Category Archives: Current Events

Where I Was on September 11, 2001 (TDTCTW 6)

I landed at Schiphol Aiport in Amsterdam early on the morning of September 11. It was a beautiful sunny day and I quickly hooked up with the driver who was to take me to a conference a couple of hours drive away. The countryside was flat as a desktop, but interesting in a Dutch sort of way. After a meal, a nap and a little reading I headed for the dining room of the conference center around 5:30 PM (11:30 AM, New York time).

I always get a little nervous the first time I am in a large group of new people, particularly when most of them aren=t speaking my language. In this case the conference had about 900 attendees from all over Europe, from the Arctic Circle and Iceland in the north and west to Greece and Romania in the south and east. In that setting I was somewhat relieved that the dining room was not crowded. That meant I could eat by myself without seeming anti-social.

I was halfway through my meal, when a pastor from Croatia approached me. I remembered having seen him somewhere before and tried to be friendly in a dazed, jet-lagged sort of way. I was about to feel a lot more dazed. . . .
“Have you heard the news from America?” he asked.
“What news?” I grunted, thinking I might be in for more explanation than I cared to receive at that moment.
“I just heard that four passenger jets have crashed today in the United States,” he said excitedly.
“No way!” I said, “Such a thing has never happened before!”
“Two of them crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and the towers collapsed, and another one crashed into the Pentagon!”
“World Trade Center collapsed? The Pentagon?” I was beyond confused, I was suspicious. One of the things I deal with in worldwide travel is all the wild and crazy rumors about stuff going on in America. People want to impress you with their knowledge of things and often they jump on reports that have no substance in the hope of impressing you. This was sounding like one of those times. “That’s impossible, you aren’t making this up are you?” In retrospect, I don’t think I was very nice to him.
“It must be true, I saw it on CNN. Go see for yourself. They have CNN on a big screen in the room just upstairs.”

I still didn’t know what to believe. I began to doubt my own reality. Perhaps I was still in a jet-lagged dream and would soon wake up in a bed somewhere in the Netherlands. But the food tasted real enough. I shook my head, trying to get the cobwebs out. I hurriedly finished my meal and dragged myself upstairs to the meeting room.

Several hundred people were crowded into the medium-sized room. Live feed from CNN was being projected onto a screen. Behind the CNN announcer was a view of the southern end of Manhattan Island in New York City. There was a huge cloud obscuring everything.


Although there were no seats available in the room, someone I knew motioned for the “New Yorker” to take his seat near the front in order to get a good view. I sat down and fixed my eyes on the screen for the next hour and a half. The nightmare continued. I peered intently at the screen looking for signs that the World Trade Center towers were still there. I couldn’t believe that they would have collapsed so easily. Then the network began repeatedly airing a new tape, showing the second airplane impacting the south tower, the fiery explosion that burst out the other side and the horrified cries of onlookers near the video camera. This was combined with repeated showings of panicked people running for their lives with a great billowing cloud of dust approaching rapidly behind them.

For me this scene cut deeper than for the hundreds of others watching with me. This was my home town. I grew up in New York. I had walked those very streets many times. No matter what perspective of the tragedy was being shown, I knew what I was looking at. I knew the likely location of the camera. I knew whether we were looking north, south, east or west. Then I considered what I knew about the World Trade Center. On a typical business day, about 50,000 people went to work in the twin towers. At any given time, perhaps 10,000 tourists would also be there, going up to the viewing decks of the South Tower or the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. As the reality of the towers= collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.

Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from school days, had asked me what he and his family ought to do with a week in New York. I told him, “Whatever you do, make sure that you visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center and catch the view of New York.” September 11 was right in the middle of the week he was supposed to be visiting New York. I was distraught with concern but could do absolutely nothing about it. I had no way of contacting him from the Netherlands.

I took a little comfort when I remembered my advice, “On the day that you visit the downtown, get to the Statue of Liberty ferry first thing in the morning. That is the only way you might get the chance to climb all the way to the top of the statue. Then, when you get back to Manhattan, walk to the New York Stock Exchange and arrange for a tour later in the day. That way you’ll get to the observation deck of the World Trade Center in early afternoon, when the view is the best.” I realized that if he had followed my advice, he would be looking at the tragedy from Liberty Island, not crushed under the rubble! But I had no way of knowing where he was (later I found out he and his family had decided not to go to the towers that day).

What I started to learn about myself that day is the topic of tomorrow’s blog.

The Role of Faith and Religion in Surviving the Pandemic

I am interrupting the series on September 11, 2001 to share a summary of some new information on staying healthy during the pandemic. You may remember that some time ago I reported that employees of Loma Linda University Health seemed to be contracting the illness in roughly the same percentages as the wider community (although high proximity to Covid patients would suggest it should be higher), but that the virus at that time had caused only two deaths in the employee population whereas the numbers would have suggested 20-30. So there seemed to me there might be some correlation between the Loma Linda lifestyle and some protection both from contracting the disease and from severe consequences when one does contract it.

I consider Harold Koenig of Duke University the world’s leading authority on the interaction of faith and health. I have just been made aware of an article he wrote in the Journal of Religion and Health which aggregates years of research (more than 50 articles) on faith, infectious diseases and the human immunce system. Koenig is a medical doctor who is also recognize as a player in the field of religion. The title of his article is “Maintaining Health and Well-Being by Putting Faith into Action During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” I will summarize the main points of the article here. From here on the words are mine but the ideas are Koenig’s, as well as I could understand them.

Throughout the world many people are experiencing fear and anxiety in relation to the novel coronavirus which produces the deadly illness called COVID-19. Yet these very emotions actually increase people’s susceptibility to the dreaded virus through an adverse effect on the body’s immune system. On the other hand, positive emotions like love, joy and peace have been shown to boost immune functioning, and thus minimize both the likelihood of contracting the disease and the severity of symptoms when one does upon contract it. A large and growing body of objective scientific research underline the benefits to the immune system of prayer and meditation, attendance at religious services, and engagement in other religious activities.

Koenig lists a number of suggestions for those who wish to remain healthy and resilient—mentally, spiritually, and physically—during the anxious time of the pandemic. I will discuss them very briefly here. 1) Deepen Your Religious Faith. Use lockdowns and other measure to create time for personal religious activities that lead to a stronger relationship with God. Multiple studies document the benefits of a genuine religious faith on immune functioning and vulnerability to infection, particularly viral infection. When life was normal most people felt too busy to spend much time in devotional exercises. Abnormal times provide opportunity for building spiritual health.

2) Love your neighbor and put that love into action. Koenig notes the historical reality that Christians have often been at the forefront of caring for people during times of pandemic. Research supports the health benefits to the one doing acts of compassion for others. It not only gives a sense of meaning and purpose to life, but it enhances one’s own sense of health and well-being.

3) Use technology to reach out. Through tools like Zoom and Marco Polo provide virtual “hugs and handshakes” to people you are otherwise isolated from. It seems like a gift from God that at this very time when social isolation is at its peak, there are so many new tools for enhancing relationships without physical contact. Research supports the immune benefits of social interactions, making them worth pursuing by any available means.

4) Love yourself. As the pandemic drags on, and one has not been infected, it is increasingly tempting to develop a cavalier attitude toward the virus and feel somewhat invulnerable. But no faith tradition condones recklessness. People should not expose themselves unnecessarily. Now is not the time to relax such good health measures as frequent hand washing, and applying measures like masking and social distancing whenever one is indoors with a lot of people, such as in church.

5) Pay attention to physical health. While Koenig is not a Seventh-day Adventist, he is a big fan of the Blue Zone lifestyle practiced by many at Loma Linda. Staying physically healthy correlates with resistance to infection. So Koenig recommends regular exercise (30-45 minutes a day), 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, weight control, hydration (minimum of 2 quarts a day of water), and appropriate quantities of supplements like Vitamins D, C and E, especially Vitamin D, which has been shown to directly improve immune function. Three-quarters of Americans are Vitamin D deficient.

6) Be actively involved in a religious community. Many systematic scientific studies report a positive association between religious involvement and indicators of healthy immune function. Religious involvement reduces inflammation and increases the immune functions that are needed to resist infection. Even those with compromised immune systems function better if they engage in communal religious activities.

If one follows the above six suggestions, Koenig concludes, one is less likely to contract the virus and if one does, the course of the illness will likely be less severe, and recovery is likely to be sooner because of increased emotional, social, physical and spiritual resilience.

A Friendly Suggestion to Muslims Today (TDTCTW 5)

In reflecting on the previous two blogs, I would like to offer a word of counsel and encouragement to Muslim thinkers today, but before I do I want to make it clear that I am not blaming Islam for all the world’s troubles. While Islam has failed to solve the problems of the Middle East, Christianity has fared just as poorly at influencing the West in the direction of peace, humility, and compassion. I offer the following comments in the desire to be helpful.

I suggest that the thoughts and actions of people like Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden ultimately pose a greater threat to Islam than to the West. They seem to have believed that the true faith is shown by material power and wealth that resemble the power and wealth of Allah. In other words, the fruit of true Islam would be world dominance and material wealth. But Islam has not produced this kind of result in today’s world. Bin Laden and others have blamed the weakness, the oppression, and the poverty in Islamic countries on the West. But it seems more likely that the weakness of the Islamic world reflects a failure to adjust to the rapid changes over the last couple of centuries.

To claim material wealth and power as the outcome of true faith is to draw an immediate contrast with the West, which exhibits the very military might and economic abundance that ought to be associated with Allah’s cause. No wonder Atta and bin Laden were frustrated with both the Middle East and the West! The “infidel” has reaped the very things that should be signs of Allah’s favor. So the extremist Islam of Atta and bin Laden focuses not on producing better people but on seeking to destroy the tokens of the West’s ascendancy. But such an Islam can win only by destroying others, not by building them up. Such an Islam can only increase the violence and misery in the world.

But there is another option. The second approach is to say: “Islam becomes the best channel to God when it focuses on faith, not on wealth and power. While Muslims may suffer defeat and poverty in this world, they are the ultimate winners because they have the maturity to ignore the allures of power and wealth. While Islam may appear to be a loser in the eyes of the West, it is actually a winner, it is winning human hearts to God by humility, mercy and compassion.”

An Islam that has the strength to renounce power and wealth would also abandon war as a way of achieving spiritual goals. It would free itself to become a spiritual community that would be attractive to all the nations of the world. Such a course might even shame the so-called “Christian” West into taking the humility and compassion of Jesus more seriously!

If this vision for Islam is the best course of action, the jihadists’ focus on the West and its wealth and power could prove a lethal sidetrack for the faith. Instead of focusing on the spiritual task, people become consumed with destroying the West’s power and wealth. Muslim thinkers would do well to reject the al Qaeda doctrine by renouncing wealth and power as emblems of righteousness. In this way of thinking Muslims should leave the West alone and not covet its riches, but get on with the business of spirituality. If power and wealth is a deception, then the Western way of life will eventually collapse on its own.

I believe that Islam, therefore, can make a major contribution to the world in the wake of September 11 by seizing the path of humility, openness and spiritual growth. People are hungry for just such a faith. Perhaps the following sura could point the way: “Summon thou [people] to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and with kindly warning: dispute with them in the kindest manner: thy Lord best knoweth those who stray from his way, and He best knoweth those who have yielded to his guidance. If ye make reprisals, then make them to the same extent that ye were injured: but if ye can endure patiently, best will it be for the patiently enduring. Endure then with patience. But thy patient endurance must be sought in none but God. . .” (16:125-127)

The best response to September 11 is a faith that categorically rejects violence in the name of religion. Religious violence improves nothing, it only makes the world a more miserable and a more dangerous place. Extreme forms of religious fundamentalism do more than kill, they divide those who remain and impoverish them, both materially and spiritually.

The Qur’an and the Bible (TDTCTW 4)

Both the Bible and the Qur’an are books of divine revelation. Between them they communicate the will of God for about half the world’s population. Abraham and Moses are central figures in both books. The Qur’an even has positive portrayals of Jesus, although there are significant differences between the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament and those of the Qur’an. But although there are many common elements between the two holy books, they are of a different character in at least two fundamental ways.

One fundamental difference lies in the nature of the revelations themselves. The Bible reveals God through His progressive dealings in history. God meets people where they are. The Qur’an is very different from this picture. The Qur’an does not offer chains of history or a coherent focus on any particular theme. Instead it reads like a stream of consciousness, it jumps here and there from commands of God to stories of the ancients to theological pronouncements to prayers to descriptions of the final judgment. The Qur’an is not organized thought. It instead contains recitations by Mohammed which were collected after his death and organized roughly from the longest to the shortest.

The style of the Qur’an, however, is grounded in its very nature. For Jews and Christians the Bible is the product of divinely inspired human beings, generally writing in their own words. Muslims, on the other hand, regard the Qur’an as the eternal words of Allah Himself. According to them, Mohammed played no role in shaping the recitations recorded in the Qur’an. They are the very words of God Himself spoken in the Arabic language, heard by Mohammed and transcribed in Arabic by him. Thus the Qur’an is not the Bible of the Muslims, it functions for them more like Jesus Christ does for Christians. To quote Bob Woodward of Newsweek, “In short, if Christ is the word made flesh, the Qur’an is the word made book.”

For the Muslim God is totally removed from human contact (transcendent). So the closest any human being can possibly come to God in this life is the very words of the Qur’an. And since those words are the very words of Allah Himself, they are only truly valid in the original Arabic. Thus Muslims read the Qur’an and use it in prayers only in the Arabic language, even though the majority of Muslims do not understand it. But what counts for them is not the meaning and the content. The very sounds and syllables of the Arabic Qur’an mediate the presence of God to the one who reads and speaks them. So Islam is not primarily a doctrinal religion. With a few exceptions (there is no God but Allah, Mohammed is His messenger, are examples) Islam is not about what a person believes so much as an experience of God resulting in obedience and submission to His will.

So the Qur’an is very different from the Bible. For the Muslim the Qur’an is the pure and perfect revelation of God, making Islam the only perfect religion. But in spite of this belief in the perfection of the Qur’an’s revelation, Islam today is suffering from a major crisis of authority. The “perfect” revelation is nevertheless ambiguous at many points. Today it seems that any Muslim with an agenda feels free to cite the Qur’an in support of that agenda.

One of the most crucial areas of dispute in the Muslim world today is the role of violence and warfare in the Qur’an. Some who focus on the warfare texts of the Qur’an find fuel for exclusivism, hatred, and killing in the name of Allah. This should not be a total surprise, Westerners reading the Qur’an tend to be appalled at its gruesomeness in places. Grounded in the violence of the Qur’an, all that some Muslims need to justify suicide bombings and highjackings is the perception of a threat to the position and prestige of Islam. As we have seen, Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden have seen such threats coming from a variety of directions.

Many Muslim scholars, however, especially those living in the West, see another side to the Qur’an. They cite recitations that indicate Allah created diverse peoples and cultures for a purpose. Other religious perspectives, therefore, are not to be battled against, but tolerated. And while the Qur’an portrays Allah as a God of vengeance (there are similar concepts in parts of the Old Testament), it has even more to say about mercy, goodness and forgiveness. So the Islamic world is understandably divided in its interpretation. The heart of Mohamed Atta, however, was clearly undivided. He had a firm and fanatical belief that what he was doing was pleasing to God.

So while Mohamed Atta believed that what he was doing pleased God, it is helpful to remember that his fanaticism is not characteristic of the vast majority of believers in the Muslim world. In fact, the events of September 11 were so incompatible with the way the average Muslim thinks that millions in the Middle East believed the attacks on September 11 were some sort of Israeli plot. They felt that no true Muslim could have done such a thing.

But the ambiguity of the Qur’an remains a problem. Islam arose in a brutally violent time (as did the early Israelites) and its sacred book bears witness to that violence. Mohammed and his followers were constantly faced with shifting tribal loyalties, betrayals and misunderstandings. In the process Mohammed led his forces into numerous battles, and at times slaughtered what we, at least, would call “innocents.” So the use of warfare and the slaughter of innocents has some support in the practice of Mohammed himself, the original transcriber and interpreter of the Qur’an. In his defense, however, many would point out that the tribes he slaughtered were themselves seeking to exterminate his faith, making these slaughters “defensive actions.”

Here we must honestly confront a major difference between the behavior of Mohammed, and the teaching and behavior of Jesus, the respective founders of these two great monotheistic religions. Mohammed and his successors clearly used violence in order to achieve the expansion of Islam. Nothing in the teaching or practice of Jesus, on the other hand, gives any encouragement to violence or warfare in behalf of the faith.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Rom 12:17-21.

Jesus clearly taught that His followers were to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-39), love their enemies, and riddle those who hated them with the bullets of kindness and prayer, rather than AK-47s (Matt 5:44). For Jesus, the highest place in Paradise was not for suicide bombers or battlefield heros, in Jesus’ order “the last would be first” (Matt 19:30) and “the meek would inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5– the teachings of Jesus on this point are echoed elsewhere in the New Testament: Rom 12:17-21; 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9).

And Jesus practiced what he preached. When a mob came to apprehend him unjustly, his friend Peter drew a sword and became a slasher in Jesus’ defense. Yet Jesus ordered Peter to put away his sword, even in a defensive action (John 18:10-11). When brought before an unjust court he said, “My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would have fought to prevent my capture” (John 18:36-37). He placed his life in God’s hands, not in the hands of well-meaning, but armed men (Luke 22:40).

It is certainly true that the Bible has its own stories of violence in the name of the Lord. In Exod 15 God is a stalwart defender of His people, assaulting the Egyptian army with His judicial fury (Exod 15:7-10). He drowns the hapless armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea in response to plight of his people. But stories like these do not have the universal force of the Qur’anic commands. They were specific actions under specific circumstances. They are not a prescription for how God’s people are to respond to situations with their own efforts.

Furthermore, these stories are not “considered God’s own eternal words, as Muslims believe Qur’anic verses to be. . . Israeli commandos do not cite the Hebrew prophet Joshua as they go into battle, but Muslim insurgents can readily invoke the example of their Prophet, Muhammad, who was a military commander himself. And while the Crusaders may have fought with the cross on their shields, they did not–could not–cite words from Jesus to justify their slaughters” (Bob Woodward, Newsweek, “The Bible and the Qur’an,” February 11, 2002, p, 53).

Anatomy of a Terrorist

“Except for the place where they died, Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta would seem to have had absolutely nothing in common. . . . As a lifelong firefighter who rose to become first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, Feehan was directly or indirectly responsible for saving thousands of lives. As a suicidal terrorist who flew American Airlines flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; Atta murdered thousands, including Bill Feehan, who was helping a woman at the base of the North Tower when the building collapsed on him. Any suggestion of moral equivalence between the two men is repugnant. And yet, it must be said, both believed in the rightness of their causes with absolute certainty.” (Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2001/Jan. 7, 2002, p. 40)

Is there an “anatomy of a terrorist?” How is it that two wiggly baby boys could one day end up in the same place but for such different reasons? How could anyone come to believe the slaughter of innocents was the “right” thing to do? It would be a lot easier on most of us if we could believe that Mohamed Atta was totally insane, the victim of mad delusions. But could a truly crazy person work with the calm and careful purpose that Atta exhibited? Does it make more sense to assume that Mohamed Atta was simply evil? And if so, how did he get that way?

According to a description in Newsweek, based on interviews with family and others who knew him, Mohamed Atta would have seemed an unlikely candidate for terrorist action. Short and slim (in the highjacking of American Airlines, Flight 11 he was leader and pilot, the other four highjackers provided the brawn) he was considered a “mamma’s boy” by his father. Atta Sr. would complain to his wife that she was raising Mohamed as a girl. Even in his 20s he continued to sit in his mother’s lap from time to time. There was a further problem for a prospective highjacker: he absolutely hated flying! His sister, who was a doctor, had to provide medicine against cramps and vomiting every time he flew.

An interesting obsession of his, however, offered a premonition of the shocking way that he would choose to die. On the wall of Mohamed Atta’s apartment in Hamburg, Germany was a black-and-white poster of construction workers perched on a beam of the Empire State Building high above New York (taken back in 1930). According to his teachers and former classmates, Atta believed that high-rise buildings were a curse introduced into the Middle East from the West. In the Middle East the traditional method of construction has been one- or two-story houses with private courtyards. When this was done well it resulted in the kind of charming, bustling neighborhood life that tourists to the Middle East love to taste. The interior courtyards provided privacy, the beauty of the neighborhood provided dignity, and the whole fostered interaction and community.

In the 60s and 70s, however, Middle Eastern cities and towns became filled with impersonal and ugly apartment complexes. Atta’s own family moved into an 11th floor apartment in 1990, as he was graduating with an engineering degree from Cairo University. The building his own family lived in became for him a shabby symbol of Egypt’s embrace of Western ways. Secular Arabs had accepted the negative trappings of the modern world without attaining its wealth and freedom.

Atta began to study ways to reverse the situation and restore the old glories of Islam. A major opportunity came when his father decided to send him to engineering school at Hamburg Technical University in Germany. There he pursued a degree in urban-planning studies. His thesis was on the restoration of Aleppo, an ancient Syrian city, to its pure Islamic past– devoid of skyscrapers. He was awarded a B+ for the thesis.

But how did the mamma’s boy become a mass murderer? Atta’s progress from idealistic student to Islamic militant to terrorist seems to have been gradual. At first his goal was the improvement of urban life in the Middle East. Then in Cairo University he came under the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aimed to create an Islamic state and limit Western influence in Egypt through non-violent means.

Mohamed Atta’s gathering resentments were probably sharpened by the anti-foreigner attitude in Germany, where Muslim immigrants often feel like second-class citizens. He found refuge in the mosques of Hamburg, where the mullahs have a lot more freedom to speak than they do in Egypt. Recruiting for the terrorist underground sometimes occurs in these mosques. Atta is believed to have been specifically recruited into al Qaeda by Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen of Syrian descent (reported in USA Today on June 19, 2002).

In 1995, Atta went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, searching for a deeper commitment to his faith. In 1997 he traveled to Afghanistan and enrolled in one of Osama bin Laden’s training camps for terrorists. Egyptians were given special treatment in these camps, so Atta would have quickly felt at home. The camps were designed to solidify beliefs, fan the flames of hatred, and then train people for specialized roles in the mission of terror. Atta himself was chosen for a leadership role and trained in the arts of bomb making and chemical weaponry. While he was not intimidating in appearance, he seems to have had a hard stare that made it difficult for people to cross him. Power is more than just a physical thing.

When he returned to Hamburg in 1998 he established an al Qaeda cell that included two roommates, Marwan Al-Shehhi and Ziad Samir Jarrah, who also participated in the suicide highjackings on September 11. All three came from middle-class families, were skilled in computers and were highly educated. Once set on his course, Atta made further preparation by getting flight training in Florida, examining potential targets in the US, and finally heading for Portland, Maine, where he was to board a connecting flight to Boston with one of his terrorist “muscle-men,” Abdulaziz Alomari. In Boston they were able to transfer without passing through further security and the rest is history. A “momma’s boy” who hated skyscrapers found a way to destroy one of the two most massive towers in the world, at the cost of thousands of human lives. And he did so in the name of God.

According to Newsweek, Mohamed Atta carefully planned out his final moves. In a document he titled “The Last Night” he wrote to himself, “Be happy, optimistic, calm, because you are heading for a deed God loves and will accept. It will be the day, God willing, you spend with the women of paradise.” And with regard to the last moment before impact, Atta wrote, “Either end your life while praying, seconds before the target, or make your last words: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammad is His messenger.’” Was Atta’s vision the inevitable product of Islam or did he misunderstand the faith he served so fervently? Does the Qur’an itself contain the seeds of suicidal terrorism or is al Qaeda a blasphemous misinterpretation of Mohammed’s original intentions? To be continued.

When Mohamed Atta’s plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center Bill Feehan was at his Brooklyn office. A 42-year veteran, he had held every imaginable job in the New York City Fire Department, from “proby” to acting commissioner. At 71 years of age he could have retired years before September 11. In fact, one of Feehan’s aides had sensed that he was about to call it quits. A memorial plaque for firefighters who died in the line of duty hung in the lobby of FDNY headquarters. It had room for 780 names. Over 136 years of existence the Fire Department had bid final farewell to 778 of its number. One day Feehan told a friend, “I want to be out of here before that plaque is full.” Little did he know at that moment that on a sunny day in September the list would grow by nearly 50%.

An aide called Feehan, “Hey boss! I think you better see this! A plane went into the World Trade Center.”

Feehan emerged from his office, looked out a west-facing window and saw the smoke swirling from the upper levels of the north tower. “Oh my God!” he said, “Let’s go!” He and his team raced across the Brooklyn Bridge to take charge of the fire companies responding to the tragedy. Although they did not know each other, Feehan was about to join Mohamed Atta in the rubble of the North Tower. They both arrived there by choice. Bill Feehan and Mohamed Atta met their deaths in the same place because one man chose to destroy and the other chose to save.

The Islamic World of Osama bin Laden (TDTCTW 2)

The attack on the World Trade Center was intended as a blow against the United States and its Christian heritage. The results of that attack, however, were not limited to the target. The roll of those who died at Ground Zero included people from literally scores of nations and faith convictions. Usman Farman is a Pakistani Muslim who was working on the 27th floor of one of the Trade Towers on September 11. As he left the tower he fell stunned to the ground, perhaps as a result of flying debris. When a Hasidic Jew found Farman lying on the ground there was no hesitation. “He helped me stand up,” Farman reported, “And we ran for what seemed like forever without looking back. He was the last person I would ever have thought would help me. If it weren’t for him I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.” Did the terrorist attackers realize that scores of faithful Muslims like Farman would die that day, along with many others who had nothing to do with American policy? And the suffering of the survivors cuts across many lines of faith.

Among the people who died in the World Trade Center were Michael Baksh, a Pakistani Christian, Abul Chowdhury, an Indian Muslim, and Doris Eng, a Buddhist of Chinese origin. Did the terrorists care that in taking down the World Trade towers they were killing hundreds of people from nearly half the nations in the world? Did they have no discrimination at all in their hatred? Was Osama bin Laden simply a mass murderer without a conscience? Did he somehow find joy in the slaughter of innocents?

For many the blame should be placed squarely on Osama bin Laden’s religion, Islam. Note the strong words of archconservative commentator, Ann Coulter: “Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren=t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities: we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”

This judgment, it seems to me, is blatantly unfair. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that terrorism is not limited to Muslims and to Islamic organizations. The list of terrorist organizations includes the Irish Republican Army, the Jews who blew up the King David Hotel in 1948, Puerto Rican nationalists, Basque separatists, the Shining Path of Peru, Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka, the Italian Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Croatian separatists of communist Yugoslavia and the Japanese Red Army. None of the above involved any Muslims to my knowledge. And even a short visit to the Middle East makes it clear that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists either. Nevertheless, the tie between Islam and terrorism became particularly acute after September 11, and it is worth some effort to understand the reasons for it.

A Middle Eastern Perspective
Ann Coulter’s attitude strikes me as the reaction of someone viewing the Middle East from a distance. In order to understand Osama bin Laden it helps to have spent some time in the Middle East and to have some appreciation of the role of Islam in Middle Eastern life and experience. I made my first trip to the Middle East in 1995. My family and I stayed in Palestinian Jerusalem for ten weeks. We ate Arab food and became friends with many. I think of Marwan, the shopkeeper, who always took time to talk about current events and give me advice on how to behave in an Arab community. I think of Gabriel, the travel agent, who had his ear to the Palestinian underground, and was careful to send us places only when it was safe to do so. I think of the nameless falafel vendor I rescued one day when an errant vehicle knocked over his stand. His gratitude was overwhelming. To this day he immediately recognizes me and greets me with a hug and a kiss, no matter how long I have been away.

I have now been to various locations in the Middle East more than a dozen times. The Middle East has become part of me now. As a New Yorker I have deep sympathy for the sufferings of the Jews. I am glad that there is a homeland Jews can call their own. At the same time my heart goes out to the Palestinian people, who share that land with them. I saw Israeli soldiers, often looking no older than 16, carrying machine guns with an air of authority. I saw Palestinian youths and shopkeepers being challenged, hollered at, and prodded with the weapons. I sensed their helplessness. Occasionally they shared their frustration and rage with me.

The “salem” in Jerusalem means “peace,” but Jerusalem is a very angry city. There is a lot of shouting, a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and not just between Israeli and Arab, or Christian and Muslim, but among Muslims and among Christians. In the Old City, the powder is dry and the fuse is short. My falafel friend almost came to blows one day over some dispute or other. I stopped walking by and hung around, in case he needed help, but after a few minutes things quieted down. Another time I watched Orthodox Jews march through the Arab section, shoving Arabs aside if they got in the way, secure in the knowledge that soldiers up on the walls would take care of things if anyone protested. A couple of times I was mistaken for an Israeli myself. The first time a Coke bottle glanced off my shoulder and shattered at my feet. It was dropped from a bridge above me by a laughing child, no more than seven years old. Another time I was missed by small stones thrown by three boys no more than ten.

I was surprised to learn the obvious differences between Muslims and Christians in Arab Jerusalem. If you go into a grocery store and see alcohol, you know that the owner is a Christian, a Muslim grocery owner would not sell alcohol. If you see an Arab woman dressed like a European, she is a Christian, a Muslim would dress far more modestly. Since most Israelis would line up with the Christians on these two points, I began to see how Muslims could come to view Christians and Jews as holding to an inferior faith. If, on top of that, Israelis act like oppressors and the Christian West does nothing about it, Judeo-Christianity as a whole is painted with a single stroke.

It is for reasons such as this that I have sensed some reserve toward Americans in the Middle East. On my first visit to Egypt, we traveled by boat from the port of Aqaba in Jordan to the Egyptian port of Nuweiba on the Sinai coast. The Americans were all directed to the first-class lounge, an air conditioned hall in the center of the ferry which had TVs, drinks and luxurious accommodations. But as we looked out the windows at the coastline of Saudi Arabia, passing in the midday heat, it dawned on me that there were no locals anywhere in sight. So I decided to go exploring through the ship. I discovered hundreds of Arabs scattered across the top deck in the hot sun, sitting on metal bulkheads and extended “park benches.” Some were trying to sleep right on the metal floor of topside. Many were wearing clothing that was dirty or tattered, this was clearly not the wealthy section of the ship.

A young Saudi, sitting in a bit of shade on the bench that ran along the side of the ship, noticed the American walking around and called to me in excellent English. He was very polite, but he jumped at the chance to open up some political issues. His view of the world was very different from mine, yet compelling in its own way. He shared his sense that the American government wanted to be seen as beneficent, yet its actions and demands were based on self-interest. Arab people like the freedom and openness of American society, but they don’t like the immorality and the “big stick” attitude toward other countries. He put his frustration in direct terms, “Why does everything always have to go America’s way?” This was a new way of looking at things for me. Until then, I had thought of Middle Eastern countries as the ones who were unreasonable and demanding.

A couple of years later I was getting off a plane with friends in Luxor, Egypt. A travel agent met us in baggage claim and gave us some instructions for the day. He then asked one of my friends what he did for a living. He said he worked for a Christian church. The agent’s eyes immediately brightened, “Then you are rich!” he said. This comment served as a summary of many Egyptian attitudes toward the Christian West, they see it as a different kind of world; uncaring, greedy, and rich. It is useful to have Westerners around, but their beliefs are not to be taken seriously.

The Grievances of Osama bin Laden
Terrorist groups have long called themselves things like “Islamic Jihad.” In 1998 Osama bin Laden called a “jihad against Crusaders and Jews” to justify the bombing of the US embassies in Africa. For him this jihad justified any Muslim “to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they are found.” But within Islam, jihad is not a clear-cut concept. It does not merely describe military warfare in defense of the faith. A better translation for jihad might actually be “effort” or “struggle” (there are other words in the Qur’an for “war” and “fighting”). Often it describes not warfare, but the personal struggle to be a better person, a better Muslim. However one translates it, jihad is a powerful concept in the Muslim world. When justified by the course of events, it becomes a personal obligation that stands above all others.

Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad was based on the conviction that Americans have declared war “on God, his messenger and Muslims.” In other words, America and Americans have committed “crimes against Islam.” How could he possibly have come to such a conclusion? There are several factors. The first of these is the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The history behind it looks very different to Arab eyes. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. Nevertheless, world-wide sympathy for the plight of the Jews during the war resulted in a UN partition which ceded over half of Palestine to the Jews, although only a third of population was Jewish and Jews owned an even smaller percentage of the land. In subsequent fighting the Israelis gained control of the entire land and are building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza despite UN resolutions requiring the return of land conquered in 1967. To Arab eyes this looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I know that the story can be told very differently from the Israeli perspective. But I think it is important for our purpose to see through the eyes of the terrorist, as far as that is possible for us to do. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. People living in perpetual poverty are dying at the expense of weapons purchased with the billions of dollars in military aid America gives Israel each year. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.

A second major grievance of bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. It is not surprising that bin Laden, himself a Saudi, was no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, he was a greater threat to the sheiks of Saudi Arabia than he was to the United States. He believed that secular Arab leaders are mere tools of the West, using the power of the West to cement their own personal position at the expense of the Muslim masses. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of Islamic extremists they would not stand without American support.

In a Western-dominated world, Muslims seem to be humiliated on every side. The Israelis (Palestine and the regional wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973), the Serbs (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the Russians (in Chechnya and other Muslim republics of central Asia) and the Indians (in Kashmir and various parts of India) have all found ways to marginalize Muslim interests around the world. On top of these slights the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to an Islamic zealot to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.

Bin Laden’s Strategy for September 11
For bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a respected place in the world again? Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told bin Laden that diplomacy would not work. The West had been “negotiating” with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal territories and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.

Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) should have no further doubts after the Gulf War and the rapid takeover of Afghanistan in 2001. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable in conventional terms. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of suicide. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was terrorism, strategic suicide.

This gives us some insight into the mindset of bin Laden when he gave the go-ahead for the attack of September 11, 2001. While the actions of the highjackers were gruesome and incomprehensible to Westerners, they were part of a strategic plan to change the balance of power in the world. The leaders of al Qaeda saw the Islamic world being occupied by non-Islamic forces. To change the balance of power in the world al Qaeda must find a way to end the “occupation” and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many Islamic regimes, it has become the great enemy that motivates and controls an anti-Islamic agenda.

Defeating the United States in a conventional way is not a realistic option. But the kind of terrorism bin Laden unleashed burdens America with trillions of dollars of expenses to fight terrorism at home and abroad. It distracts Americans with the constant fear of unsuspected attacks. It makes Americans feel as insecure as Europeans and Israelis have felt for decades. It makes isolationism look more attractive. If, in the process, the United States can be caused to withdraw from the Islamic world, other anti-Islamic powers such as Russia, China and Israel would be helpless to intervene. Corrupt and secular governments in the Muslim world would then have no base of outside support and would be overthrown by the Islamic masses. We got a brief taste of this during the Arab Spring of 2011.

So Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists do not expect to destroy the United States directly. It is too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy seems to have been to force the United States into a series of actions that destabilize the governments of those Middle Eastern countries that are dependant on Washington. If pressure from the United States forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants or to remain silent in the face of Israeli aggression, popular uprisings could easily lead to their collapse. The ultimate goal would be the establishment of an Islamic superpower, a vast Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, governed by Islamic law.

Could a bin Laden achieve such goals? He clearly believed the United States does not have the stomach to suppress a mass, popular uprising. Unlike al Qaeda Americans as a rule do their best not to hurt innocents. The same military that is virtually invincible in battle would have a difficult time handling an army of unarmed women and children. Although the United States has important interests in the Islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. To the degree that further terrorist acts in the US should occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel, the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the Islamic agenda.

So from bin Laden’s perspective war in diplomatic, economic or military terms would only result in the further humiliation of Islam. But terrorism has altered the battlefield odds. Since the targets vastly outnumber the defenders, al Qaeda has designed a war strategy in which it has significant advantages. U.S. power is weakened in that defensive action must be widely dispersed. Suicidal fervor creates a low-tech battlefield in which superior technology is neutralized as a weapon. Will all or part of bin Laden=s grand design ever succeed? The battle is far from over. September 11 continues to be a day that changed the world.

The Day That Changed the World


A little after 9 AM David looked at his watch. An airplane had just struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. From his viewpoint on the upper floors of the South Tower David could see black smoke pouring out of the impact area and drifting toward the east. Residents of the South Tower immediately began to evacuate the skyscraper as a precaution. But David calculated that it would take at least an hour to inch down to the ground in the already crowded stairwells of the South Tower. He hit the elevator button. The doors opened. People in the lobby behind him shook their heads.

David didn’t have time to explain. He thought, “If the ‘accident’ is really limited to the North Tower, the elevators in the south tower should be fully functional.” He got into the elevator with several others, but it remained half empty. As the elevator paused for a moment at the 78th floor, the second jetliner was about 60 seconds from impact. He called out to a woman friend and asked her to join him in the elevator.

“No,” she said, “I want to stay here and watch over the other people.”
David said, “Well, good luck to you.”
She responded, “Good luck to you, too.”

It was the last time he would ever see her. As the half-empty elevator’s doors closed, David would never forget the picture of all those faces looking at him. Back at his apartment, eleven blocks north of the World Trade Center, David watched the two smoldering towers. He didn’t realize that the wingtip of the second airplane had already ripped through the 78th floor elevator lobby, wreaking havoc among his former office mates. Although he had just come from the towers, it was hard to believe what he was seeing. Even as the South Tower came down, he turned his head to the left and watched the scene unfold simultaneously on the television, as if to verify that what he saw outside his window was really happening. Reality and fantasy seemed to have become one.

A short time later, and dazed with shock, Paul watched the screen of his television from the safety of Europe. Time and again CNN showed video of the second airliner approaching from the south and embedding itself completely into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the tower David had just evacuated. Then the television began presenting more personal images. Men in white shirts and ties, carrying bags; girls in jeans; police in uniform; suddenly all were running away from the cyclone cloud of death, running for their lives, gasping for breath, terror in their eyes. Soon after came “images from hell.” A man in a business suit using his tie as a filter in order to breathe. A woman with earrings and pearls around her neck, and boots covered with dust, her mouth open– a dark gaping hole in her ashen face, hands spread apart, eyes terror-stricken. Dirty, bleeding survivors trudging toward where? Home? The company’s other office? A friend’s place?

What televisions could not share effectively were the sounds, the feel, the taste and the smell of September 11. The video clips shared insight into the screams and the cries of panic and terror that accompanied the collapse of the towers, but they could not share the deafening roar, the trembling of the ground, and above all the taste of death. Those who were there say that you could taste the air more easily than you could breathe it. Even weeks later the acrid smell emanating from Ground Zero was nauseating. And in the middle of it all, came the realization that the burning of human flesh was a part of the mix.

After the collapse of the two towers the “action” was largely over. So CNN kept showing the same video clips over and over. As reality began to sink in, Paul was particularly riveted by the image of the second plane approaching from the south, dipping its wings to the left at the last second, and disappearing into the South Tower. As Paul viewed the scene over and over again he sensed an urge within to reach out into the screen, grab hold of the plane and save the towers and their occupants. “Is that what God must be feeling?” he suddenly thought to himself. “Did God want to prevent this as much as I do? Was he unable to stop it? Did He decide not to intervene? Was He there at all?” Paul found his thoughts getting more and more confused.

While Paul’s view of God was thrown into confusion by the events of September 11, others found themselves seeking God for the first time. It was truly a day that changed the world. There was the sense that twenty or even a hundred years from now, we would look back on this event as one that fundamentally altered the way we look at the world, an event of epic proportions like Pearl Harbor, the Protestant Reformation, or the Russian Revolution. It has left us a world that is less predictable than its predecessor. We can never again feel as secure as we felt at the dawning of that day. The world is at war, but it’s a war unlike any war in history.
Three themes seem to be moving to the center of our consciousness: family, meaning, and making a difference in the world.

September 11 was a day that changed the world. In this book we will explore some of the changes in the military, political and economic landscape. We will peer, at times, into the murky glass of an uncertain future, trying to make sense of it all. We will discover the role the internet played in these changes. We will explore America’s frantic attempts to defend itself through high-tech weapons, electronic eavesdropping, a renewed interest in the dirty side of spying. We will strive to to understand the interplay between Christianity and Islam that seems to lie behind these events. We will explore the anatomy of a terrorist, the forces and ideas that could turn a mamma’s boy into a mass murderer in a few short years. We will also seek to understand the realities that drove Osama bin Laden into consummate hatred of America and its philosophy of life.

The Purpose of This Book (In digested blog form here)

Above all else we will explore the spiritual implications of this event and the changes it introduced into our world. September 11 changed the way millions of people viewed God and their relationship to Him. Many believers found themselves confused by His seeming absence in the face of enormous tragedy and pain. Many more, believers and unbelievers alike, found tokens of His presence in the midst of the tragedy. People began to find time for God in a world that seemed to have gone mad.

I am not talking about a rebirth of “religion” here. Suspicion of religion was not lessened by September 11. If anything the terrorist links to Islamic fundamentalism, and conservative Christian calls for revenge, raised fresh questions about the role of religion in building a just and peaceful society. At the same time, however, these events have highlighted the need for a higher Power and purpose for life. Any spiritual organization that wishes to meet that need, however, must take a careful look at its own motives and practices first. Like Judaism after the Holocaust, spiritual business as usual no longer seems appropriate. Flip and shallow answers are no longer welcome.

One more thing. I realize the peril of trying to put how I feel about September 11 into words. A New Yorker named Dan Fahrbach spoke at a memorial service a few days later. As I remember it he said something like, “We have used up all our big words on relatively small things. At a time like September 11 silence is unbearable, but speech is even worse. What happened cannot be described in words. But many people are discovering that there are words from long ago that speak for us. The pages of the Bible contain words that express the inexpressible. There are stories and sayings that draw out meaning at times and in places where no meaning seemed possible.”

In a world where shallow and confident answers have become suspect, the Bible is not afraid to ask the hard questions and explore dueling answers. The Bible portrays a God who is pleased when people care enough to shake their fist at him. He is a God who faced the agonizing death of His Son with purposeful silence. Such a God may be hard to understand, but He is never boring (even though some who worship Him may be). He may be hard to find at times, but when we find Him, He is worth the time we spent seeking Him. From my quest for God to yours, this book is about an experience that has never been more relevant than it is today, in the aftermath of September 11.

Thoughts on “White Supremacy”


This is a work in progress. I can’t say I’ve thought it through enough yet, but I’d like to get feedback and I think it is potentially very important, so let me share what I am thinking. The fundamental foundation of geopolitics is the concept of “love of one’s own”. Every human being is born helpless and needs others to survive. A very precocious child might perhaps be able to take care of himself or herself by the age of eight, but for many years all humans are totally dependent on those close to them for survival. So “love of one’s own,” the immediate and extended family, is the glue that holds society together. As families interact with the wider world, this principle expands to include the village, the tribe, and at many points in history, the nation. Conflict among such entities is common to humanity. Abuse and attempts to dominate others are fairly universal. Hurt people hurt people. Injustice leads to more injustice. People and groups hurt other people and groups out of fear and the struggle for survival.

When people who look like me hear of things like the 1619 Project or they are accused of white supremacy, therefore, it is natural for them to feel mis-characterized or even discriminated against. After all, slavery of one kind or another has been the norm through most of human history, so why should the American slave-trade or the mistreatment of native Americans and others be treated as if it were uniquely evil? Isn’t one group dominating others the natural result of “love of one’s own?”

For me, the crucial piece that I believe helped me understand what is driving the current anti-Christian and anti-American trends in society is a fresh look at the history and philosophy of colonialism. There have been many empires in the past; the Roman Empire, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Mongols. Each of these felt that they were strong because they were superior to those they conquered (and their gods superior to the gods of others). But these were all relatively regional affairs, neighbors fighting neighbors. The European colonial project was the first time in recorded history of a truly world-wide attempt at dominance based on a sense of social and moral superiority. Europeans considered themselves superior because of their superior science, education, technology and, yes, religion. A sense of supremacy was grounded in a sense of superiority on many fronts. And the political side of the colonial project often went hand in hand with the mission to redeem the “benighted savages.” That project often was meant well. The “white man’s burden” was to lift up those who were inferior, those who had been been left behind on all these western advances in science and religion.

What is often overlooked in the history of Europe is that the sense of Euro-superiority was grounded in the blessings of the gospel. The gospel was so transformative over the centuries that if Jesus had never been born, it is likely that science, education, healthcare, freedom and equality under law, as we know them, would never have happened (for details on the above view the following: https://llu.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=e056aa66-ab73-48ec-abf8-ab69017a7fd0). Neither would the abolition of slavery have happened. It’s no wonder that Europeans felt “Enlightened.” But the gospel was not given to feed a sense of superiority. Pride and superiority are anathema to the gospel. In feeling and acting superior, Europeans were unfaithful to the gospel that had brought them so many blessings and so much prosperity. And like it or not, most of us born and raised in the European heritage were trained in a subtle sense of superiority. In most cases, I believe it was not intentional. It was much more caught than taught. But it was, nevertheless, very real.

What many people don’t realize is that the United States of America is the greatest and most powerful empire in recorded history. American economic and military might dominate every corner of the globe. I don’t get the sense that America ever intended to become an empire. It was the natural consequence of its economic heft and a vacuum in the world power dynamics after World War II and then the fall of the Soviet Union. So the American empire has unwittingly become the successor to the British Empire and the European project.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I love my country and I love its Christian heritage. And it is a strength of that heritage that Americans are capable of critiquing their own history and their own “love of one’s own.” The American project is in many ways the best of all options in the course of human history, as Ellen White has pointed out in The Great Controversy. But it is for that very reason that the sins of slavery and the extermination of native peoples is all the more reprehensible. “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.” Luke 12:48, NKJV. That slavery and the lynching tree so often had the blessing of Protestant pulpits in the south is hard for me to grasp. How could those who were taught to love even their enemies do such things to their neighbors? It goes to show how a sense of superiority can distort one’s thinking. After all, many of the guards in Hitler’s concentration camps were committed Christians.

The term “White supremacy” comes across as rather harsh, especially when those being accused of this were neither slavemasters nor concentration camp guards. But it is a way of communicating that the legacy of the “Enlightenment” and colonialism continues to impact the world today. And I have experienced the reality of that. Wherever I travel in the world I get a deference that I don’t deserve, even when people don’t know me personally. It seems that many have been unconsciously trained to see me as superior, to put me on a pedestal, simply because of the color of my skin. And that is really not good for me, because it subtly encourages me to think of myself as superior. And that is contrary to the gospel, where we are all equal at the foot of the cross.

The sense of superiority (which often leads to a desire for supremacy) is a delusion brought on to the human race by sin. And that delusion has serious consequences for perpetrator as much as the victim. One of the consequences of a sense of superiority is performance addictions. If we think we are better than others, we are required to out-perform them. And that is a different kind of “white man’s burden,” often leading to burnout and despair. Whites are not inherently prone to sins distortions, nor are others immune to them. The distortions of sin are common to us all. But in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and colonialism, the world is still recovering from a global supremacy project grounded in such distorted thinking. I have been less aware of that reality than I should have been.

The answer to white supremacy is not black supremacy or brown supremacy, it is the gospel. When we meet each other at the foot of the cross, we begin to see each other the way God sees us. The cross frees us from delusions of supremacy and its consequences. The cross frees us from the need to feel superior and from the need to live up to that feeling. The cross frees us from prejudice.

In Old Testament times Israel imbibed the delusion of superiority. They thought that God had chosen them because they were superior. But they were wrong. “The Lord did not set His affection upon you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” Deut. 7:7. The call to Israel was not about them. They were called to connect the other nations to God (Exod 19:5-6). When they felt superior they neglected that mission and became the center of their own ambitions. Institutional Christianity has followed the same trajectory. I pray for a revival of primitive godliness that leads the church everywhere to repentance and authentic humility. In the meantime, let us right what wrongs we can in the circle of influence God has given each one of us.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (16): Summary and Conclusion

We began this series with the observation that many Seventh-day Adventists have a unique sign of the End that they feel uniquely prepares them to be ready for the return of Jesus. That sign is the passage of a national Sunday law in the Congress of the United States of America. Unlike many prophecies in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, this one is specific and measurable. If it happens or does not happen, we will all know. Members in far-flung parts of the world are probing both the news and underground “sources” to weigh the likelihood of such a law in the USA from year to year. This has been going on now for many decades, probably as much as a century. But is such an outcome in its Great Controversy context the absolute certainty that many deem it to be?

We examined the principles of prophetic interpretation that can be observed through the study of fulfilled prophecies in the Bible (for detail see The Deep Things of God, chapter two). These underline that prophecies regarding specific historical events are conditional. God meets people where they are. Prophecies are, therefore, couched in the language of the prophet’s time and place. The details are a natural extension of the prophet’s time and place. God does not always carry out every detail of prophetic predictions. Those awaiting a Sunday law in the US Congress are assuming that Ellen White’s historical predictions are different from those of the Bible, they are not conditional. They must be fulfilled in detail exactly as projected. But this assumption contradicts Ellen White’s own counsel: “. . . the promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional” (LDE 38). Conditionality warns us not to take the historical details of prophecy as absolute certainties ahead of time. Prophecy is best understood as or after it happens (John 13:19; 14:29).

We then examined Revelation 13, the passage in the Bible that is cited as evidence of such a Sunday law. We noted that Sunday laws at the end of time are a plausible reading of Revelation 13, but they are not the only possible reading of the mark of the beast passage. Seeing Sunday laws in Revelation 13 is exegetically defensible, but it is not exegetically compelling. The mark of the beast concept is open-ended enough to allow God the freedom to fulfill the prophecy in more than one way. So caution is advised in advance of the fulfillment. We should not close our understanding of a prediction before the fulfillment comes.

We then looked at Ellen White’s Sunday law statements in light of the history of her time. The idea of a national Sunday law in Congress was very relevant in the 1880s and her statements to that effect all occur around the year 1888, when there was a bill in the Senate to impose a national Sunday law. She makes no such statements in earlier years, but sees local laws as evidence of something bigger to come (the something to come is not specified). We noted that the conditions in the United States that made the the Senate bill plausible faded away in the decades that followed and have not returned. The United States no longer has a Protestant government, and the return of such would not be a natural extension of the current scene. So the expectation that the exact scenario of Great Controversy would be re-enacted in today’s world is unlikely. The constant expectation of a national Sunday law in the US Congress leads to speculation and conspiracy theories rather than sound biblical and historical study.

Sunday laws in our future remain, however, a viable reading of Revelation 13 and certainly of Great Controversy. But they may well come from a surprising direction. As an example of the possibilities I referenced Clifford Goldstein, who offers a path to international Sunday laws that would make sense in today’s world. All the world religions anticipate some future figure that will dramatically impact the course of history. For the Christians, his name is Jesus. For the Jews, he is the Messiah. For the Muslims, he is the Mahdi (although many Muslims also anticipate a major role for Jesus). For the Hindus, he is Kalki. For the Buddhists, he is Matreiya. Second Thessalonians (2:8-10) and Revelation (13:13-14; 16:13-14) anticipate a great end-time deception in which Satan impersonates Christ before the world (GC affirms this idea). His dazzling, end-time appearance could evoke the hopes and dreams of people of all faiths. Seizing upon these expectations, Satan could call the world to worship God on Sunday as a sign of loyalty to Jesus/Messiah/Mahdi/Kalki/Matreiya and the highest hopes of their faiths. Such an outcome would fulfill Great Controversy and Revelation 13, but in an unexpected way, something fulfilled prophecy in the Bible would lead us to expect.

My concern is that by focusing on a prediction that seems to specific and measurable as a national Sunday law in Congress, we could distract ourselves from the real thing when it happens. We need hearts that are open to revelation and open to the Holy Spirit as we navigate the challenging waters ahead. The desire for certainty causes us to focus on specific details rather than on understanding the larger picture of prophecy. That understanding is difficult work, but it will keep us safe in the perplexing times ahead of us. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future, it was given to prepare our hearts to meet the one that we worship and adore. I suggest we prioritize that task.

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy (15): Undermining God’s Purpose for Prophecy

The evidence drawn from fulfilled prophecy in the Bible shows us that prophecy is given as a natural extension of the prophet’s time and place. God meets people where they are and the prophecy engages the world as the prophet experiences it. Because that world is in constant change, now more than ever, we can expect that some elements of a prophecy are not fulfilled, because the conditions for fulfillment have not been met. In the case of the expectation that national Sunday laws will some day be enacted in the US Congress, the conditions for that were very strong in the late 1880s, but none of those conditions were in place any longer by the time of World War I. If such Sunday laws do occur in our future, they would occur in a world that is vastly different than the one Ellen White was familiar with.

Reviewing the biblical evidence on the mark of the beast (Rev 13:13-17), we concluded that there were four exegetical possibilities for fulfillment in the fact that the mark is contrasted with the seal of God and the Sabbath. It could reflect laws related to worship of another day (Sunday, for example). Two other options would be that every day is a Sabbath or no day is a Sabbath. The fourth option is laws forbidding Sabbath worship. All four of these options are exegetically defensible as ways to fulfill the text of Revelation 13. As we have seen, most statements on the topic by Ellen White see Sunday laws as the fulfillment of Revelation 13 but some statements portray Sunday laws as less of a threat and laws forbidding worship on the Sabbath as the greater threat. Statements regarding national Sunday laws in Congress are few and they are clustered in the period around 1888 where they are a logical extension of the situation in place at that point in time.

There are two ways to undermine God’s purpose for prophecy. One is to ignore the prophecies of the Bible and Ellen White. This is widely seen as a problem among students of the Bible. But another way to undermine the Bible is popular among enthusiasts of the Bible and, therefore, harder to see as a threat. It is to over-specify the details of a prophecy to the point where a particular scenario become fixed in people’s minds to the point that the fulfillment comes as a surprise and even a deception to the very ones anticipating it.

This happened in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were avid students of prophecy. We know this from books that exist to this day, like Fourth Ezra, Second Baruch and First (or Ethiopic) Enoch. These books reflect a mindset of deep consideration of the prophecies, leading to charting of events leading up to Messiah. Failing to understand how fulfilled prophecy works in the Bible, the Pharisees built up an expectation, based on study of the Bible, that caused them to reject Jesus when He came, because He did not fulfill their biblical expectations. This was a tragic error, and it could have been avoided by more attention to the conditionality of classical prophecy and the way prophecies are a natural extension of the prophet’s time and place. The messianic prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus, but in a way different from the way the Pharisees expected.

My concern is that Adventists could be making a similar mistake today in investing so much energy in the idea that a national Sunday law in the US Congress will be the specific trigger event of the end-time. This view is understandable as it gives us a measurable specific that is easily observed. But the conditions for such a law have passed and should it never happen exactly that way, some serious, sincere Adventist students of prophecy could miss the real thing when it happens, because their specific expectations are not met. More has changed in the world over the last hundred years than in the previous 6000. The expectation that this will have no impact at all on the way prophecy is fulfilled is uncertain at best. World wide Sunday legislation could still happen but fixing on that single detail (Congressional legislation) as the key could prove to be a major distraction when the time comes.

The final blog will offer a possible scenario for Sunday laws at the End and draw some conclusion on the matter.