A Christian Nation on First Impression

In 2008, Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a surprising piece entitled, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.”[i] He built part of his case on first impressions:

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away.

I thought of Parris’s account when reading recently a series of reports written some 180 years earlier by a Frenchman visiting the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville. His hefty Tocquevillebook Democracy in America chronicled his impressions, which were basically favorable. He’d seen the fruit of the French Revolution, and now he was reflecting on the outcomes of the American Revolution. He didn’t give our budding nation a clean bill of health, for Andrew Jackson, famous for pushing the Cherokees on a Trail of Tears, was in the White House, and the Civil War that would end slavery was decades away. Furthermore, he was skeptical that the arts could rise to European levels, but he was impressed with the spirit of the people, a spirit he found to be informed by their faith. In his estimation, they had “brought to the New World a Christianity” he could not “depict better than to call it democratic and republican . . . From the beginning, politics and religion were in accord, and they have not ceased to be so since.”[ii]

He noted that “the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same.” He granted that there must be hypocrites and those who followed “their habits more than their convictions,” but concluded, “America is . . . still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.” [iii]

He admired the separation of church and state, but insisted religion should “be considered as the first of their political institutions” for “it singularly facilitates their use of” freedom. He went on, “I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion—for who can read to the bottom of hearts?—but I am sure they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”[iv] Not surprising, for, in his view, it was “religion that gave birth to the Anglo-American societies: one must never forget this; in the United States religion is therefore intermingled with all national habits and all the sentiments to which a native country gives birth; that gives it a particular strength.”[v]

He went on to say that Islam could not support an America,[vi] and lamented the comparative loss of faith in his homeland: “I am ignorant of what one would have to do to give back the energy of youth to European Christianity, God alone could do it.”[vii] And while giving the predominating Protestantism its due, he was pleased to report, “America is the most democratic land on earth, and it is at the same time the county where, according to trustworthy reports, the Catholic religion is making most progress.”[viii]

Psalm 33:12a says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” and, arguably, Tocqueville saw this truth reflected in some measure in America. Of course, we must ask what he would see if he returned today, either to America or to his native Europe. What evidence would he find of Christian devotion and its concomitant blessedness? Were his investigations discouraging, we could at least join him in a hope for revival, all the while granting that “God alone could do it.”

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Endnotes

[i] Matthew Parris, “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God,” Times, December 27, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/matthewparris/article2044345.ece (accessed March 18, 2016).

[ii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 275.

[iii] Tocqueville, 278.

[iv] Tocqueville, 280.

[v] Tocqueville, 406.

[vi] Tocqueville, 419, 420.

[vii] Tocqueville, 288.

[viii] Tocqueville, 424.

Clash of Worldviews—”Man: A Course of Study”

In 1963, Harvard psychology professor Jerome Bruner convened a group of scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their purpose was to develop a new social studies curriculum for America’s schools. Intoxicated with visions of the Great Society, many evolution.earthbelieved that the social sciences could solve the nation’s greatest ills. The National Science Foundation eventually awarded Bruner’s team $4.8 million to develop Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), a curriculum designed to teach fourth through sixth graders a purely naturalistic view of human nature.1 Many hailed it as a groundbreaking advance in educational theory. Christian parents, however, recognized it as a dangerous tool of social manipulation and secular indoctrination.

Bruner was perhaps the nation’s premier “expert” in educational matters. After a stint with the Army during World War II, studying the effects of propaganda on public opinion, he turned his attention to public education. He published several books including The Process of Education and The Culture of Education.2 Rejecting the traditional model of a teacher imparting knowledge to students, Bruner advanced a more liberal theory of education based on the free expression of ideas—students would learn more from creating answers than from reading them in books.3

True to Bruner’s philosophy, MACOS rejected an objective moral standard; right and wrong were determined solely by one’s environment. For instance, one segment of the course focused on the Netsilik Eskimos, among whom euthanasia and infanticide were common. Of course, such practices were unacceptable in American society, but who was to say they were absolutely wrong in a harsh environment where food was scarce? The course also denied any fundamental distinction between human and beast, inviting students to draw conclusions about humans from the behavior of salmon or apes.

Again and again, MACOS pressed the idea that no belief or behavior had value apart from its cultural context. “Our hope,” said Bruner, “is to lead children to understand how man goes about understanding the world, making sense of it; that one kind of explanation is no more human than another.”4 Congress eventually defunded MACOS, but by 1974, it had been purchased by some 1,700 schools in forty-seven states.5 And though its day has passed, it lives on through its many offspring, found in public schools throughout the land. In fact, the spirit of MACOS even lives on in other parts of the world.6

Christian parents may hope their schoolchildren are being taught firm morality, consistent with God’s Word. Unfortunately, many young people are being tutored in cultural relativism, the notion that all ethical judgments are subjective and arbitrary. Without trust in a transcendent, righteous, Creator God, many teachers make man the measure of all things—and a poor measure at that.7 Public schools may be the best option for a particular child’s education, but Christian parents must know their children are learning more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They may be absorbing a worldview that can undermine and destroy the Christian values instilled at home.

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Endnotes

1 Dorothy Nelkin, The Creation Controversy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 48.

2  Mark K. Smith, “Jerome Bruner and the Process of Education,” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education Website, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm.

3 This summary of Bruner’s educational philosophy taken from Nelkin, 49-51.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Ibid., 51.

6 In the 1970s, MACOS “kits” found their way to Queensland, Australia where parents quickly objected to their children being told stories of wife-swapping Eskimos. Although MACOS was stopped, an indigenous version was created, the Social Education Materials Project (SEMP). The SEMP curriculum taught that all values and behaviors are equal, and it encouraged teachers to avoid any moralizing or criticizing. Although the government banned SEMP in 1978, the promotion of “progressive” education has not faltered. See Dan O’Donnell, “Ethics and Values in Education: Can Schools Teach Right and Wrong?” (a paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Newcastle, Australia, November 24, 1994), The Australian Association for Research in Education Website, http://www.aare.edu.au/94pap/odond94077.txt (accessed June 28, 2005).

7 This is exactly what teachers in Hong Kong are tempted to do. In a 2002 survey, a group of teachers indicated an appreciation for a humanistic curriculum that makes students “the crucial source of science curriculum” (italics added). Pun Hon Ng and Derek Cheung, “Student-teachers’ Beliefs on Primary Science Curriculum Orientations,” New Horizons in Education 45-46 (May – November 2002), 44. The MACOS worldview is evident: objective truth and the mastery of science takes a back seat to “personal liberation and development.”

Praying for the King

Vintage Balance Scale1 Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
3 Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!

Psalm 72:1-3 (ESV)

Britain’s constitution recognizes that all government comes from God and depends on Him if it is to be godly. Each parliamentary session opens with prayer, one of which begins, “Almighty God, by whom alone Kings reign, and Princes decree justice; and from whom alone cometh all counsel, wisdom, and understanding; we thine unworthy servants, here gathered together in thy Name, do most humbly beseech thee to send down thy Heavenly Wisdom from above, to direct and guide us in all our consultations . . .”1

When Israel first demanded a king, they sinned, because they wanted one like the nations around them (1 Sam. 8:4-9). However, Samuel had warned them that such a king would not rule them justly, but would be greedy for personal gain (1 Sam. 8:11-14).3 Years later, King David recognized that if his son was not to be like the sinful rulers of the world, prayer was vital.

David longed for Solomon, his firstborn son, to rule with God’s justice and righteousness. “Justice” when used together with “righteousness” represents an ideal of social justice. In Israel, where the king was also a judge (e.g., 1 Kings 3:16-28), it was vital for him to judge people justly, especially the poor. Rather than abusing his power to grab what he could, a godly king would treat even his poorest subject rightly. Whilst David longed for Israel to prosper after he died, he wanted that prosperity to be founded on righteousness (v. 3).

David’s prayer was answered. When the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she saw a wise ruler of a prosperous nation, executing justice and righteousness (1 Kings 10:6-9). Nevertheless Solomon eventually turned from the Lord, his justice and righteousness were imperfect, and his sin led to the division of his kingdom. The full answer to David’s prayer would have to wait until the arrival of the true Son of David—Christ Jesus, who rules with perfect justice and righteousness, giving decisions for the poor, and whose prosperous kingdom will have no end.

However, although the psalm speaks mainly of the Lord Jesus, it also has secondary applications to all those in authority, whether kings, prime ministers, or presidents. If Israel sinned by wanting a king like the nations around them, Psalm 72 explains what it means to be a godly king unlike the sinful rulers of the world. David’s prayer tells us what God values in any ruler: righteousness and justice, which leads both to prosperity for the nation and justice for the poor.

Such qualities are not found naturally in fallen men; they are a gift of God. Happy then is the nation where Christians and their pastors entreat the Lord for rulers endowed with His justice and righteousness.

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Endnotes

1 Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords (London: The Stationery Office, 2003), Appendix K, http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld/ldcomp/ctso01.htm (accessed October 16, 2003).

Holy Sarcasm?

questionmark26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

1 Kings 18:26-27 (ESV)

For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!

2 Corinthians 11:19 (ESV)

At its root, “sarcasm” means “the rending of flesh,” for “flesh” in Greek is sarx. Here, of course, it applies to feelings, not skin. Even so, it is a harsh practice, as anyone who has felt its sting can attest. So some believers might rush to the judgment that sarcasm has no place in Christian writing and speech. After all, following the Golden Rule, who would wish to be on the receiving end of sarcasm? So how could one be warranted in using it?

The problem with condemning sarcasm is that Elijah and Paul used it in godly fashion. The former entered into a theological duel on Mount Carmel, one in which he demonstrated the power of Yahweh over the fictitious god, Baal. When the false prophets failed to elicit fire from heaven to light their sacrifice, Elijah suggested sarcastically that maybe they needed to yell to get his attention or that perhaps he was simply away in the “bathroom.” These were not genuine suggestions; Elijah did not believe in either of them. He merely raised them to embarrass the idolaters.

In Paul’s case, the Corinthian church, which he had founded and to which he had written before, was sliding into heresy. The church had fallen under the thrall of “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13), and the people were proud that they had followed their lead “up to the next level.” Paul made fun of their folly by saying they were so sharp that they were able to work with people who enslaved, devoured, defrauded, looked down on, and battered them (2 Cor. 11:20). He then “confessed” that he was simply too weak to handle that feat (2 Cor. 11:21). It was sarcasm, pure and simple.

Of course, these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people. Some find it constitutionally awkward, if not virtually impossible. Many are convinced that it is always unnecessary, essentially counterproductive, stylistically arrogant, and spiritually toxic. But if they dismiss it utterly, then they rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.

Certainly, one can overdo it. Indeed, some people trade on an excess of sarcasm, and their presence exhausts the patience and joy of all their listeners. But there is a countervailing danger: Today’s Church has drunk deeply at the well of political correctness and the cult of inviolate sensitivity. In so doing, they have stifled and disarmed prophets, condemning them for “wounding” sinners. They forget that the biblical prophets par excellence used harsh invective of many sorts to make their points. And unless the Church desires to turn its back on them, it should leave the way open for some practice of sarcasm.

Truth or Triangulation?

6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, capitalwill you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Acts 13:6-12 (ESV)

One school of politics lives and dies by the following maxim: there are no politics without polling. Leaders without scruples look for ways to please the greatest number of people with the least amount of conviction. This method, known as triangulation, operates by locating extremes, pinpointing the middle position, and developing a policy based upon the projected “center.” In order to be most effective, this relativistic approach depends upon advisors to determine the popular course of action. But the tactic runs aground when confronted with its archenemy: truth.

Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, was a shrewd politician and seemingly a student of triangulation. As the chief provincial governor, he understood well Rome’s imperial dictum: peace through strength, peace at all costs. Like his other Roman contemporaries, he was probably a religious skeptic. Eager to understand his constituency, the proconsul enlisted a Jewish sorcerer named Elymas (also called “Bar-Jesus”) most likely to help him interpret the Jewish mindset and understand public perception about spiritual matters.

When Barnabas and Saul landed in Salamis, the governor invited the apostles to present him with “the Word of God” (vv. 6-7). Fearful at what the preaching of the gospel might do to his prominence in the proconsul’s inner circle, Elymas sought to prevent God’s men from receiving a hearing. Paul condemned the sorcerer for touting magic over ministry, and Elymas was struck blind. Sergius Paulus responded in faith following this remarkable event. Notably, however, it was not the miracle alone that amazed him. Rather, he “was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (v. 12). Evidently, the gospel preached by Paul and Barnabas impressed the governor who witnessed its power over both spiritual and temporal realms.

Seemingly courageous men sometimes wither in the presence of power. In his book, Kingdoms in Conflict,[i]  Chuck Colson describes how during his service in the White House, he saw angry constituents wanting to give President Nixon a “piece of their mind” become sheepish when they were finally told, “The President will see you.” “Invariably,” Colson writes, “the lions of the waiting room became the lambs of the Oval Office.” When presented with these opportunities, Christians cannot afford such timidity.

Perceptive public officials may be more interested in theology than the modern evangelical church suspects. Like the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, some governmental leaders may begin their career as mere pragmatists. But when confronted with the objective truth of the Christian gospel, they might begin to see that the Bible rightly understands the solutions to the problems of the real world. By God’s grace, even the leaders of cities, states, and nations can be “astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”

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Endnote

[i] Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: William Morrow & Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 307.

Responding to the Paris Attacks and Muslim Youth Radicalization

Western Europe is still reeling from the terrorist attacks that struck Paris on the evening of Friday, November 13, killing 129 people and injuring over 300 more, many critically. Political leaders are discussing appropriate responses to follow up on France’s initial airstrike against Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State that has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

franceDetails are emerging about the eight gunmen who carried out the attacks, all in their 20s or 30s. They appear to include at least five French citizens, including the Abdeslam brothers, Salah and Brahim, who lived in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, described by Belgian authorities as a “breeding ground for jihadists.” Two others were born and bred in Paris, the target of their attacks. Another of the terrorists was a Syrian national who appears to have arrived in Greece and registered as a refugee in October.[i]

An obvious question that arises from the above details is the motivation of the eight young Muslim terrorists. US Secretary of State John Kerry offered an answer:

They are in fact psychopathic monsters and there is nothing, nothing civilized about them. So this is not a case of one civilization pitted against another. This is a battle between civilization itself and barbarism and fascism. Both at the same time.[ii]

This analysis is wildly off-target, completely ignoring any religious dimension to the motivation of Muslim terrorists. The fact that a US government official of Kerry’s stature and influence could so misunderstand the situation is itself a matter of great concern.

What are the factors that led these young Muslim men to undertake such violent acts, and what are the factors that are driving so many other young Muslims to commit themselves to fight for the Islamic State caliphate?

Elements in the radicalization process

There is a central idea fuelling Muslim youth radicalization: young Muslims travelling this path are following a particular conceptual role model that praises activism for Islam, jihadi militancy, and death for the sake of Allah. A range of intersecting elements underlie this core idea.

The first is the problem of radical preachers in some mosques, as revealed in the “Undercover Mosque” series of documentaries produced for Dispatches in the UK some years ago.[iii] It is very likely that some mosques and their preachers attended by the Paris attackers, especially in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, were a source of some of their radical ideas.

The subversive role of such preachers is exacerbated by easy access to radical Islamic websites and social media sites. Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State are very skilled at hooking impressionable young minds through social media. From time to time such sites are banned by governments, but others quickly emerge in their place. Such websites create the ingredients for a further key element reinforcing the radicalized role model: a peer group of real-life and virtual radicalized youth which adds fuel to the pressures on young Muslims.

Sadly, parents sometimes also provide a radicalized role model. The father of one of the much discussed 15-year-old jihadi brides from Bethnal Green in London who joined the Islamic State in Syria was filmed taking a very active part in one protest led by the notorious radical preacher Anjem Choudary.[iv] Many young Muslims are brought up in family contexts where rabid anti-Westernism is a key part of family discourse. This is likely to have been the case in the Abdeslam family, which provided two of the participants in the Paris attacks.

A further radicalization role model for young Muslims is provided by the prophet of Islam himself. Muhammad is a complex character, but during the last 10 years of his life in the city of Medina, Islamic sources, such as the prophetic traditions or Hadith and the authoritative biography of Muhammad or Sira, record that he developed the doctrine of jihad, plundered trading caravans, sanctioned the beheading of perceived enemies, and endorsed forced concubinage.

How to respond to the radicalization process

So what can be done to prevent the radicalization of Muslim youth in the West, and thereby to prevent attacks such as recently took place in Paris? To some extent, responses can be linked with the above factors producing radicalization.

First, there should be a mechanism for monitoring sermons in mosques which have a history of questionable preaching. This practice is already followed in some countries, including Muslim countries, such as in Singapore, Pakistan, and Egypt.[v]

Second, radical preachers should be prosecuted and, where possible, deported, as was the case with Abu Qatada, who was expelled from the UK to Jordan,[vi] and Abu Hamzah al-Masri, who was extradited from the UK to the United States to face terrorism charges.[vii] At the same time, Western governments should take steps to limit access to radical websites. Civil libertarians will be uncomfortable with any suggestion of censorship of sermons or websites, but these are unusual problems that require extraordinary solutions.

Furthermore, citizenship should be withdrawn from dual nationals found guilty of involvement in radical groups, as is being explored by Australia and France.[viii] This should also apply to parents involved in radicalization of their children. At the same time, there is an urgent need for re-education programs for returning jihadis and their brides.

Finally, moderate Muslim leadership needs to address the elephant in the room: the role of Muhammad as a model for jihadi activism. This issue is barely touched upon in public discourse and, when it is broached, it is usually addressed in hushed tones and from an oblique angle. But there is little doubt that radical Muslim youth look ultimately to the example of their prophet during his years in Medina. It cries out for a full and free discussion.

As for Christian responses, the church must work with government and other social institutions in addressing this crisis along the above lines. The potent cocktail of ingredients that lead young Muslim youth down the path of radicalization debunks a simplistic explanation that has been popular amongst church people, namely, that Muslim youth radicalization simply results from their alienation from majority society, which must bear the major responsibility for the result. No other marginalized religious minority community produces hostile and radicalized youth in this way. Islam is a special case, a fact that should be acknowledged and acted upon by church and state alike.

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[i] “5 Terrorists Identified, One by Shot-Off Finger,” November 15, 2015, RT Website, https://www.rt.com/news/322155-paris-terrorists-identities-revealed/ (accessed November 18, 2015).

[ii] Nahal Toosi and Eliza Collins, “Kerry Calls Paris Attackers ‘Psychopathic Monsters,’” November 16, 2015, Politico, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/11/john-kerry-paris-visit-215941 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[iii] Ole Olsen, Dispatches – Undercover Mosque, February 5, 2011, https://vimeo.com/19598947 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[iv] Jake Wallis Simons and Chris Greenwood, “Exclusive: Father Who Blamed Police for Not Stopping his Daughter Joining ISIS Attended 2012 Rally Led by Hate Preacher Anjem Choudary and Attended by Lee Rigby Killer,” March 26, 2015, Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3013703/Father-jihadi-bride-schoolgirl-attended-2012-Islamist-rally-attended-Lee-Rigby-s-killer-led-preacher-Anjem-Choudary.html (accessed November 18, 2015).

[v] Khalid Hasnain, “MYC to Monitor Friday Sermons in Mosques,” May 27, 2015, Dawn, http://www.dawn.com/news/1184519 (accessed November 18, 2015); Christa Case Bryant, “Islam, scripted: Egypt Reins in Friday Sermons at Mosque,” April 28, 2014, Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2014/0428/Islam-scripted-Egypt-reins-in-Friday-sermons-at-mosque (accessed November 18, 2015).

[vi] “Abu Qatada Deported from UK to Stand Trial in Jordan,” July 7, 2013, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-23213740 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[vii] “Radical Cleric Abu Hamza Jailed for Life by US Court,” January 9, 2015, BBC Website, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30754959 (accessed November 18, 2015).

[viii] James Bennett, Eliza Borrello, and Chris Uhlmann, “Government Promises Laws to Strip Citizenship from Dual-Nationality Terrorists Within Weeks, Amid Debate within Cabinet,” May 26, 2015, ABC Website, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-26/government-promises-laws-to-strip-citizenship-from-terrorists/6498300 (accessed November 18, 2015); “France to Strip 5 ‘Terrorists’ of Nationality,” October 6, 2015, The Local, http://www.thelocal.fr/20151006/france-to-strip-nationality-from-five-terrorists (accessed November 18, 2015).