Monday, August 02, 2004

Can Democracy Take Root in the Muslim Middle East?

On a day dominated by fear of an al Qaeda attack on American financial institutions and reaction to actual attacks on Christian churches in Iraq, it was interesting for me to finish reading a set of articles assessing the prospects for Middle East democracy in the Spring, 2004 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. Five articles---from Martin Walker, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Daniel Brumberg, and Haleh Esfandiari---tackle the subject from diverse vantage points.

What emerges, especially from Ibrahim's article, the one I most enjoyed, is a feeling that prospects are surprisingly upbeat for democracies that have respect for human rights to emerge in the Middle East.

One reason for such an assessment, as Ibrahim points out, is that the region has experienced flourishing democracies before. But the failure of those democracies to extend economic opportunities, along with military defeats incurred by moderate and democratic governments---most notably in 1948 and 1967---have hurt the development of democracy in the region. People have instead craved the security---financial, military, psychological---that they've felt democracies in the past have been unable to provide.

It appears to me that this multifaceted insecurity, along with the revulsion at western-supported royalist regimes like that in Saudi Arabia, have played a key role in fueling al Qaeda-style hostility to the United States.

But, according to Ibrahim, there is great desire for democracy in the Middle East today. He claims that the repressiveness of post-Shah Iran has turned many Muslims off to a radical Islamist approach to government. He writes:

What made the Islamic alternative especially credible was the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The event gave a great moral boost to advocates of the Islamic vision in several Arab countries, who then posed a serious challenge to the entrenched populist regimes of Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Sudan. Only in Sudan did they manage to seize power, through a military coup in 1989. But the blood shed during the Islamists' challenge to regimes in Algeria and Egypt, and the harsh and backward implementation of sharia by the Islamic Salvation Front in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the 1990s, disillusioned many who had been hopeful. Even the revolution in Iran quickly ran out of steam, its version of the Islamic vision discredited by a reign of terror at home and adventurism abroad.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Ibrahaim says, Americans may have been inclined to envision a Muslim world virtually united in its hostility to democracy and to America. But he points out events that Muslim nations were as revolted by the attacks as Americans and that in three countries---Turkey, Morocco, and Bahrain---moderate Islamic parties committed to democracy, pluralism, and tolerance won election in late 2002.

He also mentions a World Values Survey showing widespread acceptance of democratic ideals among Jordanians. More than 70%, for example, believe that Islamic leaders should not influence political decisions.

It appears to me that one reason the terrorists working under the banner of Islam would attack churches is to promote this notion of a holy war between Islam and Christianity. And, as Ibrahim and others point out, the radical Islamists legitimize repression, violence, and an anti-democratic ideology by an appeal to Muslim notion of shariya. Shariya demands that governments and every citizen of the nation be forced to abide by strict observance of Islamic law. It simply forbids any other religion. Because of this idea, Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists have expressed horror at the Western notion of "separation of Church and state," regarding it as a tenet of atheism.

For most Christians, the idea of the separation of Church and state is not a daunting thing. There are several reasons for this.

One is that Christians believe that faith is a voluntary proposition. Each person must for themselves decide whether they will acquiesce to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It's contrary to the teachings of Jesus and of the Bible for anyone to be coerced, whether by law or violence or other means, into a faith commitment to Christ. (Of course, that doesn't mean that some misguided pseudo-Christians haven't or don't try such tactics.) The New Testament insists that it is the kindness of God that brings people to repentance, not coercion.

Another is that embedded deep within Judeo-Christian history is the experience of being a marginalized people living under the dominion of governments whose religions, social systems, and basic assumptions about life were different from that of Jews and Christians. Ancient Israel was overrun and overtaken by foreign rulers. Judea in Jesus' time was under Roman rule. The early Church was often persecuted by that empire. Yet, for all the differences with ruling authorities, believers in the God of the Bible were encouraged to obey their rulers, so long as those rulers didn't ask them to violate God's holiness. (To see how these two elements are held in tension, you might want to read Romans 12 and 13 in the New Testament.) So, long ago, most Christians embraced the notion that while people of faith can live and function faithfully within a society with whose values they don't entirely agree, certainly an attitude necessary for the proper functioning of democracy.

According to Ibrahim's historical survey anyway, Islamic nations have in the past shown the flexibility necessary to make democracy work and done so in a way consistent with their heritage. He feels they can do so again and really want to do so. From what little I know, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Whether the American war in Iraq, arousing and feeding the anger of the region's most well-organized political and terror organizations, the radical Islamists, is going to prove a speed bump or facilitator to the development of democracy in the Middle East remains to be seen. I recommend getting this issue of The Wilson Quarterly. Then, write your comments here and tell me what you think.

Farewell to a Faithful Fridge

[Today, a new refrigerator came to our house. That's not so momentous, to be sure. But with this new appliance, the one that's been in our kitchen since our place was constructed sixteen years ago, is being relegated to back-up status in the garage. There was however, another refrigerator of which we disposed today, an old Frigidaire, which until it completely died about a year ago, had been a member of my extended family for fifty-four years. Below is a September 17, 1997 column I wrote about that fridge. May it rust in peace.]

It's the Fridge That Keeps Going
Objects hold little sentimental value for me. But there is one inanimate gem I pass by every single day that arouses feelings of appreciation and something like wistfulness in me.

It's a refrigerator---a white Frigidaire that stands less than five feet tall and wobbles every time you open and close the door.

It can't make ice. It couldn't distribute cold water if it wanted to. The freezer is a tiny compartment just big enough to accommodate a half-gallon of ice cream and two ice cube trays. In fact, its overall capacity for holding goodies is, from the standpoint of a family living in the '90s, severely limited.

But, man, can that refrigerator keep things cold! And it's been doing so since 1950. That was the year my grandparents graduated from the Ralph Kramden-style ice box they'd used in their old house and bought the Frigidaire, placing it in the kitchen of their newly constructed home.

It gave many years of faithful service before they bought a bigger refrigerator. The Frigidaire thus inaugurated a new phase of its life when it was relocated to my grandparents' basement. Later, when they bought a bigger refrigerative behemoth, it became a third-string bench warmer. It sat, collecting dust, mostly unplugged and unused, in their garage.

Then in 1978, my wife and I moved out of the apartment we'd rented for nearly four years and into a house. My grandmother gave the Frigidaire to us. Suddenly, it was a first-stringer again.

In Fall, 1982, we moved so that I could do my year-long seminary internship in Michigan. That was followed by one more year of classes back at the seminary in Columbus. Everywhere we lived for those two years---we moved four times in that period---provided us with refrigerators. So, the Frigidaire was in storage until October, 1984.

That was when we went to the first church I served as pastor, a congregation in rural northwestern Ohio. We recruited a crack crew of movers who, unlike the drivers of those sleek orange moving vans you see on the interstates, drove a truck that reminded us of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. When the truck drove off for our new home, full of nearly all our earthly goods, I was sure it had no shock absorbers and I wondered if we would ever see our possessions again. Amazingly, our goods sustained few casualties from the trek.

But within hours of our arrival, it became clear that the Frigidaire was among the injured.

"It's 34 years old," I told my wife and a member of our church. "Maybe we ought to scrap it and buy a new one." My wife winced at the expense and the member intervened. "I've got a nephew who's a whiz-bang on Frigidaires," she told us. "Why don't I give him a call?"

It took three visits from the nephew to bring the refrigerator back to life.

When we moved to Clermont County (in a real-life moving van) back in 1990, the Frigidaire became a second-stringer again. The house we live in, built two years before our arrival, came with its own fridge.

But the ancient refrigerator is perhaps rendering its most noble service of all now. Every Saturday morning, members of Friendship Church and I share simple acts of kindness in the Name of Jesus Christ with our neighbors. For most of the past eight weeks that's meant giving away cold cans of Coca Cola. And guess where I'm cooling 144 of those soda pops every Friday night?

I don't know how old the Frigidaire is in "refrigerator years." Given the reality of "planned obsolescence," pretty ancient, I'll wager. But that ancient object from time to time incites me to mutter a little prayer, "Whether I'm young or old, God, help me to be such a reliable servant of You and others." And then, when nobody's looking, I pat it affectionately.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Happiness Project: Happy When the World Turns Away

Matthew 5:1-2, 10-12
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 1, 2004)

I grew up the oldest of five kids. All through my school years, I struggled with Math, barely getting through each class. The two siblings closest to me in age, Betsy and Kathy, were three and six years behind me in school. Sometimes, after I’d moved up a few grades, I’d see that they had Math homework in the very text books that had so troubled me when I was younger. I’d pick up the books and look at the problems and be amazed: the Math I had found impossible three and six years before was easy; I wished that I could go back in time and ace the old classes.

That’s sort of how I've felt as we've progressed through that section of the New Testament book of Matthew called the Beatitudes. Here, at the very beginning of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, He presents a series of portraits of blessedness or true happiness. Jesus’ pictures haven’t exactly conformed to our usual understanding of what happiness looks like. As I’ve prepared these messages, I’ve felt like I did tackling a new Math class as a kid. Each of Jesus' beatitudes has been a tough assignment!

But as difficult as each of the first seven beatitudes were to deal with, the message from Jesus for today makes the first seven seem like child’s play. This is the hardest one. Jesus says:

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and speak evil of you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Reading Jesus' words about the happiness of persecuted people, I'm reminded of the man Abraham Lincoln once told about. It seems that a whole town had turned hostile and tarred and feathered the guy. Asked later what the experience had been like, he said that he would gladly have passed on the whole experience "if it weren't for the honor of the thing."

In a nutshell, Jesus is saying that among the happiest people on the planet are those have been honored for their faith in Him by encountering hostility and persecution in the world. And if the world is against you because you seek to follow Him, Jesus says, that’s a badge of honor, putting us in the select company of Old Testament prophets who engendered similar reactions!

That's a little daunting, to say the least. But before we just turn our noses up at what Jesus tells us today, let's---as one of my seminary professors used to say---"unpack" His words. Let's try to understand what Jesus wants to tell us about the happiness that comes to those who follow Him even when the world turns away.

I think that there are two major ways that followers of Jesus can experience hostility or rejection or persecution as they strive to follow Him.

One comes from inside ourselves.

The other comes from outside of us. The two sources of this outside persecution are the world and the devil.

From inside ourselves, we can be persecuted by our own evil thoughts. As you know, one of my favorite preachers is Gerald Mann. In one of his sermons, he tells the story of what happened when, back in the 1970s, his church unable to pay him much salary, he moonlighted by getting involved in buying and selling real estate. Mann did one deal that allowed him to turn a quick $50,000.00 profit. At the closing, the guy to whom he was making this sale asked if he could pay in cash, with $35,000.00 of it in one dollar bills. Mann said that would be all right. There would be no checks, no paper records.

A few months later, Mann went to his accountant’s office to have his taxes done. They went through all the paper records and then the accountant asked, “Any other income?” Mann hesitated a second and said, “No” and left. Five minutes later, he was driving down the road and decided to make a U-turn. There was no way he could lie about that income! He told the accountant that he’d forgotten about the additional $50,000.00.

Half of that went to taxes and for months afterward, the sinister, earthly part of Gerald Mann’s nature persecuted him. “Why,” it demanded, “would you have been so stupid as to have done the right thing like that, especially when you know how the government wastes money?” He felt internally persecuted for having done the right thing.

Let me tell you something, folks, the follower of Jesus eventually does feel happy and blessed when we do the right thing. But before we feel good about it, we're first we’re likely to feel miserable. For our long-term happiness and for our eternal happiness, I personally have learned that the best thing we can do is resist doing evil and do what God wants us to do.

From outside ourselves, we can also be persecuted. This can happen in simple acts of shunning or in putdowns by others who view our commitment to the God we know through Jesus Christ as being quaint, stupid, naive, or unnecessary. I've experienced that. I'll bet you have too.

This past week, we watched the second episode of the TV show, Joan of Arcadia. CBS is rerunning this series on Friday nights and I’m really enjoying it. If you’ve never seen the show, it tells the story of a seemingly typical teen named Joan who keeps being contacted by God. In the most recent episode, God tells her to get together with the "geeks" of the Chess Club. Her friends are horrified. But Joan learns that when we dare to respect and reach out in a loving, accepting way to others, God will bless us even when the world turns the other way. In spite of the world turning the other way---persecuting her, Joan is blessed.

The book, Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus recounts true incidents of people from throughout the world for whom following Christ engendered a more serious form of persecution. They are the martyrs for Christ. That word, martyr, comes from the New Testament Greek word, martureo. It literally means I witness. A martyr is one who believes, or entrusts their whole lives into the hands of Jesus and by their lives and words, gives witness to His love, power, grace, and goodness. A martyr is one has turned from sin and death and turned to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and life. Over time, that term has also come to mean someone who has suffered or died precisely because they do trust Jesus Christ completely.

One of the martyrs in Jesus Freaks is Mary Khoury, a Christian teenager who lived through Lebanon’s civil war, a conflict that went on from 1975 to 1992. Fanatical Muslims forced their way into Mary’s home one day, waving pistols at the entire family and threatening, “If you do not become a Muslim, you will be shot.” Mary knew that Jesus had once been given a similar choice. Jesus had been told to renounce His claim to be Savior of the world so that He could avoid the cross. But Jesus knew that without His death and resurrection, no human being could never have eternal life with God. So, Jesus went to the cross. Mary decided that she would not renounce Jesus. Mary told the men, “I was baptized as a Christian, and [God’s] word came to me: ‘Don’t deny your faith.’ I will obey [God]. Go ahead and shoot.” With that, Mary heard a gun go off behind her and she fell limply to the ground.

Sometime later, the Red Cross found the bodies of Mary’s family members. Miraculously, Mary, on the floor next to them, had survived. But a bullet had severed her spinal cord. Both her arms were paralyzed, stretched out beside her, bent like Jesus’ arms had been when He was on the cross.

You might expect Mary to have become bitter. But she had the happiness and the blessing of one who has done the right God calls us to do. She knew that God had a plan for her life. “Everyone has a vocation,” she said, “...I will offer my life for Muslims, like the one who cut my father’s throat, cursed my mother and stabbed her, and then tried to kill me. My life will be a prayer for them.”

Whether we’re persecuted by our own evil thoughts or by others, we can take comfort.

We take comfort first from knowing that we’re not alone. God is with us always. A God Who suffered and died on the cross will not abandon us when we suffer for our faith.

We can also draw comfort from knowing that the closer you and I are to God, the harder life sometimes gets. The fact that we encounter opposition and difficulty can be a sign that we have grown close to God. There are reasons for that. One is that following Jesus is a little like walking up to a lighted mirror after a new zit has appeared on your face. When you and I get closer to the light of Jesus, we see our faults and sins and it bothers us more than it did when we ignored Christ or His will for our lives.

We also see that we're growing closer to God in the ways others may try to trip us up in following Him. Most people want Jesus' blessings without having to bow to Jesus' authority over their lives. When others see followers of Jesus earnestly trying, with God's power, to follow Christ, they resent the audacity of it. They're bound to hurl insults and monkey wrenches our way!

The everlasting life and hope that we have as Jesus-followers is a free gift. But the more we live in Jesus’ orbit, the more opposition we will run into, whether it’s the evil from within or the evil from without. And that opposition or persecution in fact, is often a sign of our growing closer to God.

But the happy people--the blessed people--are those who know that God is bigger than our enemies, that God’s blessings are better than the world’s curses, and that the God we know through the resurrected Jesus will still be standing when all the things that scare us in this life have passed away. Jesus followers know that God can bless them now and forever.

They also know that God can use their lives--and sometimes their deaths--to help the rest of the world experience the same happiness they have from following Christ. The happiest people are those who cling to Jesus Christ no matter what. They’re the people who know that they are part of Christ’s kingdom forever. They’re the people who know that just like God’s Old Testament prophets who were often rejected by the people of their time, they can be used to draw others into a relationship with the God we know through Jesus.

A Christian woman held in a Soviet prison camp back in the 1960s for the crime of following Christ, wrote a stirring prayer. It says, in part:

“God, accept all my sufferings, my tiredness, my humiliations, my tears, my nostalgia, my being hungry, my suffering of cold, all the bitterness accumulated in my soul...Dear Lord, have pity on those who persecute and torture us day and night. Grant them, too, the divine grace of knowing the sweetness and happiness of Your love.”
I ask God to help me pray that prayer. More than that, I ask Him to help me to mean it.

[NOTE: By the way, I hasten to add that there are such people as fanatical Christians. These are people who have so departed from the love of Christ that they try to force people into following Him, whether through social pressures, legal measures, or violent intimidation. It is utterly wrong and utterly contrary to the will of the God we know in Jesus Christ!

[The prayer at the end of the message also comes from the book, Jesus Freaks.]