Month: November 2012

When the Victory of God seems a Distant Dream

As violence rocked the center of Beirut again and as I have watched the crisis in Syria unfold with all its horrors, I’ve wondered where does God fit into all of this? The fear and anxiety is palpable. The political narrative has changed from a people genuinely desiring freedom, to one of a battle for dominance between the regional powers backed by their international supporters.

Yet in the middle of all this there is a different reality – one of a church and community of faith trapped in between, and anguished about its future. This is best portrayed by very different stories of two Syrian pastors.

As the intense fighting and shelling inched closer to his home, a pastor in one of the besieged cities talked about his struggle– as to whether he should stay to continue ministering, or whether he should take his family and flee. It is so easy for us to judge what he should do from the comforts of where we are – but we have no idea of the terror and fear from the fighting that is engulfing these cities. At the same time, I hear stories from another pastor in a different city who visits displaced families who spend their day begging for food. At night he goes to the park to find families who are sleeping under the trees, whose children have barely eaten for days. He recounts how the children hungrily devour the food that he brings. He talks about the brokenness and desperation he encounters when he asks if he can pray for them, and about the demand for Bibles from the majority community that he is unable to keep up with.

Is there a theology, an understanding of God that ties the two stories together – that a church under siege can make sense of? Our Creeds and teaching focus on the triumphant victory of God and the blessings on those who follow Him. Yet these ring hollow and are so far removed from what the church in the region is experiencing, as the Creeds have nothing to say of how to live in the midst of darkness and oppression. Philip Jenkins reminds us in The Lost History of Christianity that churches sometimes die and communities of faith are decimated.

On one occasion when the people of God had rebelled, God sought to destroy them completely. Moses reminds God that they are His people, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” Ex 33:15-16 (ESV). It was the presence of God that was central in Moses’ theology.

For a besieged church, anguished and uncertain about its future, it is this understanding of Immanuel, God with us, that is so unique and distinct from all the other faiths. The very presence of the living God comforts and sustains them. Yet it is also this very Presence that draws others to know and experience such a God.

The German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, writes about the crucified God. He refers to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God, a pathos that is not what he calls the “irrational human emotions”, but about a God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people…” This pathos is contrasted with the apatheiaof the gods, their inability to feel or their incapability of being influenced, that Judaism and early Christianity encountered in the religions of the ancient world. Centuries later the Church encountered Islam, where God was not one who suffers and therefore could not deal with the problem of human suffering. For most people God remains distant and uncaring.

The first understanding of Immanuel is that God is not distant but comforts us in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23). He calls Himself the God of all comfort (II Cor. 1: 3-5). The pastor and his church who wonder whether they should flee or not, need to know that whatever their decision, God is present and walks with them.

The second implication is that the Church needs to live out the reality of the living God in their midst. Unfortunately, throughout history the besieged church has tended to withdraw into itself during times of crisis. Bishop Kenneth Cragg tells the story of Robert Curzon, the English traveler, who while visiting a monastery in Lebanon in 1849 looking for ancient manuscripts recalls a meal with the monks. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.” The massive walls kept out the world and its violence, and the Faith and the faithful were preserved.

Miroslav Volf instead writes from his experience in the Balkans, where the neutrality of the international community removed any moral restraint that there may have been, resulting in the massacres that ensued. While there may be a place for political neutrality, there is no excuse for being morally neutral. He writes, “Is neutrality the proper stance, however? For those who stand in the prophetic and apostolic traditions of the Scriptures, no neutrality is in fact admissible. These people hear the groans of the suffering, take a stance, and act”. The church in the midst of oppression has to be a voice for justice and a channel of compassion.

The strange paradox on this side of eternity is that the victory of God is not that the Church is triumphant, but that God enters into the darkness and walks with His people.

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I’ve Got a Name…Too

On March 2nd 2012 The Guardian Newspaper reported that two French journalists who had been wounded in Homs, Syria had been safely evacuated to Beirut. The article stated in detail their activities in the line of fire and the harrowing escape, but tucked away towards the end of the article was a one-line statement that said that 13 Syrians (activists) had been killed in the rescue attempt. None of them were named.

Two weeks ago as the US Ambassador in Libya and three other American colleagues were killed in tragic circumstances, the media was filled with praise and eulogies for Ambassador Stevens, much of it well deserved for a man who loved the Arab world.[2]Lost in the entire flurry was a statement by the Libyan Government that ten Libyan security personnel were either killed or injured in the first part of the attack while defending the consulate. Also mentioned in passing was the fact that it was Libyans, who recovered the Ambassador from the charred ruins of the building and carried him to a hospital hoping to save his life. None of them were named.

A few days ago, eight Afghan women were mistakenly killed by an airstrike. The major international media barely covered the story, and those who did, focused on President Karzai’s anger. The Coalition forces after having been in the country for 11 years, claimed that they did not know that local women went to the forest in the mornings to collect firewood in order to cook breakfast. None of the women were identified or named.

I have found myself deeply troubled by the fact that we value the lives of Syrians, Afghans and Libyans so cheaply, and those who sacrifice their lives to save foreigners in their midst are ignored and dismissed so crassly. They remain an anonymous byline to the heroic exploits of others. By their radical acts of generosity and compassion, some are in their own ways trying to counter what they feel is wrong with their society. But no one is listening – definitely not the international or Arab media, and neither are we.

Why is it that in our desperate need for heroes that we are unable to acknowledge the contribution of others? In our own huge need for affirmation to believe that we are doing the right thing in a broken world, we seem to ignore the efforts that others are making. At a time when the western media paints the Islamic world with the broad brushstrokes of rage (http://tinyurl.com/dyktzos), we seem to have bought into their caricature of Arabs and Islam. Why is it that we are unable to acknowledge that there are Muslims who care about human life in the midst of the violence and confusion that is engulfing their own lives?

A century ago, at the height of another empire, the British author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who has sometimes been referred to as the “interpreter of how empire was experienced”, wrote about an Indian water bearer in the British army who continually faced physical and racial verbal abuse but always responded without a word to the urgent demands for water from the troops in the sweltering Indian heat, often at the middle of a battle. One day his British officer was severely wounded, and the water bearer carried him to safety and saved his life. In a tragic turn of events, the water bearer at that very moment was shot and killed. Kipling ends his narrative poem with, “Though I have belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ [God] that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Whether this was fiction or reality, Kipling at least acknowledged that this humble water bearer had a name – the uneducated local, the uncivilized native, the lowly national is now honored and immortalized in his poetry.

God speaking to His people says, “I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1 NIV). Later He adds, “I have written your name in the palm of my hands” (Isa. 49:16 NLV). Jesus speaking to His followers says, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20 NIV). His relationship with us is not defined by “Hey you humans” or“Yo! Created being”. Rather His use of our names is an acknowledgement of our uniqueness and incredible value in His eyes. When God called people, he used their names – Abram, Abraham, Samuel, Paul, Joseph son of David, Peter, Mary, Martha, and Zacchaeus.

As a believer in and a follower of Christ, is there an alternative perspective to the one that is fed to us by the media? Is there another way of relating to those who are different than me – who, because of their difference, seem threatening? The Libyans, Syrians and Afghans have names. Their names have stories that go with them. Some are heroic; others seem mundane, as they are caring mothers and hard working fathers; others are children confused and terrified by the violence around them; most are concerned about work, family and their dreams. I wonder how radical it would be if we could acknowledge them by name. If by doing so we affirm their individuality and treat them as human beings, we would have taken the first step in demonstrating that there is a God who loves them and sees them as unique and of incredible value.

[1] In due acknowledgement to songwriter and balladeer Jim Croce and his song I’ve got a name. (I’m now betraying my age)

[2] The three Americans killed, Sean Smith, Gen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, though named by a few media, were barely mentioned in passing.