The goal of terrorism is far more complex and far more sinister than just the taking of human life, as painful and devastating as that is. It is to instill a fear -- a terror -- in those who bear witness to its deadly acts.
The hope of the terrorist is that this fear would do one of two things: Either change us or silence us. Either distort our thoughts, behaviors and core principals or move us into a fearful and quiet bystander's posture.
The most upsetting thing for me in wake of the recent terror attacks beyond my grief for those lost, is what all of this doing to the church. The fear that has snuck into many hearts is now changing the Body of Christ making us in some parts completely unrecognizable and little like the One whose name we bear. And many of us who object to the Terrorized Post-Christian Church that is emerging are standing silently on the margins, in some ways offering just as poor a witness.
While speaking to the gathered student body at their convocation about how we should respond to the recent terror attack in San Bernardino, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said;
If the people in that community center had had what I got in my back pocket right now...If more good people had conceal carry permits then we can end those Muslims. I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach 'em a lesson if they ever show up here.
Of this my brother Shane Claiborne said "As I listened to the words of Mr. Falwell, I could not help asking, 'Are we worshipping the same Jesus?'"
I recently spoke with a friend who also heard President Falwell's comments and we wrestled with whether or not to say anything publically about it. I held similar questions after hateful and fearful statements came from Franklin Graham, another well-known Christian leader and son of Billy Graham (one who has played a powerful role in my own faith journey). I've held the same question -- whether or not to speak up -- as Christian presidential candidates have put forth fear mongering Islamophobic platforms and mad even worse comments.
And aside from within private conversation and the occasional "safe" post on social media, I have remained silent. Perhaps not taking their hate speech and fear speech seriously, or maybe I was preoccupied with the daily callings of my own life, or maybe I thought someone else could and would say what I was thinking or maybe it was my mostly non-confrontational personality.
Or maybe my silence is because of something much worse.
What if the recent violence and terror has shook me and perhaps you so much that it is easier mentally and emotionally to stay out of everything and keep quiet? What if the fear of further violence or the fear of having to fight with people "on my own side" is defeating my own inner convictions to speak up against hate?
That kind of fear based silence is almost just as bad as the fear based hate being spewed by many other Christian leaders.
I'm saddened that some of my Muslim friends feel a pressure to denounce every terrible thing that fringe individuals do in the name of Islam. Should Christians have to speak out whenever the Westboro folks reappear or after people like Terry Jones threaten to burn copies of the Qu'ran? Of course not.
But Falwell is not a fringe leader. He is not a small travelling hate group like Westboro or an isolated Islamophobe like Jones in Florida. Westboro and Jones' groups have a combined total of less than 100 members. Liberty University is the largest Christian school in the country with more than 100,000 students (including all of those enrolled online and part time). In many ways his perspective is not a marginal one, but a growing one in parts of the church. And of this we must speak out.
His comments about wanting to end "those Muslims" are disgusting. He has since walked that phrase back and qualified it to mean "violent terrorists," but saying "those Muslims" is a terrible slip up and a poor witness for the love of Christ. Nothing in that comment is winsome and none of it will attract people to the Gospel.
Beyond the fact that Jesus would never carry a gun or any type of weapon (see in the Gospels where He scolds Peter for using a sword to strike one of the soldiers arresting Jesus, or His exhortations to "turn the other cheek," "love your enemies" and much more), the notion of threatening to kill another child of God presents a violence and disregard for human life that not at all like the Prince of Peace.
But beyond the bigoted speech and the violent readiness to kill, the worst aspect of all of this is that the compass guiding these statements and much of the sentiment that I hear coming from many Christians is not Love -- but rather it is fear.
I call this new emerging part of the body the Terrorized Post-Christian Church. They have been infused with a fear that has changed them. Their words and actions have moved beyond even the Constantinian distortion of the Christian witness in the world, to something that has moved on from having Jesus as the primary model of how to live, to having a muscular weapon-wielding pure American Herod as it's model. And it would be easier to stay silent if this was some distant fringe religious group, but this is us. It's a poisoned part of our body.
And this to me is proof that the efforts of the terrorists are working. The fear of us getting hurt has changed us. It's made us go from a loving, grace-filled open-armed open-door church, to a fearful, hate-spewing, pre-judging closed door gun shop. How could we move from a group of followers of the One who laid down His life for others to a group that now threatens to lay down the lives of others? How can we go from a group that throughout history has taken stands against injustice, spoken out for freedom, pushed back against hate and violence to being a group of quiet and timid bystanders covering our eyes and ears with our hands. It's because we are afraid.
I had a dear friend in seminary who once shared the phrase with me "Fear is the garden of sin" and it is so true. A close reading of the Bible finds that one of its most common refrains sung by angels, humans and Christ alike is "Do not be afraid."
The noise of this political campaign, the cacophony of the 24 hour news cycle and the endless feeds of social media are drowning out the Voice that says to us today "Do not be afraid."
I was heartbroken by Falwell's words because of how hurtful they are to my Muslim friends and because of how harmful they are to the efforts of those who are trying to share the Gospel. His words frustrated me because encouraging a group of 18 to 22-year-olds to carry guns is not only poor uncreative leadership, but also a terrible decision for campus safety. Research has shown that individuals carrying concealed weapons don't deter violence. In fact more guns present increases the likelihood of gun violence.
But the worst part about his comments and similar ones of the last few years is that they pass on the pitiful fear of scared men. Fear is the contagious poison that is polluting the Body right now. And the best medicine for it is love. Perhaps a tough love from the rest of the body. We're called not to amputate the poisoned branch, but God willing to heal it and to restore it.
Perhaps there is a powerful Divine coincidence in that Falwell's comments and the fear-based ideas of individuals like Donald Trump are being brought to light during the Christmas season. The narrative in the Gospels tells us of the threat from King Herod towards young Hebrew children in an around Bethlehem. His fear that this new Messiah would come and take his power led him to the terrifying response of resorting to violence to alleviate his fears and secure his power.
Jesus chose to break that cycle of terror. He did not respond with fear or violence, but instead with love. The Christian witness teaches us that God became incarnate, coming not as a mighty conquering warrior, but a gentle vulnerable baby. The chorus of the angels reflects the moment as they said "Glory to God in the highest and peace and goodwill to His people on earth." I always thought it ironic that we sing of a "Silent Night" when on this most holy night the air is filled with songs of praise and hope and light, rather than silence.
That is my prayer for Christians this Christmas season, that we would seek peace and goodwill amidst the threat of terror and violence. That we would not let fear change us for the worse. That we would not let fear silence us. That we would be more like Christ and less like Herod.
I am hopeful. The great message of Christmas is that no matter how dark the times, Light can burst through and change everything in an instant bringing with It long awaited peace and goodwill. Glory to God in the highest. Do not be afraid.
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