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Reflecting on Beirut and Paris…

Like so many others these past few days, I have been swept away by the impact of terrorism. I have been watching images of, listening to pontifications on, and reading reactions and responses to the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, November 12 and 13.  We have all read and been moved by the calls for empathy, compassion, prayer and activity; and perhaps even been confirmed in our natural human reactions of shock, fear, anger and outrage.

These terrorist incidents are not simply an example of a barbaric Islamic East versus a free Christian West, or of an inevitable clash of civilizations. (We should not conveniently forget the number of those innocents killed at schools and theaters by guns in our own communities.)  The first innocents to suffer from the violence of these two days were Lebanese Shi’a Muslims. Some of the first responses came from Muslim scholars and organizations living in Europe and North America who articulated their own denunciations of such acts. This is not just about Islam, but about radicalist Muslims belonging to a political organization with an apocalyptic piety who have vowed to pass judgement on all. As one Muslim journalist has noted, “It’s all of us versus ISIS.”

While not much has been said about the Beirut bombings, the attacks in Paris have raised the fears among Americans that we may be next; that radicalized American Muslims are among us. Such fears have already prompted reactions that have intersected with the debates about immigration, racism, gun control, and foreign policy. While many have provided helpful responses to such fears, I would like to focus on theological questions and the role of the American Church.

What does this mean for the American Church?

In Lutheran terms, it will be easy to react to such events through “theologies of glory”: that we prefer “works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness” (Heidelberg Disputation, #21). In other words, in order to defeat this human evil of terrorism we are to engage in a noble “crusade” of defense of the free world, to extinguish Islamofacism. In order to defend the homeland from barbaric beliefs, we must hold true to our faith of God and country, and all that we hold dear. Even if we might not be prone to such theologies of glory, it is not a long walk down the aisle of acquiescence to proposed idealistic views of national security. It will be easy to rationalize draconian steps to insure our own safety. However, Luther cautions us on such insidious human intentions. We know all too well what this means – that ultimately other innocents will feel the brunt of even our own basest human instincts for self-preservation. Our “old Adam” is just below the surface of our own best goals. Rather, Luther holds up for us a “theology of the cross” that God “is hidden in suffering” as the true Crucified God. Just as we experience the presence of God in our own suffering and pain, it is in the horrible pain and tragedy of all these innocents in Beirut and Paris that we find the compassion of God crying out. There will inevitably be further innocents who suffer.

What does this mean for the American Church?

On November 14, Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan and General Secretary Rev. Dr. Martin Junge of the Lutheran World Federation wrote: “This is a time for churches, synagogues and mosques to pray and work even harder for peace within and among their communities, and to do this together wherever possible.”

The 1965 Roman Catholic document Nostra Aetate [In our time] declared

“One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all people…”

This seminal theological statement indicated what one of my previous students, a U.S. army military chaplain, called the imageo dei [image of God] in all of us. To be reminded that we are all created by the same gracious God means that we all share an inherent identity – whether we are flesh and blood family, or tied to created bonds of nationalism, or even to the stranger, or those whom we might consider our enemy. We can expect that American Muslims will face a backlash as a result of these events simply because they are associated with DAESH (The Arabic abbreviation for “The Islamic State in Greater Syria” – al-dawla al-Islamiyya f’il Sham).

What does this mean for the American Church?

We are blessed to live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-racial nation. We are blessed to live in and amongst the patch work of God’s created humanity. Yet, in such times as these it will be easy to withdraw into our own communities to make us feel safe. It will be easy to talk about, think about, and feel about others in such ways that we will protect ourselves from our fears of their potential to harm us. Our congregations and ministries can become safe havens from others who are different from us. But that is not the Church. The Church is that place where the Gospel of the Crucified Christ is proclaimed and the broken body and shed blood is poured out for all. If the Church is to be the place where we experience and are reminded of the Crucified Christ for the world, then we are to be in the world, and in our communities – that are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-religious.

What does this mean for the American Church?

We say that our churches and ministries are places in which the gathered who have heard the words of forgiveness are sent out to work in the world to their vocations. But they are also communities that need to be intentional about reaching out to those who are different – ethnically, racially, and religiously. Before we acquiesce to self-preservation, let us actively seek those partners across ethnic, racial, and religious divides in which we will encounter presence of the living but Crucified Christ. To sit and break bread in the home of an American Muslim family in this time will make it that much harder for us to fear and cast judgment upon those very ones that will now face the reactions of a fearful nation because of radicalist and apocalyptic Muslim terrorist acts. Such breaking of bread might provide us the opportunity to see the love of the Crucified Christ in the faces of those whom God as created.

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