ISIS, Martyrdom, Fear, and the Hope of Christ

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Yesterday, ahead of the weekly sermon, I said a few words about recent events where 21 Egyptians were beheaded on a beach in Libya.  The executioners were ISIS affiliates.  The victims were self-identified Christians.  It is important that we face and at least try to address some current issues from the viewpoint of those who embrace the Gospel.  Here is a paraphrase of what I shared on Sunday:

 

We are trying, in addition to preaching, to make some brief pastoral commentary on issues that are current in our world.  This week, on a beach in Libya, 21 Egyptians were beheaded by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State.  Many of us will have known of this through the news.  This is not new or the only such event but because of the imagery it serves as emblematic of such violence happening these days.  So for a few minutes, I’d like to just comment on that.

ISIS – I’d like to say a few words about ISIS.  They are a group that is motivated by their religious ideology and they believe that they are brining history to its conclusion.  They are not just a bunch of “wackos” but are acting upon a very coherent view of the world and of their own actions.  I’ll post (Graeme Wood, The Atlantic) probably the best article I’ve found on their background and beliefs.  It’s not a politically driven article, neither is it from a polarizing magazine.  If you’re interested you should read it.  It is difficult in our culture, being couched in comfort and secularism as we all are, to believe in such things.  But as Christians, we have a basis and foundation for belief in real evil – even religious evil.  ISIS is without doubt an example of a deeply religious evil.

*  Of course, it needs to be said that most Muslims in Canada are our friends and neighbours.  Also, most Muslims in the world can live in peace with us.  Most victims of ISIS are Muslims.  We need to remember our friends and neighbours both locally and globally and to pray for their prosperity, peace, and safety.

 

VICTIMS – A few words now about the victims of this event.  They were Egyptian Coptic Christians who practice a very different version of Christianity than us.  But they were killed because of their association with Christ – they died because they would not renounce Him.  This  makes them martyrs and martyrdom is not new.  If we’ve forgotten the call to follow Christ often involves this than we must allow a rebuke to fall upon us.  We have too much comfort, too much secular influence.

US –  So what about us?  When we watch or read of such events, I think we either go numb or feel shaken.  Neither of those is good.  I’m going to pray for us in moment – to be strengthened – to be faithful.  ISIS deliberately wants us to feel they are in charge of history.  This is their religious motivation.  Our own secularized culture wants us to understand this as something else; merely political or some other social phenomena.  We must not go numb and we must not be shaken or give in to fear.  So I will say one more thing that will correct us, comfort us, anchor us.

THE LORD – Our confession is that it is the Lord, the Triune God, who is in charge of history.  And Jesus is the Lord, the King of world, the Lord of all the Earth.  His way is justice, peace, love.  His way only looks weak, but in fact He is strong.  There is a conclusion to history and He will bring it – no other.  ISIS is not in charge of history, Jesus is.  As Christians we confess Him and while we can not predict how or when the conclusion to history will come, we must have hope in our confession.  We can have real hope.  The last book of our Bible was written to give us hope and to show us that Christ is the Master of History.  There are many interpretations to that last book but if we read Revelation and don’t find hope and confidence – we’re reading it wrong.  The Lord is in charge – no other.

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So we must have confidence in our confession and we must pray.

We must pray for mercy for our enemies.  This is what Jesus commanded and taught us to do.

We must also pray for God’s justice to come.  This is equally part of New Testament teaching.  (O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood…)  

We must pray for all our neighbours (in mind here are Muslims locally and globally) for peace and safety for them.

We must pray for all those who suffer for the sake of association with Jesus.  Their suffering and even death teaches and sometimes rebukes us.  We must pray for strength and faith for them.  We can also pray for their safety and peace.

For ourselves we must pray against fear and complacency.  And pray for confidence in our confession that Jesus is the Master of History and the Lord of all the Earth.

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For more on this issue:

What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme Wood, The Atlantic.  Wood writes a very lengthy analysis into the beliefs of ISIS and how they differ from other forms of Islam.  This article is vital if one wants to understand the headlines.

The Briefing from February 18, 2015 – Dr Al Mohler (audio).  Al Mohler is a Baptist theologian who addresses the recent beheadings on his daily podcast.  His commentary is helpful.

A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS execution of 21 Christians – Tom Schreiner.  Schreiner gives some Scriptural reflections on the recent events.

Violence? Religion?

violence religion

Above is a submachine gun with the French words – Ceci n’est pas une religion.  It’s a play on Magritte’s famous The Treachery of Images – but that is an art history lesson for another day.

The image (which I wish I could cite the artists for) is undoubtably circulated as comment on recent attacks in Paris by extremists.  It is meant to sever the link between an ideal of religion and violence in the name of that religion.  But is it true?  Does violence really have nothing to do with religion?

I think we are deceiving ourselves if we say it doesn’t.  Religion can fuel violence.  Whether it is a primary cause of violence is another matter.  We can not, however, say that it has nothing to do with violence.  Religious people have caused violence.  Sometimes, their religion serves as an inspiration for their violence even if it is not the only one.

As a Christian it would be silly for me to say one belief system has a monopoly on violent acts.  But what I can say, humbly but confidently, is that Christian faith makes no room for violence in the name of God.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  Romans 12:9

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.  1 Peter 3:9

True Christianity, does not, can not endorse violence in the name of itself.  Other religions may, however, and it is folly to assert that they don’t.  History is filled with religious violence.  History is filled with religious violence wearing a Christian gloss.

This is not to say there is not place for defensive violence.  Christianity has a rich history of pacifism – of which I am not a part.  There may be, and I would argue that there is, a place for Christians to serve the common good by being a police officer, let’s say.  But one does not need to be a strict pacifist to hold to the truth that authentic, apostolic, Jesus Christianity leaves no room for retaliation, vengeance, aggression, or defence of our God’s honour.

But it is possible that many religions do.  We must be even more careful then, to flee from false religion and embrace the Gospel.

Thinking and Responding to Muslims

Minarets

Interaction with Islam and Muslims is important for Christians to think about these days – especially given the climate of the world of just the last few weeks.

John Dickson – a pastor and Christian leader from Australia – has written a pastoral letter to his congregation which is worthy of wider readership and reflection.

The beauty of his admonition is that he avoids looking Islam with rose-coloured glasses – think of all “the religion of peace” stuff.  And he avoids the twin mistake of seeing Islam as universally violent and threatening.  Westerners, Dickson says,tend to impose their own imaginings onto Islam. Following September 11 years ago, and again more recently, people seem to break into two camps: those that rush to condemn Muslims per se as violent and poisonous, and those that defend Islam as a perfectly loving, non-retaliatory, democratic religion.”  

But Dickson also makes clear that most Muslims we meet in the Western world share many of the desires we do.  “I have no doubt that almost all the Muslims we’re likely to meet in Sydney [insert Winnipeg, or wherever else here] wish us no harm. They want what we want—health, safety, education, and a future for their kids.”  This is acknowledging that we have shared common ground with our Muslim neighbours and should seek fruitful co-citizenship.

But best of all, is his desire for personal connection.  Common sense and Christian faith urge us to shun both a naïve recasting of Islam as the mirror-image of liberal democracy, and a hateful projection of our own tribalism onto Australian [or Canadian] Muslims. Instead, let’s go out of our way in the coming weeks and months to pray for the Muslims around us and to convey love and friendship toward them.”  Make friends, seek the common good of all, be good neighbours, have conversations.  I, personally, have never had a conversation with a Muslim who has not wanted to talk about God with me.  Why can’t we seek to understand one another, and share the radical Good News of Jesus?

Dickson’s pastoral is brief, balanced, biblical, and heartfelt.  I agree with almost everything in it and encourage people to read it.

A Letter To My Church About Islam – John Dickson