Friday, December 25, 2015

The Forgotten Man and the Marvelous Exchange

Matthew 1.18-25:
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
He was  faced with a detestable duty. He was a man of compassion, even tenderness. But he was also a man honor, a man of stern code. His obedience to the Law was unwavering. The moment he learned that his fiancĂ© was pregnant he knew that it was the end. The end, certainly, of their betrothal, and perhaps even the end of her life.
It was two millennia ago in the Roman-occupied land of Judea. The man was named Joseph. His fiancĂ© was Mary. She was going to have a baby and it sure was not his. Compassion, honor and duty dueled within Joseph. He could not pretend there was no problem. She obviously had betrayed him. The whole town of Nazareth was watching. 
Finally, Joseph decided Mary would have to pay the price for infidelity as his honor and the Law required, but tempered with mercy. Joseph determined to break his engagement to Mary and dismiss her from his life without fanfare, leaving her to fend for herself. It would clear the slate, restore his honor and was as least hurtful to the young woman as any just solution could be. 
What the outcome might have been by Joseph’s plan we don’t know, because God revealed to him what was really going on, and Joseph changed his mind. 

Joseph dreamed of an angel, who informed Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was of the Holy Spirit. The angel gave Joseph instructions: take Mary home as his wife and adopt Mary’s child as his own, giving him the name Jesus, an ordinary name then, meaning,“God helps.” 
These things came to pass. In Joseph’s day, when a Jewish man gave a name to the child born to his wife, he was confirming the child as his own. Maybe others knew that Joseph was not the baby’s natural father, maybe they didn’t. It didn’t matter. When Joseph named the baby Jesus, he was also giving to Jesus his own identity, his own lineage. That is why Jesus could truly be said to be of the line of David, because Joseph was of David’s line and Joseph adopted Jesus as his own son. When Joseph named the child Jesus he was telling the world, “This child belongs to me, this child is my child.” 
We give Joseph short shrift, perhaps because Joseph is treated somewhat cursorily in the Gospels. Mary gets a lot more play. Joseph never speaks. Joseph hears, Joseph dreams, Joseph acts and Joseph obeys, but not even one syllable of his speaking is related. Mary is the one with the speaking part. Her role is the most sought after in Christmas pageants. 
Another pastor told me of one afternoon before the annual Christmas program, when a mother phoned the church office to say that her son, who was to play Joseph in the children's play, was sick and wouldn't be able to be there. “It's too late now to get another Joseph,” the director of the play said. “We'll just have to write him out of the script.” And they did. Joseph is easy to overlook and leave out.
In 1993, my wife played Mary in the Christmas pageant at our church. She got the part only because they needed our two-month-old daughter to play the baby Jesus, there being no other small infant in the congregation. Cathy and Elizabeth, Mary and Jesus, were a package deal, couldn’t get one without the other. But any guy off the street could have played Joseph. In fact, the pastor actually asked me, “Don, did you want to play Joseph or should I get a man from the choir to play him?” I said I would, but talk about feeling like a fifth wheel ... .
But more is going on with Joseph than is first apparent. A recurring theme of St. Paul is that Jesus' followers are adopted by God and made children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. This should make us reconsider the significance of where Joseph fits in with God’s work. Joseph’s adoption of Jesus is highly significant. 

What if Joseph had said no to the angel and had sent Mary away anyway? Can we imagine Jesus growing up in the home of an unwed, single mother, both Mary and Jesus therefore outcast from society? How would Jesus have conceived of God as his heavenly Father if Joseph had never taken on the role of Jesus’ earthly father? But father to Jesus Joseph was.
God adopts Jesus’ disciples as sons and daughters of God in the family of God. But first, God sent his Son to be adopted by Joseph into the family of mortals. Joseph affirmed on behalf of all humanity that God belongs with us, "God with us."
The symmetry of God being born into humanity and humanity thence being adopted to become, as Second Peter puts it, “partakers of the divine nature” is called the “marvelous exchange” in Roman Catholic catechism and theosis, or divinization, in the Eastern Church. It is to realize that God becomes one of us so that we may become like him, and so are perfected to live forever with God.
Theologian George Weigel explains, “God ‘exchanges’ his divinity for our humanity, thus enabling us to ‘exchange’ our weakness for his divine glory – the glory of which the angels sing to the shepherds of Bethlehem.” St. Paul proclaimed in Second Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
This is possible because of the power of God, of course, but also because of the strength of Joseph. Joseph adopted the Son of God as the child of humankind, and through Christ God adopts you and me as children of God. This is a marvelous exchange indeed! Should we not see the symmetry of salvation and relationship – dare we say partnership – at work in the will of God and the obedience of Joseph? We see in Joseph’s story that we and God belong to each other in the one whom Joseph named Jesus, “God helps.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Communion liturgy for Christmas Eve

This is basically The Great Thanksgiving for the day from the UM Book of Worship, with the Invitation and Pardon my own writing (at least I am pretty sure, since I have used this for several years).

Invitation and Pardon

....Christ our Lord was not born to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. And so Christ invites to his table everyone who loves him or wishes to love him, who hears his voice or desires to hear it, who comes this holy day from religious devotion or family duty, and who can pray with sincere heart:
....Merciful and forgiving God, we confess we withhold our love from you. We too easily fail to be obedient to your will. Forgive us, we pray, and free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord! Instill in us a true desire to live lives of worshipful holiness. Embolden us to rejoice always in your love, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to heed the cry of the needy. On this holy day, accept our prayers and worship as our thanks for your incomparable Christmas gift.
....Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were still sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!
....In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

The Great Thanksgiving
Pastor: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord!
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
....It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And so, with all your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn,
....Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!
....Holy are you and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. 
....Long ago, you called Abraham to walk in your way. With his wife Sarah he founded a people chosen by you to bring light to the world. Knowing that their descendants were bound in slavery in Egypt, you made with them a covenant of righteousness and led them to freedom in the Promised Land.
....Through the prophets of Israel you made known your salvation-righteousness and through the prophet Jeremiah foretold of a New Covenant. In this covenant, you said,
....“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God,  and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor,  or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
....In the fullness of time you chose a woman of holy character named Mary, telling her through your messenger,
....“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
....When Jesus was grown he was baptized and your Spirit rested powerfully upon him. He resisted temptations and preached the Good News to all who would hear. He healed the sick, proclaimed freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and announced the year of the Lord's favor.
....Betrayed by a disciple, he was adjudged guilty of blasphemy against you, O God, who formed him in his mother’s womb. Though innocent, he was sentenced to die by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
....And yet, according to your will, by the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.
....On the night in which he gave himself up for us he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
....When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
....And so, in remembrance of these, your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:
....Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!
....Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, That we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
....By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and for ever.

....And now, with the confidence of children of God, let us pray the Lord’s Prayer.
....Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A post-San Bernadino primer, part 1

I am writing this post to link on the clergy and clergy-related United Methodist Facebook pages, where, since the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, Calif., this week, the "fur has been flying" over what positions the denomination holds on violence and what positions United Methodists should stake out. 

This is a long series of posts because so many of my colleagues in ministry and others are making claims that seem to be cued more from politicians than actual law and facts about firearms. So first is a definition of terms, then a look at the laws regarding firearms purchases and transfers, then whether, as many of my colleagues have claimed, that we need simply to follow the UM Book of Resolutions and nothing much more. 


Advocates for stricter gun control laws should at least know how to talk accurately about guns. The day after the San. B. attack,
California Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez claimed that multiautomatic round weapons are easily available, even though not in California.
My first career was as a US Army combat-arms officer. I was qualified expert on a wide range of weapons from pistol to rifle to machine gun and anti-tank weapon. Never in my life have I heard of a "multiautomatic round weapon." All rifles and pistols fall into one, and only one, of the following categories:

1. Single shot: the gun must be manually reloaded after every shot. Single shot pistols are rare are and are mostly collector's items these days. Single shot rifles are either very specialized military sniper rifles or ordinary hunting rifles. Because they have a very slow rate of fire, they are pretty much useless for other purposes than these. 

Bolt-action, single shot rifle

The only exception I might make is the famous Winchester rifle design, which is manually reloaded from a tubular magazine, below and parallel to the barrel, by cycling a lever. Well-practiced shooters can fire these fairly rapidly, but their ammunition capacity is quite low and they are very slow to reload, so as mayhem guns they are not much suitable. That's why you never read news reports of them being used for criminal purposes.

Winchester Model 1894
 2. Semi-automatic: This means that each trigger pull fires only one round (bullet), then the gun reloads itself but will not fire again until the trigger is pulled again. That is, the reloading is automatic, but the firing is manual for every shot, hence, semi-automatic, not fully automatic. The simplest way to look at it this: if the gun is ready to fire again after firing a shot, so that all the shooter has to do is pull the trigger another time, then the gun may be termed as semi-automatic. 

Every magazine-fed pistol is semi-auto and in typical usage, when the media report that a criminal used a semi-auto pistol, a magazine-fed pistol is what they mean. For revolvers, some are semi-auto because those types are mechanically made ready to fire again after every shot (until ammo is exhausted). Some are not semi-auto, though, and are single shot guns because the shooter has to manually make the gun ready to shoot again after each shot. Here is the difference:

Revolvers are either Single Action or Double Action and the majority of revolvers being sold today are both. Single Action (SA) means that the shooter must manually cock the firing level to the rear for each shot. Revolvers that are Single Action Only (SAO) are therefore single-shot pistols, not semi-auto. However, Double Action revolvers do not require manually cocking the lever: load the gun, pull the trigger and it shoots. These revolvers are called Double Action Only (DAO).

The majority of revolvers are SA/DA, which means the level must be cocked for the first round, but not for subsequent rounds. These may be (I emphasize may) more useful for self defense, but the trigger control for subsequent rounds is usually not easy and they are difficult to shoot accurately in a hurry. Their real hazard is not only missing the target more often than a SAO revolver, but that to holster the gun after firing the shooter has to remember to "decock" it so it is no longer ready to fire immediately - a real safety issue. 

Magazine fed pistols, such as the Walther PPK pictured below, are almost all SA/DA or DAO. In DA mode, mag-fed pistols are much easier to fire than DA revolvers because the trigger pull is doing much less mechanical work. DAO mag-fed pistols and revolvers typically do not have an exposed hammer or lever. The Walther below is a SA/DA pistol.

Colt Police Service revolver, a semi-automatic pistol

James Bond's Walther PPK, a semi-automatic pistol
Semi-auto rifles are one of the following designs:

1. Magazine fed: Most military-design rifles are magazine fed. A magazine is a container, holding various numbers of rounds, that attaches underneath the firing chamber. When the trigger is pulled, the firing assembly recoils to the rear of the chamber and the fired case is ejected. When the assembly returns forward, it strips the top round off the magazine and inserts it into the breech and the gun is ready to fire. The trigger must be pulled again to shoot one, and only one, more shot, then the whole process may be repeated until the magazine is empty. A semi-auto rifle or pistol fires one and only time per trigger pull, but the gun reloads itself after each shot.
The infamous Russian AK-47 rifle, a magazine fed rifle and the most produced rifle ever.
2. Clip: The term "clip" should not be used to mean magazine. A clip is an old military design that was used for both single shot, bolt-action Army rifles (The M1903) and the World War 2 M1 Garand semi-auto. 

WW2-era M1 Garand rifle shoring ammunition clip being inserted.

There have been tubular-magazine, semi-auto rifles designed, but they are obsolete and no longer made these days. 

3. Automatic or fully-automatic: This simply means that when the trigger is depressed, the gun will keep firing until the trigger is released or the ammunition is exhausted. Military machine guns are the best example, such as the US Army M60 machine gun illustrated below. 

The M60E3 military machine gun, a belt-fed, full-automatic weapon
There have been full-auto pistols produced but the concept was abandoned because recoil makes such firing wholly impractical. The Army's famous M16 series rifle and its successor, the M4, have a selector switch the enables either semi-auto or full-auto firing. However, modern US military automatic rifles restrict full-auto firing to three rounds at a time because after three, recoil almost always throws the point of aim well off the target.

It has been illegal since 1934 for private citizens to own full-automatic firearms without extensive background checks, police-department prior approval and expensive federal licensing (National Firearms Act of 1934). However, any automatic gun manufactured after 19 May, 1986, may not be owned by private citizens unless they are licensed dealers. But even they cannot transfer or sell it to anyone except police, the military or a manufacturer licensed to make automatic guns, and the dealer must surrender possession of the firearm if he gives up his license (all of which which makes the whole drill rather pointless for a dealer). 

Final term for today: 

"Assault rifle"

In 1993, when the Congress first moved to ban such things, I was serving in the Pentagon. I had never heard the term "assault rifle" before so I looked it up in the official DOD dictionary of military terms (yes, there is such a thing). Know what? It wasn't there. 

"Assault rifle" is a political term and has no other context. What it really means is "looks scary." 

So let's take a look at "assault weapons." I mean literally take a look:

Under the previous ban on assault rifles (1994-2004), this rifle meets the legal definition of an assault rifle:

And this does not:

Yet functionally they are exactly the same. Each is a .22-caliber, semiautomatic, magazine-fed rifle made by Mossberg. The top is the Model 715 and the bottom is Model 702. The barrels, bolt and magazine wells for each are identical to the other. The ammunition and effective range for both are identical. The 715 is illustrated with a 25-round magazine that also fits without modification into the 702 at bottom, like this:

What is the difference, then, between the two guns? None that affects the function:

  • I guess the 715 looks scarier than the 702. 
  • The 715 is about $150 more (suckers!) 
  • The 715 has a carrying handle, but that's a matter of convenience to haul it around and has nothing to do with its lethality. 
  • Identical scopes may be fitted to each. 
  • The 715 has a "quad-rail fore-end," extending around the barrel from the breech to the front sight. Various accessories may be mounted on the rails, such as a flashlight or laser sight. This may, under some conditions, marginally improve the 715's accuracy over the 702, but not much, and has nothing to do with making the rifle itself deadlier when fired. 
  • The stock on the 715 is adjustable in length, but not by much. It is not a folding stock.
There is no difference between them that affects function, mechanical rate of fire, range, ammunition or lethality. Post San B., one side of the political aisle (including the president just today) has said the 715 should be banned but not the 702.

But what about banning "high-capacity" magazines? The 702's included magazine holds 10 rounds. Let's compute times for each gun to shoot 100 rounds. The triggers for both (being identical) can easily be pulled five times per second. Actual trigger-pulling time for each rifle to 100 rounds is therefore 20 seconds (okay, technically 19.8, but we'll round off). 

It takes a shooter three seconds to swap out magazines in a hurry. To shoot 100 rounds with the 715 requires three magazine swaps, or nine seconds of changeout time. Shooting 100 rounds with the 702 requires nine changeouts, or 27 seconds, 18 seconds more. 

Total shooting times:
  • 715 - 29 seconds
  • 702 - 47 seconds
Now, in a gunfight, 18 seconds can be a long time, but you're only getting them three seconds at a time. I don't say they don't matter, but I do say they don't matter as much as gun controllers think. The so-called "high-capacity" magazine ban is eyewash. And there are literally millions of 10-plus capacity mags already "in the wild," so to speak. What would the administration do about them?

Finally, the inefficacy of the 1994 "assault rifle" ban is well illustrated by this:
This was a banned "assault weapon:"

This was a permitted rifle that was not an "assault weapon:"

Can you tell the difference? 

Update: A word about how ammunition is classified.

Um, no.

Ammunition for pistols and rifles is classified according to the diameter of the bullet. It unit of measure is either in millimeters or as a decimal of an inch. For example, 9mm ammo or .45-caliber ammo. But, CNN not withstanding, they are not both at the same time, and a decimal mark never precedes the millimetric number. So there is no .9mm round nor a .22mm long rifle round.Those would be 9mm and .22, respectively.

However (because nothing should be truly simple, right?), there is a pistol round called .380 ACP caliber. (ACP simply stands for Automatic Colt Pistol). This caliber is also known as a "9mm short," having the dimensions of 9 X 17 mm. But "9mm" by itself means a round 9 X 19mm, referred to as the 9mm parabellum or 9mm Luger.

To make things even more confusing, the .380 is not actually a .38-caliber round. It and the 9mm parabellum are exactly .355 inch in diameter. So is the .357 magnum round. And both the .38 ACP and the .38 Super rounds are .356 inch in diameter. The round that actually is .357 inch in diameter is called the .38 Long Colt. Does any of this make sense? Actually, no.

Update: Reason very cogently makes the case that imprecision of language and terms infects the entire debate, but frankly only on one side. And it makes me wonder whether that's on purpose. Reason makes the same point I did, that "assault weapon" is nothing but a political term:
Contrary to what [New York Times columnist Gail] Collins et al. seem to think, the "assault weapon" category has no reality independent of legislation. 
Correct. See here: "Obama Wants to Ban 'Assault Weapons' but Does Not Know What They Are"

Update: When you've lost the Los Angeles Times ... . Why banning assault rifles won't reduce gun violence
The only thing unique about assault rifles is their menacing name and look.

The problem starts with the term itself. The “assault weapons” for sale in the U.S. now aren't really weapons of war. ...

As a matter of functionality, these guns are just like other rifles. They're more powerful than some handguns and rifles, and less powerful than others.
Related: "AFTER SAN BERNARDINO Support for Assault Weapons Ban Reaches 20-Year Low"
... just 44 percent of Americans now support an assault weapons ban, the lowest number in the 20 years that the NYT poll has asked the question. In 2011, 63 percent of Americans supported such a ban.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Extending the Communion Table


Holy Communion is one of two a sacraments in the United Methodist Church, the other being baptism. In the UMC, communion is an act of the whole church. We do not practice private communion. It is always done within the context of the assembled community of faith. But, like almost every other Christian denomination, we recognize that not everyone can be assembled when communion is offered. Persons who are not able to come by reason of illness, disability or medical treatment or condition may be offered communion where they reside or are under treatment. In the United Methodist Church, this is known as extending the table. However, communion for these persons begins within the context of the community of faith. The communion elements of bread and wine are consecrated by the pastor before being transported to serve to the home-bound for the sick.

General information
1.         Because Communion is an act of the church, it is intended for any person baptized into the body of Christ in the apostolic tradition. In Methodism, Communion may be taken by unbaptized persons if they are desirous of baptism soon. Hence, Communion should be served only by baptized persons.
2.         One of the earliest sacramental issues the early church had to deal with was whether the moral character of clergy or lay persons could negate the efficacy of the sacraments. That is, were there sins that should disqualify clergy or laity from either consecrating or receiving the sacraments? The answer is no. The actor in the sacraments is God, whose power is not hindered by the human condition. Therefore, there is no personal issue of servers that makes them unworthy to take Communion to the homebound or sick. We are not worthy to receive or serve Communion to begin with!
3.         Communion is to be neither consecrated, served, nor received casually. It is a means of grace by which Christ sanctifies his holy church to move us on to perfection. While a Communion visit may be light-hearted, serving and receiving Communion should be treated with respect.
4.         Ideally, Communion to the sick and homebound should be taken on the same day that it is celebrated at the church, using the same Communion elements as shared by the congregation.  Those who carry Holy Communion to the sick and persons otherwise confined, therefore, continue the community's act of worship. They extend the community's embrace to include those unable to be physically present. If a same-day visit is not possible, Communion should be taken as soon as possible.
5.         Always call ahead to confirm the day and time to come. Observe the visitants’ condition and time your visit with them as you deem best for all. Remember, most will be very glad to see you and may want you to stay longer than you planned!
6.         “Visit at full speed” right to departure. Do not take several minutes to explain why you must leave and say farewell. When the time comes that you must leave, simply stand and politely say so, make brief but cordial farewells, and go.
7.         When praying with the homebound and sick, ask them first what they wish you to pray for, if they are able to answer.
8.         Communion is to be offered to all persons present if they wish. So it is good to know how many persons will be there before arriving.

Continued after the jump

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Islam: the requirement of jihad

Speaking Honestly About Islam - Crisis Magazine:
Here, I am interested in talking about Islam’s truth. Almost every public, academic, or media talk of Islam goes something like this: “Most Muslims are peaceful. The violence comes from terrorists.” This approach is premised on two positions: 1) The original Muslim conquests of Africa, Spain, the Near-East, the Balkans, and all to way to India were “peaceful,” like they were the results of free elections and not, as was in fact the case, success in battle. 2) Those whom we identify as “terrorists” are not “true” Muslims. “Terrorism” becomes a kind of free-floating cult with no relation to anything but itself. Thus, terrorism is best explained in economic, cultural, psychological, or ideological terms that have little to do with “religion.” This view allows us to state the politically correct view that Islam is a religion of “peace” with no connection to “violence.”

Here I propose a counter-cultural position. I want to defend the integrity of the “terrorists,” as we insist on calling them. I want to grant them the “dignity” that they deserve. That is, they are not mindless products of poverty, ideology, ignorance, psychological mania, or any other excuse to avoid calling them what they claim to be, namely, loyal and devoted believers in the Qur’an, the real followers of Mohammed. It is senseless to pretend that a jihadist vision is not found in the Qur’an.
Jihad is the actual means of eternal salvation in Islam, and has been since Muhammed himself.
The root of jihad is judh, Arabic for "striving“ or “struggle.” Jihad in Muslim theology is striving to defend or advance Islam or increase one's faithfulness to Islam. Jihad is not peripheral to Islam. It stands at its very center. Jihad is central to Muslim soteriology (its theology of salvation).

Jihad is theologically joined at the hip to sharia, Islamic law, for it is sharia that both commands and justifies jihad.

Muslim scholars and jurists distinguish between "greater jihad" and "lesser jihad," a distinction going back to Muhammad himself. Jihad, says, has been conceptually corrupted in modern years both by Western usage to mean only holy war and by numerous Islamic groups, contending for power and influence, who have also overemphasized its military component.

According to Farida Khanam, the Arabic word jihad, by itself,
... does not connote the sense of reward or worship in the religious sense of the word. But when the word jihad became a part of Islamic terminology, the sense of reward or worship came to be associated with it, that is to say, if struggle is struggle in the simple sense of word, jihad means a struggle which is an act of worship, the engagement of which earns reward to the person concerned. As the Quran says: "Strive for the cause of God as you ought to strive" (22:78).
In historic Muslim theology, jihad more generally means striving toward equilibrium of Islamic character both within individuals and among the Muslim umma (the people of a Muslim society). It is therefore both individual and communal, both personal and social.

Says al-Islam,
Muslims as both individuals and members of Islamic society must carry out jihad, that is they must exert themselves at all moments of life to fight a battle both inward and outward against those forces that if not combatted will destroy that equilibrium which is the necessary condition for the spiritual life of the person and the functioning of human society. This fact is especially true if society is seen as a collectivity which bears the imprint of the Divine Norm rather than an antheap of contending and opposing units and forces.
Greater Jihad is similar, then, to what Christians call the spiritual disciplines, the need and effort to balance the competing demands of worldly living and religious duty, including the active avoidance of sin and doing of good. Muslim thought has historically considered Greater Jihad more difficult and more important than Lesser Jihad. 

Lesser jihad

Lesser jihad is the use of authorized, righteous violence to defend Islam. In historic Muslim thought, lesser jihad can be waged only in accordance with the terms of a fatwa. A fatwa is a declaration by a recognized Muslim authority that can be on any topic. A fatwa for lesser jihad is a call to arms for Muslims to destroy perceived enemies of Islam.

Fatwas may be general or limited in scope. In 1979, the Saudi government endorsed a Palestinian professor’s fatwa against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but the fatwa was limited to Soviet forces inside that country. It did not include the whole Soviet military or the Soviet Union.

Within Sunni Islam, the status and renown of the fatwa issuer directly affects how well it is obeyed and heeded. There is no official hierarchy of clerics among Sunnis, so a Sunni Muslim gains renown by scholarship, study, exampling, authorship, preaching and being recognized as a cleric (and boasting, but this is more Arab than Muslim). This means that any Sunni Muslim may issue a fatwa, but others can just ignore it.

Shia Islam defines who may issue fatwas. Unlike Sunnis, Shias do have a hierarchy, culminating in the office of ayatollah (“sign of Allah”). Ayatollahs are experts in Islamic studies. However, the office of ayatollah is new in Shia Islam, dating to only about 1840. And there is rank among ayatollahs, too, with Grand Ayatollah being the summit.
Whether peaceful or violent, jihad is a form is Muslim worship. Tajuddin B. Shu`aib explains Jihad’s association with warfare:
[F]or Muslims to wield weapons in a war in which Islam itself is defended - as the [Saudi 1979] anti-Soviet fatwa declared - is literally an act of worship. The Muslim jihadi has the right to expect reward proportionate to his sacrificial worship. In military jihad, the ultimate sacrifice is to die, which deserves the ultimate reward, immediate entry by the slain jihadi's soul into Paradise. This doctrine springs from the words of Mohammed himself, who during the battle of Badr told his soldiers, "I swear by the One in whose hand Mohammad's soul is, any man who fights them today and is killed while he is patient in the ordeal and seeks the pleasure of Allah, going forward and not backing off, Allah will enter him into Paradise.“
Hence, to be honorably killed in a recognized jihadist war is to gain immediate entry into paradise.

A short detour to the principle of abrogation (Arabic, Naskh). 

The Quran is not arranged chronologically. Its chapters (Suras) are presented according to their length. Even within chapters chronology is confusing. For example, Sura 2, v. 190 was revealed to Mohammed six years after v. 193, and there are other such examples.

The principle of abrogation is followed by all Muslims and Muslim clerics. It is simply that the chronologically-later verses supersede, or abrogate, the earlier ones if there is a conflict (and there are many such conflicts).

Four verses in the Quran are used to justify abrogation:

  • When we cancel a message, or throw it into oblivion, we replace it with one better or one similar. Do you not know that God has power over all things? (Sura 2.106)
  • When we replace a message with another, and God knows best what he reveals, they say: You have made it up. Yet, most of them do not know. (16.101)
  • God abrogates or confirms whatsoever he will, for he has with him the Book of the Books. (13.39)
  • If we pleased, we could take away what we have revealed to you. Then you will not find anyone to plead for it with us. (17.86)

An on-topic example: Ismail ibn Kathir, 1300-1373, was a highly influential Sunni scholar and is still today regarded as a foremost expert on tafsir, or exegesis of the Quran. Among other things, Kathir wrote on “compulsion in religion,” citing Sura 2.256, which is today cited by Muslim apologists or sympathizers trying to show why Islamist terrorism is actually forbidden in Islam. The verse reads, 
Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.
However, Kathir wrote, 
Allah says: "There is no compulsion in religion", meaning: do not force anyone to embrace Islam, because it is clear and its proofs and evidences are manifest. Whoever Allah guides and opens his heart to Islam has indeed embraced it with clear evidence. Whoever Allah misguides blinds his heart and has set a seal on his hearing and a covering on his eyes cannot embrace Islam by force...hence Allah revealed this verse. 
But, this verse is abrogated by the verse of "fighting...Therefore, all people of the world should be called to Islam. If anyone of them refuses to do so, or refuses to pay the Jizya they should be fought till they are killed. This is the meaning of compulsion. In the Sahih, the Prophet said: "Allah wonders at those people who will enter Paradise in chains", meaning prisoners brought in chains to the Islamic state, then they embrace Islam sincerely and become righteous, and are entered among the people of Paradise.
Kathir commented on Sura 9.29 and 9.5 as the abrogation: 
Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth [Islam], out of those who have been given the Book until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection [9.29].   
Allah’s pardon for the disbelievers was repealed. Abu Al-`Aliyah, Ar-Rabi` bin Anas, Qatadah and As-Suddi said similarly: “It was abrogated by the verse of the sword.” [v. 9:5] 
“His Messenger” – Mohammed
“Given the Book” – Christians and Jews, also called, “people of the Book”
“State of subjection” – dhimmitude, i.e., third-class legal status for non-Muslims
The bottom line is that Islamists, including al Qaeda, ISIS and the rest, consider all verses of peace in the Quran to have been abrogated, or superseded, by the verses of the sword. The principle of abrogation is mainline Muslim exegesis; the Quran has been understood this way since Islam's beginning. 

Muslim soteriology, or theology of salvation

Salvation in Islam is entirely other-worldly, that is a state belonging solely to the afterlife. There is no equivalent in Islam to the Christian “Kingdom of Heaven,” that is partially realized and actual in the here and now, awaiting its final fulfillment in the eschaton. There is no Holy Spirit even conceptually in Islam; there is no presence at all of Allah on the earth. Allah is solely in heaven. 

All there is between now and judgment day is the Quran and Sunna, Sharia law,  and the umma, the Muslim people. But in no sense is salvation achieved, even marginally, in this life. Salvation is earned here but not accomplished until the day of judgment. 

Muslims affirm that there will be a final day of judgment and that salvation or eternal damnation will be adjudged at that time. 

Unlike Christianity, Islam has no concept of original sin - a stain of sin innate to human beings, present in each person even at birth that can be remitted only by God, not by anything mortals can do. In Islam, remission of sins can be done and salvation attained, but only by the believer's deeds in submission to Allah through Islamic confessions and obeying Islamic law. If a Muslim carries out Islam's commandments, then judgment day will be lightly borne. If not, disaster. Islam thus hold that salvation is solely achieved through works. “Grace” is not a concept in Islam. 

Islam says that every person is born with a sound nature and provided by Allah with a true religion that enables them to have fullness of life through close communion with Allah in this world and the next. Each human is a religiously grounded person, created and endowed with a fitra, a ‘sound constitution’ that acts as a kind of internal guidance system and way to God.

The purpose of Islamic law, or Sharia, is
  • to form a society in which disobedience to Allah’s commands are difficult because everyone alike is oriented toward keeping them,
  • Hence, forbidden material or practices are (ideally) simply unavailable, so
  • Avoidance of sin is facilitated. 
At the same time, there is unity of effort in doing good, according to the tenets of Sharia, such as everyone stops to pray five times per day, everyone plans or conducts the hajj, and so forth.

Avoiding sin and doing good is therefore both individual and social. Sharia lays out what is necessary to keep the commands of Allah (usually in great detail) in terms both negative (what not to do) and positive (what must be done and what is permitted though not necessarily required).

Obedience to Sharia is, in fact, what jihad is. Islam claims it is the only true religion and the only the way to God. Jihad is achieving "close communion" with God, and there is no other way. Jihad is literally the only way to paradise.

Jihad’s purpose is to earn the believer a place in paradise and is entirely dependent on deeds in this life. However, "loners" can't keep Islam’s commandments because Islam is "not a personal faith," according to Muslim jurist Sam Solomon. Earthly "close communion with God" can take place only within the Muslim community, the umma.

Muslims require the support and encouragement of a broader Islamic community living together just to be Muslim at all. That is exactly the basis on which a Muslim friend at Fort Sill, Okla., an Egyptian lieutenant colonel, justified his nightclubbing, drinking and womanizing. "This is not a Muslim country," he told me, and only later I learned this was a serious answer, not a dodge.

The fundamental basis of what Muslims believe is thus:
  1. No one but those faithful to Allah's commandments can be admitted to eternal life in paradise. Everyone else, without exception, spends eternity in the flames of Hell. Islam teaches and Muslims take this dichotomy very, very seriously and literally. 
  2. There is no way to be faithfully obedient to the commands of Allah except through jihad.
  3. The commandments of Allah are so difficult to follow that it is not possible except through the unity of an entire society all devoted to submission to Allah, called the Muslim ummah
  4. The only way that the ummah can be ordered to facilitate submission of its people to Allah is through Islamic law, sharia, which makes some commandments of Allah obligatory and makes others difficult to disobey. 
Hence, sharia and jihad are conceptually inseparable. Unless sharia become the unchallenged and supreme law of a society, Islam has not been established and salvation is in unacceptable doubt.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches

The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches:

“God has supernaturally ordained community to sanctify his people to grow in Christ. A call to discipleship and spiritual maturity is a call to biblical community.”
Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research 

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An atheist explains why he returned to religion

A N Wilson: Why I believe again

But religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer's Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi's, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense. Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?
 Bookmark and Share

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court, same-sex marriage, and the Church

Below is the text of an email I sent to the people of my church this morning. 

As many of you know by now, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 this morning that states may not deny marriage licenses to persons on the basis of their sex. That is to say, the Court ruled that same-sex couples as well as heterosexual must be issued  such a license if they request. The Court did not, as far as I have read yet, make any reference or ruling as to whether states may withhold licenses from multiple-partner requests (polygamous arrangements). However, the majority opinion consistently uses the word "couples" in its wording. The full text of the ruling is here:

The Book of Discipline of the UMC is the "church law" for the denomination. It is updated and republished every four years, after the General Conference of the UMC has made changes, if any. The GC will meet next year, so the current edition of the BOD is the 2012 edition. Here is what the BOD says relevant to the Court's ruling today.

On weddings generally: The decision to perform a wedding ceremony is the right and responsibility of the pastor.

Same-sex unions:
  1. Ceremonies of homosexual weddings or ceremonies of that nature by any other name may not be performed by UM pastors, nor may such occasions take place on UM property. 
  2. UM Pastors who do conduct such ceremonies are subject to disciplinary action that may include revocation of ordination (and hence unemployment). 
There are a number of other references in the BOD to homosexuality, however, these are the relevant parts to the Court's ruling today. Nothing in the Court's ruling affects the denomination's position.

Therefore, having rendered vows to uphold the standards of the Church, and in accordance with my own Christian convictions, I will continue to follow the rules of the Book of Discipline of the UMC and will not perform, either on or off the campus, same-sex union ceremonies by whatever name.

I would be surprised if this position is not controversial, or even wrong, to some people of our church. Unfortunately, email is a "flat" medium and not very suitable for this kind of discussion so I am not going to elaborate further here. I am open to holding a discussion session, or even a series of them, if I am advised it would be helpful.

As in all things, let us be in prayer for our Church and for the future of our nations and its leaders, that the wisdom of God and the grace of our Lord Christ envelope us completely in all we say and do.

Grace and peace.

Don Sensing

Update (to blog post only): Law Prof. Ilya Somin says that the ruling leaves the door fully open for challenges to laws forbidding polygamy:
Kennedy’s analysis of the Due Process Clause issue also tries to cabin the scope of his reasoning by emphasizing that the fundamental right to marriage is limited to a “two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.” This appears to foreclose the possibility that the right to marriage includes polygamous unions. But the basis for this limitation is not clearly explained. If fundamental rights are not “defined by who exercised them in the past,” then why should they be defined by the number of people involved in the union in question?
And Chief Justice Roberts says this explicitly in his dissent:
Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective “two” in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one. It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.

When asked about a plural marital union at oral argument, petitioners asserted that a State “doesn’t have such an institution.” But that is exactly the point: the States at issue here do not have an institution of same-sex marriage, either.
Trust me: multiple-spouse marriage is on the way, bet on it. One man and three women, three men, two men and one woman, name it. And just wait until some people discover the tax-dodge scams they can pull with no-rules marriage and we'll see 20, 30 or more people marrying one another.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The only cure for "Great Politics"

Peter Hitchens is the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the founders of the New Atheist movement whose book, God is Not Great, remains high atop the must-read list for atheists today. I myself read his non-religious works and columns eagerly and found them enlightening. C. Hitchens was indisputably a very smart man, engaging and witty.

Like Christopher, his younger brother b y two years, Peter, became an atheist. But he did not remain there. Years into adulthood, he came to confess Christ, published a rebuttal to God is Not Great and even publicly debated his brother a few times.

Here is his story:
How I found God and peace with my atheist brother: PETER HITCHENS traces his journey back to Christianity | Daily Mail Online
Being Christian is one thing. Fighting for a cause is another, and much easier to acknowledge – for in recent times it has grown clear that the Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular forces which have never been so confident.

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law.

The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.
He is right. As militant atheist Friedrich Nietzsche said, once God is dead, humanity will be in the service of Great Politics, which even Nietzsche knew would not be an improvement.
The point, rather, is that Nietzsche saw. However much he (usually) advocated what ought to be most abhorred, he at least recognized that true morality and Christian belief are siblings. Moreover, in tones redolent of Jeremiah he saw the consequences to civilization as a whole when its citizens lose their faith in God. For what will take the place of God will be only a passionate—and largely empty—politics:
For when truth enters the lists against the lies of millennia, we shall have convulsions, a spasm of earthquakes . . . the likes of which have never been dreamed. Then the concept of politics will be completely dissolved in a war between spirits, all authority structures of the old order will be blown into the air—one and all, they rest upon a lie; there will be wars the likes of which have never existed on earth. From my time forward earth will see Great Politics.
Such are the contradictions of atheism. With hope in progress gone, with the lessons of the twentieth century still unlearned in the twenty-first, with technology progressing, in Adorno’s words, from the slingshot to the atom bomb (a remark cited in Spe Salvi), with a resurgence of religiously motivated violence filling the headlines, all that the new atheists can manage is to hearken back to an Enlightenment-based critique of religion. But they find their way blocked, not so much by Nietzsche (whom, as we saw, they largely ignore) but by the ineluctable realities he so ruthlessly exposed. Not Nietzsche, but the history of the twentieth century has shown that godless culture is incapable of making men happier. All Nietzsche did was to point out that no civilization, however “progressive,” can dispel the terrifying character of nature; and once progress is called into question, the human condition appears in all its forsaken nakedness.
We are almost there, folks. This is why evangelism is the only critical task of the Church today.

We have to avoid the natural tendency to do withdraw into ecclesial shells, and rely instead on the supernatural authority and inspiration of God to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why the Confederate battle flag must go

By now you are probably aware of the increasing (and increasingly strident) calls for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from South Carolina's state capitol grounds (where, lest we forget, it was originally placed in 1962 by act of the almost-wholly-Democrat legislature and signed into law by then-governor, later US Senator Fritz Hollings, D.-SC.)

As a matter of federalism, of course, SC has the right to fly the flag if its representatives want. But, as Paul advised in 1 Cor. 6., just because one has the right to do something does not mean it is beneficial.

My friend Bill Hobbs linked in FB to this article about the flag kerfuffle: "The ludicrous, self-defeating hypocrisy of flying the Confederate battle flag." It's not a short read but it is worth the time. My thoughts are below.

The CSA's flags should not be displayed except in historical settings such as museums or re-enactments. 

There are some hard truths about the CSA. I am a Nashville native and grew up here. My family's roots in Middle Tenn. go back to just after the Revolutionary War. I have ancestral-family members who fought (and some died) for the CSA on both my mom's and dad's side (also for the Union on my dad's). Alexander Stephens, vice president of the CSA, was my wife's great-great grandfather's brother. My maternal grandmother's grandfather, CSA, has the singular distinction of being the only American POW, before or since, ever busted out of POW camp by his wife. He was never recaptured.

So I take no back seat to anyone for Southern heritage and upbringing.

Like probably most native Southerners of my generation, I was raised being taught that the real reasons for the Southern states' secession was to preserve states rights and that the northern economic lobby was choking the South's economy with high tariffs on Southern goods.

Slavery? Well, it was in the mix somewhere, but slavery was not the real reason for secession.

It is a lie, pure and simple.

The states rights and tariffs arguments are entirely absent from Southern apologia until after the Civil War. In 1860 and before, no one in the South was using those topics to justify secession. Furthermore, in 1860 federal tariffs on Southern goods were lower than they had been since 1816.

It was the Southern politicians who had actually attacked the concept of federalism and state rights when, some years before the Civil War, some non-slave states had started declaring that when slaves were brought into those states by the masters, they could be declared legally manumitted by state law. Southern politicians fought that tooth and nail and applauded the Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court, which denied Dred Scott, a black man, the right to sue for his freedom US courts even if he resided in a free state. (Seven of the Supreme Court's judges "had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and of these, five were from slave-holding families.") 

Nor was the North's industrial power significant at all in the secessionists' decisions. In 1860, Southern goods accounted for 75 percent of all American exports' dollar value ("King Cotton" being the main export) and the market value of the slaves across the South was greater than the entire Net Asset Value of all the industrial base of the North.

The North's industrial revolution had begun in the 1840s, but was hardly in full speed in 1860. The war great accelerated it, leaving the North economically ascendant afterward, but before the war the South was the dominant economic section of the country (and it was economically wrecked by 1865). 

Why did the states secede? To protect slavery, period.

Search for the 11 seceded states' actual acts of secession, beginning with South Carolina's, and you will see that slavery was the sole reason for secession. South Carolina's act makes this very unambiguous: protection of slavery was the only topic presented as driving secession. Same with Mississippi. And the others.

There were four sections of S.C.'s secession act. The opening section claims and justifies the right of the state  to secede in the first place. Then:
The next section asserts that the government of the United States and of states within that government had failed to uphold their obligations to South Carolina. The specific issue stated was the refusal of some states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and clauses in the U.S. Constitution protecting slavery and the federal government's perceived role in attempting to abolish slavery.

The next section states that while these problems had existed for twenty-five years, the situation had recently become unacceptable due to the election of a President (this was Abraham Lincoln although he is not mentioned by name) who was planning to outlaw slavery. The declaration states the primary reasoning behind South Carolina's declaring of secession from the Union, which is described as:
... increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery ...
Then  the final section was simply the declaration of secession. There are no issues presented to justify secession except slavery. Note the contempt of "states right" in the secession act, in its denunciation of "... the refusal of some states to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act... ." The other 10 seceded states' enactments are not significantly different.

The Confederate States of America was founded to do one thing only: to preserve the power of one class of people to literally own as chattel property another class of people. There is no other reason the CSA existed.

That is the "heritage" that CSA flag defenders are really defending; I hope, truly, that most of them do not know that.

We Southerners must stop trying to defend the indefensible

To defend the Confederate States of America is to side with the abjectly, morally indefensible. To use the CSA's battle flag or national colors as a symbol of Southern pride should be deeply, deeply offensive to modern Southerners, who are the most racially harmonious people in the nation (by no means has the year of Jubilee arrived, but jeepers, just compare to practically any Union-states- heritage city).

Have we Southerners nothing to display as an emblem of regional heritage and pride but the flag of a morally corrupt and thankfully temporary regime?

God save us.

Update: This Atlantic article decisively refutes the idea that the Confederacy was founded for any reason other than preservation - indeed, expansion - of slavery, using the words of the CSA's founders themselves: "What This Cruel War Was Over."