A Reflection on Traffic through a Theology of Sin

By Caleb Hutcherson

Have you ever thought about your theology of sin in the middle of being stuck in traffic? That chortling I hear doesn’t faze me. And of course, you are right. My friends and family chuckle, too, at my goofy probing of the everyday with theological lenses. But, I think there is something to be gained when we recognize and reflect on how the actions and practices of everyday life are, in a very real sense, a form of speaking about God. Reflection can be short or long, focused or philosophical. But the practice of reflecting theologically on the everyday can help us to grow to be more mindful of the ways that our speaking about God (in words and actions) shapes and is shaped by life.

This particular reflection burst through the mind-bending frustration that built as I once again sat in traffic in Beirut, trying to get home from work. Continue reading

Theological Education as Formation for Prophetic Ministry

By Martin Accad

When we think about theological education in a country like Lebanon, we are forced to think differently from the way that seminary education has traditionally been understood in Europe or North America. In many seminaries around the world, both in the west and sadly also in the Middle East, students are still primarily taught how to interpret the biblical text largely for preaching purposes. They may also take a couple of counseling courses and some classes in pastoral ministry. They may be offered a limited number of courses in missiology, but often in the form of electives that students can opt out of. This reflects an older mentality, where the seminary views itself as operating at the service of ‘Christendom’ – a society where Christianity is dominant and where the church often lives with a triumphalistic mindset. A large proportion of seminaries, however, have become increasingly aware of functioning in a post-Christian world. Continue reading

Middle East Immersion: Learn. Serve. Experience the Middle East!

What is the Middle East Immersion?

The Middle East Immersion (MEI) is a six-week intensive practicum designed for students from beyond the region wanting to experience firsthand the opportunities and challenges of Christian service in the Middle East. Under the mentorship of respected scholars and experienced practitioners, students in the MEI program practice intercultural work in a dynamic context and engage in mutual learning between Christian and Muslim communities.

Centered on critically reflective practice, MEI provides students an opportunity to earn academic credit and fulfill practicum requirements while being exposed to the language, peoples and cultures of one of the region’s most vibrant cities.

MEI 2017 begins 19 June in Beirut, Lebanon, and runs through July. 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

PRAY FOR A HIGHWAY: GOD’S DREAM IN DISORIENTING TIMES

By Emad Botros

Throughout history, the Church has turned to the Bible to interpret the political situation of its time and to find hope in the midst of disaster. The church in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not different in this regard. Christians in Egypt, for example, recently attempted to interpret the political situation of the country, as well as the MENA region, in light of oracles about Egypt found in Isaiah 19. 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

Flush Out your Toxic Thinking about Islam before Election Day!

By Martin Accad

As our American friends approach election day this coming November 8, the rest of us around the world are holding our breaths as we consider the implications of that event on the country’s foreign policies. At a time when the question of Islam and Muslims in America has become so divisive, it would be easy to vote for one or the other candidate for the wrong reasons. In this brief reflection, I would like to point out a few mistakes that we often make in our thinking about Islam and Muslims, perhaps to help some of the voting be less fear-driven and more rational and socially compassionate. Continue reading

Subjects of Objectification or Kindred Spirits? Images and Stories of Refugees

by Kathryn Kraft*

Did you know that many Syrians who flee their country choose not to register with the UN as refugees? There are many reasons for this, but one important reason is that they don’t like the images that the word ‘refugee’ conjures. If they were to officially become refugees, they would be eligible for various types of assistance, including food rations and possible resettlement to another country. But they absolutely do not want to lose their identity. They see themselves as Syrians first and foremost, and also associate with their chosen career, their extended family, their interests and passions.

The media seems to have landed on a simple but somewhat misleading image capturing ‘the refugee’, Continue reading

The Power of Easter: Redeemed from Selfishness; Called to a Ministry of Reconciliation

By Martin Accad

If Christmas poses as the central Christian festivity in the consumerist societies we live in, for Christians it is Easter that holds the central place. It is the starting and focal point of all Christian theology. Through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers, who have been invited to carry their cross and follow him, are called to interpret the world and understand both their life purpose and mode of living. So perhaps by reflecting on how redemption works through the Easter event, we can gain insight into everything else, from the mindless violence of our world, to the significance of how we live in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on the meaning of Easter, I came across a short but edifying blog post by Brian Zahnd (which I later realized he had written at Easter last year) entitled: ‘How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?’ Though some people reacted strongly to the article when I posted it on Facebook, I still highly recommend Zahnd’s post. The importance of his question, ‘how does “dying for our sins” work?’ is universal. Some people may still be interested in debating whether Jesus died on the cross, a question that still arouses passions in the context of Christian-Muslim conversations in particular, though from a historian’s perspective it is hardly a question at all. But to be sure, most people still get passionate about ‘how it works?’ ‘So what,’ that Jesus died on the cross? Why should the death of that first-century man from Nazareth have anything to do with my salvation 2000 years later? In the interfaith context of the Middle East, these questions are certainly crucial. For most Muslims, God says ‘let it be,’ and it is! This is how he confers judgment. Many a Muslim polemicist in history has argued that the excruciating narrative of the cross is unnecessary in light of Islam’s understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty.

These are the questions about the cross that face us in the multifaith context of the Middle East and elsewhere. I want to affirm from the outset that I have no interest in entering the current – mostly western – debate for or against the so-called PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) view of Christ’s death. On both sides, it seems to me, proponents tend to present the crudest version of the other’s view in order to facilitate its dismantling and the assertion of their own position. My starting position when reflecting over the implications of the cross is to affirm the diverse interpretations as ‘multiple facets’ found in the Biblical witness, rather than to affirm one ‘theory’ against another.

In the more extreme representation of the view associated in particular with the eleventh-century name of Anselm of Canterbury, the death of Jesus is viewed as a sacrifice offered to satisfy the requirements of some ultimate principle of Divine Justice. Justice required that we should die due to our sinfulness, but through the death of the innocent Jesus, the wrath of God was satisfied, offering us the possibility of redemption. The theory was further developed and codified by Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and made to rule over much Protestant thinking about the cross through its endorsement and adaptation by Protestant Reformer John Calvin (16th century). Many of the traditional hymns we sing at church, particularly around the time of Easter, are inspired by this view. I find myself remaining silent over certain stanzas…

Let me just say that it is not the idea of ‘substitution’ that I am questioning. What I am reacting against is the much cruder development that views the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that was meant to placate God’s anger and force his hand into renouncing the drive to annihilate us because of our sins, due to some higher principle of Justice to which God himself is subjected. On the other hand, the affirmation that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ or ‘in our stead,’ is well attested in the New Testament. Due to the significant distance between our world and the socio-cultural world of the Old Testament, we tend to find it harder to relate to the sacrificial system than did those living in the New Testament world. However, the pervasiveness of the imagery in the Bible requires that we find in it meaning that connects with our own reality.

The Church has affirmed that Jesus died ‘for us’ as the ‘Lamb of God,’ as the ultimate sacrifice for human sin. This interpretation that permeates the writings of the Apostle Paul, however, is far more ‘typological’ in nature than legal. Jesus is a ‘type’ of Adam; he is the ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45). He is also a ‘type’ of the Old Testament sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers great insight into this second typology, by representing Christ both as the sacrificial lamb and as the High Priest offering the sacrifice. Two central elements emerge from the overall New Testament witness, which are essential to our understanding of the death of Christ. First, in Christ, it was God himself who took the initiative of salvation towards us; his hand was not forced (ex, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). And secondly, Christ gave up his life willingly for our salvation; it was not taken away from him by force (ex, John 10:17-18).

I disagree with those who read, in some key Pauline passages, an extreme version of the Anselmian theory of atonement. I think it is a wrong interpretation. Following my Facebook post, one of my colleagues reminded me of what French Anthropologist, Philosopher and Theologian, René Girard, had to say about the death of Jesus and its significance. In revisiting Girard’s work, I find that what he referred to as the ‘mimetic’ (imitation) framework offers some important insight into the Apostle Paul’s rich discourse on the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, though I believe that Girard brings some important insight into the question, I don’t believe that his contribution is to be read in exclusion of other historical interpretations of the atonement.

In the fifth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ died for all. And the immediate consequence of this, in Paul’s thinking, is that through this death, all have died as well (v. 14). Once we allow that we have died to ourselves, we are able to break away from the violence which, according to Girard, results from ‘mimesis.’ In the Girardian system, all violence is explained through an anthropologically induced desire to imitate (mimesis), to possess what someone else has. A triangulation is thus established between the subject, the object and the model, who possesses the object of desire (subject-model-object), to the point where the object eventually becomes irrelevant and the fixation becomes on the model.

The message of the Gospel is that, once we no longer live for ourselves, we break away from the primordial inclination to violence, for we now live ‘for him who died for (us) and was raised again’ (v. 15). The resurrected Jesus becomes both the mimetic model as well as the object of our desire. In verse 17, Paul makes perhaps the most important statement that we find in all of his letters, for it expresses in Pauline language the central principle of Jesus’ teaching reflected in the Gospel of John; that in order to share in God’s Kingdom, we must be born again, of the Spirit, from above (see John 3). Paul’s equivalent to Jesus’ concept of being ‘born again’ is his notion of being ‘in Christ’:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Applying the Girardian framework, being in Christ becomes an invitation to break away from that cycle of violence. By dying to self, we become a ‘new creation’ that has no need to pursue the mimetic drive to violence, in search for self-gratification. Through the death of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself ‘and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (vv. 18-19). But it is only those who have learnt the possibility of dying to self, and who practice this in ongoing manner, who are able to be true reconcilers. This is why the political way, in its pragmatism (the realpolitik), doesn’t lead to true and lasting reconciliation, because it continues to pursue peace for selfish purposes, to serve certain ‘mimetic interests’: American interests, European interests, or any other nation’s interests in any given situation of conflict.

I find important insight in René Girard’s anthropological framework as I try to make sense of the violence in today’s world, particularly the one currently threatening the annihilation of what remains of Christianity in the Middle East. The challenge that the cross of Christ poses to violence is absolutely unique. I find no satisfactory parallel, in other ideologies and religions, to Christ’s command to his followers that they love their neighbor as themselves, respond to evil with good, and even love their enemies. For the Eastern Church, today is the commemoration of the Last Supper, tomorrow we will remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and on Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection. We may debate staunchly about how the death of Jesus works. We may even argue still, with some, about whether Jesus actually died on a cross. But to the transformation that the ‘way of the cross’ does in us, and to the consequence that being born again, in Christ, has on our behavior and attitude towards the promises of the world, there is no substitute that I have found anywhere.

Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

By Arthur Brown

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in ‘risky behaviour’. This included drug use, gang membership, reckless riding of stolen motorbikes, etc. As a youth worker my role was to understand what motivated them and hopefully seek ways of reducing the risk of serious harm.

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus. Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalise the enemy, categorizing them as ‘other’, whereby ‘other’ represents all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities. It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities.

However, what happens when we realise that the enemy is increasingly coming from within? When the enemy is made up of individuals with names, with families, with tragic histories and experiences that some of us might actually share. Experiences which lead them – perhaps with some degree of rationality – to join organisations such as ISIS?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that ‘More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.’ As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to ‘play their part’ in the establishment of the so called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish.

But what is ‘their part’? One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles. Whilst fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal. The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, the truth is there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join. The three 15 & 16 year old girls from my area of East London [all A grade students in school] who recently traveled to Syria to become ‘ISIS brides’ are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided, and this may be true. However the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

There are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk taking behaviour. Abundance motivation drives individuals to seek  ‘peak’ experiences, a buzz or thrill. Young people often crave excitement, a sense of living life to the max! Deficiency motivation, on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain. What tends to motivate someone to take cocaine for example is different to what tends to motivate someone to take heroine. The former is a stimulant, the latter a pain-killer. Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or pay-off.

Other reasons why young people take risks include:

  • Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognised and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.
  • The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behaviour. This is perhaps critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.
  • To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has lead to the development of such anger in the first place.
  • To escape or ‘numb’ the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases risk taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or ‘salvation’ in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-facetted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract them towards ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades. It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

According to scholar Mohammad Abi Samra,

The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy. This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence, and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.[1]

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I used to live in a community in London that was often described in such terms!

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm. Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind – waiting to erupt at any opportunity. Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to loose? The answer – not much! Their desire for ‘salvation’ – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Many of the young people from the region who are joining these groups, and who come from such impoverished and desperate circumstances, are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon. Anger and resentment towards both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities runs deep and hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

Perhaps the main thing that ISIS can offer is a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found ‘salvation’ within a certain interpretation of Islam. This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity. Former gang members have become community leaders and role-models to the ‘wretched’ youth of impoverished communities. However, the young people who are ‘being saved’ lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse. They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities. In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, but rather have a desire to escape (Abi Samra 230-234). The other significant thing ISIS can offer is a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine. This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

So, what is the role of the faith communities – and the church?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy, as well as their neighbour. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming ‘the enemy’. So how can we even begin to think about loving them, when loving them involves taking loving actions towards them?

In the first instance I think we need to recognise that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision. They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as ‘crazy’, ‘sick’ or ‘evil’, maybe we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organisations. In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, just to understand them.

It would be easy for the church to stay out of it. How might the church have a role in being a peace-maker between different Muslim communities? Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities. Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli have joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people towards groups like ISIS. One is believed to have joined ISIS, while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighbouring community. In such contexts maybe peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques, to seek ways not only to reject violence, but to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds. Maybe the role of the global church is to take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances. In the mean time, why not pray for these young men and women and for their families… as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.

___________________________

[1] Mohammad Abi Samra, ‘Revenge of the Wretched: Islam and Violence in the Bab al Tabaneh Neighborhood of Tripoli’ in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk, ed. Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p.222.