Thursday, September 27, 2012

Peacemaking in the Muslim World

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
Matthew 5:9

Last Friday and Saturday, tens of thousands took to the streets in Benghazi to protest the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was widely recognized as a friend of the Libyan people. A Libyan man, shocked by the violence, commented,  “Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had a saying about not killing an envoy, a diplomat,” he said. “But every religion has its extremes.”

When it comes to Islam, the ongoing complaint is that we never hear from the moderates. They are silent and invisible. But last weekend in Benghazi the moderates were out in large numbers. Writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, Thomas Friedman commented, “It is not clear whether this trend can spread or be sustained. But having decried the voices of intolerance that so often intimidate everyone in that region, I find it heartening to see Libyans carrying signs like ‘We want justice for Chris’ and ‘No more Al Qaeda’ — and demanding that armed militias disband. This coincides with some brutally honest articles in the Arab/Muslim press — in response to rioting triggered by the idiotic YouTube video insulting the Prophet Muhammad — that are not the usual ‘What is wrong with America?’  but, rather, ‘What is wrong with us, and how do we fix it?’”

The critical commentary was not limited to Benghazi. Throughout the Muslim world, voices were raised in protest. Friedman quotes a brutal critique from Imad al-Din Hussein, who writes for Al Shorouk, the leading Cairo newspaper: “We curse the West day and night, and criticize its [moral] disintegration and shamelessness, while relying on it for everything. ... We import, mostly from the West, cars, trains, planes ... refrigerators, and washing machines. ... We are a nation that contributes nothing to human civilization in the current era. ... We have become a burden on [other] nations. ... Had we truly implemented the essence of the directives of Islam and all [other] religions, we would have been at the forefront of the nations. The world will respect us when we return to being people who take part in human civilization, instead of [being] parasites who are spread out over the map of the advanced world, feeding off its production and later attacking it from morning until night. ... The West is not an oasis of idealism. It also contains exploitation in many areas. But at least it is not sunk in delusions, trivialities and external appearances, as we are. ... Therefore, supporting Islam and the prophet of the Muslims should be done through work, production, values, and culture, not by storming embassies and murdering diplomats.”

In every country and in every culture, the loudest voices are always the extremists. And they always have influence disproportionate to their numbers. It is good to remind ourselves that they are not the only voices.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Faith and Politics in America

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

The Bible is a profoundly political book. The prophets proclaim God’s passion for justice as the foundation of the social order. And the message of Jesus is centered on “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” In the Lord’s Prayer, our first petition is, “Thy Kingdom come.” When the early church spoke of Jesus as “Lord,” and “Savior,” and “Son of God,” they knew that all of these terms were used to apply to the Emperor. And they knew that the Empire had killed Jesus because he was a political threat. When early Christians said that Jesus was “Lord,” they were also saying, “and Caesar is not.”

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

What does this mean for us as Christians in an election year?

First, we need to keep perspective. Near the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the apocalypse as a time when “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Elections matter and the choices are real, but regardless of who wins and who loses; this will not be the apocalypse.

Second, we should not assume that those with whom we disagree are lacking in honesty or sincerity or faith. We are not choosing between good and evil; we are choosing between competing visions of the good.

Third, we need to remember that it is always easier to see the speck in the eye of our neighbor (or the opposing candidate) than it is to see the log in our own eye. As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with repentance and humility. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sometimes the Good Guys Win

8Finally, beloved,* whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about* these things.
Philippians 4:8

R. A. Dickey is one of the best stories in baseball this year.

At age 37 he is one of the oldest pitchers in a starting rotation. He is also the only current knuckleballer. His 18-5 record of wins and losses is second in the National League, an improbable achievement, since his team, the New York Mets, has an overall record of 66 wins and 80 losses. At 2.68, his earned run average leads the league. He’s also first in complete games and in shutouts. He’s second in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), strikeouts, and innings pitched.

Dickey’s life has not been easy. He grew up with an alcoholic mother and was sexually abused by a baby-sitter. His refuge was athletics. But his path to the Major Leagues was not an easy one. He was an Academic All-American at Tennessee and was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers in 1996, but a routine physical showed there was something the matter with his arm. His right elbow was missing a ligament. Dickey recalls, “They thought they had drafted damaged goods, and I went back to Nashville thinking that I may never throw for a professional team again.”

Eventually, the Rangers did sign him for $75,000, a small fraction of what they had originally offered. He bounced around the minors with little success. In 2006, after re-inventing himself as a knuckleballer, he got another chance to start a major league game, but he gave up 6 runs and was immediately demoted to the minors in Oklahoma.

His minor league exile led to a baptismal experience that changed his life. One night after a game he decided that he wanted to swim across the Missouri River. It was not long after he waded into the water that he discovered that the current and the undertow were much worse than he had anticipated. "Every stroke was a determined stroke to try to survive an experience where I [thought that I] may drown,” he said. "I had given myself over to the fact that this was it, I wasn't going to make it. The undertow was pulling me down."

His feet touched bottom just as he was giving up and prepared to sink and let the water fill his lungs. He was able to make his way toward the shore where a teammate pulled him out of the river. "I look at it as almost a baptism of sorts," Dickey said. "I went into the Missouri River; I was hanging on by a thread professionally. ... And when I came out of the river, I ended up going 11-2 with a 2.80 ERA and became the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year. I think when I came out of the river, I was so consumed with just wanting to live in the present well — wanting to enjoy every second — that I think that carried over directly into my pitching, and I just cared about each pitch singularly. ... And I decided that that's how I wanted to live my life."

The Mets are not on television very often and I have only watched him pitch once. It was a game against the Yankees and he did not display his best stuff. But he did show me something at least as important. After nearly hitting Alex Rodriguez in the head with a wayward knuckleball, he took a couple of steps toward home plate and shouted an apology.