I’m not sure if I am ready for Christmas this year. 2020 has overindulged me with food for Advent, the period of preparation leading up to Christmas. Never have I found it so natural to enter into this season of watching for God to come as in the midst of this year’s political turmoil, social unrest, cataclysmic weather, and global loss of stability, community, and life. A weary world cries out for a Savior, whether under the guise of a vaccine, a candidate, a policy, or a donation. And my soul joins the cry: Hosanna! O save us!
But my longing is tempered by the sobering thought that we may not be ready to receive what we ask for. If God showed up on earth today, would we welcome His coming any better than those who failed to receive Him 2020 years ago? Would we be willing to have our lifestyles, our our social structures, and our economic interests overturned by His radically different ways? Am I ready (and willing) to turn over my personal plans, my property, my time, my relationships, and my body to His way of doing things?
Such radical relinquishment of control rattles what little sense of security I have left at the end of this destabilizing year. It forces the question: Who do I really want to be in charge? Whose rule would I truly welcome in my life and my world?
As our family has worked our way through Advent readings from the Prophets and Gospels, our Christmas warm fuzzies have been replaced with sober self-reflection. Their message repeats: God does not show up on human terms. If we invoke His presence in our world, we need to understand what it is we are asking for. We are inviting the Refiner’s Fire to burn away our dross. I am asking the Judge who sees my hidden agendas and petty indulgences to lay them bare. This is the process through which He makes all things new. He exposes what is wrong and then catches it up in His merciful arms to change it until it is right.
Am I ready to receive what I am asking for?
And yet can I afford not to ask for it?
As I sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” images flash through my mind of Covid patients fighting a losing battle for breath and landscapes devastated by wind, fire, and flood. I see communities divided by mistrust and anger, individuals torn apart by mental illness and addiction, and families separated by conflict, war, politics, quarantine, and death. We have done our best to rule the world under our own steam, and 2020 has shown us how well that goes.
I identify with the rich young ruler, wanting to receive the gift of God’s kingdom and yet vacillating on the threshold of what it will cost me. I’m not sure I am ready for Christmas this year. But I am sure that I can trust the One whose coming I anticipate and hasten. His arm is strong to save and gentle to restore. His ways are not like ours, and for that I am increasingly grateful.
I remember the first time it really registered with me that I was white. We had been living in South Asia for a few years by then, and I had gradually grown accustomed to being stared at constantly whenever I ventured out into public. My response to the unrelenting looks, comments, and stereotyping treatment had gradually shifted from overwhelmed to annoyed to humorous to tuned-out. I had finally integrated enough to speak the local language, develop my personal style within the cultural milieu, and feel like I fit in with my local friends. One day we were in a sari shop together, and I turned to the mirror with a potential purchase draped across my shoulder. I almost dropped the sari with shock over the lanky white woman staring back at me. I don’t know what I expected to see, but this woman stood out like a sore thumb from all the delicate brown faces around her. No amount of linguistic or cultural adaptation would be able to hide her very white features. The incessant reactions from strangers in the marketplace were simply a reiteration of my irreconcilable “otherness.”
Years later I shared this story with an African American friend. He laughed and welcomed me to the club. Racial un-consciousness, he pointed out, is the luxury of the dominant group. When you are a minority, you can never forget that you are different. The moment you do, someone else will remind you.
Racial un-consciousness is the luxury of the dominant group.
And he was right. Sometime later I was sitting by this same friend at an elegant dinner party in honor of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Around our table were prominent leaders, clergy, and academics, of which he was all three. If anyone didn’t belong there, it was little old me. After scintillating conversation around the lecture we had just heard, someone at the table asked my friend a subtle question. At first I missed it, until my friend’s deflated expression clued me in to the fact that he just been the subject of a racist joke. My guess is that the joker was simply trying to be funny, but his insensitivity to someone who has endured a lifetime of demeaning treatment effectively communicated that despite his degree, position, and invitation to the table, he was irreconcilably “other,” excluded from being one with the rest of us.
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. …
The Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant must have lived with a profound consciousness of his race and the way it affected those around him. On one hand he was the despised outsider, the “dirty Gentile” whose very presence in Palestine represented and enforced foreign oppression. On the other hand, he belonged to the race with superior power, affording him authority, legal rights, and military rank that were denied most Jews. It meant that he had to constantly calculate how his actions would be interpreted and what impact his words would have on the situation around him. In the midst of such a racially charged situation, he did not have the luxury of throwing around a careless joke or of assuming that the cruel behavior of other Roman soldiers bore no connection to how he was seen by the Jews. Like it or not, he was a part of the system that had hurt a lot of people, and as kindhearted and well-intentioned as he was, he had to tread carefully in the way he approached Jesus.
Similarly, white people in America represent systems and individuals that we may disagree with, but which our racial heritage inextricably connects us to. It is not enough to abstain from racist comments or discriminatory practices. In the eyes of those who have been repeatedly hurt by people like us, we represent a system of historic oppression that has continued to break trust in its treatment of its African American citizens. We can point to the times that our system has gotten it right (like integration of schools, equal opportunities legislation, and African Americans in the highest levels of leadership), but we cannot ignore the many ways in which racism continues to rear its ugly head, even in the actions of “crazy” individuals or “fringe” groups. Each time an unarmed African American is unjustly killed by a white American, the scab gets ripped off of a deep wound in the community of which he or she was part. And that wound was inflicted by one of “us.”
As followers of Christ, the onus is on us to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of those “our people” have hurt.
We need to learn how to handle our whiteness. In the South Asian context, my whiteness represented a history of colonial oppression. As a follower of Christ, the onus was on me to go the extra mile in affirming the culture, ideas, and leadership of my brown neighbors. Even in situations where my position or experience may have “earned” me the right to take charge, I had to learn how to intentionally make room for people who “my people” had treated as inferiors. We both had to work at this, learning to speak openly about our differences and laugh together at the things we had once assumed when all we had known of each other was “white” or “brown.” I am amazed at the level of grace my brown neighbors were willing to extend to me, but it also took a lot of needed humbling on my part (a humbling which, I might add, did not always feel nice, especially when my friends took me at my word and treated me accordingly).
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The Roman Centurion humbled himself, showing a deference towards Jesus that even His fellow Jews did not, and was commended for his faith. We, who have now been included “at the table” along with him, would do well to follow his example.
Everyone loves an overcomer story. We cheer for the underdog, holding our breath as they persevere through obstacle after obstacle and booing the advantaged one simply for the fact that he expected to come out on top. But what about those moments when life casts us in the overdog role? “I didn’t sign up for this!” we may be tempted to whine. “I’m just doing my best to live my life and do good by all. I didn’t ask to be written as the oppressor in someone else’s story!”
Race killings and race riots in the United States have awakened many white Christians to the prevalence of racism. But with that awareness comes a deep discomfort as lifelong assumptions about how the world works and who we are within it are suddenly overturned. I wonder if much of white angst in America today comes from fear of being cast as the bad guy. If I listen to the cries of my African American brothers and sisters, my version of the story—the one in which I am the “little person” who worked hard, came from behind, and made it despite all the odds—comes under threat. Instead, I’m suddenly that privileged, arrogant “champion” we all despise, enjoying the luxuries of monogramed equipment and expert coaches to give me every advantage in the game of life.
Since when is pride compatible with the cross?
I don’t like that second version of the story, and even when I am pushed to admit that it is true, I don’t like the way that it makes me feel about myself. I’d rather rehash stories of the American Revolution in which “my people” fought off the colonial oppressors with bare feet and raw grit. I at least want the luxury of largesse, to think of my people as the liberators who brought down the Nazis or brought aid to suffering populations around the world. But when I stop to consider the story from the perspective of a Native American who was driven from her land or an African American who was imported to the land but denied equal status, “my people” come out as the bad guys. Add to that generations of mistreatment and social positioning in which my people continue to come out on top, and the pride I feel in my heritage—the heritage which forms much of my identity—starts to crumble.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Perhaps that is exactly what needs to happen. It may not feel nice, but since when is pride compatible with the cross? The reason we love the underdog is because God Himself has a heart for the disadvantaged. Scripture is replete with statements about what He does for the humble and how He treats the proud. The fact that I am holding on to my pride reveals which side of the narrative I actually am standing on. As a follower of Jesus, I get to lay aside anything in which I formerly found gain, including the advantage of my whiteness.
“I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.
But how can I help that? Perhaps a second cause for white angst comes from the sudden sense of helplessness in the face of finding ourselves on the wrong side of history. I want to jump the fence to the other side, distancing myself from the racism around me with claims of #NotMeToo. “I don’t see color”—spoken to a person of color–is a sure sign that I do.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Examining myself for areas of implicit bias (while assuming that they are probably there) is a good start. Where do my impulses betray an internal sense of being better than, or perhaps deserving better than, people of a different race? These may surface in the respect I demand for myself or the treatment and opportunities I expect for my children. Am I equally incensed when these are not afforded to my neighbor from a different “community” or her children? Am I equally invested in looking out for her interests as I am my own? What have I done (or not done) to change the systems that make it hard for them to flourish?
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
…“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks…”
Confronting the areas of bias within myself not only benefits Black lives; it also helps me become more like the Jesus I adore. I adore Him for His meekness with the Samaritan woman, absorbing her defensive reactivity over the way her people had been treated and extending to her a listening ear, a willingness to consider her side, and a friendship that broke all the social rules. I adore Him for going out of His way to seek out her company and sit with her on her turf, neither lecturing her for making a mess of the opportunities that had been afforded her nor insisting that she adapt to His cultural ways in order to be accepted. It can’t have been easy to listen to His people being framed as the bad guys, yet He acknowledged their privileged position in history while also considering her too valuable an asset to leave out of the new integrated community He was forming.
And perhaps it is in Jesus’ example as a privileged Jewish male that I find a way forward as a privileged white woman. Try as I might, I can’t stop being white. And I can’t undo the parts of my heritage that I am ashamed of. But I can humble myself, reach across the racial divide, and use whatever advantage is mine (though I may need help in being able to see it) to my neighbor’s advantage. After all, is this not what Jesus did for me?
Police brutality. Race riots. Brexit angst. Political upheaval. Refugee crises. ISIS bombs. Global terror.
Our land is shaken and torn open, O Lord! Mend its fractures, for it is quaking. (Psalm 60:2)
I begin my day with prayer, not knowing how to pray. My heart churns with the overwhelming tide of global unrest, seeking a stabilizing point on which I can plant my feet.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:2)
And He offers just that, fixing my gaze on Himself as the one who is big enough to handle it. Because He governs men and nations, I don’t need to fret or despair.
Find rest, O my soul, in God alone: my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock… I will not be shaken. (Psalm 62:5)
Though I don’t see it in the headlines, though I don’t feel it in the heated discussions, He reminds me that He is still reigning, still in the process of putting all things under His pierced feet.
One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:11-12)
In the end, He will make all things right, judging each of us for what we have or have not done.
Our confidence in Christ’s lordship calls us to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.
And that is where He turns my prayers around and puts the burden back on me. What have I done to bring peace in my time? What have I done to offer refuge to the refugee? What have I done to encourage those who govern or protect us, to speak up for those who are vulnerable to discrimination and unjust treatment, or to break down walls of hostility and mistrust? I too will be judged.
But what can I do? The overwhelming nature of the problems tempts me to a victim’s mentality of helplessness. But the all-powerful nature of God calls me to an overcomer’s mentality of proactive love.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
I can use my everyday actions to show acts of kindness to those who least expect it. Like the black doctor who worked to save the lives of white police officers, I can go out of my way to show love to those who fall into opposing political camps or racial groups from me. Look an immigrant in the eye and ask him how he is doing. Invite black acquaintances over for dinner and ask them how they are really feeling (and then listen empathetically). Buy a police officer a coffee and thank him for his service. Write a constructive letter to a politician from the “other side,” encouraging her to consider my cause.
As I meditated on Romans 12 this morning with our current global contexts in mind, it spoke deeply and practically to how we as Christians should live out our confidence that Jesus is Lord. Because we trust that He is actively reigning in our world, we don’t need to react in terror, erect boundaries in fear, re-enforce divisions in distrust, write scathing criticisms in alarm, or retreat in despair. Rather, with our feet firmly rooted on rock of His rule, we are free to love those we would otherwise hate, or fear.
This is what it means to be a Christian in our world. As you pray through the following verses, I would love to hear how God is speaking to you about what we can do to stop fretting over the problems and start being a part of the solution.
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Despite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.
What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19
Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?
“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.
This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22
When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.
Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.
Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.
Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.
“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”
I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.
“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”
Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?
This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.
Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?
In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.
And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.
“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17
Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.
The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3
Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.
Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?
And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.
“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
From the time my Nigerian students first raised the issue, I have been struggling to formulate a response to the question of how the persecuted church should respond to repeated, violent attacks, especially when government does not intervene to protect it. Is it ever right for Christians to take matters into our own hands, to take up arms in defense of our families and communities?
The complexities to this question have left me in two minds, paralyzed by my ability to argue both sides of the coin. I have never been forced to choose between taking a life and passively watching a life be taken. And yet the relevance to our brothers and sisters for whom this scenario is not hypothetical demands a response. With the Nigerian elections coming up this weekend, this issue is at the forefront of thousands of Christians who may soon find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.
There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
…And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:9-13
This evening, I read the recommended passage of 1 Kings 19:9-13. My attention was caught by the last sentence: Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I stopped and a mental sheet rolled down and on it a written question: What is the future of the church in Nigeria after the 2015 Presidential election?
I said, “God, I do not know! You are all-knowing… You know what happened to the church (Christians) in Northern Nigeria after the Presidential election in 2011. You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church—burning down church buildings, houses, and properties of the Christians and in many places slaughtering Christians like rams. Perhaps it was because Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from a minority ethnic group from Southern Nigeria, won the election. My God, Christians did not know why they lost their lives and properties, including the church buildings. Your command is to love them and pray for them, to not take revenge because vengeance is yours.
You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church…
In 2015, Nigerians are still going to the poll to elect a President. The two major contenders are Jonathan from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Muhammad from All Progressive Congress (APC). The Muslim leaders vowed in 2011 that if Jonathan wins, they would make Nigeria ungovernable. Jonathan won and Boko Haram manifested with all the subsequent attendant destructions. God, you allowed it and yet you said that I and my Christian brethren should love and pray for the Muslims.
“God, when I recall what happened to the church in North Africa and the present Turkey many years ago when the Muslims reigned, there was no freedom for the church and it was virtually destroyed there. What do you want me and the church to do in Nigeria after the election? As it looks, whether Muhammad wins or loses the church would be visited by the Muslim murderers. Should the church not prepare to defend itself from probable immediate attack by arming itself with weapons of war? God, if Muhammad wins the election, he would strengthen the Nigerian membership of Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) with the total goal of Islamizing Nigeria.
I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims.
Lord, it appears the best option to the church is to fortify itself with prayers, cast votes, and wait in your hands. We will not retaliate with carnal weapons but spiritual weapons (prayer and confession of thanks). God, I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims. The Church in Nigeria needs you today to face the task on hand – conflagration!
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Father, I am overwhelmed with fear and sorrow. However, strengthen your church—your body. I will remain focused and faithful. My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” This refers to all Christians and to the church in Nigeria.
My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”
Finally, Lord let me go back to the question you asked me: ‘What are you doing, Ibrahim?’ Well, God, forgive me for the sin of unbelief and doubt. I realize that you are the creator and nothing happens without your knowledge and express permission.
You will win in Nigeria come 28 March, 2015. You have decided and we accept it with thanksgiving.”
“Isn’t it right for us to take up arms and fight back against the enemy?”
The passion with which my student asked his question hinted at the enormity of the situation it represents. For Christians in Nigeria right now, this question is more than just theoretical. In the last week I have heard it come up in casual conversations, Sunday school lessons, and master’s degree classes.
Why? Because Christian churches and communities have been increasingly frequent targets of Muslim attacks. Because Nigeria’s mixed population of Christians and Muslims has become polarized by rivalry, violence, and fear.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
For the decades now Nigerian Christians have turned the other cheek. But their collective wounds have accumulated with each additional bombing, each raid on their communities, and each restriction on their rights. The cry I have been hearing from this young pastor and from many others like him is one of frustration and angst.
“We have turned the other cheek so many times that there is no cheek left to turn!”
I feel for their dilemma, and the red-blooded American part of me wants to pick up a gun and join them. I was raised on stories about the Alamo and slogan’s about fighting for our rights. I have no problem with the use of arms to protect the vulnerable and oppressed. In fact, I think that is one of the core responsibilities of any government.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
But what about church leaders encouraging their people to shoot Muslims who threaten or harm them? Apparently this is what happened in one region of Nigeria, and such a bloodbath followed that leaders on both sides were appalled. The police ran for cover as Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other until their hatred and their ammunition were spent. In the end, those Christians gained the fearful distance of their Muslim neighbors, but they lost their testimony.
My spirit recoils from the violent outcome of this sort of pragmatic solution. Didn’t Jesus forgive His enemies and offer His back to His oppressors? If I were living here, shouldn’t I be more concerned with ministering to my Muslim neighbor than with killing him? But for these Christians, the tidy categories of “ought to” have been blown open by the painful reality of kidnapped sisters and demolished churches. Being passive is no longer an option.
But is being aggressive the solution?
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
This morning I witnessed a very different sort of solution to the crisis, one so subtle that I almost failed to recognize it. Here in the north central region of Nigeria, Muslims outnumber Christians. They control local government policies enough to be able to stop Christians from running orphanages, building new churches, or even renovating existing ones. In light of the mounting opposition and the upcoming elections, many Christians have left this region. For understandable reasons they have taken their businesses and their families to the less Islamic areas of the country, further depleting this area of its Christian presence.
But a dedicated band of pastors led by their tenacious bishop have courageously stood their ground. They have neither given in to their enemies nor attacked them. Instead they have patiently toiled with minimal resources to advance the presence of the kingdom of God in this place. These pastors oversee three churches each, often going without their monthly salary because it simply isn’t there. Their bishop doggedly works the socio-political system, making the necessary compromises and outlasting the opposition until he finally gets things done. An orphanage built and government permission relentlessly pursued to take in the area’s many needy orphans. A tiny, open-air church established for the community of refugees who immigrated here last year. A clean water project and sustainable animal husbandry developed to help to support local pastors.
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
But of all the work these Christians are doing here, the project that spoke the loudest to me was the school that I visited today. Initially I was most moved by the sight of teenaged girls sitting in a classroom, refusing to relinquish their education to the threats of Boko Haram. But when I heard that both Christians and Muslims have been welcomed as students in this school, I was dumbfounded. Such an audacious move speaks louder than any number of guns or grenades ever could. This is taking love for enemies to the next level.
Refusing to retaliate against enemies takes a massive amount of courage. But refusing to quit loving them takes even more.
I am humbled by what I have seen here, and am still processing the difference between how governments should respond to violent oppression verses how churches should. This much I can say:
The empire may strike back, but the kingdom of God will advance one act of mercy at a time.
“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”
My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.
Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.
Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.
They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.
Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?
We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.
How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22
But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.
We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.
Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?
When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.
Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.
Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.