What American Christians Should Learn from ISIS

what american christians should learn

As reported by the Daily Beast, a video of ISIS stoning a gay couple in northern Syria has sparked another wave of outrage in the west. It’s not the first time ISIS has publicly executed homosexuals; reports surfaced a couple months ago of ISIS throwing perpetrators from the rooftops as a gruesome form of retribution.

What makes this video unique is what happens immediately before the executions. Prior to stoning them, several of the to-be executioners step forward and hug the blind-folded men.

via Daily Beast
via Daily Beast

This act was described by sympathizers of ISIS as “an expression of compassion, a gesture of forgiveness”. Others say that the act of hugging communicates the executioner’s sincere belief that they were acting as servants of Allah, executing his judgement and doing his will. This belief rests behind many of the heinous deeds done by ISIS. Whether it’s the prostitution of captured women, executing spies with a gunshot to the head or beheading apostates, one thing is consistent: the members of ISIS truly believe that they are loving and serving God with their actions, despite how gruesome and heinous these actions may be.

This should make us think twice about the way we “love” those within our borders.

“The truth hurts.” If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a million times. (And I’ve said it numerous times myself.) Some Christians quote it like Scripture. But it’s not Scripture. And it’s also not true.

At least it’s not true when it flows from the mouths of those who proceed to inflict pain in the name of truth. Truth doesn’t have to hurt. We need no further proof than the fact that Truth Incarnate refused to lift a finger against those who killed him. He carried the truth of eternity in his hands and could have used it to hurt everyone and everything. But he didn’t. And from him we learn that truth actually doesn’t hurt.

What does hurt is the people who use truth as justification, slapping it on the table as a “get out of jail free” card for all the grave sins they commit in their service to (so-called) truth. The difference between ISIS stoning two gay men and someone berating a homosexual person in the American blogosphere is not moral standing but technique.

We’d do well to remember that Satan himself used “truth” to attempt great evil. He quoted Bible verses in his temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:6 quoting Psalm 91). Satan’s utilization of Scripture is proof that even the truest truth is a lie when wielded by a hurtful and rebellious heart.

This is a lesson for ISIS. But it’s also a lesson for us.

American Christians have a tendency to lob grenades of truth into culture and call the whiplash “collateral” or (even worse) “persecution”. This is often the case when it comes to the discussion over homosexuality. We have no issue with declaring the truth regarding someone else’s sex life- despite the ramifications it may have for that person. We use atrociously hurtful headlines to champion our cause; we scoff at disproportionate depression and suicide rates among the gay community in our borders; “it’s not our fault that truth hurts so much!” Well, actually, yeah it is. When you stop using a hammer to hang family pictures and instead begin smashing fingers, it’s not the hammer that’s gone awry- it’s you.

The problem is that we hold tightly to the “traditional” and “biblical” verdict regarding homosexuality, so tightly we won’t release loosen our grip enough for the traditional, Biblical teaching of “love thy neighbor” to also find its place. We cannot let anyone say a word on the topic without ensuring we get our “YES! But the truth is that it’s a sin!” thrown in. Every conversation has to include our diagnosis, every blog post a condemning aside and every apology a justification.

From the Reformation to the slave-trade, well-meaning Christians across history have done great harm in the name of “truth.” We prop ourselves up with Bible verses and theological concepts. But our actions do not perpetuate love, they perpetuate pain. And therefore, they are not truth; they are lies used to accuse others in the spirit of the Accuser.

Like ISIS who execute people in the name of Allah, so also we easily forget that the gospel is not propaganda to be delivered with the sword, but love to be delivered with affection and care:

“…to preach the gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love. And to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to.

-Frederich Buechner

The posture of American Christians regarding homosexuality needs to be one of apology; the lesson we need to learn from ISIS is that we’re not much better servants of God ourselves. Christians are called to stand in solidarity with homosexuals not because we agree with their lifestyle choices; when has that ever been a mandated precedent for love? We are called to stand in solidarity with this community because we are called to stand with the marginalized. We are called to love “the least of these”. And what the discussion on homosexuality needs is not doctrine, it’s humility. Truth follows where love has paved the way; if the road is poorly constructed then truth arrives battered. If it arrives at all.

To any member of the homosexual community who has ever felt the painful sting of another’s “truth”, to anyone who’s ever wondered why “God’s will” has to feel like stones falling on their head: I want to say that I am sorry. I am sorry that another person’s truth has equated to your pain. I’m sorry that Christians across the globe do not mourn ISIS’ execution of two gay men as much as they mourn the execution of Christians; and I’m so sorry that people don’t realize these two identities don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I pray for the day when we finally learn that truth doesn’t maim, kill or hurt.

I hope and pray for the day when Christ’s love is communicated through our love to all races, genders, sexualities, religions, dispositions, political parties, reprobates and sinners.

I pray for the day when our love does not name another’s fault, when we don’t live in the denial of sin, but we live together as a community who acknowledges our brokenness and Christ’s grace.

May we all learn a lesson from the heinous acts committed by ISIS. May we all look into the mirror and see the log in our own eye.

And may the world know we are Christians by our truth love.

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The Luxury of Questioning Hell

hell

Hell is a dreadful topic. A professor of mine once stated that he’s a “biblically-hopeful universalist”; meaning he adheres to the Biblical testimony of a final judgement while at the same time yearning that eventually, miraculously, somehow all will choose allegiance to Christ over eternal rebellion and suffering. I would fall in the same category. I hope hell doesn’t exist. But it’s also difficult to ignore the Biblical witness to its reality.

And the topic of hell is a touchy subject among American Christians. Most contemporary discussions operate in the shadow of Rob Bell, whose infamous book Love Wins sparked a tidal wave of conversation across evangelicalism. But Bell was hardly the first nor the last person to ask questions regarding arguments for or against eternal punishment. An increasing number of American Christians ask similar questions: can a loving God and an eternal punishment really both exist?

But the very act of questioning hell is a luxury of which we’d be wise to also take note. Because the western, American perspective through which we question hell deeply influences our conclusions.

First of all, it should be said that we Americans do not regularly experience hell on earth. I want to follow that statement with a bold and assertive footnote: bad things do happen to Americans, in America. I am not attempting to (and I sincerely hope than none of this comes across as) belittling to the pain borne even to those in first-world. The girl who’s been raped at her first college party knows hell on earth. The veteran who’s homeless and mentally traumatized experiences hell on earth. The parent who answers the door at midnight to find a police officer with a grim face knows hell on earth. The eighteen year-old who’s struggling with bi-polar disorder and regularly spirals into suicidal states knows hell on earth.

In other words: America is not devoid of pain.

But Americans do live in avoidance of pain. We go to great lengths to distance ourselves from its pertinence. And, in many ways, we have succeeded. Because of this, we do not understand pain in the way citizens of developing nations must.  We have clean water. We have inconceivably low rates of infant death. Even the most unfortunate Americans live on more than $1 a day (unlike 970 million people across the globe).There are limited cycles of perpetual poverty in America; there’s no mass genocide taking place in our backyard.

What we need to acknowledge, then, is that evil is a real and pertinent aspect of reality. And while we want to believe that a good and loving God couldn’t possibly be a judgmental and wrathful God, we also don’t find ourselves grappling with the daily reality of evil, pain, death and suffering.

Thus, when we begin to ask questions regarding hell, we need to understand hell not as a place where God throws all the unfortunate souls who didn’t make his “nice” list. Rather, hell is a place where evil is judged, where sin and death meet their end. To remove our belief in such a place is an attempt to remove the reality of pain and evil in the world as it is. We might fool ourselves into doing so as Americans; we could believe that with enough anti-septic, therapy and tolerance we can cure almost all wounds. But this illusion is a luxury only members of the first-world can attain.

Secondly, Americans can question the existence of hell because we are not regularly confronted with egregious social injustice. Again, there are numerous exceptions; the first caveat I would make to this point is that I present it as an white, Protestant, male living in America. There most certainly are people who experience grave injustice in America. But, for the average American (in comparison to the rest of the world) life is pretty good. Injustice is present in America, but not as an undeniable reality. And certainly (I am quick to admit) not to someone who lives in the majority, such as myself.

For me to question hell- to question the divine necessity to vanquish evil, to examine the scales of justice and judge as fit- has something to do with the fact that I don’t regularly encounter incarnated evil. And I don’t regularly witness a need for retributive justice.

These are luxuries I must acknowledge.

Because it’s easy for me to want to emphasize God’s mercy over God’s judgement; I don’t live with an immediate necessity for the latter. Would I still be asking the question “are we sure God needs to judge evil?” if I lived in a town that was just raided by ISIS? Would I really be thinking “surely, everyone will eventually love God” when I’ve just watched my crops destroyed, my daughters raped, my husband killed, and I myself having now been sold into sexual servitude?

I don’t know. But one thing is for certain: I can’t be arrogant enough to say that I would.

The theology of the oppressed is the closest to a Biblical theology that we have in the modern world. And we need to listen to the oppressed more than we ourselves speak. We have much to learn from them, including a sound perspective on hell.

I recently had the chance to meet with the Vice President of one of the largest non-profit relief organizations in the world. He’d just returned from visiting refugee camps in the Middle East. Most of them were Christians, fleeing persecution. In addition to poverty, drought and malnutrition, they’d witnessed their children beheaded, their friends crucified, and numerous other unspeakable atrocities. Hell was real to them; hell was their life.

And I asked him what the Christians there believed about hell, believed about the eternal judgment and destination of their enemies. He thought for a moment and then replied: “It wasn’t really a concern, for them at least. I asked them how they felt about ISIS, and they told me ‘we pray they come to know Christ.'”

That’s it. No debate about whether or not they’ll end up in hell. No question about whether God will execute his justice upon them or whether God’s goodness allows for the possibility that they be damned. None of that mattered. What mattered was their understanding of the Christian imperative: usher in the kingdom of God while holding onto hope- despite and within your circumstances.

We Americans get entrenched in our ivory castles of theology that we forget the real matter at hand: the kingdom of heaven is coming! It is near; it is not yet; but it is here!

“Does hell exist?” It’s a good question- I suppose- one which I have the luxury of asking. But it’s not the most helpful question, nor is it the real question at hand. The real question looks through the evil and suffering of this present age, beyond the cross, and to the empty grave. The real question is less concerned about the destination of my enemies and more concerned with the impending arrival of Love Incarnate. The real question is less obsessed with knowing the details of justice’s manifestation (as if that’s even possible), but focuses on the hope of a time when evil will be judged and found unnecessary, untrue, unreal.

The real question is not whether or not hell exists. That’s a good topic for cheap cigars and late nights on the front porch. But the real question, the one that transcends our circumstances (be they good or bad), unites us with those who suffer and leads us to pray for those who oppress, is this:

Christ’s kingdom is coming; what role will I play in it’s arrival?

And, as Christians, we all have the luxury of asking that question.

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Please Stop Sharing ISIS

Stop Sharing ISIS

 

For months now, ISIS has been waging their self-proclaimed Jihad in the Middle East. And their brutality knows few limitations. At least once a week they share- via various social media outlets- horrific videos of them executing captives who have fallen into their hands. The latest video was a choreographed killing of numerous Coptic Christians, captives from Egypt.

These are horrific atrocities, of the most heinous kind. And the various news articles testify to the brutality and evil of ISIS.

But please, think twice before sharing related articles on your social media.

I can understand (and-at times- relate to) the good intentions that may accompany one’s decision to share these articles. We want to get the word out, sound the call for prayer, petition for international intervention. I also understand that it can be cathartic- a means to vent the unspeakable anger and grief- to post a brief status damning this evil and it’s perpetrators with cited accompanying evidence.

But we are not helping by sharing the story. We are not helping the fight against evil by spreading articles testifying to its gruesome victories. What we spread when we share these news articles is anger, hatred, grief, hurt, pain and terror. We do not spread love or hope. We spread ISIS.

Consider the victims themselves. Often times they appear in their rehearsed executions dressed as criminals. They are forced in front of cameras knowing their imminent fate. They are presented as powerless against their captors, helpless prey in their claws, pitied examples of what ISIS claims will happen to all “infidels.” They are executed publicly, horrifically.

And then the video of their tragic fate is posted to the internet and its news is spread all around the world. The victims become household figures, shown in a state of terror and horror. Their life is taken and then their dignity is caught up in a wave of social-media virality.

Think also of the victims families. They have suffered unspeakable trauma; from the moment news of their loved ones’ disappearance first reached their doorstep, to seeing that their death has been recorded and is now broadcasting across the globe, the terror has infiltrated and destroyed every semblance of peace they will ever know.

We do not aid their sorrow by sharing photos of their loved one’s final moments.

I want to affirm and further the call to prayer and awareness that sharing these news stories raise. But as Christians we can, and should, be mindful of the fact that the world is vast and there are many dark corners in which evils we cannot imagine are occurring every day. We should never forget this. Nor should we cease in praying for those desperately trying to get out from under the thumb of death.

So please, hear me: we must be praying. We must be aware of the issues at hand. But this doesn’t mean we have to share videos and photos and archived descriptions of these cruelties.

Psychological terrorism is a real thing. And the cruelty of ISIS is that their hatred and brutality spreads beyond the immediate victims and into the homes of people across the world. This is why they post videos to the internet. It is why they have social media accounts that circulate their deeds to the public. They want to inspire hate. They want to inspire anger, fear and terror. And our egotistic, elevated view of “awareness” creates a social media in which second-hand trauma is defined as “news.”

But this isn’t news. It is terror. And the only one’s who win by us sharing these stories, by spreading word of the terrorists’ atrocities, are the terrorists themselves.

Lastly, the we need to remember the following: the reposting of these articles often serves to dehumanize ISIS. Again, the reaction to wish damnation and hell fire on masked figures who delight in executing men, raping women and mowing down children is understandable, human even. But we should not forget that- if we are to call ourselves Christians- then ISIS is not our enemy. They are personification of our enemy, yes, but they are not the real enemy. Christ’s commanded us to love our earthly enemies, to pray for them. In doing so Christ called us to stand for the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that was not of this earth though it came to earth and was announced in the person of Christ. Christians live in testimony to that kingdom: a kingdom that defeats- not instigators of death- but death itself.

Our enemy is not a terrorist organization or any earthly power alone. Our enemy is evil and death itself. And we are called to testify to this reality by praying for our earthly foe.

Of course, it is easy for me to say this nestled into my apartment in America, sipping on tea and stealing glances out the window at fresh snow as I write. It is easy for me to babble on and on about following Christ’s command to love vicious enemies on the other side of the globe because they’re on the other side of the globe. They are not a threat nor are they a perpetrator of unspeakable evil against me, my family, my home, my life. And I acknowledge that.

To some, my position may even be wildly offensive. But so was Christ’s command. Christ ordered his listeners to love their enemies as they stood surrounded by them. The Roman army was infamous for it’s domineering cruelty. At the time Jesus was born Herod ordered that every boy under the age of two be executed by the sword because he’d heard one of them was to be king. Another Roman ruler ordered a mass crucification of Jews outside Jerusalem, such that the Romans actually ran out of wood with which to build the crosses. Roman tactics were cruel, torturous and highly-calculated acts centered on conveying the message: “We are powerful. This is what we do to those who stand against us. Look and be terrified.”

By sharing videos and pictures of ISIS murdering their victims, we take the crosses of Rome and parade them through every corner of the wired world. We advance the message of ISIS’ Rome- “look at our power and might- look at our ability to humiliate and brutalize whomever we please”- and we carry it into our schools, our workplace, our churches, and our homes.

In doing so we forget that Jesus stood in the middle of a society where people travelled on roads lined with their crucified brothers, sisters, parents, children, leaders and hopes. And Jesus told them: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who kill you, mutilate you, terrorize you and exercise earthly authority over you.”

Please, pray for the victims of ISIS. Pray for the families who’s lives are ripped apart by their terror. Pray for the men, women and children who’ve fallen into their grasp. And call others to pray. Pray for peace in the Middle East and everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with posting a status that says “ISIS just killed more victims. Please pray for their families, pray for the captives, pray for peace.”

And as we pray, let our voices join the testimony of Christians past, martyrs who followed Christ’s command, who proclaimed with their words and their lives the story of Christianity. It is not a power story, but a love story. A love story capable of covering the sins, griefs, terrors and injustices- not just of ourselves but the perpetrators themselves.

If we must share something on social media- let’s share that story.

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