Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

wallAs a 34-year old college professor, there are days when I still feel close in age to my twenty-something students.  Then there are other times when I realize that I am simply…older.  Yesterday was one of those moments.

It is now 25 years and one day since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.  It is a date symbolic not just for what happened in West and East Germany, but for the changes that it augured and helped initiate.  Not too many years after that fateful November day Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be no more.  The Cold War would be over.  The world would be changed.

I was only nine years old when the Wall fell.  I have what may amount to be only vague or inaccurate recollections of that time.  I had not–like my parents–grown up with the Cold War at 80er_mauer_akg_gmy back.  I had little understanding of world politics.  And yet: something great was happening around me.  As the son of a man born not long after his parents emigrated from Germany as refugees in the 1950s, my connections to Germany are strong.  My grandparents, Christian ministers, had returned to their ancestral land in the 1980s and were pastoring in West Germany in 1989.  Within a few years of reunification they relocated to the East to continue ministry there.

The impact of all that was taking place in Germany and the world in those days affected the two generations above me in ways I had no way of knowing at the time.  But I still lived through it.  I remember a bit of that time.  I had lived in an era when Germany was two.  When the Soviet Union was one.  I had lived in a different world…and then I got to live through the days of hope that followed when that world began to shatter.

Few of my college students remember these days.  They can’t.  Most weren’t born yet.  To them the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe is as far off as the Nixon impeachment or Kennedy assassination is for me.  They can read about it and hear parents talk about it.  But they weren’t around in the days before and after.  And what days they were.  The fall of Communism in Europe happened with such rapidity and in such an unexpected way that there was a dreamlike sense of shock.  It would be as if Isis, Al Qaeda and others simply ceased to exist by the next presidential leninstatue1election, and the sometimes hostile Arab world suddenly became our allies.  The change was that dramatic.

The end of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning 1990s filled the world with a sense of hope it had not felt in a very long time.  I realize in retrospect that this hope was in many ways a false one and that born on its back was a host of problems…but still: they were optimistic days.  These were formative years for me.  They saw me through junior high, high school, and even into college.  In that decade we felt that despite the problems, our post-Cold War world had changed for the better.  This is the legacy of my generation’s youth.

When I consider my students, however, I am reminded that in addition to having no memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall , they also didn’t experience the immediate years that followed.  The 1990s for them are vague if remembered at all.  Like me, their political and global consciousness wasn’t awakened until the latter part of their childhood.  Much more rudely than mine, however, and with a much darker era to follow.

For while I was privileged to live through times of optimism and hope, my college seniors had a rather different youth.  In the fall of 2001 many of them 9-11 would have turned eight or nine.  On a certain September morning their televisions were filled with images that have defined their lives ever since.  A terrible day followed by years of war and fear.  This is the persistent legacy they’ve been living down through junior high, high school, and now into college.

What a difference indeed.  I mourn that this has been their world, and I pray that the we see 9 Novembers again with increasing frequency even as the 11 Septembers fade from view.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven.


Don’t Call It Persecution

christian-persecution-rosary-martyrs-bloodA friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution.  More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.

The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries.  The topic?  “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”


The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess.  As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.”  iraq-christiansWhile I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.

The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place.  And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t.  Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.

When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation.  And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking.  So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months.  Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted.  Or maybe not.

atheistThough it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted.  God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers?  These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make.  Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked.  It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference.  After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.

For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern.  But this is not the same as persecution.  Call it something else.  But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.

The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.”  I agree.  It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality.  But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution.  And even in those places where 9elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime?  If a minister  is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution?  Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse.  I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges.  I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.

Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real.  Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight ppp-4as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.

We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up.  I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine.  Maybe so.  But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.

Matthew 5, Part II

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

-Jesus, Matthew 5:44

Who is Isis?The news from the Middle East is not encouraging.  Yesterday we received word by means of a video that a second American has been beheaded by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).  His name was Steven Sotloff.

Sotloff sadly joins an ever-growing number of those killed, tortured, abducted, raped, attacked, persecuted, and displaced by this vicious and recalcitrant regime.  Something more needs to be done to stop their dastardly efforts…and soon.

As I think about the heartbreaking state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, I’m reminded that this may be one of those times when Jesus’ words are put to their greatest test.  Can I pray for ISIS? Can I love them?

I want to make the obvious very clear before answering: they are not my enemy directly.  They have not persecuted me.  I do not live in territory under their control.  But they have been clear about their persecution of Christians in the Middle East.  These are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  They have displaced others and attacked non-Christian religious minorities with whom I share a common humanity.article-sotloff-0902  Though I cannot know what it is like to be their enemy in the same way as their victims, I still know that they are my enemy too.

Quite literally, ISIS is an enemy of the human race.  Like Hitler, Stalin, and their ilk, they are fairly easy to hate.

And yet, for the Christian, hatred is not an option.  Jesus says we must love them.  That seems like nonsense, of course.  But it is Jesus, so I have to grapple with it.

What does it mean to pray for ISIS?  Well, it doesn’t mean praying for their military or jihadi success.  It doesn’t mean praying that they’ll prosper in their efforts.  That kind of prayer would be akin to asking that we would be delivered from the Kingdom into evil.  It would be devastating to so many and, ultimately, destructive to the hardened hearts of ISIS themselves.

Jesus_Falls_Carrying_the_CrossInterceding for ISIS, I think, is about praying that they would see the sadly misguided path they have walked upon and be healed.  While they may have some legitimate reasons for feeling the way they do, organizing those feelings in the destructive and life-denying ways they have has only set them and those around them on a very dark path.  Praying for ISIS, caring for their souls means wanting them to stop all this–for their sakes before even ours.

This “praying for your enemies thing” is–like many of Jesus’ teachings–a fine notion when considered in abstraction.  But up close and personal, it is much harder to bear.  Praying for a group that has shown itself to embrace evil is a hard task.  I mean, honestly, do I really want to pray for them?  Watching one of those beheading videos (which I have not) would disincline me to choose that from among my options.  After all, we don’t think they deserve it.  We don’t think they deserve love.  We don’t think they deserve forgiveness.

And you know what?  They don’t.  But for God.

As usual, our Lord is trying to tell us something here…about ISIS and ourselves.  At times like this, though, it can be hard to hear.

A Return to Form

capaldiWith the beginning of the academic year here at Northwest University, I once again return to my traditional habit of reflection via blog.  It is something I have attempted to make a regularity during the months in which I teach.  During the fall semester, this has been a fairly firm practice; in the spring semester, things have tended to be a bit dicier.

It has been more than six months since I last sat to write an entry, and what a six months it has been.  Though the world remains the same broken place it has always been, the passage of time that has marked the immediate past year has, for me at least, been particularly troubling. 

A missing passenger plane.  Russian incursion and meddling in the Ukraine.  Another plane shot down.  Open warfare between Israel and Hamas.  Race riots and police actions in Ferguson.  ISIS running rampant through Iraq and parts of Syria.  The public beheading of a journalist.  The emerging narrative of a potentially moribund presidency.  The suicide of one of our nation’s most beloved comic actors.

There’s likely more I’m not recalling at the moment.  More to alternately sadden and concern us.  I realize that all of this makes me a bit of a bad news harbinger, and I’m sorry about that. There is good in the world–in ways both big and small–and I do believe that God is in sovereign.  It is simply that there has been so much…else going on this past half year.

And so, as I turn in the coming days and weeks to reflect upon, pray, and work through such issues (and much more) I hope that you’ll join me in this journey.  We may not always agree.  We may not see things from the same perspective.  But let’s do walk through this life with our eyes open, minds working, and hands ready, prepared to be not just fellow travelers but active citizens in a world on fire.