Search This Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Link to a Great Cartoon

The following is a great comment on the futility of America's Afghan engagement, and our wonderful ally Hamid Karzai.

Enjoy, folks!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Thoughts on the Democratic Peace

Back in the 1700's, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a book entitled _Perpetual Peace_, in which he argued that a Europe made up of free republics would be able to guarantee peace. He reasoned that few peoples would elect leaders who promised to invest their sons' lives in wars; whereas in Kant's time, war was the sport of kings.

Indeed, in America, war presidents have generally had an easy time, unless, like Lincoln, their generals racked up key victories in the nick of time or, like Franklin Roosevelt, Americans perceived themselves as recipients of an unprovoked attack and the media liked the president. Further, the democratized Europe that has existed since the end of World War II has been peaceful; while the end of the Communist bloc has further continued a long peace, save for Ulster and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Hence many political scientists such as Zeev Maoz, Rudolph Rummel, and others extend Kant's theory to one that posits a "democratic peace". the thesis holds that democracies generally do not fight each other, even if they do go to war with dictators.

As a former US diplomat, I would like to believe that the democratic peace thesis is true. However, part of me remains skeptical. Peace probably depends on a very complex set of political, cultural, economic, demographic, geographic, and other factors.

The democratic peace thesis won a notable convert in George W. Bush, who, in the wake of 9/11, abandoned his distaste for the failed Clintonian nation-building exercises in failed Somalia and Bosnia, and proceeded in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan, and support the further democratization of the rest of the Middle East. A similar American mindset continues to manifest itself with Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power pressing Pres. Obama to come out in favor of "democratic" uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt--even when it is doubtful that such uprisings are democratic at all.

Seymour Martin Lipset has noted that for most of the 20th century, democracies have faced common enemies, a situation which is likely to place potential conflicts among themselves on the back burner. Yes, the war for the Atlantic between the US and Britain which strategic thinkers posited as "inevitable" between the early 1800's and 1930's never materialized, but perhaps the reason it never did was because the British and US navies were too busy supporting each other as allies in two world wars and the Cold War. Further, Britain and the US fought each other in 1812-15, while Britain fought the Boers of South Africa who, while nasty towards their non-white neighbors, were democratic in running their own affairs. The USA itself suffered a devastating civil war between two sections of an all but universally democratic nation. Even Switzerland had its Sonderbund War in `1848. All these examples suggest that war between democracies are possible.

Of course, a common consensus among the elites of many states in favor of Kant's proposal for international peace may also be at work in the "democratic peace" we have now. If so, long may it flourish. Yet powerful ideological counter-currents may yet overcome this. Conceivably, a democratized public may develop a taste for imperial adventure (as happened in Britain and France in the late 19th century), and which may well appear in other parts of the world. The forms these may take are perhaps unimaginable at present, but may be fully comprehensible should they appear.

Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., noted that rule by the many is subject to corruption as soon as the majority realizes it has the political power to "constitutionally" loot the minority. The polity sees its chief enemies in its neighbors rather than in external threats, and some factions may even be tempted to align themselves with external enemies for domestic political advantage. This situation may bring social disintegration to a modern nation state as easily as it brought it to certain ancient Hellenic city-states. A disintegrating state falling into out-and-out failure is certain to attract both potential predators and well-meaning interventionists. Some of these may, conceivably, be other democracies.

Yes, I'm all for maintaining the democratic peace, and if it spreads beyond a few favored northern lands, I will applaud. But the democratic peace is not something on which I would bet the proverbial farm.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Israel of God: is it really "Supercessionism"?--Thoughts for Passover and Easter

For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Galatians 6:15 (ASV)

Many charge Evangelical Christians with being uncritically pro-Israel, and encouraging the oppression of the Falastin Arabs. Indeed, the prevalence of dispensational theology among Evangelicals lends a ring of truth to this accusation. But others will also loudly charge that the older covenantal theology confessed by the Reformed churches is "anti-Semitic". This essay is an attempt to meet both charges, for it holds that God's grace to Gentiles via Christ does not exclude the same grace to the Jews.

Of course, if one denies that all religions and cultural expressions are equally "valid", as our current multicultural environment demands, then it is probably impossible for a serious, Bible-believing Christian to completely avoid the charges of "supremacism", "anti-Semitism", "intolerance", and the like. But at the same time, one can believe in the absolute truth of the Gospel and Jesus' unique position as the Messiah, yet still feel charitably towards those outside the faith. The Scriptures teach us that we are all sinners in need of salvation, and as one famous minister--D.T. Niles, I believe--once said, evangelism is nothing but one beggar telling another where to find bread. Further, humility is a Christian virtue (even if it is seen more in the breach than in practice), for salvation by grace means that none of us have anything about which we may boast.

A charitable attitude towards the Jews can even be found in some of the fathers of covenantal theology. Ian H. Murray, in The Puritan Hope, quotes Edward Elton’s 17th century commentary on Romans 11:

“[Romans 11:25-26] should teach us not to hate the Jews (as many do) only because they are Jews, which name is among so many so odious that they think they cannot call a man worse than to call him a Jew; but beloved, this ought not to be so, for we are bound to love and honour the Jews, as being the ancient people of God, to wish them well, and to be earnest in prayer for their conversion.”

Thus, a Christian who takes every letter of the Old and New Testaments as God-breathed needs neither modern dispensationalism, guilt feelings over the Shoah, nor general modern American neighborliness to find a divine mandate for a charitable attitude towards the Jews—or anyone else—and criticize hatred.

Of course Elton’s desire for the conversion of the Jews cuts against the modern notion that religious communities should “recognize” each others’ “validity”—as did the Missions of the 17th century Netherlands Reformed Churches in the far-flung Dutch colonial holdings and John Elliot’s mission to the Algonquin Indians. But, on reflection, simple logic refutes this modern notion in that it is impossible for Jesus to be both Messiah and non-Messiah at the same time, or for the Theravada Buddhist denial of a supreme being and God’s words to Moses’ that God is what he is (Exodus 3) to be true at the same time.

Many dispensationalist brethren will charge that being skeptical of modern Israel's place as harbinger of the Second Advent "denies Scripture". A further point of this essay will be to remind Christians that there have been other, more consistent ways to read the Bible as a whole.

The Israel of God is not necessarily a state in the Middle East and its people. The biblical meaning of the name "Israel" is far richer, being a name bestowed by divine grace rather than race, and as such belongs more properly to those gathered about the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, not those gathered in a particular land. This view has been labeled "supercessionism" and is charged with being the seedbed of anti-Semitism and the shocking crime of the holocaust. Yet when properly viewed it need not result in hatred for anyone. Rather, by calling us to focus on Jesus Christ rather than a land, it calls us to a deeper discipleship, including the command to love our neighbor--whether Jew or Greek, barbarian or Scythian--as ourselves.

(I) The meaning of "Israel"

The name "Israel" means "One who Wrestles with God" or "One Who is a Prince with God". It is a name that was given to the patriarch Jacob at Genesis 32:28, after he wrestles with a mysterious figure at Jabbok. This figure is one who does not reveal his own name to Jacob, at least at this time, but Jacob's reaction to his wrestling with this mysterious figure leaves no doubt about his identity:

"And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for said he, I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30, ASV).

Yes, the name "Israel" is later applied to the physical descendants of Abraham through Jacob and is used as such throughout the Old Testament. But to identify who is truly "Israel" requires finding those who grapple with God rather than identify a bloodline. Not a few Christians who have studied Scripture throughout the ages have recognized this. Prior to the work of John Nelson Darby and certain others in the 19th century, none had envisioned a restored Jewish polity in the Middle East as the focus of divine plans, nor had any envisioned a radical break between ethnic Israel and the Christian church, but had seen the church as growing from that portion of ethnic Israel that embraced the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.

This is why it is improper to call the view that the church is Israel "supercessionism". This term supposes that the way to grace is henceforth blocked to those who are Jews by descent, or that somehow the modern Jews are "Cosmically evil", as some opponents of Christianity such as Chaim Maccoby have charged. A proper understanding of Israelite identity frankly recognizes that the New Testament itself is a Jewish book, written by men who themselves identified as Jews, with the aim of bringing people of other nations to the Jewish God. To accept what the New Testament says about Israel is to recognize an eternal debt to the people and land of Judaea for giving us the Messiah, and recognize that "the door of the sheep", as Jesus called himself (John 10) remains open to both Jew and Gentile.

The career of the Apostle Paul is instructive. His letters make it absolutely clear that he saw himself as a Jewish missionary to Gentiles, proclaiming that God had brought salvation via the Jewish Messiah Jesus, and that in his name the Gentiles should turn from their idols. In writing to the Galatian church, he fought a temptation that is perhaps equal and opposite to modern dispensationalism’s position that there exists a radical separation between Old Testament Israel and the Christian church, believing that God will replace the former as the center of attention in the days prior to and during the millennium. The Galatians were tempted by an overly "continuous" identity, thinking that to be in Christ, Gentiles had to become Jews, including the adoption of the entirety of the ceremonial law (represented by circumcision). Paul argued that it is not Jewish identity, symbolized by circumcision, that unites us to God, but being in Christ, which is accomplished by faith. He argues that this is true for Jews like himself, Barnabas, and Peter (called Cephas in the letter) and for his Gentile Galatian hearers. Hence, he identifies those who walk by this rule as "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:15).

(II) The True Zion

In the Letter to the Hebrews, an unknown member of the apostolic circle addressed Jewish believers distressed by their exclusion from the synagogues and the services of the Jerusalem Temple. As in Paul's Letter to the Galatians, the burden of the letter is on the centrality of the Messiah and his work.

The Israelites of old were given the ministrations of the tabernacle, and later the temple, as a place of sacrifice, to recognize that without the shedding of blood, sinners have no access to God. This truth underlay the sacrificial system of the Torah, from the deaths of the animals whose skins clothed the newly fallen Adam and Eve through the elaborate sacrificial ritual prescribed in the Torah, by which the death of a sacrificial animal restored fellowship--atoned--for the sinner.

In the First Century, a group of Jewish Messianists found themselves excluded from these ministrations due to their loyalty to Jesus. The letter to the Hebrews reminds these brethren that Jesus is the true priest and true atonement. The letter reminds them, and us:

"For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. For they could not endure what was commanded: "and if so much as a beast touches the mountain it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow. And so terrifying was the sight that MOses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling". But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling [that of Jesus] that speaks better things than that of Abel."
(Hebrews 12:18-24, NKJV).

Here, Jesus and his work are the true Zion.

(III) The end of the Sacrificial System

Many today believe that in the end times, the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the sacrificial system re-instated. Yet this is to supercede the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

When John the Baptist identified Jesus as the "Lamb of God", he did not mean that Jesus is cute and fuzzy--indeed, a cursory perusal of the Gospels shows that there is nothing "cute and fuzzy" about Jesus. Rather, John was using the language of sacrifice:

"Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).

John spoke to people who knew that the temple still stood, and still offered up the blood of bulls and goats, and every year still offered up the unblemished lambs at Passover. John's declaration identifies Jesus as the true passover lamb whose blood on our doors turns away the angel of death; and the final sacrifice who, standing in the place of sinners, opens a door whereby we may again approach and fellowship with God.

For this reason, the church observes the Lord's Supper, proclaiming Jesus' death till he come in the bread and wine shared by the congregation. This is itself a repeat of the Passover meal.

The finality and perfection of Jesus' sacrifice for us on the cross is also why the Christian church no longer sacrifices animals (or people, for that matter). As far back as God's refusal of Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), it has been plain that sinful man is not an acceptable offering to God. But Jesus, the sinless one, offered himself in the place of sinners, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God (I Peter 3:1).

This means that an animal sacrifice, whether the last such ministrations in the Jerusalem temple between 30 and 70 A.D., the Graeco-Roman pagan’s killing an ox in honor of Zeus, the Chinese Daoists sacrificing swine in their Bai Bai, or Muslims offering a sheep or goat for Eid, are no longer necessary. Sacrifice is there to open fellowship between God and man, and Jesus, through his work on the cross, has opened a final and permanent access to God. This, not anti-Semitism, is what causes non-dispensational Evangelicals to doubt that there will be any restoration of a physical temple in Jerusalem, or that even if such a thing should be done, that it will have any redemptive significance.

Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians have commemorated his sacrifice in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance is also a sign of our being gathered together as one with Christ and with each other. It tells us that just as ancient Israel was gathered by the words of prophets, the ministrations of priests, and the protection of kings, so are we gathered by the Word, sacrifice, and protection of Jesus Christ, who himself bears all three anointed offices of prophet, priest, and king.

The New Testament makes it clear that this message went forth from the Jews to other nations. Rather than call it “supercessionism”, it is perhaps better to call it “additionism”. To Jews like John, James, Andrew, Simon Peter, and several Judases “not Iscariot”, the Gospel call added Gentiles such as Luke, Titus, Lydia, and many others. If the church became “Gentile”, it was only because Gentiles have always outnumbered Jews, and the success of God’s saving plan will ever mean that even in the Jewish-founded church, this will be so.

Along these lines, there was a droll story from the days after the Russian Revolution. A Hebrew Christian history student named Solomon Moisevich Mandelbaum found himself arrested by the Cheka, and sharing a cell with a former White officer and anti-Semite, Andrey Ivanovich Kursky. After coming to know each other, Andrey asks Solomon a question:

“Is it true that there is an international Jewish conspiracy to put the world under Jewish rule?”

“Indeed there is, Andrey Ivanovich. It is very ancient, and hatched even while the Temple of Solomon was still standing,” Solomon answered.

“Ah-hah! I knew these Marxes and Trotskies and others had to be part of something bigger than a bunch of mere rabble-rousers!” Andrey grunts.

“Nonsense, Andrey Ivanovich. You mention only moderns, and who is Trotsky compared to Lenin and Stalin? I mentioned a very ancient conspiracy.”

“Ah-hah! You must mean the freemasons, who tell me that Solomon himself launched the craft!”

Again, Solomon shook his head. “Andrey Ivanovich, if we ever get out of here, I will not tell the Reverend Father that you have dabbled in freemasonry,” for Solomon knew that Andrey regarded himself as a good Eastern Orthodox Christian.

Andrey, like many others, was indeed guilty of such a flirtation, which was frowned on by his church, and blushed. “But what is it, then?”

“Why, it’s Christianity itself,” said Solomon. “It was proclaimed in the shadow of the Temple back in 30 A.D. by the Jews Peter, James, and John themselves, and has been growing ever since.”

Perhaps it is so that God will restore the Jewish nation to its historical patrimony. Such a belief was indeed common among the 17th century Puritans and their heirs, based on their reading of Romans 11:25-26. But these post- rather than pre-millennial Puritans also supposed that the place of this restored Jewish nation would ultimately be as one Christianized nation among many. Their view of the true “Israel” was that it included all, Jew as well as Gentile, gathered at the feet of the Messiah.

Monday, April 18, 2011

More on Jonah--Chapter IV: God's Surprising Grace

Jonah 4:1-11

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of evil.
Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
This saith the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?
So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and he sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
And the LORD God prepared a gourd and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, it is better for me to die than to live.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

When I studied theology, our homiletics teacher, the wise and saintly Dr. Robert Rayburn, now with the Lord, used to tell us never to end a sermon with a question. Some of the class wags would then tease him and suggest that he would correct God's own homily to the prophet Jonah. Dr. Rayburn took it all in good grace, for whatever the disagreements I might have had with him, he respected and honored the Bible; and his purpose was that we would learn to preach Christ.

The last chapter of Jonah is one in which the mind of the Messiah was indeed opened up to those who lived before his coming. It is perhaps no wonder that Jesus took Jonah as a type of himself in Luke 11:29-32. Here, Jesus says the following, according to the New King James Version:

This is an evil generation. It seeks a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.
For as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so also the Son of Man [Jesus Christ himself]
will be a sign to this generation.
The queen of the South will rise up in judgment against this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed, a greater than Solomon is here.
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.

Let us look closely at the repentance of the Ninevites. It should be clear to the reader of the text from Jonah reproduced at the beginning of this posting that God is pleased with the repentance of the Ninevites, while Jonah was not. Of course God is in the right in sparing the repentant Assyrians and Jonah in the wrong as he parks himself outside the city to await the destruction of Nineveh. But perhaps all this is to tell us that God has a gracious purpose even in the darkest eras of our history.

FIRST: In today's world, there is probably no nation that is completely reprobate.

Jonah's bitterness comes from his patriotism. He first appears as a patriotic prophet in II Kings 14:25, who foretold the restoration of the Northern Kingdom's borders. Then he appears again in the book that bears his name to bring a message of judgment to Assyria, the bitter foe of Israel. Doubtless his flight to the far west (Assyria is to the northeast of Israel), to Tarshish, stemss fromm his fear of the ruthlessness of the Assyrian war machine, for the archaeological remains of left by the Assyrian kingdom boast of impaling its enemies, sacking their cities, and enslaving the portion of enemy populations not subjected to massacre. Hence Jonah's misgivings about the recipients of his prophecy are justified.

Yet Jonah has a surprise ending, in which the Ninevites repent, and are spared. God has touched the hearts of his own people's implaccable enemies.

And what a tragic contrast this is to Israel herself in those ancient times! The books of the Kings show an Israel divided due to the harshness of Solomon's son Rehoboam, and a northern kingdom that follows the first king Jeroboam into idolatry. It becomes the land where King Ahab may murder guiltless Naboth to steal his ancestral vineyard, and where "he walked in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin" echoes like a mournful refrain. Jonah, who had been blessed to foresee the brief restoration of Israel's borders, is later called to preach a word of judgment to Israel's mortal foe that turns into a word of mercy.

But this mercy to the Ninevites turns out to be from the heart of God himself.

Modern Christians should take note. We are quick to see foreign enemies of our own lands as the mortal enemies of God and truth. We are quick, in our domestic politics, to demonize our neighbors. James Cone, the mentor of President Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, declared that his people will have nothing to do with a God who does not help them against their white enemy. The Aryan Nations and Ku Klux Klan, while claiming to be Christian, will have nothing to do with a God who does not dehumanize non-whites. We are quick to demonize all currently on the side of apostate culture, forgetting that God can call a Ms. Covey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, to saving grace. We are certain that the Muslim nations are beyond the pale of saving grace following the 9/11 attacks and cry for vengeance, even as there is a quiet movement of former Muslims into Christian churches worldwide. Would we not be wiser to plead for grace to our enemies as well as ourselves?

Jonah was sent to God's enemies, who responded to his message of impending doom precisely as men should to such a message: with repentance and faith. When we are similarly challenged for our lesser sins, may we show a similar posture before the Lord.

SECOND: Even the best of men may be morally blind

Jonah was a prophet, blessed with a gift that few are given. He was allowed an immediate message from the Almighty. Yet he shows himself a bitter and vengeful man. Hence, God gives him the object lesson of the gourd plant, which grows to shade him. When I lived in Taiwan, I often saw gourd vines growing over trellises and fences, creating a thick, dark green shade against the tropical sun. Householders might harvest the fruit for a tasty vegetable dish served with the next meal while enjoying the cool shade of the plant. Hence, I find it easy to picture Jonah's booth of branches and poles with a luxuriant leafy growth spreading over it. If Mesopotamia was as hot then as it is now, he had reason to be grateful for it, and to be pained when the worm killed it.

Here, God revealed to Jonah his own selfishness, as Jonah's own preaching had revealed to the Assyrians, from King to Commoner, their own bloodthirstiness and the peril their souls faced. God, who is compassionate to the ignorant and spiritually blind Assyrians, reminds his prophet that those people are, no less than Israelites, the works of his holy and gracious hands despite their many sins.

It is no small thing to harbor sin. Sin is destructive. God was not fooling when he sent Jonah to preach the upcoming destruction of Nineveh. But had the Ninevites not repented and their city overthrown, it should have been no cause for gloating on Jonah's or any Israelite's part. Rather, the surprise ending, with the repentance of the Ninevites, should have been the welcome news.

Today, the church of Christ is beset by many enemies; faithless persons both inside and out. When _South Park_ may show Jesus Christ as a farcical figure, yet tiptoe around Muhammad due to the producers fears of possible violent repercussions, it may indeed be part of a wide enmity towards Christ on the part of the media industry that is not so much a brave criticism of traditional icons but a cowardly picking on "safe" targets. The lawyers, judges, and politicians who would condemn us for "hate speech" for calling homosexuality a sin or for declaring that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ are indeed our enemies, and of them we must be wary. Yet we do not know what God has in store for such persons tomorrow, or five years from now. It could be that God may call such people to repentance and faith, as he did the Ninevites of old. Hence, while we are right to expose their evil thoughts and deeds, our victory is not in their destruction, but in their repentance.

THIRD: us be open to God's surprising works of grace.

Jonah was not prepared for what God would do with his preaching. Yet God is never surprised by the true repentance of men. Grace is grace because it is the unearned favor of God given freely to the undeserving. If Muhammad in the Qur'an flatters his followers that they are "the best of men", the true prophet Moses reminds his hearers in Deuteronomy that they are a stiff-necked people, and nearing the end of a lifetime of remarkable holiness and usefulness, the true apostle Paul still declared himself to be the chief of sinners. The posture of moral humility rather than moral superiority is that which God would have us take--and if we are honest, it is not an easy one to take.

The Gospel--especially since the perfection of Jesus Christ has been revealed--turns God's enemies into his friends. A vengeful and vindictive spirit is the easy way in any conflict, but Jonah shows us that God himself prefers the salvation of his enemies.

Perhaps we live in an ungracious era not because the enemies of God and Christ have stolen the limelight, but because Christians have abandoned it. The limelight in which we are to stand should be the work of reconciliation of sinners to God through the work of Jesus Christ. But this cannot be done if we surrender to the spirit of bitterness.

But, thankfully, God can give us the object lessons we need. Let's pray that they aren't too hard!

It should be our prayer in these dangerous times to be allowed to see surprises such as the one shown to Jonah.

Thoughts on Jonah--Back on Track

And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
(Jonah 3:1-4).

As a teacher, I often tell my students that the reason why experience is the best teacher is that it is Mr. Experience's job to teach those who will neither listen to their elders or read a book. If a student walks into a class interested in learning, any fool with more knowledge of a subject than the student has will be able to help the student learn, but if a student is going to be stubborn and unwilling to listen, he'll learn only from the school of hard knocks--perhaps the instruction of the stocks of which Proverbs speaks?

Jonah has proven a learner from his experience on the sea and in the great fish. He heads for Nineveh, and proclaims the message which God commissioned him to proclaim.

Jonah's message is what once was called fire-and-brimstone; a warning of terrible temporal and eternal judgments to come. The genre has become very unpopular in modern times, and is generally held up for ridicule by people who consider themselves enlightened and taken as a handy excuse to ignore the teachings of Scripture.

Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the human condition, whether today's or that of the ancient Assyrians, is a dangerous one. The casualties of war occupy the headlines and television news, yet traffic accidents claim many times the number of young American lives that distant battlefields do. Those who went to work in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 did so unaware that thousands of them would die or be seriously injured as their ordinary working day began. All of us work hard and try to save, but a combination of imprudence and expediency may well lead a government to adopt policies which might wipe out our economic security in a matter of months. And, to fortify ourselves against the dangers of life, we adopt a number of comforting lies, such as that a group of people no better than ourselves will, if given sufficient power, guarantee secure lives for all. We do this in order to ignore the uncomfortable truth that life is a bit like being a fiddler on the roof--he needs to make beautiful music without falling down and breaking his neck. At least fire-and-brimstone is a reminder of the fact that life is lived on a dangerous precipice.

It also reminds us that there is a terrible significance to life. While Jonah does not speak of the world to come, the warnings given by Jesus Christ and others about the coming day of judgment is a reminder that, unlike the Zen koan that speaks of man entering the water and leaving no ripple, our lives leave ripples that go on forever. Are our lives the sort that honor God; or are they such that they provoke a righteous God to not only snuff them out, but also sweep away the society that they have helped shape, and then cast us and all around us on that great burning rubbish heap of history called Gehenna?

Perhaps the citizens of ancient Nineveh, on the day Jonah came to town, figured that their powerful monarch who had begun the systematic conquest and looting of neighboring tribes and nations would ensure that sufficient booty would flow into Nineveh to keep it the most prosperous of cities for eternity. Perhaps the Ninevites believed that their craftsmen, merchants, and farmers would be able to eternally keep up a flow of trade with those with whom they were not at war as well. Yet to them, Jonah announces that their world is to be overthrown in forty days.

The task of prophecy is not to stroke the ego and soothe consciences that ought not to be soothed. Jonah has accepted and followed that calling. It remains to be seen what his prophecy brings about.

houghts on Jonah--Jonah's Prayer

Now the LORD had prepared a greta fish to swallow up JOnah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly, and said,
I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD,
And he heard me;
Out of the belly of hell cried I,
And thou heardest my voice.
For thous hast cast me into the deep,
In the midst of the seas;
And the floods compassed me about:
All thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight;
Yet will I look again towards thy holy tmeple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul;
And the depth closed me round about,
The weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
The earth with her bars was about me for ever:
Yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption,
O LORD my God.
When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD:
And my prayer came in unto thee,
Into thine holy temple.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy,
But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay that which I have vowed.
Salvation is of the LORD.

And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
(Jonah 1:17-2:10)

In the Gospel (Matthew 12:40), Jesus speaks of how an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign would be given save the sign of Jonah: as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, so would the Messiah be in the earth three days--in short, Jesus promised the sign of his death and burial.

In the last posting, we observed how Jonah accepted his responsibility for the storm and subsequent loss of property that overtook the ship on which he was sailing along with its crew. Jesus, however, did not lay down his life as a penalty for his own sin, but on behalf of sinners.

This typology is all the more interesting in liht of Jonah's prayer from the belly of the fish. Jonah gives vent to his despair and fear of death; yet in so doing, he also expresses hope. Was this because Jonah thought he would die in the sea for his disobedience in seeking to go to Tarshish rather than Nineveh? Certainly our disobedience to divine commands--even if we do not have the prophetic gift enjoyed (or thrust upon?) Jonah--renders us worthy of death. If so, Jonah's prayer can be seen as expressing the hope of resurrection.

Indeed, God was merciful to Jonah in having the fish vomit him out onto the dry land. But it is also a reminder of how God is generally merciful to us. We may scoff at those who suddenly "get religion" when they are in danger; or note that whereas there are no atheists in foxholes, many seem to be made when soldiers discharged from their service. Yet Jacques Ellul once observed that in both this chapter and the preceding one, we see how God takes the fears, anxieties, and terrors faced by his elect with the utmost seriousness.

But our passage also speaks of a stubborn faith that does not give up even in the most hopeless of situations (such as being eaten alive by some great sea creature). "Hope maketh not ashamed", Paul wrote to the Roman Christians (Rom. 5:5). Indeed, because of the resurrection of Christ which Jonah's rescue typifies, we know that there is one more powerful even than death itself, and we are invited to put our trust in him.

Thoughts on Jonah--Things Fall Apart

But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So his shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call uon thy God, if so that God will think upon us, that we perish not. (Jonah 1:4-6)

Jonah has gone way off course. God wanted him to go east, but the prophet has chosen to go west. In doing this, he causes great loss to himself and to those with whom he travels. But in this, the Holy Spirit teaches us that trouble is often God's way of waking us from our carelessness and slumbers. In Jonah's case, "slumbers" can be taken in both the idiomatic and literal sense!

We are taught that God is sovereign. Here, this is shown by his control of the winds and waves. "Who is this, whom even winds and waves obey?" asked the apostles of Christ when they saw Jesus still the storm on the sea of Galilee. But here, we see God raising rather than stilling the storm when his prophet disobeys.

But not only Jonah needs to be awakened from his pre-dogmatic slumbers!

The sailors appear to be either heathens, who have long been accustomed to worship false gods, or Israelites seduced away from the divine covenant. Their reaction to danger is to call on their various gods to save them, even as they cast their cargo overboard to lighten the ship.

This is instructive. Probably, the sailors were Phoenicians, those intrepid traders and explorers of the ancient Mediterraneans; and the Old Testament gives little indication of the Israelites having seafaring proclivities. Indeed, it seesm that Solomon's ships of Ophir were manned by crews provided by his ally Hiram of Tyre, a Phoenician ruler. The Phoenicians were a folk eager for gain, and no port from the Levant to the southwestern corner of Britain--where tin was to be had--was ignorant of them. One Phoenician mariner, Hanno, was even the first to circumnavigate Africa. Yet these famed traders are willing to sacrifice their material wealth in the form of their trade goods in danger, even while they cling to their gods.

Nothing else so clearly reveals man as a a worshiping creature. This is evident even today, in those who claim to be "free" of religious taint. None have been so fanatically purposive in the pursuit of pleasing their gods as those who call themselves "athesits"--meaning that they disbelieve in the Christian God. Communists have made great sacrifices in the service of what Arnold Toynbee once called the goddess Historical Necessity. Others, in the name of the goddes Liberty, have made themselves into the worst of tyrants. Nietsche drove himself insane (perhaps aided by syphilis) in his search for a Godless intellectual integrity.
This has been the case with man since Jonah's Phoenician shipmates cast their costly goods into the sea down to the present day. It is no wonder then that many a Christian theologian has concluded that the worshiping impulse is one great evidence of man being created after the image of God.

Yet, oddly enough, while his shipmates worship their gods and sacrifice their livelihoods, Jonah is asleep. "It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so he giveth his beloved sleep," says Psalm 127:2. Perhaps Jonah is an odd perversion of this great truth, for he sleeps as he flees God's mission and his companions are in danger. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the sinful complacency and silence of the church in too many ages! People perish without hope of salvation, yet we remain asleep. It takes the heathen captain's intervention to rouse God's prophet from his slumber.

The military chaplains say that there are no atheists in foxholes. The behavior of Jonah's shipmates is instructive. In crisis, man seeks God. But will those who have the truth be there to help them?

Thoughts on Jonah--the Runaway Prophet

ow the word of the LORD came unto JOnah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the far thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish, from the presence of the LORD.
(Jonah 1:1-3)

The book of Jonah is a short portion of Scripture, but extremely rich. The village atheists of the naive, innocent early 20th century era loved to attack it for its great "fish story", only to be answered by a barrage of "answers" from our side about how known fish or whales of various species were indeed capable of holding a man inside them. But the book is far deeper and more wonderful as a tale of divine grace meeting the recalcitrance and folly of man--especially in its reminder that the purposes of God are far larger than human sin; and not changed or derailed because we refuse to cooperate.

Apart from the book that bears his name, Jonah is mentioned only in a few citations in the New Testament and II Kings 14:26. In II Kings, he is said to have prophesied that the borders of Israel would be restored, which happens under Jeroboam ben Joash (not to be confused with Jeroboam ben Nebat).

Jonah thus received the blessing to know that God was prepared to preserve and aid his people even in a dark, sinful, and thoroughly unworthy time. Jeroboam ben Joash, it is said, "departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin"--specifically, an idolatry repeating the infamous episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-20; I Kings 12:28-30), as if the people and their leaders learned no lessons from the past. Yet in those days, God was nonetheless willing to rescue and restore part of Israel's patrimony by an unworthy instrument. And, in those days, a prophet who recognized the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob arose to foretell such an event--Jonah the son of Amittai.

In the book of Jonah, Jonah receives a second call from God:

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1:2).

Yet Jonah, instead of heading northeast towards Nineveh, flees to the coast and takes a ship to Tarshish--lands at the Western end of the Mediterranean--in exactly the opposite direction from that which God ordered.

It is easy to be hard on Jonah at this point. How many of us think in our hearts that, had we been in Jonah's sandals, we would have gladly heeded the divine call! We glibly envision ourselves striding boldly out the gates of some Israelite city, Scripture under one arm and staff in hand, ready to speak mightily against a sinful heathen city in northern Mesopotamia!

But let us pause. The Assyrians, the people whose capital Nineveh was, were a fierce and dangerous people. One author has described them as the storm troopers of antiquity. Archaeology has uncovered their monuments and literature, in which they boast of impaling men alive and smashing in the heads of children after conquering an enemy city. After conquering most of Mesopotamia and Aram (today's Syria), could they be expected to heed the rantings of a wandering Israelite? Could Jonah, accustomed to being the patriotic prophet of restoration, welcome the mission to speak to a people whom his own people hated and feared?

In 1940, the Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa went to prison for openly expressing remorse and apologies for his country's invasion and occupation of much of the Republic of China--at a time when China was still fighting. On his release, he went to the United States in an ultimately futile attempt to short-circuit the path towards war on which both Japan and the USA were already travelling. Certain American pastors went to Japan for the same purpose, and similarly failed. But Kagawa and his American counterparts in 1940 are exceptional cases, and remembered as giants for their determined pursuit of peace. They are remarkable for how few of their kind arose in those perilous times.

Similarly, we remember the Dietrich Bonhoffers, the Wang Mingdao's, the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns who bravely stood up in Christ's name against the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism. But again, if faced with a similar situation, would not most of us prefer to acquiesce, to go along and get along?

The refrain of these first verses of the book are that Jonah went away "from the presence of the LORD". This warns us that we must guard against self-righteousness and complacence. As we walk before God, we must adopt a posture of humility; as we deal with our fellow humans, we must cultivate both humility and charity--difficult gifts when we deal with many whom we are predisposed to see as enemies. If one who enjoyed the prophetic gift could flee from the presence of the LORD, how much more can the rest of us?

Thoughts on Jonah

For the next several postings, I will return to my earlier work on Jonah. I apologize for the bits and pieces of meditation that appeared scattered among other musings, and will repost the earlier work to allow readers an easier time following the thoughts I have had on this small but momentous book.

Also, while the political season has begun, this Christian rightist will back off a bit--not least because Jonah has provided some important lessons. True, I probably won't support Mr. Obama's re-election. True, I remain critical of what the current administration has been doing. And I remain an unreconstructed partisan on one side of the culture wars now going on. But there are some more important things to consider.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

America's Spineless Leadership in Government and Media

In answering Afghan rioting over the burning of a Qur'an in Florida, America's leadership has shown itself inept, foolish, and ambivalent towards the Constitution its officers are supposedly sworn to uphold.

President Karzai of Afghanistan has loudly demanded an official apology for Pastor Terry Jones' burning of the Qur'an, and apparently welcomes the rioting of his people in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sherif. He also seems to think that the killing of UN personnel in the latter place is somehow excusable. Our own executive branch officers from President Obama to Secretary of State Clinton to General Petraeus all believe that Mr. Jones' action is somehow responsible for the reactions in Afghanistan. Even honorable members of the House of Representatives aand Senate have jumped on the "get Jones" bandwagon.

Uncle Cephas is too much a child of Milton's _Aereopagitica_ to condone the burning of any book, even Hitler's _Mein Kampf_ and _Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong_. But, for once, ire directed at the hitherto obscure Terry Jones, the revered leader of a group of perhaps fifty or sixty people in an obscure corner of Florida, should be directed elsewhere. Further, the US government needs to seize an important "teaching moment".

All officers of the US government are required to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, the press, and the free exercise of religion. It should be more than clear that Mr. Jones in no way represents the position of the US Government, for churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are independent entities under US law.
Further, the same Free Speech rights which Mr. Jones exercised in burning the Qur'an also protect Muslim imams who call the Jews relatives of apes and pigs; Roger Baldwin when he hoped for the day when the last senator would be strangled with the guts of the last preacher; Mr. Obama's beloved Saul Alinsky when he encouraged the poor of the land to put intolerable demands on "the system"; Mr. Obama's friend Bill Ayres; and his Troofer friend Van Jones who propagates the lie that former President Bush's own administration was behind the fall of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attack. It permits calls for the abolition of the establishment clause of the same Amendment when Muslims in the USA call for the adoption of Sharia. The Obama administration needs to remind the world and itself that an obscure Pentecostal preacher is protected by the First Amendment no less than the American Nazis marching in Skokie, Malcolm X, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, and all other "discrete and insular minorities".

The US Government might also do well to remind Muslim mobs worldwide that the backlash represented by Mr. Jones would never have happened had noteworthy imams and 'Ulema condended the 9/11 attacks as mass-murder and found themselves mightily echoed by their followers in the streets rather than crowing about American comeuppance on 9/11. dancing in the streets, and passing out candy--only to turn around and whimper how it was all the fault of the JOOOOOOZ as soon as its "strong horse" Osama Bin Laden had to start ducking cutter bombs. Indeed, had the Islamic world shown an inkling of responsible thought and behavior, Mr. Jones' actions against Islam probably would not have gone beyond the usual verbal polemics.

Further, the Islamic world is in absolutely no position to lecture the USA about how to treat a minority religion. In Pakistan, Christian girls are regularly abducted, raped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to their assailants. The Copts of Egypt and Assyirans of Iraq, the true indigenous populations of those lands, are being squeezed out of their homelands. Within living memory Iraq--the burial place of several biblical prophets, the land of the Babylonian Talmud, and Judaism's second homeland, where prayers in Hebrew were heard a full millennium before the Arabic azzan was heard anywhere--has been rendered jundenrein. Turkey rid itself of indigenous Christian minorities in the 1920's, has all but rid itself of its last Jews, and dares to be dismayed when a small Evangelical Christian population of former Muslims appears in its midst. In Indonesia, Christian schoolgirls have been beheaded in Sulawesi, while areas of Sumatra attempt to make all public expression of Christianity illegal. Syria teeters on the brink of civil war between Sunni and Alawi; has rid itself of an ancient Jewish community, and continues to squeeze its shrinking Christian population. In Karzai's own Afghanistan, apostasy from Islam is still a capital crime.

Worse, the major US media, beneficiaries of the First Amendment, condemn Jones' action without a single thought for the disproportionate rage of the Muslim street. Could it be because Mr. Jones is probably of the wrong political persuasion, or, more likely, our media moghuls really play it safe in choosing their targets? All around, official reaction to Jones' action had been utterly disgraceful.

Call Mr. Jones a yokel. Call him a crackpot. Call him deluded. But don't blame him for the disproportionate reactions of foreign Muslim streets to his actions. The responsibility for such extremism lies completely in the hands of the people of those streets and their own leaders.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Foreign Policy Keystone Cops

Two issues irk me about the current administration's foreign policy, both of which underscore the Administration's ability to consider American interest.

One, of course, is the Libyan intervention. Uncle Cephas does not believe that any vital American interest is at stake, not even oil. And, if the Europeans are more dependend on Libyan oil, it would be no skin off their teeth to simply wait for the dust to settle and deal with whoever ends up in power, whether some rebel coalition or a triumphant Qaddafi.

And did not Candidate Obama fiercely criticize Dubya Bush for a reckless foreign policy? Is there no apology in the offing?

The humanitarian argument doesn't wash at all. Our sophisticated, humanitarian European allies who are all weepy over a bunch of rag-tag Qaida sympathizers from eastern Libya may have slapped a few sanctions on Mainland China after 1989, but went back to business as usual with that very effective tyranny after a decent interval. As for the rebels themselves, they pin a Magen David on Qaddafi's image before torching it, suggesting that they are no more evolved in their view of the rest of the world than Qaddafi himself. Will Qaddaffi unleash a bloodbath if he wins? Of course. But Uncle Cephas is pretty certain that the rebels have their own little list, probably headed by the people who waved the Cross of St. Andrew to welcome home the Lockerbie bomber--but these folks will get killed not for supporting terror, but for openly displaying a Christian symbol.

But there is something worse.

A Florida yokel preacher by the name of Jones wanted to burn a Qur'an in protest against the manifold sins of Islam. Indeed, the whole Christian world has a gripe against the world of Islam for a string of anti-Christian crimes ranging from usurpation of holy sites in the Middle Ages to the murder of Christian Pakistani cabinet ministers who voice concerns over unfair applications of Pakistan's blasphemy laws (usually against impoverished Christian farmers in Panjab who object to the rape of their daughters or theft of land by Muslim squatters). When Mr. Jones first broached the possibility of this act, the whole force of Washington's political elite came down on him, warning him of the drastic repercussions such an act would have. Jones simply waited a few months, and went on with his plan.

Well, Uncle Cephas is too much an heir of Milton's _Aereopagita_ to condone book-burning, and doesn't even burn books by Marx, Mao, or Hitler, whom Uncle Cephas sees as monstrous criminals. But that is not the main point.

Our government let slip an enormous teaching opportunity. Every elected or appointed official of the US Government is expected to swear an oath to uphold the US Constitution. That document included the First Amendment, which recognizes rights of free exercise of religion and free speech. It protects the publishers of the hate-blinded Malcolm X's autobiography. It protects second-hand bookstores that sell ratty copies of Eldridge Cleaver's _Soul on Ice_ or the screeds of Saul Alinsky. it protects Muslim imams who tells their flocks that Jews are the kin of apes and pigs, and that violent jihad is the duty of every Muslim (as long as nobody acts on the latter). It also protects Mr. Jones' right to burn a copy of the Qur'an.

Since this action, Afghanistan's Muhammad Karzai has demanded that Jones be "brought to justice" for such blasphemy, as if Sharia was part of the US Constitution. Muslim mobs in various parts of the Islamic world have attacked targets identified as "Christian", whether the long-suffering indigenous Dhimmi populations of Iraq and Egypt or UN compounds in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Yet where is a single administration spokesperson who had spoken up to remind the world that the US enshrines free speech in its Constitution?

The Obama administration has gone from exaggerated deference to European and Muslim sensibilities to thoughtless and potentially coslty intervention too quickly. Now, however, it adds to its stumblings a lost opportunity to remind the world of some of the things for which the US stands.