With the worst refugee crisis since WWII and at a time when over half of the U.S. governors are rejecting Syrian refugees for fear of ISIS, we have to ask ourselves: What is the place of the Church?
'Til now, political analysts have been the main voices interpreting “the facts.” They speak in terms of demographic explosion, poverty, alienation, historical grievances, and they speak of religion as a dangerous force harnessing emotional and irrational powers. Those are the glasses through which we are to view and understand the "other." They drive the “we know what is going on” narrative, and their storyline is seldom contested.
What is missing? The passionate and relentless voices of the prophets of old, for one thing! People of God who discerned the ways in which spiritual forces were at play, and who could explain the unexpected ways in which God remained engaged in their convoluted world. Prophets who exposed fear and deception, and boldly invited God to take center stage.
Our voice is missing . . . the Church’s counter-cultural narrative has gone silent. How come our response is not different from the rest of society? Could it be that we also have put our trust in the next presidential candidate? Is the government our savior? Let’s be clear, no presidential contender, no matter how religious his views are, can replace God’s church.
The solution for the refugee and terrorist crisis is the Church. The Church is God’s answer to the millions of prayers reaching out to Him from the quivering lips of Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi people. The Church also understands the principles that sustain Satan’s government: fear of the other, deception, destruction, and death. These can only be defeated with God’s good. Not just managed, but defeated; for the answer to any deathly ideology is the Kingdom of God tearing down every other false kingdom.
Upon us God has bestowed his Son’s authority to challenge every nationalistic or utopian narrative which promises peace and security away from God’s appointed way: Jesus. This is an opportunity for the Church’s finest hour. The darker the night, the brighter the light shines.
Till now, the Church and the American society have been coexisting comfortably with each other. After all, at the heart of this great nation we find that biblical principles, and Christian mores have shaped the very institutions that gave the US its particular identity among other nations (democratic vision, the generous spirit of its constitution, its national institutions and laws, etc.).
This is changing though, as highlighted by the recent decision from the Supreme Court of Justice to redefined marriage. One thing is clear, whatever your views are, the one thing we cannot do is to sit blindly and grieve for “the good old times”. God’s people should expect that as the time for the return of Jesus gets closer, the divide between secular America and the Church will become grow.
Is ISIS Winning?
At the very heart of the ideological appeal of ISIS, there is a warped theology and eschatology that promises “God’s Kingdom” in a Muslim homeland. This is a kingdom that the “believers” are rallied to “bring down” with their own hands, even bloodied hands if need it be. Violence and death are not the aim, but rather the costly price to pay in the way to self-made theocracy. The end justifies any means.
ISIS is built on an eschatological vision which sees Islam victorious after a massive Armageddon type of war. The media is unable to fully understand the theological underpinning for this ideological movement because it no longer takes religious beliefs seriously. God is assumed to be a personal choice, powerless to feature in the public arena, so the interpretation of what is going on is missing a critical dimension: ISIS particular view of how history started and how it ends.
Dabiq, which is the name of their slick magazine, was named after a town in Syria where ISIS supporters expect to see the final war. Their strategy is clear:
“…compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the gray zone themselves. . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize. . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens."
ISIS is counting on a small number of terrorist attacks shifting the way by which European and American societies views its more than 50 million Muslims. If American Muslims are suddenly perceived as potential threats, (a fifth column), this will impact the way in which Muslims in the West view themselves: as victims of discrimination and therefore needing to protect themselves.
When this happens, we play into ISIS social engineering strategy that seeks to polarize the world into two camps: ISIS a place of safety for Muslims (to where Muslims are encouraged to emigrate to), and the rest of the world, the land of the infidel, where Muslims are under threat. Yet it is important to know, the Syrian refugees are not fleeing from the territory Assad controls, they are fleeing from ISIS controlled lands.
This means that every Muslim refugee who is welcomed among us deeply undercuts the Islamic State's vision and narrative in two ways. First, it proves that we do not buy into the fear of ISIS’s strategy. Second, refuges that have suffered under ISIS barbaric violence, are better positioned to challenge its illegitimate promises of a place of peace and security. Their stories tell of horror, rape, hate, slavery and devastating destruction. Potential recruits in the West, who may be entertaining utopic dreams of Islamic greatness, may come face to face with the hideous reality that ISIS is a cult to death.
Is ISIS wining? It depends on how many will cave into fear and unwittingly support their “two layered” vision of the world. Let’s be clear, terrorism is not about killing per se but terror. ISIS carefully stages its barbaric acts to create maximum fear, and fear is the indispensable ingredient for their recipe on how to exercise control. No fear, no ISIS, for without fear ISIS will starve to death.
This is where the Church can step in. For we have faith in Jesus who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). Whatever is born of God overcomes the world and this is the victory that has overcome the world our faith (1 John 5:4). We are not to live in fear but to advance His Kingdom by faith.
Contrarily, have you noted how many political decisions are taking place in a climate of fear? Fear is never a good advisor, but who will speak up? Who will expose reactionary measures as weak? As people of faith we ought to respond from a position of moral strength, away from revenge and hyped emotions.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). A sound mind comes not from reacting in fear, but from the boldness under the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31) and the love that proceeds from God.
ISIS has concocted a powerful narrative that combines: community, love of power and global domination, safe space for Sunni Muslims under the protection of a powerful caliph, God’s approval for those keeping up to the “letter of the law’, and a personal sense of fulfillment and meaning as a “history maker”. This is true for disenfranchised and powerless youth who believe that they can change the destiny of Islam with a Kalashnikov in one hand, and God’s banner in the other.
The Muslim community seems at a loss, confused. Much of their leadership has denounced ISIS in every possible way, and explained that ISIS does not represent how Muslims have historically understood their faith. We should take them seriously. But in the end, the fact is that no one has ever defeated darkness by cursing the night. This war is ideological, and no amount of denunciation, nor drones will decisively end it. Muslim leaders, security forces, and politicians are all at a loss for ideas for defeating ISIS, but the Church is not!
The Gospel as A Story to Inhabit
We, the Church, have no reason to be grasping at society's solutions; Scripture issues this call: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Just as light pushes away the darkness, so the truth about God and his Kingdom is the story that can counteract ISIS narrative. In the end, before the coming of Jesus there will be two sides: God’s people, driven by the love of God, and those who oppose God and are driven by fear and love of power.
The Gospel is not one story among many, the Gospel is “The Story”, which calls every other story into judgment. The problem is that many have reduced the Gospel to information, truthful information, but information in the end. When this happens, the Gospel becomes powerless, it looses its relational and community building dimension. Thus, when it no longer drives our views about reality, and right or wrong, then our culture does.
We need to recover the Gospel as a story to inhabit, the power of God that transforms lives, and boldly present it before our dying world. God in Christ healing the world, reconciling it to himself. God winning the world’s allegiance back from a position of apparent weakness, as a “cruciform” God. God empowering the believer with a power that originates in him and that is truly transformational. Muslims all over the world have expressed how irresistible to their longing hearts is the “Sermon on the Mount”. They are captivated by the father who receives his prodigal son (Luke 15). The person of Jesus brings new life, and how they are yearning to be part of a community as the one described in Acts 2.
Hamid, not his real name, desisted from joining ISIS after being exposed to the message of God’s Kingdom and his Constitution as described in Matthew 5. Today he is a peace activist. Hamid’s Muslim friends invited a Christ follower to help them where they failed. Hamid found in the Kingdom of God a better and more real story.
A Call to Action
What does this mean? I want to suggest that the Church is the answer to the ISIS ideological crisis and to the refugee crisis.
The Church’s message is not to focus on how misguided ISIS supporters are, but to offer a better story; one in which God is truly the Lord, and transformation is in Christ. One in which victory is guaranteed because it is not rooted in humankind’s frail efforts, but in God’s love that was made visible at the cross of Christ. We also have a different ending in which God, and not Satan, takes center stage, and this is the source of our hope.
The Church is also the welcoming arms to which God thrust his hurting people to receive healing in practical ways. When society fears them, the Church is God’s shelter. Recently a Muslim refugee, Abdul Wahab, told me this:
“I thought we were emigrating to America, but now I know we were emigrating to God. You (followers of Jesus) have helped us to know how to live like godly people in America. You see we come from many years of being bottled up in the Middle East and then we come here and we do not know how to manage this freedom. In America Satan is quicker than God in getting us. Please continue to help my people to remain on the side of God.”
This is the Church’s privilege, this could be our finest hour. Let us seek to bring Jesus to these refugees and the other Muslims living among us.
Gabriela Profeta Phillips is Director for Adventist Muslims Relations for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.
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