers of Jesus, we are to be the light of the world. So, we mustn’t fear “the dark.”

It is imperative for us to tear down the walls, to cross the barriers, and to be present and active in our neighborhoods and cities. Having been washed clean once and for all by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have no need to fear being “contaminated” by the so called “uncleanness” of our world. We are called to fully embrace the other, those not like us, in love.

To be the light of the world is not to condemn, withdraw or shy away from the world, but to actively pursue the dark places, to willingly enter into places of pain, poverty and injustice, of sickness, of violence, and of sin…in imitation of Christ himself…in order to bring the light, love, justice, and peace of God to those people and places where it is needed the most.

As followers of Jesus, this is our mission. This is our witness.

Deeds

So in verse 15, Jesus tells us:

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Most simply, we are to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. We are to imitate Jesus, such that when we hear his words and put them into practice, people will see our good deeds and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Our salt, therefore, stays salty only so long as we practice the good deeds we do in imitation of Christ, shining the light of God in and amongst our community and before the watching world. For as the watching world watches us, it is our hope that they cannot help but be drawn to the overwhelming light, justice and love of our King and savior, Christ Jesus.


[1]Key exegetical insights found in: Glen Stassen and David P Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Contexts, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2003) 467-491, N.T. Wright, 12 Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings – Year C, (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 2000) Kindle Edition, and Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) Kindle Edition.