Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Far as the Curse is Found: Celebrating Christmas in a World of Terror

I believe all of the Bible is God's inspired Word, but of all the books it contains, I personally love Isaiah the most!

Its beautiful literary structure is unmatched among his Biblical contemporaries.  His clarity and boldness in a context of people who found his words difficult to believe is refreshing and timely.  And the hope he describes--a hope that transcends his own day and is easily applicable to our own--is the reason I turn so often to this phenomenal piece of Divinely-inspired ancient wisdom.  And this is never more true than at Christmastime.

Our family celebrates Advent in our home every year, and I have purposefully kept us between the pages of Isaiah this year.  A couple of weeks ago, we were focused on the theme of "peace," and my 10-year-old son was given the assignment of reading from Isaiah 16:1-5.  Its a beautiful foretelling of a coming end to oppression.  In its immediate context, the prophet is speaking of the Moabites eventually seeking shelter, peace, and protection among God's people.  But this is a peace that comes as a result of a not-yet-established throne.  It is a throne that will be occupied by a descendant of David.  In other words, the peace that will come to the people of Judah will ultimately come from a Kingdom not yet manifest on earth.

The wider context of this passage (chapters 13-23) supports this by discouraging reliance on any other foreign powers.  Indeed, the main thrust of Isaiah's message to the people of his own day was quite simple:  Trust in the Lord for your security.  Do not trust in foreign alliances.

Something tells me that's a relevant subject for our own day.

We live in a world that is permeated with violence and terror.  Elementary schools get shot up in this world.  Christmas parties get interrupted with bloodshed in this world.  Movie theaters are attacked in this world.  And in the wake of every tragedy, our culture cries out for prevention.  How can we keep this from ever happening again?

Its an understandable question, but one that ultimately has no answer in this temporal world.  To be sure, precautions can be taken, vigilance can be assumed, and laws can even be passed that might help minimize the carnage.  But you can't legislate away the evil hearts which are the origin of these barbarous actions.  And evil hearts aren't confined only in the bodies of a few people who own guns, or a few others who follow radical Islam.  There is one present in each of us.

Yet still, we think the solution is to rely on alliances with certain methodologies and those who subscribe to them.  More recent discussions have revealed this to be an ever-present theme in this upcoming election year.  One party thinks banning guns is the answer.  The other party wants to ban Muslims--keep any more from coming into our country.  (I'm still waiting on someone to suggest banning white guys from movie theaters and public schools, but haven't heard that call just yet.  But I digress.)

And these ideologies teach us that there is a fine line between healthy vigilance and irrational fear.  Vigilance is good and wise.  Fear that moves us to place our ultimate trust in something other than God is useless, and sometimes can motivate us to do things to others that are, candidly, antiChrist.

And why do we behave in such ways?  Because we fall prey to the same sense of false security that was possessed by those in 8th century B.C. Judah.  We may have smart phones and cable news, but where human nature is concerned, it would appear not much has changed in the last 2800 years.

So perhaps when we read a book like Isaiah, we should see our reflection.  To a people that looked to political savy, and the right international relationships to forge security, Isaiah's message was clear for at least ten straight chapters.  Both Babylon and her king would crash like a star from heaven (Chapter 14).  Philistia will be undone from within (Chapter 14).  Moab will be stripped of her resources (Chapter 15).  Damascus will diminish into a heap of ruin (Chapter 17).  Cush will be quickly and suddenly defeated (Chapter 18).  Egypt's power will wane to the point of impotency (Chapter 19.)  Tyre will be reduced to a fishing village surrounded by rubble (Chapter 23).  One by one, as if marking off a regional map, the prophet says to God's people "that nation won't help you.  Those people can't protect you."  And the destruction doesn't stop until Jerusalem herself is consumed.

What is the lesson?  The only real security God's people have is God Himself.  And when we put our ultimate trust in other things--laws, restrictions, national security, alliances with others who promise to keep us safe--God reminds us that eventually, each of these will fail us.

So where does hope come from in an age of terror?

Politics?  "My" candidate will be elected, and he/she will protect me!  Yeah, if you are looking for security from any political leader, you're probably better off just finding a bed to hide under.

The military?  We have the best fighting force in the history of humanity, and I'm very grateful for the men and women who volunteer to defend our nation.  But let's be honest.  They can't protect us from everything.  In fact, if it happens in the homeland, they aren't supposed to!

Geography?  Perhaps there is someone reading this thinking to themselves; "but Joel lives near Washington, D.C.  I don't live there, or in New York, or Los Angeles.  No one even knows I'm here!  My inconspicuousness will be my security!"  Not so fast.  There are only 3000 people living in Bart Township PA, but the nondescript nature of that area did nothing to stop Charles Roberts from opening fire on a school in 2006.  Low population areas are just as prone to violence.

Laws?  "Maybe we should just ban guns."  Most firearms are already banned in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Ask those cities how that's working out for them as they try to curb violence.  Talk to the residents of Paris and ask them whether a gun ban guarantees protection.  I'm not averse to a discussion about how to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but let's not kid ourselves by thinking we can take away any chance of violence by passing a law.  Conversely, while a lot of liberals would like to ban guns, too many conservatives are seriously musing about banning Muslims.  Not only would such an action confirm the narrative ISIS is trying to perpetuate, it fuels the lie that evil is found in any one particular religion.  ALL have sinned.  Evil resides in every heart, including yours and mine, and as long as we live among other people, we will have to contend with the possibility of evil, no matter the religious faith or weapon of choice.  If you don't believe that, try going to Macy's on Black Friday.  Our true nature as fallen human beings is never move obvious than when we are willing to trample another for a 15% discount.

Eschatology?  "We will be raptured out of here before the worst of it starts."  I'm not a "Left Behind" series kind of guy when it comes to the end of the age.  I actually hope my pre-tribulational brothers and sisters are right.  But even if they are, no rapture has yet to deliver us from 9/11, Aurora, Newtown, Paris, Mali, or San Bernadino

If Isaiah were still writing today, I think he might make mention of each of these, and along with Judah's hoped-for foreign alliances, remind us that eventually, they all fail us.  Hope can't be found here.  It can only be found in God.

In other words, genuine hope begins by recognizing and admitting that we are far more vulnerable  than we think we are.

The basis for our hope isn't that we can keep calamity from happening.  Our hope rests in a sovereign God who rules over it, and who 2000 years ago sent His Son into a world that was just as violent as our own.  He didn't seek protection from it.  He lived in it, died at its hand, rose from the dead in triumph over it, and offers His followers that same resurrection power--a power that can only be fully realized in the context of vulnerability.  That kind of hope produces a boldness that Martin Luther described many centuries ago:

Let goods and kindred go
this mortal life also
The body they may kill
God's Truth abideth still
His Kingdom is forever!

People who have placed their ultimate hope in Jesus can live like that.  And people who live like that can celebrate Christmas even in the worst of circumstances.  Because people who live like that know that eventually, the same Christ who incarnated Himself among us will return.  Those temporal things we have trusted to "keep us safe" will vanish, because they won't be needed.  As G.F. Handel wrote so eloquently:

No more let sins and sorrows grow
nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.  Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

Followers of Jesus can celebrate Christmas in hope and peace, no matter what transpires around us.  That is the promise of the Gospel for you and me this Christmas.  But its also a promise aimed at the rest of the world--a promise we have been entrusted to deliver through the greatest message in all of human history.  Don't be afraid.  Don't seek factitious peace in temporary assurances of your mortal safety.  Be wise and vigilant, not reactionary and paranoid.  And in the process, follow Jesus as He continues from heaven the mission He began in our history 2000 years ago; to bring blessing and peace.....

...far as the curse is found.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Paris Attacks and American Christianity: A French Brother's Challenge

"Government should be set up so that no man need live in fear of another."  -Montesquieu

The recent terror attacks in Paris ignited a fresh debate among many western nations, including the United States, about how we should relate to one another, and more particularly, how do we balance civil liberties with national security?

For followers of Jesus, our questions must go deeper, and the questions we need to ask are impossible to answer without a comprehensive understanding of what transpired in France.  Some weeks ago, my office was contacted by Gilles Lisimaque, a brother in Christ who attends Upper Seneca Baptist Church in our Network.  

Born and raised just outside of Paris, Gilles has lived in the United States for the past 25 years and has been a US citizen for more than 17 years.   Professionally, Gilles is a security expert, partner with ID Technology, and has been involved for more than 28 years in developing smart cards which are now used in Bank cards and Government Identification Systems. Gilles has been involved in setting technical standards for identification and finance security nationally, and has been one of the world's leading experts in smart card specifications and applications.  Additionally, he has advised multiple US government agencies on matters of national security relative to the country's individual identification systems.

Gilles is a father of two, and grandfather of six, and is the proud patriarch of a multicultural family that now spans three generations.  He maintains close relationships in Paris with his family and contacted our office wanting to offer his perspective to American Christians--feeling that there is much that is misunderstood about what transpired in his home country that is fueling necessary fear in the United States.  Most importantly, he is concerned about the efficacy of Christian witness in America.

In short, Gilles' background involves striking the appropriate balance between security concerns relative to the preservation of liberty, and the Christian mandate to lovingly engage the world Jesus died for.  I was delighted through this interview to get to know a man who believes these concerns are not mutually exclusive, and my hope is that readers will gain a fresh perspective on what transpired in his country that will help Christians here better respond to the world in which we find ourselves.  An edited transcript of our conversation is below:  Please note that the San Bernadino terrorist attack was not mentioned in this interview.  This is because the interview took place just a few days prior to those events. That event and others will be discussed at a subsequent event this coming spring called "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism."  More information on that conference is below. 


JR:  Let's jump right to the point of this conversation.  What is the biggest misconception Americans have about what happened in Paris?

GL: Since you and I spoke first, this has changed, because much more information has come out since then, nevertheless it does seem that the American perception hasn't really changed.  The biggest misconception is that the Paris terrorists were foreigners--that they were not Europeans but instead immigrants, when the facts are that they were French or Belgian citizens.  They were born in Europe, and were citizens by birth..  All these people had probably been helped by the social welfare of the state, but for some reason they did not integrate.  It seems they were raised in what we could call in the US a "ghetto", with people of the same origin and the same poverty level.  As I understand, similar things happen here in black neighborhoods, where there is little work, little help, little hope and a feeling of rejection, where hate and resentment is every day’s feeling, ending up in crime and use of weapons to kill each other.

JR: So you are saying that in that situation, a radical ideology gives them an identity?

GL:  Yes.  When I was young, I had an experience similar to this.  France, as you may know, is mainly a Catholic country.  I was raised in a Protestant family.  Devout Catholics in my neighborhood would not allow their children to play with me.  When that happens, you don't feel like you are integrated, acknowledged, and loved but ostracized.  And that was between Christians!  It’s probably because of that experience that growing up 20 Km from Paris I never felt I truly felt at ease  in such a culture. I must say not all French people are this way, it was more an exception than the rule, and it has changed for the better since I was young, but nevertheless it is an emotional scar you keep as a child.

I've been here in America for 25 years now, and I've never felt that kind of rejection.  But again, I'm Protestant who now live in a predominantly Protestant country.  So I can understand why those of a different faith than me might feel rejected, and as a result be hesitant to integrate into the larger society.  People won't seek to integrate if they feel no one wants them.

JR: So the result is that they created their own community that replicate their culture of origin because they feel as though they don't belong in French community at large?

GL:  Well, they stay together.  But the "ghetto" isn't something they always wanted to create.  Outside people create a wall around them because they don't want to go into it--in much the same way that a wall was built to separate the Jews from the rest of society in Europe decades ago.  People think "these people don't dress like me.  They don't think like me.  So they should stay there and I will stay over here."

JR:  That's surprising to me, because when I think of France as an American, I think of a very tolerant nation that's open to anyone and anything.

GL:  On one hand, that's true.  But on the other hand, we've had lots of immigrants, for example, from North Africa, and these movements created a cultural shock that decades later, we have not completely overcome.  Many (but not the majority yet) French people put up walls between themselves and immigrants to their country, and this fuels the isolation.

JR:  Are there any parallels that you see between what happened in France and what you are experiencing in America now?

GL:  When I came to America, I was very surprised by the racial divide.  The "black/white" divide that has been there since I moved here 25 years ago was very similar to the "French/North African" divide I had experienced in France.  Some had horrible attitudes toward black Americans; "they aren't civilized.  All they do is kill each other."  That sort of thing.  We allowed differences in culture, music, and other things to justify keep us isolated from each other.  The difference of course, between these scenarios, is that Black Americans by majority are Christian, so we share the same faith.  As a consequence, many leaders on both sides were able to appeal to that commonality to diffuse the situation.

JR: You are speaking of Martin Luther King and others?

GL: Precisely.  Christianity was the common faith that called us all together and helped quell the fights between black and white.  So in America it was about race, and in France it is about culture and faith, but this is just a "different difference."  Both are rooted in cultural differences.  And to me, that's the parallel.  When I was fulfilling my French military service, I was a police officer.  At that time, we were seeing numerous immigrants from North Africa, and a number of jokes arose among the police about them.  This was because we would get many complaint calls from residents whose North African neighbors were keeping goats on their balconies, or storing coal for heating in their bathtubs. It was a different way of living.  Not right or wrong, just different cultures, in different places.  But because we never tried to understand or befriend, only isolate and make fun that widened the divide.  This was fifty years ago and would not happen today. By then that stereotype was given to stigmatize the whole community.

And that was what I learned from my experience as a French police officer.  Ghettos are too often created by people on the outside of it that form a wall and inside the wall, it feels safer for those stigmatized as “different.” As I said before, it has created a posture that says "I don't know these people.  They don't look like me.  They don't dress like me.  They should just stay over there."

JR: That's actually a pretty devastating thought; that we "created" the ghetto.

GL: Yes, but I think that's really our problem as Christians.  We are unwilling to listen to differences because it could offend us, make us ask questions.  I don't know who they are, but why don't we listen?  Of course we have different beliefs, languages, and cultures, but we need to try to learn about each other.  When I came here, it was a challenge to learn about American culture and society, and try to figure things out.  I was able to do so because I was not rejected right away for being different. I had to listen a lot in order to do that, and I am still learning.

JR:  I'm sure, and we are a pretty loud bunch.

GL:  (laughter) Yes, that is the case with some, but I've learned that sometimes we make assumptions about how people behave because we simply don't know them.  For example, there is a stereotype I've heard that many Americans have, that says the French are rude.  This isn't as widely accepted an assumption as it was 10 years ago.  Often this opinion is formed because of the experiences Americans they had 20 years ago while traveling to Paris and visiting the various merchants.  This is because they don't understand a fundamental difference in our cultures.  In America, you browse from the inside of a store.  In France, you do it from the outside, and when you enter the store, you enter to buy.  And so if you enter the shop and don't buy anything, especially in a small one, you have taken the time of the retailer for nothing.

When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman, He talked about commonalities, and only after he listened to her he said "one day you will see worship happen everywhere, not just in Jerusalem." Proving an opening, hope, understanding, I think that's the way we should interact with people.

JR:  What are some practical ways to overcome the isolation that you would suggest?

GL:  First, information should always come from multiple sources, and those sources should be compared and contrasted.  We live in a world where we have access to American, British and European, Asian and Middle Eastern news sources.  If you only listen always to what you want to hear you can never form an intelligent, informed opinion.  You just believe to only one voice which may not be as open as they say they are. We need all those sources of information (different point of views) to form a....what is the English word I am looking for?

JR: Perspective?

GL:  No, I am thinking about......when you have two mountains and a valley in between there is a...

JR: Depth?

GL:  Yes, we need to understand the full depth of these issues.

JR:  Our English metaphors can be difficult.

GL:  (laughter) yes.  Well, this depth is important, because if we don't have it we will want to put whole groups of people in a silo, and then anyone identified in that way gets the same kind of treatment.  For example, there are in the US religious groups in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and or Ohio who decided, as a community, to live in with each other in a certain way.  It doesn't violate the law, so this is fine, this is not what I call a ghetto.  Here in Maryland, parts of Montgomery County were "dry" for years, because people there said "we want to live in community in a certain way."  It didn't mean you couldn't drink alcohol, only that you couldn't buy it in that community.  We should respect local communities and their identities, and we can do that if we govern by abiding by the majority.  The majority is what a democracy should be.  My freedom stops where the liberty of the other person starts.  That's not easy, and it’s impossible to do if we don't know each other, if we do not listen to the other person with respect.  Otherwise, we violate the liberty of others without even knowing it.

JR: And in a working democracy, the fleshing out of that is far more difficult than we admit.

GL: Oh it is difficult, because my liberty has to do with what I think I can do, and the other person has another way of thinking about the same right, and so where it starts and stops, has to do with respect, understanding, and knowledge of others become so important if we want to live in a democratic society.

JR: So, should Americans traveling to Paris be afraid?

GL:  Of who?  The French people?

JR: (laughter)  I know it’s a bit of a softball question, but when there is fear, you have to understand people will be asking questions like this.

GL:  Yes I understand, and I would say it’s no more dangerous than here in Washington, D.C.  I mean, come on!  You could be the victim of violence anywhere.  When you get on a plane, it might go down, you drive a car, and you may have an accident.  The probability is low, but it could happen.  We are Christians.  We use wisdom and assess risk, and know that we are ready to go if our time has come

Note:  This spring, we are following up this interview with a conference entitled "Loving Neighbor in an Age of Terrorism," in partnership with the Montgomery Baptist Association.  The conference will involve a panel discussion led by churches in that Association, which boasts the second most diverse ZIP code in the United States.  Details are forthcoming.