Results tagged “terrorism” from Reformation21 Blog

These Present Sufferings

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As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish - anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines--one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims' families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God's words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about 'our present sufferings' and declares they 'are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its 'present' state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation 'groaning' (8.22), and how 'we ourselves [Christians]...groan inwardly' (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers 'with groans that words cannot express' (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The 'present' in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as 'this present evil age' (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam's fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of 'creation' itself 'groaning as in the pains of childbirth' in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting 'in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed' (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and 'the restoration of all things' associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of 'groaning' (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God's word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those 'who have the firstfruits of the Spirit' - believers (8.23) - things are different. We too still groan - indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom - but in a way that is tempered by 'hope' (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul's last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God's children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us 'with groans that words cannot express' (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves 'every mouth silenced' before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to 'groan' on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just 'weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn' - but do so as those 'who share in the sufferings of Christ.'

 

Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let's Study JohnLet's Study Colossians and Philemon and Let's Study 2 Peter and Jude.  You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.

ISIS and the Imprecatory Psalms

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The recent execution of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by the murderous Islamic group ISIS has prompted appropriate and helpful Christian reflections (see here and here). But one question I have yet to see asked is, "Is it time now to pray the imprecatory Psalms?"

I hear a frequent refrain in Reformed and evangelical circles that Christians should pray the imprecatory Psalms (i.e., those that invoke God's curse on particular enemies and plead for their imminent destruction; e.g., Ps 58:6-11, 68:21-23, 69:23-29, 109:5-19; 137:7-9) only against those enemies of God who manifest prolonged, high-handed rebellion against him and commit atrocities against his people (surely ISIS fits the bill). Related to this understanding, I also hear that Jesus' ethic of "love your enemy" is the Christian's default mode in prayer, but the imprecatory Psalms are the "nuclear option"--they are to be launched only after careful consideration of the occasion and self-assessment of proper motives, but launched nonetheless when necessary: If Bob the accountant steals your stapler, "Pray for those who persecute you" (Matt 5:44); but if Abu Bakr and his minions torch your home, "Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime" (Ps 58:8)!

John Day, for example, argues that "[i]n circumstances of sustained injustice, hardened enmity, and gross oppression, it has always been appropriate for a believer to utter imprecations against enemies or to appeal for the onslaught of divine vengeance. In certain instances today, appeals to God for his curse or vengeance are fitting" (Crying for Justice, 15-16). Another writer puts it even more bluntly, "Do you ask God to destroy His enemies today as He has in the past? Do you who are pastors instruct your people in this kind of prayer? Surely you must if you pray in line with God's Word and His promises for the future." (James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace, 59; emphasis in original).

In my view, such lines of reasoning fail to situate the imprecatory Psalms properly within the theocratic context of Israel in which they were written, a context which is, itself, typological of the eschatological kingdom of God to come. Just as the Levitical priests were to execute anyone who arrogantly intruded into the tabernacle complex (Num 3:38), and just as Christ will do in redemptive triumph over his enemies throughout the earth he came to redeem (Rom 16:20; Rev 19:20-21), the Davidic king and his people could pray (and sing) these Psalms as an expression of their obedient desire for God to sanctify his holy land and his chosen people by destroying his and their enemies in their own day, enemies who had specific names and faces (cf. Ps 35:4, 41:9-10).

Christians today, however, do not live in a holy realm (yet), but sojourn in a world that is not their home (Phil 3:20; Heb 4:11). This means that, by God's ordaining, Christians, who themselves were once God's enemies (Rom 5:10), are surrounded by those who are his enemies now, enemies who will hate them (Matt 10:22; Luke 21:17; John 15:19) and will do them harm (Matt 5:10-12; John 16:2). The final judgment typologically meted out in Israel's context (and expressed in the imprecatory Psalms) is yet to come for today's Christians. Through this "day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2; cf. Heb 4:7) between Christ's first and second coming, no matter how horrendous the assaults on Christians may be, the marching orders for Christians includes having fellowship in Christ's sufferings (2 Cor 1:5; Col 1:24), a fellowship that should subdue every vestige of our impatience for visible eschatological triumph today: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Rom 12:14).

So may we pray the imprecatory Psalms today? No, in the sense that Christians today may not pray the imprecatory Psalms with outstretched finger, identifying enemies who do them harm and praying for their imminent physical and eternal destruction. Christians may, however, even must (cf. Matt 6:10), pray these Psalms more generally with their eyes on heaven, from whence their public vindication will come (Heb 9:28) at the hands of the One risen from the dead, who will judge the earth (2 Thess 1:6-8). Until that Day comes, our more immediate and particular prayer must be for God to restrain or convert the enemies we encounter (Luke 6:27-28; Rom 12:20; 1 Pet 3:9). 

It is right to declare and desire God's righteous judgment on the persistently unrepentant, whoever they turn out to be (cf. Gal 1:8-9; Mark 11:14). It is also right to call for and support the civil authorities' forceful intervention to stop gross injustices, if necessary by waging just war (Rom 13:4). But the spiritual judgment we should pray for God to apply to our specific enemies today is the judgment he has already applied to Christ on the cross, that even those who ruthlessly execute the Lord's people might turn and rejoice with us at the saving mercy of God (1 Cor 15:9-10; Gal 1:13). After all, such infinite grace is what saves anyone, including you and me.

Not quite Charlie Hebdo

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It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.

In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility - in the name of promoting "British values" - to the school's distinctive Christian ethos.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.

But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our "British values" and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity - even the requirement - for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.

I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that "British values" demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.

Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined "British values" schools are not required to promote "other beliefs" or "alternative lifestyles." However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.

So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously - and in the name of freedom - preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it's fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.

Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art - never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian's only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man's sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God's kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who - in the name of freedom - wish to silence dissent.

Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam's militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.

But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of 'faith', the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.

We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.