Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Cross We Must Bear?

My weekly Bible study group has been using a fascinating book titled “Cries from the Cross” by Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor at Chicago’s Moody Church. It is a short work, but full of riches, as Lutzer examines the last words of Jesus, cried out in anguish as He hung on the cross.

We concluded our studies recently with the book’s Epilogue, “Taking the Cross into the World,” where the author reminded us that the cross represents the great reversal of values of the world.

Cries from the CrossFor example, he relates, in the early centuries after Jesus, Christianity “captured” North Africa, thanks to the “love of the Christians that defied explanation.”

Thus, when Christians found dead bodies abandoned in the street they washed them and gave them a decent burial. “The pagans were impressed with these unexplained acts of love,” writes Lutzer.

It reminded me of Shusaku Endo’s great novel “The Silence” (soon to be released as a movie by Martin Scorsese), with his strikingly similar depiction of the attraction of Christianity for 16th-century Japanese peasants:

I tell you the truth – for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.

And yet – Christianity was later eradicated from both North Africa and Japan through oppression and force of arms. Remnants remain in both places, but they are small and without much influence.

Is it truly enough just to have a love that defies explanation? Do Christians not need something more? Like our own armies? Or is regular persecution simply the cross we must always bear?

One of the members of my Bible study group commented during our discussion that God surely has a purpose in allowing the depravities of ISIS that we are witnessing in the Middle East.

Really? I hope so. For it is at times like these that I am thrown back on Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Syrian Christians Blamed for ISIS-Like Atrocities

An article in The Times newspaper, alleging atrocities by Christian militia in Syria, has sparked some “I told you so” posts on social media, from people claiming that Christianity is inherently just as violent as Islam.

Titled “Christians Give a Display of Savagery among Saints and Candles,” the article is by Anthony Loyd, a veteran war correspondent who has previously reported from conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq.

Loyd wrote that he encountered two dozen Christian refugees in a church in the Syrian town of Darbasiyah, near the Turkish border. They were apparently sheltering from the fierce sun outside.

At first they were “warm and welcoming,” he reported, but then one of the men – a former bank employee now fighting with a Christian militia group – started berating him for alleged British support for Islamic State. This, said Loyd, is the lie that President Bashar Assad has been persistently telling his people.

But what happened next came as a shock, as the man exclaimed: “We cut off the terrorists’ heads as they tried to enter the medina in Hasakah.” He pulled out his mobile phone and showed photographs of a military commander holding two severed heads, while resting his foot on a third.

“Cutting heads is not a good thing,” the man insisted to Loyd. “But if what was done to us was done to you by the Daesh [Islamic State], you would cut heads too. We are taking our revenge for what has been done to us.”

Loyd, a good reporter, did seek further confirmation. A Christian woman inside the church said the heads had more likely been severed from their bodies after a bomb explosion.

Later, another Christian told him it was probable that the dead men were actually killed by the Syrian army, and the mutilation was then carried out by tribal militia.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it has not stopped some commentators from using social media to berate Christians.

Here is one comment that I found: “So now everyone is cutting off heads??…How could you not see this coming? Irrespective of recent happenings historically basically all religions or demographics have gone through their phase of beheading people right?”

Another person wrote: “Well false messiahs will always gather/shepherd new blood, especially the young lambs towards the flames…??”

Four months ago in Pakistan suicide bombers attacked two churches during Sunday worship, leaving 15 dead and scores injured. Subsequently some Christians went on a rampage, blocking roads, attacking police and then seizing two suspects who were being held in police custody, and beating them both to death.

I wrote at the time: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.” Then I added: “When your churches are being bombed and the authorities do nothing, it is difficult to turn the other cheek…. And sadly, as violence against Christians escalates, particularly in the Muslim world, I believe that we can almost certainly expect more such retaliation.”

Those Pakistani rioters may not really have been Christians. Certainly they were not at all behaving in a Christian manner. And we will probably never know the truth about who committed the atrocities in Syria.

But unfortunately, as the war on Christians continues, and in particular as Islamic State revels in the most grotesque depravity, it is difficult to expect that some Christians will never retaliate in kind.

I can only sadly repeat what I wrote four months ago: “I suspect we are going to see more of this.”

Does God Still Speak to Soldiers?

In Old Testament times God spoke regularly to Israel’s military commanders, directing their battles and bringing about the defeat of their enemies. He sent an angel to instruct Joshua about how to conquer Jericho. He told David how to overcome the Philistines. There are many other examples.

soldier-waving-to-civiliansBut what about today? Can a Christian military leader expect divine intervention? Does God still take sides?

Some Christian officers have spoken openly of their faith, of how they have turned to God in their times of need and of how He has responded.

Here is Major General Tim Cross of the British Army on God at work in the life of a fellow Christian officer:

Major Chris Keeble, when Colonel H Jones was killed at Goose Green in the 1982 Falklands War, was left alone and somewhat lost; others looked to him as the Battalion second-in-command for leadership. His moment had come; so what did he do?

He moved off alone and knelt in the burning heather; with a prayer taken from his pocket in has hand he sought the Lord. And from there he gathered himself up, and with the command team he went and sought the Argentinean surrender; it was an incredibly bold move, but Keeble is a Christian and it was not by chance that he carried God’s word and a prayer with him, and he was not abandoned by his Lord at this decisive moment.

General Pil Sup Lee, formerly chairman of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, has no doubt that God intervened for him at a crucial time:

In August 1979, I was appointed as a regiment commander on the frontline. Back then, there were frequent small-scale infiltrations by enemy soldiers into the South to carry out assassination missions and collect intelligence. It was a very daunting task to search out these enemy soldiers who were infiltrating along the 155-mile military demarcation line and the 3,767-mile coastline.

Under such circumstances, I thought the best way was to seek God’s help, because “unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain” (Psalm 127:1). I continuously prayed for this daunting mission of safeguarding my nation from enemy infiltration. And when I was about to begin my new mission as a regiment commander, I fasted for three days and prayed to the Lord.

…On March 23, 1980 at 02:45, there was no moonlight and the sky was draped with clouds. Sleet was pouring down making visibility less than 50 meters. I still wonder how a group of three enemy infiltrators, who were highly trained, select agents, risking their lives, walked up to one of our sentry boxes that were set up every 400 meters.

How could our newly recruited sentries completely suppress those enemy agents without any casualties? Situations unfolded in such a way that defies explanation with conventional tactical assessments.

Many modern Christians will feel uncomfortable with such talk. Yes, they will say, it seems exactly right that God should save lives by arranging for the surrender of Argentinean forces to the British. But does He really answer prayer by helping South Korean soldiers kill three infiltrators from the North?

I don’t have a complete answer. But I do know that God promises to uphold justice and righteousness. I also know that He is sovereign. And when we start placing limits on his sovereignty we dishonor Him.

As we read in Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A Christian Twitterstorm

I found myself in a mild Twitterstorm the other day, if Christians politely disagreeing with one another can be called a Twitterstorm.

It started with a tweet of mine: “Christianity under threat from ISIS. We must understand the issues. A new book is invaluable.” I then linked to a review I had written on my website of the book “Defying ISIS” by Johnnie Moore.

It is an excellent book, and I had concluded my review with these words: “This is a short book and a quick read (though not an easy read, given the grim content matter). With Christianity under threat of eradication in the land of its birth, it is vital that all Christians understand the issues. ‘Defying ISIS’ is an excellent starting point.”

Anyway, I soon received a response to my tweet: “@AuthorMRoth Christianity is not under threat. Jesus said he will build his church & the gates of hell will never prevail against it. #ISIS”.

Well yes, Christianity as a whole will prevail. We know that. But Christianity in Iraq and Syria is being eradicated by the depravities of ISIS. That was the point of my initial comment. So I tweeted back: “Christianity has already been wiped out in North Africa. Now it is being wiped out in Iraq.”

To which my correspondent replied: “@AuthorMRoth Bible prophesied about persecution. Christians are being displaced not wiped out.”

So I tweeted: “Christianity might be growing in China and elsewhere, but it’s being wiped out in Iraq. That’s my point. It’s a tragedy.”

I then received the reply: “I understand”, and that was the end of the exchange.

But it set me thinking about how we regard the genocide now being carried out by the barbarians of ISIS.

Is it something to be expected – prophesied in the Bible, even – part of the ebb and flow of Christianity? While our faith declines in one part of the globe it rises in another?

Right now Christianity is under attack in the Mideast from Muslim extremists. It is also under attack in the West, and in decline, from the forces of secularism.

Meanwhile it is booming in China and South Korea and parts of Africa, and there is some significant revival occurring in areas of South America.

Of course we express joy, and give thanks, for so many new Christians. But to describe what is happening in the Mideast as, “Christians are being displaced not wiped out,” is, to my mind almost an insult. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is a tragedy of almost unmentionable proportions. Every Christian should be grieving.

When Silence Would Have Been Better

Jesuit theologian William Johnston did a fine job of translating Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece “Silence” into English. The book is now set to become a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. I am sure sales will soar.

Johnston died five years ago. I met him several decades earlier, in 1982. Here is an anecdote from our meeting.

SilenceBorn in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Johnston later traveled to Japan as a Catholic missionary. It was there that he became enamored with Buddhism, particularly Zen, to the extent that he wrote a book titled “Christian Zen.” He also became a teacher at Tokyo’s Sophia University, a very fine Catholic institution.

I had arrived in Tokyo in 1976, and was also attracted to Zen Buddhism. As a journalist, I began writing about it, and with Buddhist scholar John Stevens I co-authored a book, “Zen Guide.”

Doing research for this book, I several times attended Zen meditation sessions at Sophia University that were run by Johnston and other Catholic priests there. (I should mention that my co-author John Stevens was pretty scornful of attempts to fuse Zen and Christianity, so none of this made it into “Zen Guide.”)

Here is how I described it in another book of mine, “Journey Out Of Nothing:”

I attended one of the services, and was underwhelmed. A dozen-or-so participants sat on tatami mats in a small room, spent a short time in meditation, and then a priest recited a short liturgy, said a prayer and gave a brief homily. I could not see the point of it all.

After the service a group of several young Spanish and Latin American priests prepared a delicious meal – including squid cooked in its own ink, which I was able to taste for the first time – and we ate together, and drank Spanish red wine.

The handsome young Latin priests were a lively bunch, noisy and cheeky (a Catholic friend later told me that most of them ended up marrying Japanese girls). And I should confess that we were all drinking a lot of that excellent Spanish wine.

This was in 1982, and the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was then raging. At one point in the evening a Spanish priest turned to a young Argentinian priest and in a loud voice pointed at me and shouted repeatedly (in English): “He’s British. He’s British. Don’t you want to fight him?” It was meant as a humorous attempt to rile his colleague, but it came across as something of an aggressive taunt. (I was not British. I’m now a naturalized Australian. Back then I was a New Zealander.)

The young Argentinian was clearly embarrassed, as the Spanish priest wouldn’t stop. He kept shouting, “He’s British,” and pointing at me. I too became embarrassed. I was sitting right by William Johnston, so to try to defuse the situation I turned to him and said the first words that came to me: “I suppose as an Irishman you support Argentina in the Falklands.” It was meant as a light-hearted quip.

His immediate response: “As a human being I support Argentina.”

To which I replied: “Oh, as a human being I support the British.” As I said, we had all been drinking a lot of red wine.

Johnston looked at me for a moment with what seemed to be stunned silence, and then he launched into one of the most aggressive tirades of abuse against the British that I have ever heard. I forget the details, but I know it encompassed his upbringing in Belfast and the discrimination he encountered there, followed by his later years as an Irishman in Liverpool. I recall that at one point he was even fuming about British actions in the 16th century during the Spanish Armada.

Now it was I who was stunned into silence. I was not a Christian and had in fact been raised in an anti-Christian household. Yet, somehow, I still had something of an old-fashioned image of men of the cloth – possibly from hardly ever having met any – that they were quiet, humble, hard-working, peaceful and eternally gracious. I was quite shocked by this torrent of abuse.

I was a spiritual seeker back then, but fortunately I was still deeply into the Zen phase of my journey towards Jesus. I suspect that, had I been investigating Christianity, then that tirade from Johnston, the former missionary, would have lost me. It was only some years later, in 1993 that I found Jesus (or should I say that He found me?) here in Australia.

New Movie Spotlights Christian Persecution – Too Late for Mideast Faithful

A forthcoming new film from famed director Martin Scorsese is set to confront the movie-going public with the issue of the persecution of Christians.

It is “Silence,” based on the celebrated 1966 historical novel by Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Silence“Silence,” Endo’s masterpiece, is set in seventeenth-century Japan and tells the story of an idealistic Portuguese missionary trying to help his Christian brethren in Japan, while the authorities work to eradicate the religion.

It is based on real people and real events, and it is striking to read of the cruelty that was employed by the Japanese shogun – military leader – and his officials, so determined were they to rid Japan of Christianity and all that it stood for.

A favored torture method was to hang a Christian upside-down over a pit of excrement, with a tiny cut behind the ear sending blood – one slow drop at a time – running down the victim’s face. Merciful death could take a week.

At other times a Christian was tied to a pole that was secured in the sea. High tide would come up just to the victim’s neck, then the water would abate. Again, death was slow.

Now we are seeing something similar happening in Iraq and Syria, with Christianity under attack from a merciless campaign of genocide by the criminals of ISIS.

It is difficult to obtain reliable news from the region, but it is clear that ISIS has already blown up and destroyed churches, monasteries and historic sites, such as the tomb in Nineveh where, according to tradition, the prophet Jonah was buried. Hundreds of thousands have fled.

Nineveh is part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and large numbers of Christians lived and worshipped there for nearly 2,000 years. It is now possible that not one Christian remains.

The seventeenth-century Japanese authorities were equally relentless and brutal as they forced hundreds of thousands of believers to renounce their faith. They achieved almost total success in uprooting Christianity from their homeland.

Yet when the country was opened up again to the West, 200 years later, visitors were amazed to discover scattered remnants of secret believers, still covertly practising their faith.

This might be some cause for comfort, as we witness the holocaust now taking place in the Mideast. But we must also remember that, despite all the intense efforts of missionaries over the past 150 years, fewer than one per cent of Japan’s population today are Christian.

Yes, a remnant of secret believers might linger in ISIS-controlled territory. But I repeat what I have already written – the events that we see unfold before us in the Middle East today are a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The new Scorsese movie may well spark outrage among the general public about the persecution of Christians. I hope it does. But it will come too late for the faithful of Iraq and Syria.

Coptic Christians Needed for Mideast Peace and Stability

Recently it might appear that conditions have not been too bad for the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a point of visiting the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Christmas Eve, and he has worked to foster good relations with Coptic Pope Tawadros II. He has spoken out on the need for Islam to reform itself.

Meanwhile, the horrific massacre in February of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, by the barbarians of Islamic State, appeared to have outraged Egypt’s Christians and Muslims alike.

But look more closely and a different picture emerges. And looking more closely is exactly what John L. Allen Jr., author of “The Global War On Christians,” has just done, during a visit to Egypt.

In a report this month at the Boston Globe Media website “Crux,” he stated that his aim was to “reverse-engineer Stalin’s famous dictum that one death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic.”

In other words, he was seeking out individual stories on the lives of the Coptic Christians in Egypt today. What he found was heart-rending.

For example, he met a Christian doctor who was kidnapped in Egypt’s Sinai region and held for 92 days, blindfolded and handcuffed, until his family paid a ransom.

According to Allen, this man was sometimes put in a car and driven around listening to verses from the Koran, while his captors beat him with a rubber hose for refusing to accept Islam.

Another encounter was with Ayman Samwel, a pharmacist and a member of the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s underclass of “garbage people” who are almost entirely Christian.

Allen wrote: “Last week Samwel was rousted from his bed by police at 3:00 am and dragged off to a station house, where he says he was beaten for four hours and subjected to verbal abuse about his faith. As Samwel describes it, it’s part of routine harassment of his community.”

For the past year the eyes of Christians have been focused on Iraq and Syria, and the horrors being perpetrated by Islamic State. But the eyes of many Mideast Muslims have also been focused on Islamic State, and its rhetoric and actions have seemingly emboldened them to step up their persecution of Christians.

Several months ago I wrote a commentary titled “More Christians, More Peace.” I quoted an American journalist who had just returned from his third visit to Iraq as affirming that real peace in the Middle East would require a sizeable Christian presence. “Where there are Christians in the world there is more peace,” he told me.

Allen reached a similar conclusion after his visit to Egypt. If Christians go down in Egypt, then they will go down across the entire region, he stated. And that will be the end for any realistic hope for pluralism, democracy and stability in the Middle East.

But – and this is my own opinion, not his – the outlook is not promising.

Threats Against Christians in Jerusalem – A Disturbing Trend

It is disturbing to learn of a growing number of Islamist threats against Christians in the holy city of Jerusalem. The latest such incident comes in the form of leaflets that were distributed there recently, purporting to be issued by “Islamic State, Jerusalem Emirate.”

The leaflets state that Islamic State knows where most Christians in Jerusalem live, and warn that they have until Eid al-Fitr – the festival marking the end of Ramadan on July 19th – to leave the city or be killed.

Last November I interviewed Karen Dunham, pastor of the Living Bread International Church in Jerusalem, and she told me that Muslim neighbors had attacked her church, although this appeared to be partly a dispute over property rights, as well as over religion.

She added that the police were slow to make arrests, “because the attackers are Arab Israelis, and we are foreigners and Christians. The police did not want to cause trouble within the Arab community, so they really did not do much to help us. If we were of the Islamic or Jewish faith we would have had much more support.”

In May this year a group of Muslims launched an attack on Jerusalem’s Christian quarter. Nashat Filmon, general director of the Palestinian branch of The Bible Society, was quoted as linking this to Islamic State.

Also in May an imam at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem posted online a video calling for Muslims to be constantly at war with the “polytheist enemy,” meaning Christians and Jews.

It is not just Islamists. Jewish extremists have also engaged in anti-Christian activity. For example, they are believed to be behind an arson attack in June on the Church of the Multiplication, near the Sea of Galilee, the traditional site where Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with bread and fish.

But it is the Islamist threat that is the major concern, with a growing number of anti-Christian incidents in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, and rising support for Islamic State among some Israeli Muslims.

Christians remain free to worship in Israel, and Christianity there is thriving and growing. Nowhere else in the Middle East is this true. No wonder Islamic State is issuing its threats. We have seen what the organization has done in the areas under its control, aggressively wiping out any Christian presence.

There are many calls – even from Christians – for Jerusalem to be placed under Palestinian control or, at best, under some kind of international administration. How long, then, would Christians be free to worship? How long might our churches and monasteries even remain standing?

These latest disturbing incidents are surely grounds for insisting that Jerusalem remains governed and protected by Israel.