Monthly Archives: October 2014

Living in Interesting Times 1 Peter 4:12

In his first letter to the churches of Asia Minor the apostle Peter writes: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”
Do not be surprised. . . .
Nothing much surprises us any more, does it, beloved? “May you live in interesting times”—that’s supposed to be some kind of ancient Chinese curse. The Chinese know of no such curse–like so much else, it is a 19th century English invention. But that curse does certainly seem to have been visited upon us, hasn’t it? We do indeed live in “interesting times.”
I myself came into this world almost exactly half-way through the twentieth century—January 5, 1950. That was the year that the movie “All about Eve” was nominated for an Oscar in every major acting category—and did not win a single one. (It sounds a little like my life.) Nevertheless, “All about Eve” was a very great film, and no one who has ever seen it can ever forget how Bette Davis—who should have won an Oscar for that scene alone–pauses half-way up a flight of stairs, turns, and delivers the what most be one of the greatest lines in the movies—“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
And when I think back on the hunk of human history I can remember that seems to pretty well sum it up. The second half of the twentieth century was indeed “a bumpy night.” But when I consider my grandmother’s life, for interesting my own time pales by comparison. Beryl Idella Thurlow was born in 1891 when Queen Victoria sat firmly on the throne of England, and all her life she remained a Victorian by disposition. She always said the Queen Empress was the first person she hoped to see in heaven. (The rest of us would have to wait.) The 1890’s were a gilded, if not a golden age of optimism and progress. Then in her teens Beryl saw that whole world of stability and peace, the “Belle Époque,” swept away by two world wars—or rather one long world war with an extended cease-fire in the middle–and a worldwide depression. After that the shocks just kept on coming. She saw newsreels of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Pearl Harbor and television footage of men walking on the moon. She saw the Dust Bowl and the Bomb and the Beatles and the Bay of Pigs. She finally caught a foretaste of the apocalypse in Viet Nam. And she died the year Star Wars opened in movie theatres. During the last years of her life she often said—“I’ve seen too much.” Now I know what she meant.
There is such a thing as too much history. The Twentieth Century was an era of constant, brutal struggle among political and economic “isms”–fascism, capitalism, and communism—to establish which would rule the next. Countless millions perished in that struggle, and those who survived had a very bumpy ride. But at least there at least was a clear winner. Capitalism surrounded by its cohorts—Western–style democracy, high technology, consumerism, secularism, and American pop culture—conquered the body of the world. One by one its enemies fell before it. Today China and Russia–the Red Menace of my childhood—are swarming with free market entrepreneurs and filthy rich oligarchs. (There’s even a MacDonald’s on the Champs Elysees.) Pathetic little islands of resistance remain—Cuba and North Korea—but for them the writing is on the wall. Capitalism, the new religion of the West, has sent its tireless missionaries everywhere, and their efforts have been astonishingly fruitful.
Not everyone, however, rejoices in the triumph of Mammon. In our world the fruits of capitalism are shared with incredible inequality, and the poverty of the vast majority proves an excellent growing medium for old resentments. Without material wealth, people cling the more tenaciously to intangible properties—ethnic pride, ancient grudges, and religious devotion. This has certainly been true in the Moslem world. To Moslems in Africa and the Middle East the triumph of western-style capitalism and its values seem like the ultimate insult to their faith. And the bitter memory of high-handed European colonialism only serves to stoke the fires of hatred.
Poverty, however, is not the sole factor in the rise of radical Islam. As a faith it also appeals to the young people, who, with the sharp eyes of youth, see the secular-minded consumerism of the West for what it is, vulgar and spiritually empty. They hate its crass materialism and its glitzy symbols. These young warriors are proficient in the use of the new technologies, even as they despise the system that has created them. Radical Islam provides the young with what the young most need–a sense of community and shared sense of righteousness and a global destiny. They long for glory. They fantasize of locating the headquarters of a reestablished caliphate in the Vatican. (We were all young once, right?)
Some of these young militants came up poor, but others not. (A large number of ISIS fighters, in fact, hail from Minnesota.) But without exception, they see the insidious materialism of west as an affront to Islam and its moral and cultural values. They have uncomplicated a complex world. For them tolerance is a betrayal and diversity is impurity. The west is the Great Satan. The west is—at least nominally—Christian. Therefore, by a cruel logic, Christians are the enemy–and they are close at hand—an easily identifiable minority. So it should not be so surprising that Christians are among the first targets of resurgent Islamic fundamentalism.
Of course, this in nothing at all new. The followers of Jesus have from the beginning been victims of persecution. To the members of little churches in modern-day Turkey the apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” And we have to suppose that they were indeed surprised. Early Christians came from the end of society that knew all about scorn and harassment. Most, though not all, were poor. Some were slaves. Women were disproportionately represented among them. But on the whole they were harmless, law-abiding souls. They were hurting no one. They were just following the faith of which they had become convinced, practicing its rituals, and trying to love each other as Jesus had told them to—which has never been easy. Now suddenly a “fiery ordeal” had begun to take place among them.
By the late first century when the fisherman turned apostle—or more likely one of his disciples writing in his name—composed the First Letter of Peter, some of those who first heard it had received the Christian faith from their parents and grandparents. They were cradle Christians. Most, however, were recent converts who had joyfully embraced the new life the Gospel about Jesus of Nazareth offered. Now all at once they found themselves a despised minority in the community of which they had lately been a part. There was as yet no official imperial condemnation of Christianity at this period; no organized systematic attempt to stamp out the Christian movement had been undertaken by the Roman government. All that came later. But Christians were suffering—suffering psychologically, if not physically. Society had declared war on them for no apparent reason, and they were weaponless and defenseless. There must have been an aura of unreality in what they are experiencing–like awakening into a nightmare. No wonder in their bewilderment they were asking–What is happening to us?
So the Rock of the Church writes to steady and encourage them–“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you . . .” Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. By way of a heads up Jesus himself had had told his followers–“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). But persecution always comes as a shock to those who experience it. And I doubt that anyone but the Lord could possibly have foreseen the fiery ordeal through which our fellow Christians in Africa and the Middle East are now passing. The reports we get, though muted, are still horrendous. In northeastern Nigeria the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram slaughters the inhabitants of the entire Christian village of Gwoza, sparing only young girls who are taken as war booty. In northern Iraq the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) perpetrates unimaginable outrages against all religious and ethnic minorities that fall under their sway—not just Christians but Shiites, Kurds Zoroastrians. “They actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick,” a Chaldean-American businessman named Mark Arabo told CNN, describing a scene in a Mosul park. “More children are getting beheaded, mothers are getting raped and killed, and fathers are being hung.”
The atrocities of Gwoza and Mosul are geographically remote from us, but they are only too real—a fiery ordeal as real and terrible as any that befell early Christians. The Body of Christ is suffering. If we are a part of that Body we should feel it. Or are we too numb? Children are carrying severed heads through the streets like jack-o-lanterns. Women are being raped and tortured. Men are being crucified for their faith. If you don’t want to hear about it, too bad. That’s the whole problem. We don’t want to think about it, but we need to, beloved. We need to look at the suffering of defenseless Christians steadfastly with the eye of our conscience, and realize that in dirty, obscure corners of the world Jesus is being crucified again at this very moment, as I write and as you read.
I’m sure these people are asking—What is happening to us? And the answer is nothing less than religious war. Religious war—which is by its very nature total–has been declared by radical Islamists upon everyone generally, and on Christians particularly. On us, beloved. Only our government and our media are reluctant to call it by its right name. We are accustomed to think about armed conflicts being fought over territory or regional power, but not over conflicting versions of the will of God. Our secularist, materialist categories do not easily fit wars fought for souls and rather than for soil or oil.
Modern-minded people would rather pretend that such a thing as religious warfare no longer exists. It is the essence of 21st century secularism to relegate religion as a motive for behavior to the distant past. Religions, according to this way of thinking, are all the same–just peculiar, irrelevant hobbies to which some eccentric people cling to for their own neurotic reasons. Struggles fought between faiths—crusades, jihad, holy wars–belong to a barbaric past that right-thinking people nowadays have been taught to regard as anachronistic. No one should care that much about such matters.
But people do. Very much. Enough to kill. Enough to die. Religious war is in fact what is happening right now from Lebanon to the Sudan, a total war waged in the name of God for religious subjugation. Only those who submit stand any chance of being spared. Even as faith as a motive for behavior declines in the West, the great monotheisms—Christianity and Islam–are growing explosively in the developing world, fighting each other for the same turf. Up to now Christians have been largely victims in this battle, but that will probably change. They will find charismatic leaders and mobilize themselves. They will fight back. We need to get used to this idea, beloved, because it is our collective future. If the twentieth century was an age of violently conflict among “isms,” the twenty-first century will be apocalyptic struggle among religious visions—the religion of Mammon among them. Not perhaps a Great War to End All Wars but many vicious regional wars motivated by religious faith, involving entire populations.
And this is already happening. If the twentieth century was a great struggle for the body of the world, the twenty-first century will be a struggle for its soul. And who will win out? The Gospel of Jesus Christ, of course. Those of us who believe in the resurrection are left in no doubt but that. But in that struggle the innocent will suffer terribly. Indeed, they already are.
Half a million Christian Arabs have been expelled from their homes in Syria during the three years of civil war there. Throughout Africa and Middle East Christians have been kidnapped, enslaved, crucified by these Muslim extremists, enflamed by the spirit of jihad. And all the while the western world stands by, befuddled by such brutality, and at least up until now, largely silent. But when an American reporter, captured by those religious extremists, is beheaded for the benefit of YouTube, Vice President Joe Biden, never known for his self-control, declared that the United States would pursue the ISIS militants responsible to “the gates of hell,” because that is where they are going. It seems as if only religious rhetoric is capable of expressing our feelings of outrage when confronted head-on with the barbarity of religious warfare.
But where does such ruthless hatred spring from, we wonder? Whence such wanton brutality? The only answer, which is really no answer at all, is this–There is no fire that burns so hot as religious hatred. And no war is more brutal than one that is conducted on behalf of a certain vision of God, because for those who possess it that vision transcends all else. There is nothing as dangerous as fundamentalism of any kind, beloved because it is open to no argument whatsoever—not reason, nor compassion, nor even self-interest. In the future nothing will be impossible to those who know themselves to be hands of God–even the destruction of the entire world.
So what should you and I do in the face of such very bad news? Well, first of all we should heed the words of the apostle Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Do not be surprised. . . . It is always worth keeping in mind that in this world anything can happen—and will. The idea that in this day and age this sort of thing can’t be happening is just foolishness. It is happening.
And then we need to fight our own indifference to suffering. The scourge of Christian fragmentation generally and American denominationalism is particular is that we have come to regard some kinds of Christians as “our kind” while others are not. American evangelicals, for instance, are more likely to get hot and bothered over a threat, real or imagined, to the state of Israel than over the deaths of Assyrian Christians. It arises from a godless, wicked idea that some human beings are more human than others and more worthy of our compassion. It is an attitude we all need to fight—our own little religious war.
And we should not be silent. If we have a voice we should use it. If people somewhere are suffering and dying for their Christian faith you certainly wouldn’t know it from those happy-go-lucky sermons I hear when I go to church. Now the church deserves much of the contempt it enjoys in our society for its triviality, its pathetic concern for its own survival, and its sublime indifference to those it should care most about. But if we are not going to do anything else to help those suffering Christians, we might at least remember them and pray for them out loud. Jesus is suffering and dying. If we cannot stop it, we should at least have the courage not to ignore it.
No one wants to be born into “interesting times,” beloved. All of us can imagine a time and place in which we would rather have lived. But not now. Not here. The shock of so much history coming at us all at once can make us numb and threaten to paralyze our will to do what is good and right. It is easy to become perplexed and befuddled. But all that God expects of those who live through such “interesting times” as these is make the best of the time we have been given.


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