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Friday, September 30, 2011

Reading Revelation

Our adult Sunday School class is working its way through the book of Revelation. Last week, we read the fifth chapter.

I came away from the study thinking that John's purpose is showing the Lord Jesus Christ as the proper focus for worship. The angels, living creatures, and elders before Christ's throne fall before him crying, "Worthy is the Lamb!" This is an echo of the doxology sung to the Father in Chapter 4. Jesus Christ, slain for our sins as the Lamb of God, risen and glorified, shares worship with the father, his seven horns (symbols of power) and eyes sending for the Spirit. Few other passages of Scripture underscore that Jesus Christ is God.

Jesus in Glory is not only the Son of Man figure from Daniel 7, whom we see again in Revelation 1. He is also the sacrifice for our sins. John's description of Jesus as the Lamb of God in both John 1 and Revelation 5 cannot have confused his earliest readers, who, as Jews living when the ministry of the Jerusalem Temple was still a living memory, would have known of its animal sacrifices, especially the ritual killing of the Passover lambs. The adored one who is worthy is the one whose shed blood covers the sins of his people and renders them worthy to approach and worship.

Jesus is also the one worthy to open the book with seven seals. What is this book? I take it as a symbol of the whole Scripture. This is because no other book of Scripture is as rich with reference to other portions of the Bible than Revelation. I remember Mormon missionaries during my youth who argued passionately that John's warnings in Revelation 22:18-19 referred only to John's own work. Yet this cannot possibly be true when Revelation shows a heavenly figure measuring the temple and those worshiping therein as in revelation; Jesus describing himself as beginning and end as YHWH does in Isaiah; the reminder of the covenanted community's status as kings and priests as mentioned in Exodus; worship scenes reminiscent of the building of Solomon's Temple and the Book of Psalms; strange beasts as in Daniel; and mention of the death and resurrection of Jesus as in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. John knew what he was doing: he was putting the capstone on Scripture, and reading the whole through his knowledge of Jesus slain for our sins and triumphant over sin and death.

Perhaps the reason why our witness today lacks power is that our exposition of apocalyptic ignores the Gospel of Christ's finished work. Heaven sings in triumph before Jesus who shed his blood for sinners and conquered death for them. We on earth tremble and quake, as if we have no hope to share with those around us. May God forgive us.

The image reproduced above is the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck.

Anwar al-Awlaki's Death

The news of Anwar al-Awlaki's death from an American drone strike provokes a storm of soul-searching over whether the president can order this kind of "assassination" (in ROn Paul's words) of a US citizen. While Uncle Cephas has never been a fan of Barack Obama, and probably won't vote for him in 2012, Uncle Cephas still believes that the president deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one.

What's wrong with you, American liberals? The head of the ACLU, Dean of Yale Law School, and all others uncomfortable about this action are cordially invited to go to the deserts of Yemen or mountains of Waziristan to serve the appropriate summons the next time an American-born terrorist plots an ongoing set of terrorist actions against American civilian targets--or, military ones, for that matter.

We are still in the midst of Mr. Bush's war, begun after consultations with Congress in the aftermath of 9/11/01, and it is now Mr. Obama's war. While Anwar al-Awlaki was born in the USA, and hence legally a US citizen, his actions, blogs, and statements leave the impression that he did not wish to be considered an American. Indeed, his influence on people like Nidal Hassan and other Islamic terrorists in the USA leave no doubt that he wished to inflict serious, act-of-war harm on the country where he was born.

Granted, this does not negate his legal citizenship. But there are a number of circumstances that are parallel to the Obama administration's actions. Given that immigrants to and emigrants from the USA take residence in other countries--including, as in the Awlaki case, return to countries of origin--there are doubtlessly enemy casualties from World War II, especially German and Italian, who were technically US citizens. If an American-born criminal were to enter an American school anywhere inside the territory of the USA and start shooting people, and, if an armed policeman happened to find himself in a position to gun down the shooter, would anyone condemn the officer of the law? The state exists to discourage and punish evil behavior. The declaration of Jihad by some Muslims against all Americans is a behavior against which any American administration would be required to protect the citizenry. In taking out Anwar al-Awlaki, the Obama administration simply did its duty.

Frankly, if it had been possible to serve an arrest warrant and read Miranda rights to the likes of Usama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki before leading them off in handcuffs, that would have been much better. But, once again, all the agonized consciences out there are cordially invited, the next-time an American-born terrorist joins a war against his country from a haven outside the USA (especially a failed state on the order of Yemen), to hop on a plane with the appropriate legal paperwork, carry out the arrest, carry out the extraction, and deliver the culprit to the appropriate American jurisdiction.

And you've heard it from someone who still says, "No 'Bama '012!"

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bible vs. Qur'an on Violence.

Often, when discussing ferment in the Islamic world, people near anad dear to me say, "The Bible and Christian fundamentalists are just as bad as anything the Dar-ul-Islam can produce." It's a sentiment that grates on me, if only because it reveals a profound ignorance of both the Qur'an and the Bible. It reflects a profound, and even willfully studied, ignorance of the Biblical and Christian influences on Western legal, moral, and political thought and reflects a profound desire to find one's most dangerous enemies at hand (among fellow Americans of the Christian fundamentalist persuasion) rather than face, a long-term existential threat from abroad.
The moral equivalence game is a case of Christianity’s “cultured despisers” who since Marx and Freud have consistently declared all theisms to be equally false joining hands with those nominally Christian elements who lightly declare all theisms equally true, while ignoring the real gaps between Christianity and Islam.
Unfortunately, I have not seen many good blog postings addressing these differences. Worse, many Christians who attempt to do so often take a wrong approach and end up disparaging important parts of their own tradition and faith. Hence, Uncle Cephas takes up the gauntlet. This essay will focus on the question of violence in the scriptures of the two religions.
(I) Grace for Sinners
The first issue is the attitude which the two religions attempt (with or without success is another matter) to inculcate in their followers. Christianity values humility, Islam encourages pride.
As a Christian fundamentalist himself, Uncle Cephas readily admits that Christian fundamentalists can be as bad as any group of Muslims. But the reason for this is that it is a biblical "fundamental" of his creed that we are all conceived in sin (Psalm 51), sin from birth (Psalm 58), and that our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). Confession of sin and repentance are part of both daily personal worship and corporate worship on all Lord's Days for most who call themselves Christians. No wonder that one of the most common objections against Christianity that I have heard is that it doesn't let us think very highly of ourselves! Our salvation is not a careful balancing so our good deeds outweigh our bad, for in such a “balancing act”, our sins would invariably outweigh our supposed merits. We confess the necessity of Christ's coming, atonement, and resurrection for our salvation--precisely because God's grace has allowed us to see the deep-seated evil of all human hearts, including our own.
In contrast, if I have heard the Da'wa people correctly, Islam denies that there is any such thing as original sin; and Adam's transgression affects only himself. The Qur'an congratulates Muslims on being "the best of peoples" (Surah 3:110--Al'-Imran). If this is indeed the self-image that Islam inculcates, a serious Christian can only see it as flippant.
The Gospel is not a code, but news: news of the saving work which God has done in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said of his work, “the Son of Man [a Messianic title taken from Daniel 7] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The death of Jesus Christ is necessary for our salvation in that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). This was why Adam and Eve covering themselves with leaves after their transgression did not suffice; and God made for them garments of skins (Gen. 3:21). This is why the laws of Moses have a detailed system of animal sacrifices described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, to which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews refers.
Further, the blood of sinful man atones for no sin. This, not a divine decision to outlaw human sacrifice per se, lies behind the test of Abraham found in Genesis 22. The atoning blood must come from one who is sinless—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ. When John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, declared “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), he was not calling Jesus a cute little animal, but calling attention to how the Messiah came to be the final sacrifice offered for sins; for the lamb was the animal most used in the Old Testament’s sacrificial system.
But the Gospel is not only about death. It is also about the victory Jesus won for us not only in bearing our sin and making atonement for us on the cross, but also in rising from the dead. If Jesus was not truly risen, writes the apostle Paul, our faith is in vain, and we are of all men the most to be pitied (I Corinthians 15:14). But Christ’s resurrection shows that he now has dominion over all things, for the sake of his people.
Yes, Christians are called to do the good works defined in the moral law. But this is not to accumulate merit; rather it is to express gratitude for what God has done.
It is in the light of this, the final revelation of God to man, that Christians read the whole of divine revelation given in the Old and New Testaments.
(I) Scriptural Violence: A wrong approach
The moral equivalence people are correct to note that both the Old Testament and the Qur'an include a plan for political and military conquest of lands. Much of the Octateuch (the biblical books from Genesis through Ruth) is taken up with a blueprint for the conquest of Canaan, including bone-chilling commands to thoroughly exterminate the Canaanites, which even John Calvin himself, that bugaboo of all liberals, theological or anti-theistic, spoke of this as a frightening decree. In these sexually liberated days, it is also popular to note that the Torah decrees death for such sexual sins such as adultery and homosexuality.
Usually, modern Christian apologists speak of a "higher morality" in the New Testament than in the Old, correctly noting that Jesus' final marching orders to his followers are to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20) rather than to march through the land on an extermination campaign. This is often accompanied by an appeal to some kind of spiritual evolution between the times of Moses and those of Christ.
Yet this disparages the only Bible Jesus ever read while he “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14) and was training his twelve disciples. In the Gospels, Jesus neither scorns nor disparages the Old Testament. The image of Jesus as a more highly evolved spirit or rebel against the Old Testament's "primitive" or "unworthy" character has nothing at all to do with what the apostles of Christ, the earliest church fathers, or Jesus himself had to say; but it does have a lot to do with a bacillus which the modern church caught from a number of often fiercely anti-Semitic German academic critics active in the 19th and early 20th centuries--and thank God that He preserved some "fundamentalists" who refused to accept the "assured findings" of such men!
The often unreflective acceptance of the New Testament as a "higher stage" than the Old in distinguishing Christian ethics and beliefs from those of Islam also serves to obscure profound differences between the Old Testament's theology, spirituality, anthropology, and ethics on the one hand and those of the Qur'an on the other.
Many portions of the Octateuch catalogue sins of the Canaanites, which the Israelites were forbidden to practice. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 lists sins of spritism, necromancy, and witchcraft; Leviticus 18 gives a list of forbidden marriages (generally defining the sin of incest), in the midst of which we also find a prohibition against burning one’s children in honor of Molech. It was for such sins that the Canaanites were to be dispossessed. Yet God, in his mercy, reserved a portion of the Canaanite nation for himself. Such, no doubt, was Melchizedek, to whom Abraham offered a tithe of the spoils of the war he waged against the kings of the east in order to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen. 14). When God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, he was told that he could not inherit it himself, “for the sins of the Amorites [also known as Canaanites] was not full (Genesis 15:16). This “filling up” of the sins of Canaan occurred some time later, shortly before the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.
Yet a surprising lack of self-righteous self-congratulation appears in Hebrew Scripture. The land was not given to the Israelites on account of their own righteousness. Deuteronomy 6-9 reminds them that they were a stiff-necked people, and that God was remembering his promise to their forefathers. Further, should the conquest tempt Israel to boast of its own prowess and might, or should Israel fall into the selfsame sins of the Canaanites, Israel itself would perish from the land (Dt. 8:19).
Indeed, Israel is repeatedly warned in Numbers and Deuteronomy that it would be punished for the sins committed by the Canaanites. The sin is a sin regardless of who commits it; and not even those chosen by God are exempt from the curses of the moral law. This should always been considered whenever the ban on Canaan is read—for, potentially, Israel may also find itself under a similar ban.
(II) A Unique Event and the Flow of Biblical History
The following Old Testament history and prophecy reveals the unfolding of Israel’s apostasy and punishment. The prophets arose as God’s prosecuting attorneys, reminding the Israelites of their sins against the covenant which God had made with them. Yet throughout the history of the Hebrew kings, there is the depressing refrain that “he walked in the all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat …wherewith he made Israel to sin” (I Kings 16:26).
The end of all this was that the Assyrians and Babylonians came down on Israel and Judah, destroying their kingdoms and exiling their peoples. Isaiah spoke of the invading Assyrian as the “rod of God’s anger” (Isaiah 10:5 ff.). Covenant-breaking not only destroyed the people of Canaan, but destroyed ancient Israel and Judah as well, exactly as Moses had warned.
Thus, the horrific command to exterminate the Canaanites can be understood only in the context of the whole of Old Testament history; a sacred history inspired by the Holy Spirit himself. The ban on Canaan is not an eternal instruction on how to wage war, but a warning that certain nations and men can become so hardened in sin that they must be swept out of the way. Perhaps this is a judgment to be left to the Almighty, since we do not today possess prophets (and those who claim to be such in our time sooner or later tend to prove themselves false). It is not at all a call to put aside all compassion, but it does remind us that God does execute his judgments in time and space, and that today, as then, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7).
The ban against the Canaanites is a reminder that God is judge not only of individual souls, but over whole nations and peoples. Nor do God’s judgments spare his own people. This should remain a practical warning even to Christian peoples in the period since the coming of the Messiah Jesus. If we are careless or scoffing towards what God has revealed to us, our churches also may be destroyed, as Jesus himself warns in Revelation 1-3. Perhaps the blight of Islam over much territory that once was the cradle of Christianity, or the degeneration of once great churches in Europe in our own time may well be a more recent out-working of the same warnings which God gave to ancient Israel. The lesson is not to engage of a self-righteous love of war and punishment, but to seek God’s forgiveness and cleansing.
(III) Conlcusion
The extermination of the Canaanites was a unique event in Scripture; not the blueprint for just war in all ages. Indeed, the bulk of Scripture, Old Testament as well as New, praises the man of peace and calls us to seek it. Christians therefore are not to disparage the command to exterminate the Canaanites as “inferior” or “less evolved”, but to recognize in it the fearfulness of God’s wrath against sin, and to therefore rejoice that God chose to deal with us in mercy, through Jesus Christ, who bore the wrath and curse of the broken covenant in his own body on the tree.
Further, it is proclamation of the “good news” (evangellion in Greek), ethical example, and prayer that are the spiritual weapons which God gives his church for the subduing of nations; not sword and spear. The command to exterminate the Canaanites is to be remembered in humble recognition of divine justice; but the latest marching orders the church possesses call not for the extermination of nations, but that they may be made disciples (Matthew 28:19-20).
This is a stark contrast to the place of violence in the Qur’an. It is true that many Muslims prefer to read the command to jihad as an inner struggle to purify oneself; but no school of Islamic thought rules out aggressive, violent jihad as a means to spread the faith and the subsequent humiliation, oppression, and exploitation of the conquered.
At most, the holy war ideal in the Bible and Qur’an are only superficially similar. But underneath, they reveal a very different understanding of the relationship of God and man. The Qur’an calls for pride and self-righteousness; the Scriptures—even in their “scariest” verses, call for humility.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Tale of Social Contract

Meet George Buchanan!

George Buchanan was 16th century Scottish humanist, scholar, religious reformer, and tutor to the young King James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England). He was a pioneer of social contract theory almost a century before John Locke was born. He was also second moderator of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, the only layman to hold such a post. He knew John Knox in his later years, and was comforted toawrds the end of his long life by none less than his friend Andrew Melville--the selfsame cleric who reminded King James that the monarch was nothing but "God's silly [small] vassal."

This site is one where you can view King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) as a boy. He was Dr. Buchanan's student. Although Dr. Buchanan advocated rule of law and political compact (an older word for social contract), King James grew up to be a strong supporter of royal absolutism--or, the belief that kings must answer only to God.

Once, when James was around twelve years of age, he did not want to do his Latin lessons. He got saucy with Dr. Buchanan. Dr. Buchanan, in good, 16th century pedagogical style, took a birch rod to the young, royal backside.

The young King James then went complaining to his step-mother, the Countess of Mar (actually, some stepmothers in days of old, were actually kind). The COuntess of Mar was indignant, and stormed into the royal classroom.

"How dare you strike the Lord's Anoitned" The Countess cried, wagging a nobly-born finger at Dr. Buchanan.

Dr. Buchanan looked up from the book before him. "Madam," he said, "I have whipped his arse; you may kiss it if you please."

There are two morals to this story:
(1) Social contract whipped royal absolutism.
(2) Even kings have to do their homework!

James VI and I as a booy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Old but Important Article for 9.11

For 9/11, here is an article that is some years old, but nonetheless very relevant to the crisis at hand. While it is clear that not all Muslims support a jihad against the United States, it is important that Americans remember that the 9/11 attacks were carried out as an act of jihad; and for our policy makers to recognize the importance of the doctrine of jihad to our current enemies.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Undiplomtatic Activity in Egypt

I fear that the Egyptian mob actions show that all governments are representative of their peoples, whether they intend to be or not; and that people's theologies matter.

John Adams famously said that the US Constitution was made for a moral and religious people, and would work for none other. The religiosity he understood was that bounded by the Anglican Church on the Right and his own Unitarians (still biblically oriented in his day, rather than the free-form faith we know today) on the Left, with the Reformed (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Dutch and German Reformed) right in the middle; and a few sprinklings of Roman Catholics and Jews. Indeed, he spoke after two centuries of agitation for rule of law and checks on the balances of kings, which, in his Anglophone context, meant the politics of the more thoroughly Reformed persuasion. This stemmed from a deep humility about what human nature was after the Fall of Adam, and a corollary that, rather than have Leviathan grab all power and right to prevent the war of all against all (viz. Hobbes), no set of human hands should ever have too much political power.

In the Muslim lands, it seems that there is a choice only between strongmen and uncontrolled mobs. The strongmen, when they take power, must pander to the supremacism, hatred, and violence of the Muslim street lest they open the way for new strongmen to come and topple them. This is why Sadat was assassinated and why Mubarak prudently allowed the government-controlled media to spew venom.

Islam lacks a doctrine of original sin and holds its followers to be "the best of men". Hence, it can never conceive of Muslims truly wronging the Kufr, and when things go wrong, it causes people to ask "Who did this to us?" rather than "Where did we go wrong?" Add to this, its ethics represent a standard far below that of either Judaism or Christianity; as if fearing the charge of hypocrisy, it sanctified the lust, greed for plunder, and violence of at least the males among its members. Hence, it will sooner or later injure itself and blame another.

It is clear from this incident that the peace between Israel and Egypt, while sincere at the official level when Sadat made it, was sincerely greeted by the populace of only the Israeli side.

I also suspect that after the mob driving out the Israeli embassy, the Obama administration's use of good offices to secure the rescue and evacuation of the last Israeli diplomats will further enrage the Egyptian Muslim street. it may very well decide that it has the power to seize the US Embassy in Cairo, and precipitate a new major crisis between the USA and the Muslim world.

The apologetic tone Obama took towards the Muslim world at Cairo may thus prove repetitive of the Carter administration's stance towards the Pahlavi regime in Iran, and with the same unhappy results.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Experience, the best Teacher

They often tell you that experience is the best teacher, but they never tell you why.

I'm a professional swindler--oops, public high school social studies teacher--and I know something about how people learn. If a kid comes into my class interested in learning something about the subject matter, willing to listen, and willing to open the book, I or any other fool can teach him.

But then there's Mr. Experience--his job is to teach those who neither listen to their elders nor read. Their number is legion, and they can't learn from anyone else.