I thought I’d offer some ideas and thoughts regarding the unfolding human rights catastrophe in the Middle East. They are offered humbly: I am no expert on either the region or on Islam. I have, however, done a fair bit of reading over the years, and I have been “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” for even longer. So I’m writing as a pastor, as a history buff, as an American, and as a follower of Jesus Christ (though not necessarily in that order).
Let’s begin with the end:
- We are one body; when one part of the body suffers we are called to join with them in suffering and prayer.
- I believe that God is opposed to innocent suffering in any form. Violence done in the name of the religion is the worst form of injustice, whether it’s done in Germany in the 30s and 40s, Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Belfast in the 70s and 80s, the former Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s, or Syria and Iraq in the 2013-14. Crying out to God for an end to the violence and for justice to be done is appropriate and necessary for human beings.
Now for the messy part.
Caution 1: Be Careful of Using the “Militant” Psalms as Examples of Prayer
The psalms are the model of prayer for God’s people. They run the full gamut of human emotion: from joy to despair from thanksgiving to lament. Surprisingly there are more than a few very militant, angry psalms that cry out for God’s vengeance, and for revenge. Psalm 10, for instance, asks God to “break the arms of those who are wicked and evil (v15 CEB); Psalm 54 asks, “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!”
There are other examples; you get the point.
The tension, however, is removing prayers like this from their context, namely that of a relatively small nation (Israel) which is often praying these prayers amidst defeat, oppression, and eventual exile at the hands of larger empires like Babylon and Assyria (later to be Rome). On the other hand, prayers for vengeance take on a markedly different tone when they are uttered from the lips of people of a superpower (In fact, it can be argued that the stronger Israel became, politically and militarily in the Old Testament, the more their troubles multiplied, culminating in exile). The question that has been going through my head lately is Where do predator drones come into these prayers?
I’m not saying we cannot pray them (well, I almost am), I’m simply saying that you cannot transfer the words of Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…”; btw, where does this fit into the idea that the Bible is “God’s love letter to you?”) into 21st century United States of America.
Caution 2: Be Careful of Making This an Issue of “Christianity versus Islam”
Again, I’m no expert here, but I’ve read enough lately to understand that many (most?) mainstream Muslim clerics are condemning IS as heretical and “not Muslim.” Furthermore, at least a few clerics have outright condemned the “caliphate” that IS wants to establish similarly as heretical (in fact, the whole idea of a Muslim “caliphate” is more complicated than it might seem; it’s not a given that all Muslims want a physical caliphate, at least as its been portrayed by IS and in the press). In my opinion, groups like IS (or the Nazis, or the Taliban, or the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda) are really more about politics, and have just constructed a religious extremist view to cloak very worldly (even evil?) goals. If leading Muslim clerics can condemn them as heretics, I’m willing to follow their lead.
So How Do We Pray?
- Start with repentance. Calling out to God should begin with an examination of our own heart, and, like it or not, the West (USA included) has a troubled track record in the Middle East of supporting religious extremists in order to bring out a desired political end. We did it with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, and we see where that led us. As this article points out, Great Britain was (directly or indirectly) responsible for the formation of Saudi Arabia, which was in turn established on the same brand of Islam that gave rise to IS. In fact, IS is merely an effort to return the Middle East to the “pure” form of Wahhabi Islam that the the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded on. So it’s not inappropriate for us to acknowledge that we have had a had in seeking short term political and gain financial (hello oil!) for the sake of long-term perspective on religious extremism.
- Pray for Muslim spiritual leadership to unite people against the violence and heresy of groups like IS or the Taliban. Repression, violence, torture and murder are no more part of Islam than they are of Christianity (there are some nasty parts of the Bible that could be used in some crazy ways if someone wanted; trust me).
- Pray for the long-term development and sustenance of the region. The Middle East has a recent history of turmoil and upheaval. Before that (again, hello oil!) however, the region was a leader in tolerance, scientific and literary development. To put it bluntly, young men with no future except poverty and political disenfranchisement can be motivated to do any manner of things. A CNN report recently said that ISIS recruitment relies on “cars, guns, cell phones, and cash money.”
- Pray for justice. Now, in this case praying for justice is going to necessarily involve physical, violent confrontation. In all honesty pray for this, for God’s Kingdom to come, for His will to be done, and for those who are killing and torturing to be brought to justice. However, again, I must acknowledge the fact that I pray as a member of a super-power, a nation who can pilot an unmanned drone into a building from 7,000 miles away. We are not Israel. We are not an oppressed minority.
- Pray with an eye towards the cross. This throws a wrench into everything. We profess to follow a man who—as he was dying on the cross in the face of his torturers and murderers—said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In their own minds, the Romans—just like ISIS and any number of people perpetrate violence and murder in the name of religion (Islam or Christianity)—knew exactly what they are doing, but Jesus knows better. As we pray, we need to pray, somehow and some way, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
- Know that it’s not about praying “correctly”, it’s about praying. The Spirit, in fact, does intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray. There are just a few thoughts to get us started, and to maybe free us from some of the spiritual paralysis that is easy to fall into in situations like this.
This is simply not easy. We recoil at the images and the stories, but we also have to look inside our own hearts and consider the Story we live in: a world that is moving towards redemption at the hands of a King who suffered and died and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
I’ll close with a prayer from theologian Walter Brueggemann; maybe his words can be yours (and mine) today:
The Threat upon Us
Summertime…when the living is easy.
You give us summer and winter,
cold and heat,
seedtime and harvest,
but summer is special—
grills and patios and pool
We take our ease,
even amid terrorism.
The threat is mostly remote,
and the war in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Sudan or . . . )
scarcely calls us in our privilege to attention.
And then, right in the middle of our easy living,
the bombs burst on the street corner,
on the bus,
on the train.
the smoke, the fire, the shrieking,
the dash of emergency vehicles,
all brought very near, all brought right up
against our easy summer living.
We experience a sinking sense
that the world is not safe,
that our life is not free of threat,
and we wonder where and when next
will come assault on our well-arranged lives.
We turn to you, partly out of need,
partly out of habit, partly out of trust.
We know you to be Creator, who maintains order,
Redeemer, who loves us more than we love ourselves.
But we are so self-sufficient,
we do not easily turn from our ways to yours
And so amid our trust in you
comes our fated self-confidence,
our urge to manage,
our wish for self-sufficiency.
So we, unsettled in deep ways,
want to believe more than we do.
But even now we believe enough to know that your
good way does not depend on our trust.
So be our God—yet again—
this time, and
we will be honest in our double-mindedness
as we turn to you in our fear.