Q & R: Radical Islam

Here’s the Q:

I’ll insert some responses …

I have to tell you that I am a huge fan. I am absolutely enthralled with your writings. You have a way of explaining things that truly captivates what has been stirring deep in my heart for 20 years but I never really understood what it was exactly. I love your approach, your posture and am truly blessed by what you share with the world. I want to say thanks. I am reading everything you have written and am anxiously waiting for your next book.
It’s not just your writings that have inspired me, but there’s something about you as a person which is just as inspirational. This is why I love to watch you speak in video or listen to a talk just as much. Your humility toward your critics, and sweet disposition is just, well, refreshing. You model Jesus even in response to your critics and it blows me away.
I was in ministry (youth ministry) for about 13 years and honestly became burnt out and left for about the last 5 years. God has been working on my heart for about 2 years and I just got back in the game. I feel a bit like I’ve lost some ground (time-wise) but I am SO excited to be back in the game. I am in a rather conservative church setting, but nevertheless I feel that I can make a difference.
I honestly came to the point in my life where I started to think about what I wanted the rest of my life to be about. It was probably a type of mid-life crisis honestly. But when I hit 40 it suddenly hit me. I felt like I was wasting my life…even though I’m sure God can use a person wherever they are, I kept thinking to myself, “God, is this what you made me for?” “Why on earth did you put me on the earth?” It was a rebirth or a renewal of my original calling. It was truly an extraordinary process that I went through that I’m not sure I can fully explain. Honestly, I’m not sure my wife even understands. I was working at a bank and it was killing me. The people that knew me well called me the “Bank Pastor”. Anyways…I wanted you to know that your stuff has been purely inspirational for me and even though I cannot let on to anyone at my church that I love your work, God has used you to bring me back so to speak.

–Thanks so much for these encouraging words. How blessed I am that I get to play some small role in encouraging people like you through my books. I can only say, thanks be to God … And I’m so glad you’re back!

That being said, I’m dying to ask you a question. Please forgive me if you have addressed this in other places and I just missed it. In light of everything I just shared, my question may seem a bit out of place. Please understand that I come from a similar kind of conservative background that you did and even though I tend to be conservative politically, I resonate with your approach spiritually and must say that you have captured something of the message of Jesus that has been sorely missing. But my question is this: In light of your approach to the world’s problems seeking to apply the true message of Jesus, How do we deal with the radical Islam? I mean it seems to me that the types of people that would blow up buildings cannot and will not be reached with even our best efforts to show them the love of Jesus. Can these people even be reasoned with? I hate to say this but it would appear that they are hell bent on destroying “us” and are constantly taking advantage of our kindness and openness and generous nature. It would appear that using the term “crazy” does not even begin to describe these folks and it would appear that worldwide, there is a large number of them. The kinds of things that they do in the name of Alla would incite worldwide riots if we ever did the same to them. It seems like a double standard and honestly to me it seems that the only thing that they understand is violence and so the only way we can combat this sort of thing is to honestly have a stronger military and to go on the offense instead of waiting for them to come to destroy us on our own soil. I know that sounds terrible, but it seems the only way.

— There’s so much I’d like to respond to here, but let me suggest that what you’re expressing here is a really widespread view here in the US, and it points up the need for new sources of information – both about Islam, and about America.
1. I’d encourage you to start with Who Speaks for Islam? You wouldn’t want the KKK to speak for America, and you wouldn’t want some Christian White Supremacists speaking for all of Christianity … and in the same way, you can’t let the violent, radical fringe if Islam speak for all 1.3 billion Muslims. The truth is, the radical fringe is a small proportion of all Islam.
2. Even regarding radical Islam – to say “the only thing they understand is violence” is a kind of dehumanizing statement, not unlike what radical Islamists might say about Americans. I think you’d benefit greatly by researching the story of Sayyid Qutb – maybe through a book like this: http://www.amazon.com/Sayyid-Origins-Radical-Islamism-Columbia/dp/0231701047/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297081938&sr=1-2 At the very least, even an hour spent on responsible sites on the internet (the word “responsible” is important!) would help you understand some of the background behind radical Islam. It didn’t arise out of nowhere … it is a response (a tragic, destructive response) to conditions that were also tragic and destructive.
3. It would be ideal if you met some Muslims and got to know them and let them aid in your research. I can’t emphasize this enough!
4. Most of us in the US are shockingly unaware of the dark side of US foreign policy. Yes, we have shown plenty of “kindness and generosity,” but when you take the impact of the colonial period (largely under the British, but also the French) together with US actions (often in support for dictators during the cold war, whom we supported to oppose communists), it becomes clearer that radical Islam arose with provocation. That’s not to legitimize anything – but simply to fill out the picture. One book that I’ve read that will begin – with some emotion and fury – to fill out the picture would be http://www.amazon.com/Why-Do-People-Hate-America/dp/0971394253/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297082580&sr=1-3.
5. Please remember – we are the nation that was born on the theft of the land of the Native Peoples, and grew through the exploitation of African slaves; we have had periods of expansionism and domination during which we violated our own high ideals. We tend to tell our history in self-flattering ways, but there are parts of our story that we hide from ourselves. That’s why reading “the other side of the story” becomes so important. For example, I’d highly recommend the classic “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” to every white, black, Latino, and Asian American … to better understand what happened to the Native Peoples of this land.
We all know the old cliche that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But we can’t learn from history we’ve never heard … and that’s the primary problem for many of us. It’s not that we’re refusing to learn – it’s that we’ve never even heard the whole story. (This is equally true, by the way, regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.)

My other question is probably related to the first and that is how does God’s ultimate plan for destroying the earth fit in to your “Everything Must Change” thinking? I understand the dangers that you have so perfectly pointed out that “Well, Jesus is going to return and destroy everything anyways, so why try to do anything about the environment or any of these other global problems? It’s all gonna burn!” But…on the other hand…there does seem to be a discernible indication that is fairly clear about God’s plan for the end of the age and it doesn’t seem to turn out well for anyone…with the possible exception of the true believers.

–This is a huge question that I’ve written about in a few places. In A New Kind of Christianity, I address it under the future question. N.T. Wright has been addressing this issue, as have a number of other scholars and writers – in short, what we have traditionally interpreted as “the end of the world” was actually “the end of the world as Jesus’ and Paul’s contemporaries knew it” – a world centered in temple, sacrifice, priesthood, holy city. That world ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jesus and Paul and others, more and more of us believe, were not talking about the end of the space-time universe, but about the end of an age … and the beginning of a new era – or new testament. A good, simple introduction to this might be NT Wright’s book The Challenge of Jesus.

Is Jesus really teaching us to let people walk all over us and take advantage of us? It would seem that if that were the case that we Christians would be completely wiped out in a short number of years. I mean it truly does seem that without the military strength of the US over the last 100 years, the world would have been taken over by Hitler and the like…Isn’t it our moral obligation to stop evil in the world and stand up to these kinds of tyrants, etc? My grandfather was in WWII in the Pacific theater and he frequently talks about the “overwhelming force” that the US employed during that time which ultimately made all the difference. He has photos of Japanese prisoners that they took on board their ship. The photos show them eating and smiling. He said that they were happy to be caught because they knew that the US would feed and take care of them. It seems to me that the rest of the world knows deep down that even though we are not perfect and we are indeed powerful that we are moral and fair and we do not generally torture our enemies or go to war just to occupy another country or to conquer. We are trying to stop evil where we can and where we see it happening. I know this is merely my biased perception, but generally, I feel that we have been a positive force in the world and most of the world, even our enemies see it, and perhaps even view it as a weakness.

–Well, I want to avoid both vilifying America and being naive about our dark side. There’s so much to nuance, augment, or challenge in what you’ve written here – this line of thinking seems to propel the US into the role of an Empire, saving the world by dominating it when it doesn’t live by our standards. I don’t think that’s the way of wisdom, the way of justice, or the way of Jesus.
As to “would Jesus want others to walk over us and take advantage of us” – the answer, I think, is found in the Sermon on the Mount. We might ask, “Would Jesus want us to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile?” Turning the other cheek and walking the second mile aren’t about being passive and weak; they aren’t about being taken advantage of. They’re about transforming conflict, redeeming injustice, and making peace with the “weapons” of nonviolence. They’re about the love of power being subverted by the power of love … which is what we celebrate (among many other things) whenever we celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

I get the feeling that you are a pacifist of sorts. This is a noble position, but…isn’t war sometimes a necessary evil? What would have happened if we had not entered WWII? Would we be speaking in German right now? As terrible as war is, I am glad that we had the means, the guts and the leadership to confront that evil with force. Would Hitler had been stopped by overwhelming him with love and kindness? I fear that it would have been a tragic and futile effort to try to show him God’s love in a practical way through a conspiracy of kindness. It seems to me that some people have given themselves over to the evil one in such a way that they have become a devil themselves and there is no turning back…at least not in terms of stats and odds. These are intense spiritual realms that we cannot fully comprehend.

–You’re raising such important questions, and I think it would take many books to address them adequately. But I do think you need to feel the tension between what you’re saying here and what Jesus and Paul said … Blessed are the meek, not blessed are the well-armed; blessed are the peace-makers, not blessed are the empire-builders; our weapons are not carnal but spiritual, etc.

My grandfather and I often talk about the war and the differences between then and now in terms of knowing who the enemy is. In those days, at least we knew who we were fighting. Now, in the age of terrorism and such our soldiers don’t know that a child could be the enemy walking up offering a gift or feigning an injury. And yet they risk their lives to take that chance and pay dearly to secure our ongoing freedom.

Yes, your grandfather is right: there really are some differences between then and now – on both sides. (For more on this, I recommend On Killing … a chilling but important book.) Now, as a result of terrorist and counterterrorist violence, a lot of innocent children are killed, and for each one killed, another extended family is wounded forever and as a result hates America. So these situations aren’t neat and clean … Please understand, I’m not vilifying US troops for this, but I’m just trying to point out that we need to acknowledge both the upsides and downsides, the courage and the pain. It’s a horrible mess.

Can you acknowledge that it would seem that the US has a unique origin and has been blessed by God and used by God to be an agent of peace and inspiration and freedom in the world?

Yes and no and sometimes. I think you’re asking me if I affirm the political doctrine of American Exceptionalism. I emphatically do not affirm that doctrine. I think it’s a popular and beloved ideology in America and a terribly pernicious idea in history. I wrote about it briefly here and here. I would say that every nation has a unique origin, that every nation has been blessed and used by God, that every nation has been an agent of peace, inspiration, and freedom to some – and an agent of land theft, enslavement, oppression, and hardship to others.
I love the way this hymn captures the balance it:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.
May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.
This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms,
thy kingdom come, on earth, thy will be done;
let Christ be lifted up ’til all shall serve him,
and hearts united, learn to live as one:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
myself I give thee — let thy will be done.

I guess I am just trying to reconcile in my mind some of your thoughts and inspirations and my own political and philosophical thoughts. I sense that my thinking is changing, but there must be some 3rd way…

–Yes, I think this third way is what we’re all looking for. Just as in Egypt, the options are not simply between dictatorship and Islamist extremism; there are better options. Similarly, we need an alternative beyond the false binary of a passive “walk over me” pacifism and the confident militarism of the American “military industrial complex.”

To say that I respect your opinion is like saying that the Denver Broncos are really not a very good football team. My greatest hope from this email is that I could grasp a better understanding of what God’s way really is in all of this and even more, that we could become friends. Thanks again. You are an inspiration. Please forgive the long email.

You’ve said such kind things about my work – I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been quite blunt and frank in posing a different position from yours. But thanks be to God – life is really interesting when we can be friends when we disagree, and when we can learn from dialogue that includes point and counterpoint. I really appreciate your honest thoughts – and I hope this little interchange will be helpful to you and to lots of other folks who read this blog. I’m sure it will generate some strong disagreement – but I hope we can disagree in a civil, Christian way! Thanks again for the important and excellent question.