Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Jesus as the New Rambo?

When I was in Junior High, the family I lived with belonged to the Open Bible Standard Church, a Pentecostal denomination. My Uncle Dub was the pastor. On Wednesday nights, we went to the mid-week service, which was usually a lengthy teaching from Uncle Dub on either the book of Daniel or the Revelation to John.

I have fond memories of Uncle Dub. He had a passion for the Gospel, and a winsome style. It was not unusual for him to preach for more than an hour. Sometimes, in the middle of his sermon, he would start a hymn, and then sit in silence while we sang. By the end of the hymn, he had marshaled his thoughts, and we were off again for another thirty minutes of passionate rhetoric.

When the Left Behind series came out, I had parishioners who kept encouraging me to give it a read, as they were interested in my opinion. I resisted for some time, but eventually gave in, and read the first three volumes.

I got that far in the series by considering it as Uncle Dub would have understood it. For the most part, it is an accurate depiction of what many Christians who are preoccupied with the rapture believe.

At one point, there are terrible earthquakes and firestorms, resulting in thousands of casualties. Some of these disasters are described in vivid detail. One of the characters asks how God could allow such carnage. The response by one of the new Christians is to claim that these disasters are an expression of God's love. They are the way God is trying to get our attention. That was the end for me. I closed the book, and have never been tempted to reopen it since.

The last volume of the series is out, Glorious Appearing. Paul O'Donnell, writing for Beliefnet, gives us a taste of this Killer Ending:

Encountering the army of the Anti-Christ near the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the Christ Triumphant announces, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End, the Almighty." Upon hearing these words, the Anti-Christ's minions "fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses." Later, the Lord rides a white horse to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he sits on his throne of judgment. As he approaches, the saved sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
I think that image of Christ would have even made Uncle Dub wince.

O'Donnell goes on to suggest that, especially since 9/11, this more macho "warrior Jesus" image has become quite popular. Does this bother anyone else?

It doesn't bother me because I am a pacifist. I've played with the idea of pacifism, but working as the director of a homeless shelter and the counselor of the adolescent unit of a treatment center, as well as too many years on the street, has made it clear to me that hesitation in the face of the threat of violence can get you killed. Sometimes force is the appropriate response, especially when confronted with a sick or wild animal that needs to be put in a cage. Maybe I'm wrong, but that is the stark reality my life has taught me.

What bothers me about this image of Jesus as Rambo is that I think it is not only seriously flawed, but the timing of its emergence could not be worse.

I think we are quickly approaching a critical moment in history, a moment that is too important for us to remain blind to some of the unconscious motives behind some of our actions. I think it is time to bring our dark side into the light, instead of denying it.

One way of understanding these unconscious motives is to use the model of the Hegelian Dialectic. A primary thesis creates its opposite, an antithesis. The synthesis of these two ideas creates a new third idea, which immediately creates a new antithesis, and the cycle starts once again.

The antithesis to capitalism was communism. With the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, capitalism appeared to have established itself once and for all as the dominant idea. What was not anticipated was the emergence of a new antithesis from a source no one had ever considered; Islam.

More and more, it looks to me that what we are seeing is Christianity (primarily capitalist, especially in its Protestant form) squaring off to take on Islam in a holy war (the ultimate oxymoron).

This has been building long before 9/11. Even though many Christians may not be conscious of it, in the back of our minds is the idea that some of us have been taught that on the last day, in the battle of Armageddon, the "good guys" will be on the side of Israel. Having identified the Israelis as the "good guys," the obvious next step is to identify the Arabs as the "bad guys." I suspect that is the real reason for the apparent pro-Israeli bias on the part of the US. 9/11 has brought this unconscious bias into the light, to some degree, although the denial that what is really happening is a showdown between the three Abrahamic faiths continues.

Our previous Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has chosen this moment to add fuel to the fire. I have great respect for George Carey. I have facilitated studies of his excellent book, I Believe, which offers, among other things, a solid breakdown of five different models helpful in understanding atonement. His derogatory comments about Islam surprise me. They are not helpful in relieving the current global tensions.

What is helpful is the development of programs like the Interfaith Education Initiative, sponsored by the Episcopal Church. This program attempts to address the heightened suspicion and distrust among Christians towards Muslims by a process of education and dialogue.

Another group that has seen the steady march towards a self-destructive holy war and is attempting to turn it is the United Religions Initiative, initiated by Bishop Swing of California in 1996. Their goal is to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. There is no attempt by the URI to develop some generic, pluralistic theology. It is an attempt to encourage the religious leaders of the world to sit down together and begin to work towards common goals, such as world peace. They recognize that the root of many of the wars throughout history have been, both consciously and unconsciously, religious differences.

There are other signs of hope as well. Recently, leaders at an African inter-faith summit pledged to work together to curb the violence that plagues that continent.

What is not helpful is demonizing Muslims and planting images of Jesus as an avenging angel. We are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are rushing towards an "end time" of our own making, with the potential to destroy not only all of humanity, but this entire earth, our island home.


UPDATE: A letter in today's Independent:

Muslims and Christians must form a dialogue

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is to be thanked for her truthful and gently withering account of Christianity vis-à-vis Islam ("Is Christianity really better than Islam?", 29 March), following former Archbishop George Carey's recent speech about the problem with Islam today. Perhaps the following story can add to our interpretation of events.

Whilst a postgraduate student at Oxford I attended a lecture by an elderly Anglican cleric on "comparative religion", and something he said struck me like a thunderbolt. He predicted that the third world war would be brought about, not by the conflict between communism and capitalism, but by the collision of a "resurgent Islam" with the West. He added: "I can see the signs now". That was during the Michaelmas term 1955.

I have quoted him repeatedly over the intervening years, always noting that the clash that he predicted was not one between Islam and Christianity as such, but between Islam and the Western world.

It would seem that the Church, in its more reasonable and informed incarnation, has not been entirely blind to the approaching storm over the past half-century; and that, if a catastrophe is to be averted, what is needed more then ever is a reasonable and informed dialogue between these two world faiths on a basis of absolute equality.

So may I appeal to Dr Carey, whose courage and patient endurance as our archbishop was never in doubt, to allow his successor to get on with this task. For innumerable people, Rowan Willams - with his profound intellect and imagination, and his Christ-like openness of mind - represents our best hope of making the Christian faith meaningful and more effective in overcoming the dangers of our time.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is the full text of Lord Carey's address, Christianity and Islam: Collision or Convergence? Viewed in context, his statements appear much less inflammatory, and offer some helpful insights (thanks for the nudge, Obadiah).

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