A Challenge to My Fellow Christians (TDTCTW 8)

The climax of the Bible’s big picture is found in the last part, the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets pointed forward to a future major act of God. In that act God would send a Messiah to right the wrongs in this world. The Old Testament describes that Messiah as a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15,18), a king like David (Jer 23:5-6), and a conquering hero (Zech 9:9-10). From texts like these, one could easily get the impression that Jesus would be a powerful king who would dominate the political forces in His world (many Christians act as if it were so). But Jesus used these texts for a moral purpose rather than a political or economic one. His kingdom was not like the nations of this world (John 18:36-37). Warfare was not the way to attain spiritual goals (John 18:10-11). Jesus’ kingdom had to do with character development, spiritual growth and enhanced relationships with others and with God (Matt 5:21-48; Luke 17:20-21). While Jesus’ kind of kingdom would change the world, it had nothing to do with the weapons of this world (2 Cor 10:3-5).

I have gained great respect for the Qur’an and the dedication of those who practice its faith with mercy and compassion. There is no doubt in my mind that the Qur’an represents a great advance on the religious sensibilities of the tribal religions it replaced. And while some Christians may disagree, I believe the God portrayed in the Bible “has not left Himself without witness” (Acts 14:17) among those who did not have the Bible. God recognizes the sincere worship of people in every nation as directed to Himself (Mal 1:11).

Nevertheless, the Qur’an still leaves God distant from us. The God of the Qur’an does not speak our language (unless we have learned Arabic). He is not deeply engaged in our existence. He is distant and easily seems uncaring and even vengeful. By way of contrast, the God of the Bible is a practical God that meets us where we are. Unlike the distant God of Mohammed, He is deeply engaged in the human condition. But the Bible goes one step further. It claims that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being born in a stable of Bethlehem, raised in Egypt and Palestine, was none other than the living incarnation of God’s person (Heb 1:1-3). One who was God from the beginning took on human flesh (John 1:1-3,14). Such a God is deeply concerned about our situation. He taught and healed and comforted people in the humblest of circumstances. He was a “humble” God who never commanded His followers to use weapons in His behalf. Instead He commanded them to love their enemies (Matt 5:44), just as He did when He died for the very ones who crucified him (Rom 5:8-10).

I offered a serious challenge to Muslim thinkers a few days ago, but my challenge to traditional Christianity today is even more pointed. After all, Muslims who take up arms in behalf of their faith can at least point to their own sacred texts for justification. But what justification does the Bible offer for the way the West flaunts its power and wealth in the world? Where in the teaching and practice of Jesus is there any basis for advancing the Christian agenda through military, political or economic means? A Muslim could be excused for missing God’s call to mercy and compassion in the violence of the Qur’an, but what excuse can the follower of Jesus offer for missing God’s call to openness, grace, love and peace?

I know, I know. The United States and Europe are no longer truly “Christian” nations. The West today is not pursuing a religious agenda, but a political and economic one. But in the light of Christianity’s past, in the light of the Crusades and the Inquisition, can we really expect the Muslim world to understand the distinction between Western action and Christian faith? When they look at Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel in the light of Christianity’s past, where is the spirit of Jesus?

I believe that traditional Christianity has failed in its own struggle to grasp and demonstrate the teachings and attitude of Jesus, who humbled Himself and stepped down from heavenly wealth, power, and glory (Phil 2:5-8). He demonstrated in human form that the divine answer to violence and terror is found not in power and wealth, but in humility, authenticity, and forgiveness. Traditional Christianity has failed as badly as Islam to provide the solutions to the world’s problems. But in the process it has strayed even further from its roots than Islam has. In the next chapter I explore the fundamental reason for Christianity’s inability to see its own failures and offer a solution that is grounded in both the Bible and the traditions of Islam.

When it comes to knowing the God of the Bible, a little tentativeness is advisable. It was the lack of such tentativeness that killed four ATF agents and led David Koresh and his followers to destruction. It was a lack of such tentativeness that led Mohamed Atta to do the ghastly “work of God” that was September 11 and Osama bin Laden to plan and encourage it. All three men thought they knew exactly what God wanted them to do and exactly how to bring about the result that God had in mind. All three believed that God’s ways and their thoughts were in perfect harmony.

I find this, frankly, amazing. We don’t expect anyone to paint the “final painting,” one so perfect that no more art needs to be produced. We don’t expect “the final and complete discovery” from any scientist. Yet we have the capacity to think we have fully understood God, as if God were far more limited a concept than science or art! Many use religion and God-talk as a tool in behalf of their own agendas. But as the Psalmist says that they have made a basic error, they thought that God was just like them; just as rigid, unbending and at times hateful as they were (Psalm 50:16-21).

But the Bible actually portrays a God who cannot be put into a comfortable human box, who is not predictable. Whenever we think, speak or write about God it is critical to maintain a reverent tentativeness about our conclusions. We must leave God the freedom to be God. While openness, honesty, authenticity and humility are very much part of the philosophical landscape today, a call for these virtues is more than just political correctness. It is mandated by the very words of Scripture, which have in the past been misused for political or economic gain, but upon more careful examination portray a God who is very much unlike ourselves.

In the wake of September 11, it is imperative that we not only combat terrorism with the weapons of this world, it is even more critical that we combat it with the weapons of truth. Hatred, disparagement of other religions, boastful self-confidence in one’s absolute correctness, these are the ultimate roots of terrorism. A faith that exhibits the compassion, mercy, justice and love of God with an appropriate humility and openness will be a major part of our recovery from the event that changed the world.

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