Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is IS Isolatable?

To state the obvious, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is now a colossal problem for the peace-loving people of the world.
We started hearing about that extremist group as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Then as it became evident that their goal and scope was larger, it began to be called ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.)
(The Levant is an area that includes not only Syria but also Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey.)
On June 29, the group announced that its name is now just “Islamic State” and that they have established a caliphate. The caliph, who is the “leader for Muslims everywhere,” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The flag of the Islamic State
Of course, the U.S. and most countries of the world do not recognize IS as a legitimate state—and most Muslims in the world do not recognize al-Baghdadi (b. 1971) as their leader.
Still, IS is a threat not only to the non-Sunni people of the Near East but also to peaceable people everywhere. It is a vicious terrorist organization bent on controlling more and more territory by force, as well as by propaganda.
To better understand IS, a “must-see” video can be viewed here. It was made by VICE News journalist and filmmaker Medyan Dairieh, who for three weeks had unprecedented and exclusive access inside IS.
This video presents an alarming account of a truly terrifying group. Something must be done to stop their relentless spread across Iraq, and elsewhere. But what?

A couple of weeks ago, 50 religious conservatives publicly stated that the U.S. must "destroy" IS. (Russell Moore, about whom I recently wrote, here, was one of those 50.) That sounded a lot like a questionable call for a holy war.

And even peace-loving Pope Francis has said with regard to IS,
. . . where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. . . . To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.
James Bretzke, a priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, declares, “This is the most pronounced endorsement of the use of force of any pope . . . in the last 100 years.”
To be sure, doing nothing with regard to IS and its relentless spread is not a viable option. The question, of course, is what could and should be done.
The Pope went on to say that no country should act alone, and that there should be an agreement within the international community, possibly through the United Nations, before embarking on a military campaign.
He also warned against an all-out war, insisting that force could be justified only to "stop" the Islamic State.
Then on Wednesday, 53 religious leaders sent President Obama a letter encouraging him to “move beyond” war in Iraq/Syria.
That seems to be what the President is trying to do at this point.
Many conservatives are opposed to that, calling for the destruction, not just the containment, of IS. For example, Princeton University Professor Robert P. George has authored a petition calling upon the President and Congress to not stop, not contain, but destroy IS.
George’s petition can be found here, and the first signature after his is Russell Moore’s.
But seeking the containment, or isolation, of IS is far better—because it is less violent and would elicit less retaliation.
But is IS isolatable? Probably. But it certainly won’t be easy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Who is a Christian (or a Muslim)?

Every label used to describe persons has to be defined to be accurate. For example, if we are asked whether we or others are Christians, our answer will depend on the definition of what being a Christian means.

There are at least three types of people who might be labeled as Christians.
(1) First there are those who can be called cultural Christians. These are the people born in what is generally considered a Christian country or a Christian community, so they are Christians because of where, or to whom, they were born.
Many such “Christians” were baptized as infants and were raised as part of a Christian culture. In most cases, being a cultural Christian is much like being, say, an American.
Thus, the label “Christian” is a result of birth, not choice. It has little to do with belief, although it usually involves following certain customs, traditions, and rites common in the community.
Of course, it is the same with Muslims: many people who are labeled “Muslim” are mainly cultural Muslims.
(2) Then, there are people who can be called confessional Christians. These are the ones who have made a conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and that decision usually involves making a “profession of faith” and being baptized, or in the case of those who were baptized as infants, being confirmed after learning in a catechism class what it means to be a Christian.
Most of these people were born in Christian homes and/or in a Christian culture. But now they are more than merely Christians by birth; they are Christian believers through their choice to follow Jesus and to be identified with the church as the “body of Christ.”
Of course, there are many Muslims who are such by their deliberately choosing to follow Allah as revealed by Mohammad in the Quran (Koran).
(3) Further, there are some who can be called coerced Christians. These are the people who have been forced, usually by cultural Christians but sometimes, certainly, by confessional Christians to convert to Christianity.
Many of the “pagans” in medieval Europe were converted by the threat of the imperial sword, especially by Charlemagne. Non-Christians in Spain were forced to convert, leave the country, or face death in the Inquisition that beginning in 1492 was directed especially against the Jews and Muslims by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Those royal monarchs commissioned Columbus’s voyage. So it is no surprise that Columbus and the priests who went with him coerced “Indians” to be Christians. Later in British North America, many Protestant political and religious leaders did the same among Native Americans.
The same sort of thing has been a part of Islamic history from its beginning—and it is still occurring in Syria and Iraq, especially by those who are a part of ISIL, which is now often called the Islamic State (IS).
While many of us would like to think that the “real” Christians (or Muslims) are those who are confessional Christians (or Muslims), in reality there are far more cultural Christians (or Muslims) that those who are Christians (or Muslims) by their choice and commitment to Jesus (or Mohammad) and the Bible (or the Quran).
Accordingly, the clashes/wars between Christians and Muslims are primarily between cultural Christians and cultural Muslims, and their actions are often in serious conflict with the core teachings of their religions.
Thus, I think the President was correct when, in speaking recently of the tragic beheading of journalist Jim Foley, he stated that “ISIL speaks for no religion. . . . no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Atheist Who Believes in God

Frank Schaeffer is an interesting guy, and I’m looking forward to hearing him again tonight. He has come to Kansas City to promote his new book, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.”
The other time I met Frank was when he was in town promoting a previous book, one with an even more arresting title: “Sex, Mom, and God” (2011).
Frank’s “Mom” was Edith, who died last year at the age of 98. And his father, Edith’s husband, was the widely known conservative/fundamentalist theologian and author Francis Schaeffer (1912-84).
Frank is a complex man. You see that in the title of his new book. Some may even say his thinking is perhaps a bit schizophrenic.  
But rather than being schizoid, he just has a paradoxical view of reality. That is one reason I appreciate his views so much. (One chapter in my as yet unpublished book, “Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs To Know Now,” deals with the significance of paradox.)
Early in his book, Frank avers, “Embracing paradox helped me discover that religion is a neurological disorder for which faith is the only cure (p. 13). I like this, for I too often feel negative toward religion but positive about faith.
“With the acceptance of paradox,” Frank writes, “came a new and blessed uncertainty that began to heal the mental illness called certainty” (ibid.).
Later on, Frank advises his readers to “flee from exclusionary certainty.” Then he asserts,
There is only one defense against the rising, worldwide, fear-filled fundamentalist tide engulfing all religions (including the intolerant religion of the New Atheists) which once engulfed me: the embrace of paradox and uncertainty as the virtuoso expression of love (p. 90).
Frank seems to be a very honest man. He shares himself, “warts and all,” quite freely. (I do wonder, though, if the title of his new book was chosen more to sell books than to express accurately his real belief about God.)
Frank is not so much an atheist as he is an afundamentalist. That is, he is not a nonbeliever in God. Rather, he is a nonbeliever in the God of his fundamentalist past.
Actually, he is quite a good apologist for Jesus—and for Christianity as it should be: a religion of love and grace.
While his rhetoric is perhaps exaggerated at times (as was that of the One who spoke about camels going through eyes of needles), his is a vibrant spirituality that probably Jesus would have been, and is, delighted with.
“Jesus’ co-suffering love,” according to Frank, “is the best lens through which to reconsider God” (p. 127). A little later he writes, “Our hope is that when we look at God through the eyes of the loving Christ we will see who God really is “ (p. 138).
So it is because of Jesus that Frank is “an atheist who believes in God.” Blessings on him and his highly significant writing and speaking!
Frank Schaeffer is in Kansas City this week thanks to the efforts of Thinking Friend Charlie Broomfield. Frank will be speaking at the Community Center in North Kansas City this evening from 7:30 and at the beautiful downtown Kansas City Public Library from 6:30 tomorrow (Thurs.) evening. There is no charge for attending either gathering. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

“The Eighth Wonder of the World”

Today is the 100th anniversary of the official opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. Today is also my birthday, and I am celebrating it in Panama.
I arrived in Panama City late Wednesday and spent an enjoyable day yesterday in this vibrant city.
Today I will see some of the Canal, “one of the supreme human achievements of all time” (David McCullough) and “a miracle of engineering and industrial technology” (Julie Greene).
It has been lauded with many other superlatives; a 1998 TV movie was titled “Panama Canal: The Eighth Wonder of the World.” (Several other things have also been called the “eighth wonder.”)

Building a waterway across Central America, joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was a dream of some for hundreds of years. The first major attempt was by the French in the 1880s. But they failed miserably.
Then, President Theodore Roosevelt tackled the enormous task of achieving that goal. It was a daunting challenge. First, the rights to begin the project had to be obtained.
When negotiations with Columbia, of which Panama was a part, failed, the U.S. helped Panama gain independence in 1903. In November of that year, the Panama Canal Zone was formed as a U.S. territory.
The following year, the U.S. began digging the canal. Ten years later they completed that gigantic task—but at great cost.
The financial cost was quite low by current standards: only $375 million. (Of course, that would be around $10 billion today.) The greatest cost, however, was in human lives.
Including the tragic efforts of the French, the project cost around 500 lives a mile to build the 50-mile waterway.
Two of the best books about that costly project are The Path Between the Seas (1977) by David McCullough and The Canal Builders (2009) by Julie Greene.
Last week June and I watched the PBS “American Experience” movie “Panama Canal” (2011). That excellent film and much other related information can be found online here.
Julie Greene (b. 1956), a history professor at the University of Maryland, links the construction of the Canal to the efforts of the U.S. to extend the concept of manifest destiny beyond the national borders.
Greene also links the Canal to the extension of the USAmerican “empire” that began with the Spanish-American War in 1898. That “empire” was extended with the formation of the 10-mile wide Panama Canal Zone (PCZ) in 1903
Construction of the “Big Ditch” was another clear indication of American exceptionalism. Accordingly, there was considerable opposition by conservatives, and especially by the John Birch Society, when President Carter began talking about turning over the Canal to Panama.
Carter, however, signed the treaties in 1977 that terminated the PCZ on Oct. 1, 1979. (That is one of several reasons Carter lost the 1980 presidential election.) The Canal was fully turned over to Panama on the first day of 2000.
According to history professor Laura Kalman, “To the New Right nothing illustrated Carter’s ‘softness’ more than his willingness to ‘surrender’ the Panama Canal” (Right Star Rising, p. 265).
But the Canal continues to operate for the benefit of the U.S. and for all the major maritime nations. And now ambitious enlargement construction is going on. Its completion is scheduled for next year.
Also called the “Third Set of Locks Project,” this ambition expansion project being done entirely by the Republic of Panama is intended to double the capacity of the Canal.
How exciting to be here today on my birthday, joining in the celebration of the 100th birthday of “the eighth wonder of the world”!

Later on 8/15

This morning I enjoyed seeing ships going through the second lock on the way north from the Pacific Ocean. Here is a picture of a large ship just starting through the lock. In the top middle of the building you can see the centennial logo that I used with this article.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

This is Moore Better

In its heyday, the Christian Life Commission (CLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was an outstanding organization, and its annual meetings were excellent. During my last several years as a Southern Baptist, I was “proud” to be so largely because of the CLC.
The CLC was founded in 1913, and from 1960 to 1987 it was admirably led by Foy Valentine (1923-2006), for whom I had great respect and appreciation.
The situation changed greatly in 1988: the CLC became the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the SBC. And Richard Land, who was selected as the first head of the reshaped Commission, fit in well with the new fundamentalist-leaning posture of the SBC, .
Under Land, the forward-looking, tradition-challenging CLC became a conservative, reactionary accomplice of the Religious Right.
In June 2013, Russell Moore became the new president of the ERLC, and while he was not as combative as Land, there was considerable continuity with right-wing concerns and support of theological and political conservatism.
Russell Moore (b. 1971)
Recently, though, I began to like Moore better. I was impressed with what he said about the current immigration crisis and how he is showing solidarity with the persecuted Christians in Iraq.
In his blog called “Moore to the Point,” he wrote about “Immigration and the Gospel” on June 17 and “The Road to Jericho and the Border Crisis” on July 13. I recommend both of those articles.
Then, the headline in a July 23 article in the conservative Christian Post declares, “Illegal Immigrant Children Are 'Created in the Image of God,' Issue Is Not Just Political, Says Russell Moore After Touring Texas Facilities.”
I wish Baptists such as Rep. Louie Gohmert would read and heed Moore’s ideas about the children seeking help on our southern border. Gohmert, the U.S. Representative from the First District of Texas, is a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday School teacher.
In a July 11 speech on the House floor, Gohmert called on Congress to act in order to stop the current invasion by illegal immigrants. He also criticized the President’s request for Congress to provide $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the current crisis.
Gohmert then went on to say that “the State of Texas would appear to have the right to use whatever means, whether it is troops, even using ships of war, even exacting a tax on interstate commerce . . . in order to pay to stop the invasion.”
Moore’s position is much better, much more suitable for a follower of Jesus.
In another area I have recently been impressed with Russell Moore and the ERLC. As you know, there has been extensive persecution of Christians (and others) in north central Iraq. (I mention this in my 6/25 blog article.)
Christians have been marked as targets with the Arabic letter for N, standing for Nazarene. Last Moore and his staff began using that letter on the ERLC logo (see the image on the right) in solidarity with the Iraqi Christians. I was impressed by that.
All this doesn’t mean that I agree with Moore on everything. Statements I have seen just this past week make me realize that he holds and forwards ethical positions that seem questionable to me. I am also leery of the upcoming ERLC conference in October.
But just because we disagree with someone over some issues, we should affirm them where there is agreement. And especially with regard to the current immigration crisis, Moore’s position is much better than that of many other Southern Baptist, and other, conservatives.