ISIS, Martyrdom, Fundamentalism, and Christian hope

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News broke yesterday that ISIS had beheaded 21 Egyptians for being “people of the Cross.” Images from the dramatic and disturbingly choreographed and colour coordinated public statement are circulating around the internet, but I have no desire to aid the spread of ISIS propaganda, so you won’t find them here.

What you will find is some further processing of these events, consider this the latest in a series of thinking out loud, which started with the “We Are N” post, and incorporates the post responding to the siege in Sydney’s Martin Place, and the post responding to the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris.In the first, I explore the relationship between Christianity and martyrdom —  something this post will unpack a bit more. In the second I suggest that one of the things we need to keep recognising in this ISIS situation is that people are motivated by religious beliefs, and that even if ISIS does not represent mainstream Islam (which, by all accounts from mainstream Islamic clerics, it does not), it does represent a form of religious belief. This is a case made in this article from The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. In the third, I suggest that the Cross of Jesus is the thing that should shape Christian responses to brokenness in the world, our ‘religious motivation,’ and that this is the key to responding well to radical religious violence.

This latest horror brings all of these threads together.

I don’t know how you process events like this — it probably depends greatly on your vision of the world, of life, and death. I’m still figuring out what an appropriate response to this looks like. Part of me is just an emotional ball of anger at the world, perhaps even at God, a raging, fist shaking lament at the injustice in yesterday’s events. Part of me cries out for the sort of “justice” that the Egyptian government has promised to exact, but I’m not sure that actually solves anything (it may even make things worse). Part of me believes that this event is an incredibly clear picture of the vision of hope held out by two different religious outlooks  — involving two different sorts of “fundamentalist.”

If you’re not a Christian (or a Muslim) then you may look at this event, and other executions carried out by ISIS, as just another mark chalked up on the wall in a battle between two groups fighting over whose imaginary friend has more power, if you’re a mainstream Muslim you may be horrified that, once again, you’ll be called on to explain the actions of people who have taken up the name of your faith and used it to destroy others. If you, like me, are a Christian, you might be trying to figure out how to parse out the simultaneous shock and horror at this situation, the turmoil in your own inner-monologue as you grapple with the question “what if my faith were tested like this,” and, perhaps you might worry that you have what some (even you, as you mull it over) might consider a perverse sense that these Christians are heroes, whose faith encourages you in your own suffering, or lack of suffering.

Hopefully, the universal human response — beyond the response of those carrying out the killings — is one that involves the realisation that these events are a very loud, very clear, indicator that something is very wrong with this world. It may be that you think religion, and violence like this, is at the heart of what is wrong with the world, or it may be that this brokenness we see in the world causes us to seek after God, forcing us to work through the different pictures of God we find in different religious frameworks.

This particular story — the execution of 21 “people of the Cross” is actually a picture of two religious fundamentalists acting entirely consistently with the fundamentals of their beliefs (not necessarily as fundamentalists of everyone who chooses a similar label — but actions that are consistent with the motivations of the people involved).

In any of these cases you might wonder what motivates a person to act like this — as a religious fundamentalist —  either to carry out such atrocities on fellow humans, or to not renounce your faith in the face of such an horrific, violent, death? In both cases the answer is caught up with the religious notion of hope — a vision of the future, both one’s own, individual, future beyond death, and the future of the religious kingdom you belong to. This hope also determines how you understand martyrdom — giving up one’s own life (or taking the lives of others) in the name of your cause (or against the name of theirs).

It’s worth calling this out — making sure we’re sensitive to the distinction between this Islamic vision for the future, and the mainstream, because it’s in the actions of believers, on the ground, that we are able to compare the qualities of different religious visions of, and for, the world.

What we see in events like this is a clash of two religious visions for the world — a vision for hope secured by powerful conquest, the establishment of a kingdom, and martyrdom for that cause, and a vision for hope secured by God’s sacrifice for us, and his resurrection, which involves a kingdom established by the Cross, for ‘people of the Cross.’ This first vision is the motivation at the heart of the ISIS cause, and the latter is at the heart of a Christian view of martyrdom and hope. There’s also, potentially, a chance to examine a secular vision for the world —  which typically involves peace, or an end to conflict (perhaps especially religiously motivated conflict).

Every world view — whether religious, or secular, grapples with this brokenness, and aims to find a path towards an unbroken world. Clashes of world views — like this one, give us opportunities to examine what world view actually provides a meaningful path towards such a transformation. Such a path is fraught, I don’t think there are many solutions that don’t perpetuate the brokenness. I’ll suggest below that it’s only really Christian fundamentalism that will achieve this, the Atlantic article articulates the problem with potential non-religious/secular solutions, especially the military option.

“And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have givenbaya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?”

Christians believe we are saved, and the world is transformed, by martyrdom — but not our own

These 21 Egyptian ‘people of the Cross’ are not saved by their martyrdom.

They do not have extra hope because of the way they die.

They may have died because of their hope — hope placed in Jesus, but as Christians, our hope is not in our own lives, or our own deaths, as contributors to the cause of God’s kingdom, but rather, in God’s own life, and death, in the person of Jesus.

Jesus’ death. Not our own. Is where Christians see the path to paradise.

This produces a fundamentally different sort of kingdom. It produces a fundamentally different sort of fundamentalist. A person living out the fundamentals of Christianity is a person who is prepared to lay their life down as a testimony to God’s kingdom, out of love for others — to lay down one’s own life for the sake of our ‘enemies’ and our neighbour. Because that is what Jesus did, for us.

Here’s what Paul says is at the heart of Jesus’ martyrdom. His death. From his letter to the Romans.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” 

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Later, in the same letter, Paul shows how this martyrdom becomes the paradigm for a Christian understanding of life, death, and following God. A very different outlook, and a very different fundamentalism, to what we see in ISIS.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship…”

And a little later in the same part of the letter, we get an outline of a Christian response to these truly evil, and horrific, killings  — and, indeed, to all the evil and brokenness we see in the world. When we live like this, we live out our hope, we become living martyrs, embodying the values of our kingdom and following our king.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is a picture of Christian fundamentalism. It’s an exploration of what it looks like to be people of the Cross.

Bizarrely — the horrific killings ISIS is carrying out, especially as they execute ‘people of the Cross’ actually serve Christians who are looking to express our own hope as we offer ourselves in this way.

We bear witness to his martyrdom in the way we lay down our lives for others — even as we live. Christian martyrdom involves bearing faithful witness to the one martyr who gains access to the Kingdom through self-sacrifice. When we get this picture we can be confident that God’s power rests in our weakness, rather than our displays of strength. This produces a fundamentally different political vision and approach to life in this world, and the comparison is never starker than it is when it is displayed in the face of a religious ideology like that of ISIS, which mirrors, in so many ways, the religious ideology of the Roman Imperial Cult, and its persecution of the earliest people of the Cross.

This is the hope one of the earlier Christians, Tertullian, articulated to the Roman Emperor, as he called on them to stop executing Christians, his argument, in part, because killing Christians was not serving the Roman Empire, but God’s empire. He wrote a thing to Rome called an Apology  — a defence of the Christian faith, and the place of Christianity within the Empire. It’s where the quote in the image at the top of the post comes from. This quote (this is the extended edition).

“No one indeed suffers willingly, since suffering necessarily implies fear and danger.  Yet the man who objected to the conflict, both fights with all his strength, and when victorious, he rejoices in the battle, because he reaps from it glory and spoil. It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.

This is what Christian fundamentalism looks like. We need more Christian fundamentalists. More Christian martyrs. More people expressing this hope in how they live and die.

This, amongst my prayers of lament for those killed as people of the cross, and in the face of the brokenness of the world, and the horror of the Islamic State’s vision of ‘hope,’ is what I’m praying. That God will bring justice for these killings, but that he will also bring hope through them, as people catch sight of the sort of lives lived by Christian fundamentalists. People of the cross.

I want to be that sort of person — a person of the cross — to be known that way, this is one of the realisations I have come to while processing these killings.

It is only when we whose hope, whose visions of the future, are shaped by Jesus live as Christian fundamentalists, in the Romans 12 sense, that we have any hope of really, truly, presenting the Christian hope for the world — God’s hope for the world — to others.

It’s the only real hope we have of fighting other visions for the future, or breaking the cycle of brokenness.

What other response won’t just perpetuate feelings of injustice? What other responses have any form of justice that doesn’t simply create another perpetrator of injustice? Visions of justice that don’t involve this sort of Christian fundamentalism — giving up one’s ‘rights’ for vengeance simply create a perpetual system of perpetrators. This is perhaps seen clearest as we see boots on the ground (Egypt) or off the ground (The US) in secular visions of the future — military responses to ISIS, and in the actions of ISIS itself. Violence begets violence. Ignoring violence also begets violence. Something has to break that cycle  — and the Cross, and the people of the cross, Christian fundamentalists, provide that circuit breaker. The message of the Cross also provides the path to paradise, the path to a restored relationship with the God who will restore the world, and the path to personal transformation both now, and in this transformed world. That’s a vision of the future I can get behind.

Some reflections on violence in the Old Testament

I’m writing an essay at the moment on the following: Violence, Joshua, and the Christian. Quite apart from the fact that literary criticism of the Old Testament means we have no real sense of who wrote Joshua or when it was written, the question of what role the violence plays in the narrative is vexing. Did the Israelites actually carry out God mandated genocide of those in Canaan? And if they did, is that really a problem?

I’m going with no, and no.

Is God ordering genocide a problem?

Tackling the second question first – I have no problem with God carrying out judgment on his creation. The earth is his, and everything in it. If we all deserve death, and God is infinite, then who are we to quibble about the timing and manner of the inevitable and deserved end we face. Because death is the punishment for sin we’re all essentially facing genocide at that point.

The Canaanites were by all accounts particularly wicked people whose practices were frowned on by those in the nations around them (let alone God) their practices included incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and a fairly murderous militant culture. Presence in the promised land – for the Israelites – depended on them acting rightly, but their entrance into the land was due to the occupants acting wickedly.

Other people have a major problem with this notion – one scholar goes so far as to suggest that commands to kill the Canaanites came from Satan and the Israelites were too theologically illiterate to be able to tell the difference. Richard Dawkins calls the God of the Old Testament the nastiest character in fiction. Another school of thought thinks the violent rhetoric was just a tool to help Israel establish some (rather late – in the time of King Josiah) national identity. Which brings us to the second question.

Did the Israelites carry out genocide on the Canaanites?

No. They didn’t. They certainly killed some Canaanites as they moved into the promised land – but these would appear to be those Canaanites who stayed to pit their might against the people of God. Rahab’s little dialogue with the Jewish spies suggests the Canaanites knew full well what was coming. They had plenty of time to leave (forty years of wilderness wandering for the Jews). And God’s promises of possession for Israel were almost always coupled with a promise to “drive the people out” with only those who remained destined for destruction. This was not genocide – it was the destruction of a national identity. An identity that was synonymous with evil and loathed by the surrounding nations. We also see plenty of Canaanites appearing throughout the Old Testament after they’re meant to be wiped out. Clearly no genocide actually occured.

So what do we make of the commands for genocide then?

What I’m sure of is that we can dismiss the idea that these commands were somehow Satanic misdirection. Ordering the punishment of death for sin is completely consistent with God’s character in the New Testament. If we’re going to go with the notion of one God in both books – not a bipolar happy God/angry God then we need to read these passages in the light of Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23 – we all sin, and thus we all deserve death. The Canaanites were no exception.

There is some merit in seeing the book of Joshua as some sort of identity building missive for the nation of Israel – an answer to the question of why they are God’s people living in a land God promised. At that point the theory that the language of violent conquest was a common sociological phenom is useful, but I don’t think it’s the primary purpose, because that essentially removes the need for some form of historical conquest, and doesn’t actually explain Israel’s presence in the land.

Questions about the historicity of a complete and total conquest – and people do ask those questions – are a bit silly, because Joshua demonstrates, in the narrative, that the conquest was neither complete or total. But it also shows Israel occupying the promised land – alongside those they were meant to wipe out.

The question I keep asking when I come back to passages like this is what theological purpose does it serve? I think this is my rubric for assessing every passage in the Bible, it comes before the question of “what historical fact does this teach”… and so, when I read Gary Millar’s commentary on Deuteronomy (Now Choose Life) I resonate more with his treatment of the issue than with the sociological view (Sociological readers of the Bible seem to have an incredibly low view of God’s sovereignty or ability to intervene – interpreting theological writings by looking for natural causes seems dumb to me. They almost always dismisses any miraculous intervention from God in establishing any identity – Israel’s identity, in their view, stems from their own self identity rather than from identity through God’s election). Millar even goes so far as to suggest some rabbinic hyperbole. Which is one of my favourite expresssions… here is his commentary on the instructions in Deuteronomy to wipe out the Canaanites (so that the Israelites may stay true to God. If they fail the author clearly says the Canaanites will lead the Israelites astray).

“This is theological preaching, urging Israel on to wholehearted obedience. In this context we should expect some hyperbole, at least.”

He argues that the Hebrew word הרמ (I can’t figure out how to do a final מ on my keyboard) – or herem – is a pointer to the theological nature of this destruction. Israel is to wipe out the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, and their identity, rather than the people themselves.

Millar says:

“The intensification of the command to disposses the nations to destruction is not primarily about warfare at all. It is a theological conviction, arising from recognition that the Canaanites will be a snare in the land; their influence must be purged from the land if Israel is to survive.”

Deuteronomy 7 itself points to this sort of interpretation. Verse 1 says God will drive the nations out ahead of Israel, verse 2 that he will deliver them and the Israelites “completely destroy them” (that’s that Hebrew word), and verses 3-5 are instructions for what to do with the survivors (ie don’t marry them or worship their Gods). Why are there instructions for dealing with the survivors if they are to be completely wiped out?

Millar again:

“Throughout this chapter, it is clear that the Mosaic Preaching is concerned to bring the Israelites to the conviction that shattering the structures of Canaanite society is a theological necessity. This is expressed not in terms of driving out or dispossessing the Canaanites, but of destroying them.”

Regarding further instructions about the Canaanites in Deuteronomy 20 Millar acknowledges that the “leave no survivors” command is “startlingly literal” – but again suggests that the instructions are not simply about military victory but the annihilation of a way of life.

In the case of the Canaanites it seems the adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” can’t really be carried out – because the two can’t be separated.

Asking the wrong questions about UFC

Al posted a quote from Leunig yesterday that suggested a causal link between a recent UFC fight and increased knife crime in Melbourne – I’ll leave you to find your own problems or agreements with that argument.

The meta of that post has been pretty interesting, and I can’t help but think that we’re approaching this question in the wrong way.

Some pacifist brothers (Seumas has some good thoughts on the issue that are worth digesting) are convinced that violence is inexcusable in any circumstances and thus they are, as it were, conscientious objectors to UFC. Some of these opponents would suggest that the issue is so settled by scripture that this can’t be a question of conscience or liberty. I think the fact that so many people are divided by this issue suggests that it’s not so cut and dried in terms of “right” and “wrong”.

I can’t help but think we’re not being particularly Pauline in our approach to the issue – perhaps instead of asking if we should prohibit (through exhortation and whatever else) Christians from partaking either in the sport itself or in the appreciation thereof – we should be asking “how can we come to grips with UFC in a way that preaches the gospel of Christ”… that was Paul’s priority, and it was Jesus’ mission – more than coming and rejecting war and calling us to peaceful lives, he came and called on us to preach the coming of the kingdom of God.

Anybody who can’t see a nice easy straight line from Jesus the guy who submits to death so that we don’t have to, or Jesus the guy who enters the cage and takes our beating, is missing out on opportunities to connect the gospel message with fans of the world’s fastest growing sport. I’m not suggesting we take the Driscoll line that Jesus is a cage fighter… but some of the arguments against UFC are sillier than the arguments for it. I’ll leave you with some words from Romans 14 which I think are the most compelling scriptural words on the matter.

1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

On entertaining violence

Craig’s UFC post has opened up a philosophical can of worms. The discussion continued in real life at our Queensland Theological College weekend away with quite a few people seeing the debate in black and white terms based on their personal gut feel. The naysayers don’t see the debate as a matter of conscience, the blood sport apologists don’t see a Biblical problem with the sport, the debate is at an impasse.

For me the debate begs a broader question about violence in entertainment. How many of the anti-UFC types are anti-UFC because it is real and not fictional? That seems to me to be an odd and somewhat arbitrary distinction to make. If the problem is bloodlust then surely the problem arises for those who enjoy violent movies and video games. If I can watch UFC to appreciate the technical side of things (and I watched my first intriguing bout last week – I believe this is possible, like it is possible to enjoy League despite the violent collisions not because of them) and don’t glory in the violence does that appease the anti-bloodlust lobby? Some in the debate say that it is a question of ends and means. If the end is testing to see which martial art is superior, and which fighter is superior – I don’t see how this by necessity equates to the end being violence.

But the begged question remains – can you position yourself against ultimate fighting while also enjoying Fight Club? Can you be for all intents and purposes a pacifist while watching war movies for enjoyment? Can you tell people that their love for mixed martial arts is Biblically unjustifiable while shooting people in a computer game?

I don’t think so. I don’t feel any pangs of remorse about enjoying the Hitman game series – the object is to be a sneaky assassin killing victims with a wide range of weapons. I don’t feel like there’s a distinction between enjoying the violence of Judges (like the story of Ehud) and the violence of whatever David Baldacci novel I’m ploughing through… In this case it would be hypocritical of me to take a stance against those who enjoy a sport that I have not, in the past, enjoyed, simply on the basis of violence. And much of this debate smacks of hypocrisy. I did speak to one Godly brother on the weekend whose aversion to violence (as a conscious conscience based decision) now extends to the war movies he enjoyed in his youth. At that point the issue is surely a conscience thing rather than a Biblically mandated aversion. If you can not, in good conscience, enjoy the spectacle of any of these elements of culture then do no. It’s a pretty easy decision.

All line drawing in these issues – other than being dictated by conscience – seems to be pretty arbitrary (unless it’s clearly spelled out in the Bible). When it comes to computer games where do we draw the line. Is it ok to kill Nazis (Wolfenstein) but not to kill police (when you’re an assassin)? Why is it almost universally ok to chomp on a ghost in Pacman or stomp on a walking mushroom (a goomba) in Mario?

I always feel bad when I kill a civilian in a game (and hope that I always do), and it seems that there’s an ethical line when you kill someone not expecting it as part of their job (in a game that is) – which is why I think the fact that highly trained UFC competitors are involved in the sport of their own volition (as opposed to gladiators in Rome and anyone featured in “bumfights” an online sensation where people make homeless people fight for money).

Here’s a post I just read about how video game developers seek to dehumanise bad guys so that we don’t feel bad about popping them in the head with whatever weapon we have at our disposal. Their tactics include featuring zombies, vampires and nazis as universally recognised bad guys – and if in doubt – masking the antagonist so that you don’t confront their emotions. The writer’s conclusion is this:

I believe that developers have come to realize that, while violence is often a necessary part of the action in many games, most people feel put out at the prospect of ending other peoples’ lives, even digital ones. While there are plenty of games that don’t adhere to the general categories I mentioned, most do. It’s the action and excitement of a scenario that draws us in, death is usually just an unintentional byproduct, but even so some effort is made to separate the gamer from what would be the terrible consequences of their actions. Developers do this because we are, despite what so many political blowhards and half-wit news anchors would have us believe, sensitive to violence in the real world.

I don’t get why as Christians we’re so keen to point the finger at our brothers and sisters to suggest that their enjoyment of a sport is due to some sort of sinful appreciation of unabashed violence. We should give one another the benefit of the doubt on matters like this shouldn’t we? It doesn’t surprise me that the vast majority of people commenting in support of watching UFC have some technical training or appreciation of the sport that they enjoy. These people aren’t the type to get excited about the misapplication of violence outside the context of sport or the pursuit of justice. They just happen to like a sport that is open and honest about the fact that violence is part of the game.