Monthly Archives: September 2021

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.

The Terrorist Within (TDTCTW 7)

All that week in Holland I spent every available moment watching the updates on CNN. The next afternoon I went for a long walk to clear my head. I crossed a bridge over a set of locks on the nearby canal, watching as a houseboat was lowered to the next level. I then set off through fields of grazing cattle, dodging speedy Dutch bikers on a lovely asphalt path about four feet wide. The landscape was perfectly flat, broken only by occasional trees, the canal and a couple of ponds. It was hard to reconcile that prosperous and peaceful atmosphere with the turmoil still churning inside me. I found I had trouble meeting the eyes of those walking or biking the other way. I really didn’t want to meet anyone, or talk to anyone.

After a couple of miles I entered a small, peaceful town. I walked along the main street with cars and an occasional truck moving by. There was the typical Dutch country church, a small grassy square with tall trees, and neat, well-kept houses with little gardens along the sidewalk. Everything looked so tranquil and serene, it was a strong contrast to the news of a wider world. But it seemed like a great place to find some peace on a shattered day.

At the other end of town I walked past a small school with a grassy playground along the sidewalk. In the playground were about 60 small, blond schoolchildren, aged perhaps 5-9, with three or four adult chaperons. There was a chain-link fence about three feet high and a short hedge between me and the children. Once again a peaceful scene, this time of happy child’s play.

A horrible thought suddenly struck me. What if I were a terrorist? What if I had brought a gun with me, hidden in my clothing? There was no security station on the way into town. Who could have stopped me? I shuddered that such thoughts would even enter my mind. It also dawned on me that no matter how many police, well-trained security teams, checkpoints or hardened defenses you put together you can’t prevent all acts of evil from occurring. What protected these children from me was not local security but my own inner conviction to do the right thing.

I began to ponder, was there a potential terrorist inside of me? Was there some sort of straight-line continuum between good citizens and mass murderers? Or are the kind of people who fly planes into buildings totally warped and different from me? Are the seeds of terrorism and evil inside all of us? I thought back to my own beginnings

Growing up in New York, I certainly did get into a bit of mischief from time to time. But there was one constant in my growing up experience. I was taught a faith in God that was clear, that spelled out the rules, and that provided guidance for my life. I guess most people would say I grew up in a “fundamentalist” home. I always knew when it was time to be home, for example. And I made every effort to be on time. If I was even slightly late my Mom gave me a long song and dance about almost calling the police and being sooooo worried. I learned that my life would be a lot easier if I followed the rules.

I came to think of God in similar terms. If you take your bath when you=re supposed to, if you go to church at the right time, if you are reasonably nice to your parents, God will be pleased with you. Stay away from alcohol, drugs and tobacco and God will approve. The rules were comforting and they were clear. Don’t run in church, you’ll scuff the floor. Don’t make too much noise. The problem was, there were so many rules that I had trouble remembering them all at the same time, so I was constantly messing up in one area or another. Although I tried real hard, I became increasingly sure that God was not pleased with me because I messed up so often.

One good thing about growing up with religious certainty was that you always knew who the bad guys were. They were easy to spot. They were the people who didn’t go to church. They smoked and drank and swore. They believed weird stuff about God (at least different from what I believed). They went to night clubs and shows and places like Las Vegas. The bad people didn’t live on my street, but I knew they were out there. I didn’t run into them every day, but when I did, I could feel good that I wasn’t like them.

I guess in some ways I wasn’t all that different from the kind of people that get recruited by al Qaeda. I certainly wasn’t the type to blow myself up or hurt anyone else, but I did have this really strong sense that my view of God was right and that a whole lot of people out there had it all wrong. And we=re finding out today that the kind of rigid, rule-based religion I experienced can be steered in some very ugly directions. I=m thankful that I never went there, but I realize now that I could have. Terrorism is born in the heart.

Related to this was the fact that I felt extremely out of place in the big picture of New York City. The world, as I saw it, was so different from the way most people looked at it I couldn’t really talk about my beliefs with most people. They just wouldn’t have had a clue what I was talking about. Here I was, interacting on a day-to-day basis with the most cutting-edge place on earth, and yet I would not allow myself to really participate in the life of the city. Although I had lived my whole life in the city, I still felt like a stranger in a strange land.

When I was in college, a speaker came for a week and emphasized one thing only. He suggested God was more interested in making friends than in condemning people. He encouraged me to put my effort into knowing God rather than doing stuff to avoid His disapproval. I was intrigued by the message. It was very different from the way I was raised, yet it was compelling. I decided to check what the Bible really had to say about the subject.

Here is where I made the first major change in my spiritual life. When I was a kid I had a tendency to ignore Bible texts that didn’t seem to support what I was thinking. I was operating from a selective approach. I decided to try three new strategies in my study of the Bible. 1) I would take a “big picture” approach to the text. I would be open to the whole Bible, as it reads, rather than picking and choosing whatever fit with beliefs I already held. 2) I would ground my understanding on what is clear in the text, rather than trying to make the less clear things say what I wanted them to say. 3) I would pay special attention to the ideas of people who disagreed with me. Maybe some of the “bad guys” knew something I didn’t.

The last point reminded me of what I call the “Saddam Hussein Syndrome.” Saddam Hussein’s advisors tended not to disagree with him, since most of the ones who did were soon dead! As a result, he didn’t get a lot of good advice! People told him what they thought he wanted to hear. So when I listen to what Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, evolutionists, Baptists, or anybody else have to say about the Bible, there’s a chance I might learn something!

In practice I learned to test my ideas about God by the plain teachings of the Bible in its widest context. When I began to do this, I became amazed at what I had missed. My narrow perspective about God began to change, because the God of the Bible didn’t fit with the God I had been told about.