Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Civilian Casualties

One of the problems plaguing our troops in Afghanistan is the specter of civilian casualties. Operations routinely take place in urban or suburban areas, and civilians get caught in the cross-fire, or become collateral damage in air strikes.  This isn’t just confined to Afghanistan either, as a low-key air operation against terrorists in Waziristan is used as a propaganda weapon as the enemy parades scenes of dead civilians on Al Jazheera.

The civilian casualties aren’t the problem here. The way that the American Administration deals with it is. The previous Administration was inept at communication, and the present administration is simply inept.

First of all, let’s absolve ourselves of some guilt here. By definition, all of our enemies in this part of the world are civilians. They do not wear a uniform, and are not part of a recognized governmental armed force. So the definition of a non-combatant in this region is one who is not currently shooting at someone. This fact has not been stated by our leadership, and it needs to be.

Second, a message needs to be sent to the residents of this region. There are some very bad people in your countries who have declared that they are enemies of the United States, and have demonstrably put their words into action. We want these people dead, very badly. You have a pretty good idea of who these people are. It’s in your best interests to stay as far away from these people as possible, because when we find them – and we will – we are going to blow them up. You really don’t want to be in the area when this happens. If you choose to associate with these people, or tolerate them living next to you, don’t claim to be an innocent victim when things start exploding around you.

If you invite a known, wanted terrorist into your house or mosque, or if you attend a meeting or ceremony with same, it’s your fault if you or your loved ones are maimed or killed when we go after him. Stay away from the terrorists, move slowly and keep your hands in plain sight at all times, and you’ll be quite safe. Remember, treat the Islamic terrorist as if he’s likely to violently explode at any time with no warning, and you won’t be far wrong.

The best advice that I can give is that if you find yourself in the presence of a sworn enemy of the USA, place as much distance between you and he as possible. Two kilometers is a good minimum. To remove uncertainty from your life, you could report the location of the enemy to the nearest NATO unit - preferably one with a Forward Air Controller. Or better yet, if you deliver the enemies of the USA to any US military unit, you may be handsomely rewarded. Dead or alive, we really don’t care much.

Our administration and military leadership needs to make the realities of war clear to the residents of the area, and come to grips with the idea that this is a war, and that civilian casualties will be unavoidable. The alternative is that we tie the hands of our soldiers with ridiculous rules of engagement that guarantee that victory cannot be achieved. They need to bow their heads in sorrow when civilians are hurt, but recognize that this is an insurgency, and that any civilian in the presence of a terrorist or combatant is likely there by choice, because they support the combatant in some way or other.

The idea that we have called off operations that could have killed Bin Laden and other high ranking enemies because there would be civilian casualties is just plain ludicrous. Those people are close to these targets because they want to be. They support the enemy with aid and comfort, they are not friends of the USA and never will be, and should be treated as enemies themselves.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Straight Thinking About Trying the Guantanamo Prisoners.

Republicans are up in arms that the Obama administration is going to transfer Islamic jihadi terrorists from Guantanamo Bay security facility to New York City to be tried in civil court.

I can understand their point of view, but c’mon, guys, is this really a battle worth fighting? One of the things that really ticked me off about the liberals throughout the Bush administration was the fact that no matter what Bush did, it was either wrong or not good enough. Now we’re doing the same thing to the Obama administration. Now, let’s be clear, I don’t like Obama, and I think his presidency is going to be a disaster for this country. But on this one case he’s not all wrong.

There are several things to consider when evaluating this: intended consequences, unintended consequences, and precedent.

Intended consequences.

The keystone of the Republican opposition to this move is that they’re afraid that a civil court is going to get hold of these guys, introduce civil rules of evidence, and that these guys are going to walk on a technicality, or that a sympathetic jury will find an inadequate case to convict. All things being equal, and with the history of our judicial system, that’s a reasonable thing to think. Just ask O.J..

Republicans, stop and think a second. This is the Obama Administration! Now what is job number one for Obama? That’s right, getting re-elected in 2012. Everything else takes a back seat to that. Now Obama’s inexperienced and unqualified, but he’s not exactly an idiot. He knows that if Khalid Sheik Muhammad walks on a technicality in New York City, that he’s going to be crucified in the polls come 2012. So that’s not going to happen. The Chicago machine is going to make sure of it. Trust me, the fix is in long before the gavel falls to open proceedings. You can bet that the prosecuting attorney is already measuring for new drapes in the State attorney General’s office, and that the presiding judge is virtually guaranteed a circuit court seat at the earliest possible vacancy. Keep a close eye on whoever gets picked to defend these guys, they’ll make a ton in windfall profits. Just like the Chicago prizefighter makes it look good and then takes a fall, the defense will do their best and will ultimately lose.

Now if a Republican administration moved to influence a court proceeding with the sort of heavy handed methods that are going to be used in this show trial, the press would be howling for blood. But since this is Obama, no one is going to give it a passing sniff, it’s just another quiet day in America, folks. Move along.

If you think this is a little optimistic, think about who we’re dealing with. Obama has no qualms about throwing his allies under the bus to further his political ambitions. Remember Jeremiah Wright, whom he could no more disown than his own Grandma? Amazing how quiet he’s been. And speaking of Grandma. . .she sort of headed under the bus after Rev. Wright, when she announced that she remembered Barry being born – in Kenya!

If this is how Obama treats his closest kin and friends, then Khalid Sheik Muhammad is a walking dead man. He will go to New York, get a fair trial, and then they’ll execute him, swiftly and with due process. You won’t have to pack the jury. This is New York City, and any jury you pick is going to have their minds made up from the get-go. And don’t worry about the exposure of classified information that may be necessary to convict. You can do it without that.

The fix is in.

The intended consequence is that the world will nod their head sagely and say, yes, America practices what it preaches, they tried them and convicted them and executed them. Political win for America. And if they don’t – well, get real, did you really expect them to? Nothing’s lost.

Unintended consequences.

The Democrats never stop to think about the unintended consequences. The bleeding hearts are wringing their hands about these poor prisoners of war being held without being charged, their lives in limbo. These are feelings, and to a liberal feelings hold sway, irrespective of the laws of armed conflict. For some reason, because this animal physically resembles a human, he gets to enjoy the benefits of the protections of the US constitution – a legal system that he had vowed to destroy.

So unintended consequences on the battlefield: A 21 year old Marine is in combat, and after a furious exchange of gunfire, the Mujahadeen he’s shooting at runs out of ammo and throws his hands up. Our Marine looks at the corpsman administering to his wounded buddy, and then regards the surrendering Jihadi. It flashes through his mind that this guy has just earned himself three hot meals a day and a comfortable bed while he goes on trial, and may stand a good chance to walk free so he can come back and re-arm and be shooting at them another day. . . .

Oops. Sorry ‘bout that, Hajji. I didn’t see your hands up. Looked like you had a weapon. . . .give my regards to Allah.

If we ever took another prisoner in the war against Islam, it would be a testament to the extreme professionalism of our fighting men.

And what if we actually pull off the capture of Osama Bin Laden? I bet it would be real cool if we could get Khalid Sheik Muhammad to turn State’s Evidence against him and testify. . . .only we let him walk. . or killed him already. Oops.

You should think about these sorts of things, first, guys.


Let’s face it, if the system worked, we wouldn’t be having these conversations. Bush dragged his feet, unable, as usual, to make a decision on what he should do, and consequently the military tribunals were never convened, and these guys never got served justice.    So by lack of action, Bush showed that military tribunals have no place in the war on Terror.

Now Barry’s going to set the precedent that these guys get constitutional rights. Yeah, but he’s also going to set the precedent that these guys get executed as well. The defense will raise a number of points which will be struck down, and the appellate courts will conveniently ignore the breach of law and rights of the accused, and precedent will be set that the defense’s best tools in these sorts of cases will be inadmissible. Khalid Sheik Muhammad’s journey is going to grease the skids to death row for future terrorists tried in civil court.

There you have it. Khalid Sheik Muhammad and his cronies die for their crimes, Barry dodges one of the many bullets which are going to doom him to being a one-term president, the military passes a wink and a nod policy on not taking prisoners, and precedent is set to make it very difficult for terrorists to get a fair shake under the judicial system they vow to destroy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Violence in Scripture

In any discussion with a Muslim about the obvious shortcomings of the Quran, a Christian apologist will be confronted with a blizzard of biblical passages that show how evil, depraved, and violent the Judeo-Christian tradition is. Muslims do this in an attempt to deflect the obvious passages in the Quran that give lie to Islam as “The Religion of Peace”, as well as other claims that Allah is the God of Abraham and Jacob. There are a number of logical problems with this tactic of Muslims, however.

Problem #1: Attacking another is not a defense. 
Standard Islamic rhetoric is to attack Christianity in an attempt to draw moral equivalency. This is an empty argument, since moral equivalency goes far deeper than just throwing scripture back and forth. One can easily cherry pick objectionable passages from the scripture of any religious body. The question needs to be examined with a wider frame of reference.
One critical point is how the proponents of each religious tradition apply their scripture? We have ample evidence that Jesus never killed anyone. He never stole anything. He never used his position for his own enrichment or self-aggrandizement. There’s no evidence that he fornicated or even had sexual relations with anyone. He forgave his persecutors, even as they killed him. When confronted with situations where the scripture dictated a death sentence, he taught forgiveness and tolerance. One critical point about Jesus is that he operated within the existing framework of religious law as passed down from Moses and previous prophets.

Muhammad, on the other hand, wasn’t constrained by previous law or scripture. He freely made it up as he went along to suit himself. He paid lip service to whatever Judeo-Christian scripture suited him, although he always failed to understand the underlying lessons, and frequently mis-stated the stories in ways that directly contradicted the written scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. He routinely killed those who disagreed with him. He assassinated critics, and presided over massacres such as that of the helpless Banu Qarayza tribe of Jews in Medina. He and his followers made a life of banditry and looting, and justified it on the basis of religious commandments from Allah, with whom only Muhammad could communicate. Muhammad got a 20% cut of all the loot collected, which he distributed in the form of bribes to ensure the loyalty of his followers. He condemned everyone who disagreed with him, and extracted vicious and cruel revenge. He tortured people, building a fire on one man, and ordering an old woman to be dismembered by tying her limbs to camels. He was a sexual libertine, having relations with any woman who struck his fancy. This is dismissed by Muslims as they point out that he was married to them, which was not always true. The Muslims who support this morality fail to tell you that marriage in Muhammad’s cult took no consideration of the woman’s desires. Muhammad had no qualms about taking a “wife” to his tent before the dead bodies of her murdered father and husband were even cold.

A fundamental basis of both Christianity and Islam is that the adherents of each seek to emulate the example set by the founder of each religion. Christians who engage in violence and atrocities are not doing so because they’re following the example of Christ.  On the contrary, Christ never did these things, so one cannot condemn Christianity as the source of such acts of evil. Muslims on the other hand can and do justify their actions by pointing out that their prophet behaved in a similar fashion. This behavior on the part of their prophet is conveniently ignored by the more moderate, “peaceful” Muslims.

Problem #2: Relevance
Critics who attempt to paint Judeo-Christian scriptural violence as equivalent to violence documented in the Hadith and endorsed in the Quran usually quote heavily from the Pentateuch, which is supposed to have been recorded in the time of Moses. These first five books are the foundation upon which two thousand years of documented Judeo-Christian scripture was based. The laws given then were harsh, and had the specific purpose of separating the Israelites who escaped from Egypt from their slave mentality and contamination from pagan influences. No Jew or Christian today maintains that the letter of the Mosaic law be observed in detail today. This position is justified based on later developments in the four thousand year relationship between the God of Abraham, the Jews and subsequently the Christians. The Judeo-Christian is a documented history of the development of the ongoing relationship between God and Man.

Islam on the other hand, has a point source in history. It was revealed in its entirety in the space of twenty years to a single man. It has no precedent, and no modifying antecedent. Moreover, tradition holds that the entirety of the Quran was recorded in Heaven before the universe was created (There are obvious problems with this supposition, but they’re outside the scope of this discussion). Therefore the Law as given to Muhammad is the law for all time, past, present and future, and immutable (well, Muhammad could modify it, and often did, because he was making it up. But no one else had that privilege).   Islamic scholars have no basis on which to justify any claim that parts of the Quranic law may be ignored today. This is borne out when one examines sharia law, which so many Muslims are pressing to be implemented in the west. Sharia calls for a positively medieval approach to justice, and anyone who subscribes to it cannot in any way be considered a “peaceful” Muslim.

Problem #3: Tone
The general tone of a piece of scripture may be discerned as a balance between what we would consider hateful, violent passages, and peaceful, uplifting passages. In the Christian example, we may further refine the general tone by assigning a greater weight to more recent scripture than the ancient texts. There’s no doubt that Mosaic law was very harsh, as is Islamic law. However, I challenge you to find a single passage in the Quran that equates to 1 Corinthians 13. There is nothing in the Quran that compares to the Beatitudes detailed in Matthew 5. The word love is hardly used in the Quran, and when it is it’s only in the context of things that please Allah. The challenge of the Quran says to bring forth a revelation that is equal to it. I have just provided two passages from the New Testament that exceed anything the Quran has to offer in both composition and content.

Taken as a whole, the Judeo-Christian scripture is a promise of hope and salvation; of enlightenment and the love of God for mankind. Sure, there are violent, harsh passages.  But they're the exception, not the rule, and they usually derive from the most ancient texts.  The Quran is a testament of pettiness and inconsistency, about a hateful, spiteful, tyrannical, self-absorbed deity who has little or no regard for the fruits of his creation except as they can serve him as slaves. The Quran is consistently harsh, with seeming every declarative ending in hellfire for the infidels and self-congratulation on how great and beneficent Allah is.  It gets pretty old, pretty quick.

Problem #4: Consistency
As was discussed previously, most of the Judeo-Christian scripture passages that Muslims wave to demonstrate moral equivalency date from the very earliest days of recorded Jewish history. Subsequent developments in the Judeo-Christian experience have rendered most of these moot. They no longer apply because the theology no longer requires it. In other words, the relationship between Judeo-Christian people and their God has matured beyond the need for such harsh laws, much as the relationship between a parent and a child matures as the child grows in years and wisdom. The mature theology recognizes that the Judeo-Christian society has matured to embrace a system of values which reflect the spirit of the law. As God taught Moses, there is nothing new in the Commandments. They are merely codifying the law that’s already written in men’s hearts. Where one can easily find an objectionable passage in the old law, it has been softened and mitigated as the law developed over thousands of years of God interacting both directly and indirectly with the faithful.

In Islamic scripture, the situation is reversed. Muslims are quick to quote peaceful sounding, conciliatory passages from the Quran which seem to speak to the general welfare of mankind. They use these passages especially when courting a potential convert to the faith. Islam is peaceful. Islam is tolerant. The problem is that all of these passages were “revealed” to Muhammad during his time in Mecca, when Islam was no more than two dozen adherents, and he had no political power. There are a plethora of contradictory passages which advocate the death of infidels and non-believers, and assign such to some pretty imaginative punishments in Hell. All of these harsh, intolerant passages were revealed in the later period in Medina, where Muhammad had fashioned himself into a warlord. Islamic scholars have been forced to reconcile these contradictions through a school of abrogation, where later revelations supercede earlier. In fact, Muhammad himself was buttonholed on this point by followers who remembered what he said. Consequently “Allah” revealed that he will make Muhammad forget a surah, and replace it with a better one.

Now stop and think about this for a second. . . .The Quran was recorded before time began, and Muhammad was made to memorize it. That’s Muslim tradition. Yet in the space of the twenty years of revelation, Allah made Muhammad forget parts, and then replaced them with better parts. With a story like this, you expect anyone to believe that a deity who indulges in this sort of tomfoolery is actually the author of creation? I don’t buy it. I don’t see how anyone possibly can.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reality Check in Afghanistan

We’re losing the war in Afghanistan.

This is hardly surprising, since one of the unfortunate legacies of the Bush administration was that we never adequately defined what would constitute a victory in our various military ventures initiated under his watch. Add to that a seemingly deliberate ignorance of the historical background of Afghanistan that earned it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires.”

Bush roundly criticized the Clinton administration for engaging in fruitless nation building. Then in his very first military venture, set us up to be nation building on a scale never before attempted.

Afghanistan chewed up the British army in the 19th century, and the Russian army in the 20th century. The country can be subdued, but the resources required to do so have never been justified by any power that’s attempted it, leaving the forces that are tasked with the job under manned. If a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan had something to offer, the story might be different, but the country simply brings very little to the world market to make it worthwhile expending the resources that would be necessary to subdue its unruly culture. It’s an investment that no one has ever found a way to pay dividends.

Dexter Filkins’ story in the New York TimesStanley McChrystal’s Long War highlights many of the problems faced by US forces in Afghanistan today. We have lost the initiative, and the conflict has degenerated into a prolonged war of attrition, in which the cream of the American (and allied) youth are fed into a meat grinder with no perceivable benefit resulting from their sacrifice. General McChrystal’s solution is to regain the initiative by adding 40,000 more soldiers to take the fight to the enemy.

Whether this will work is problematic. Certainly, given the political will, we can defeat the Taliban militarily on the ground – the only force capable of defeating the US military is the US congress. But does that constitute victory? What then?

The sad fact is that adult literacy in Afghanistan is a mere 25%. Literacy among children is virtually nonexistent. According to Michael Yon’s article Adopt-a-stan, half the country is under the age of 17.5 years. These two facts alone should instruct the US administration in the obvious:  Democracy will not work in Afghanistan! This country is the international equivalent of an illiterate juvenile delinquent. Self-government answerable to the people is a fantasy. Creating a consensus and managing a country to step into the 21st century requires an educated, literate, informed electorate. If you don’t have that, any government taking power will rapidly devolve into corruption and dictatorial behavior. 

A fundamental lesson of history is that you cannot impose democracy from the outside. Democracy has to take root and grow on its own within a society. The transition to a democracy has never been accomplished without a lot of bloodshed. It’s a painful, bloody process, and there’s no way to get around that which doesn’t yield less than satisfactory results.

Afghanistan’s problem isn’t a lack of security. It’s not a lack of schools. It’s not the Taliban. It’s not poverty. These are all symptoms. Afghanistan’s problem is Islam. Since it’s politically unacceptable to acknowledge the elephant in the room, defeating any of the symptoms is just a stopgap measure, and when left to itself, those same symptoms will recur, because the root cause has not been addressed.

Can Afghanistan be fixed? Yes. In an ideal scenario, the best thing for Afghanistan in the long run would be to get rid of the current government – it’s a farce of a democracy anyway – and make it a UN protectorate – or perhaps a US protectorate under UN auspices to avoid the corruption that seems to accompany UN efforts. Let’s face it, Afghanistan as a country is defined more by the countries around it than by any national identity anyway. The Protectorate would be charged with pacification and administration with the goal of eventually building the infrastructure and social foundation adequate to allow sustainable self-government. This approach worked well for the Philippines – at least it was working well until World War Two derailed much of the economic and social progress that the Philippines had made towards being a workable self-governing country. The Philippines of 1900 bears a great deal of social and economic similarity to Afghanistan today. Lessons are to be learned from that.

This would be done with the understanding that Afghanistan would again become an independent country once certain milestones are accomplished, including, but not necessarily limited to:
  • Electrification of 90% of the country. 
  • 90% literacy rate among adults 16 and older.
  • Closure of all Madrassas, a requirement to attend government schools that all teach to a certain standard. Teaching religion in schools would be outlawed.
  • Modern highways between all urban centers.
  • Civil infrastructure comparable to western nations in per capita hospital beds, firefighting, police, etc.
  • Self-sustaining food production (and a corresponding end to the opium trade).
  • The established operation of an independent news media (Newspapers, TV, radio and internet)
Such a protectorate government could enact draconian measures to secure the peace. Madrassas would be closed. Sharia law would be given a back seat to human rights and protectorate law. Inflammatory clerics could be arrested for disturbing the peace. Divisive Islamic teachings could be put aside in favor of reading, writing and arithmetic. Local governments could be mentored in how to develop the prosperity of all. This effort would take a generation, and a huge commitment on whatever poor body the responsibility fell to.

It would also be wildly unpopular to the Muslim community of nations. Prosperous democracies in formerly Islamic theocracies are a direct challenge to too many governments holding tenuous power in the Islamic league of nations.

Okay, this scenario is a pipe dream too. No country - not even America - is going to sign on to be stuck with this level of responsibility.  America and possibly Britain are the only countries which have a cultural mindset that could make this work.

So what’s the answer? Let’s get back to basics. 9/11 is why we were in Afghanistan in the first place. Al Qaida was operating an international terrorist training and operations headquarters as guests of the Afghan government. We went in and demolished the Al Qaida presence and kicked over the Afghan government as a punishment for supporting it. Al Qaida is now operating – at a much reduced capability – out of western Pakistan.
Essentially, we chased a criminal into a swamp, and somehow took on responsibility to drain the swamp and deal with the alligators. We need to stay focused on catching the criminal. This should dictate our future actions in Afghanistan. 

Is the Taliban a threat? As abhorrent as they are, the Taliban does not pose a national security threat to the USA. Europe is more concerned with the actions of the Taliban, because the streets of Europe are the main terminal for the opium that the Taliban produces. Interdicting a drug trade doesn’t require the invasion and subjugation of a nation. The Taliban are a bunch of radical, backwards zealots, and the world would be better off if they were pushing up daisies, but there’s no evidence that they do anything beyond their own sphere of influence. They simply haven’t got the resources even if they wanted to. They should be the problem of the local populations – if the locals want them gone bad enough, they can take up arms and make that happen.

Should the US prop up the current government? Remember that birthing a democracy is neither peaceful or pretty. We should stay out of it, and let events take their course. Afghan heroes and patriots need to step forward and stand on their own.

The US needs to ensure that Al Qaida is terminated. This will require that US forces in Afghanistan be redeployed to secure the eastern border region with Pakistan and interdict border traffic in support of Pakistani efforts in Waziristan. Pakistan needs to be made aware that they must secure their control over Waziristan and hand over the remnants of Al Qaida. If they demonstrate that they cannot do this, then we must cross the border and do it. If the Pakistani army cannot control Waziristan, then how can they challenge us? Yes, this will create a diplomatic row. So what? We lay the foundation, and make it clear that we’re not challenging the Pakistani government or sovereignty, and that we will leave the moment our mission is accomplished. If they would enforce the legitimate request of the USA and not harbor international terrorists, we wouldn’t be in their country. 

The war against Islam – hey, you might not think it’s a war against Islam, but the enemy does – will require a change of thinking. Our priority is protecting America. Rebuilding Afghanistan isn’t going to do much for accomplishing that priority, so why are we fighting and dying to do it? I’m not saying we should pull out, I’m saying we need to define realistic victory conditions, and then do everything necessary to meet those, and stop efforts that do not contribute to them.

Where does this leave the Afghan people? Well, sorry to say they’re pretty much screwed. But you know what? They’re going to be screwed anyway even if we lose another 10,000 soldiers there trying to bring that country into the 21st century.  The world needs to get the idea that when someone cries “Somebody do something!”, the answer may be “Do it yourself!”  We don’t have an approach that will yield a sustainable result in Afghanistan, and the international community won’t support an approach that will. We’re very good at deposing regimes. If Afghanistan generates another regime that becomes a clear and present danger to the US, we can and should take that one down, too.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap, is sleeping?

I have recently been having a discussion with a Muslim about the nature of the Holy Trinity, and in particular the identity of Jesus. He asked some very interesting questions from the standpoint of Islamic understanding and learning, and they have no easy, quick answer. A gulf exists in the understanding of the foundations of Christianity between Muslims and Christians, and until that Gulf is bridged and Muslims understand the true roots of Christianity, instead of what they are taught in Islamic schools, the two sides will be forever speaking across one another. This is my attempt at bridging part of that gap.

Understanding the true nature and identity of Jesus of Nazareth is a subject upon which many books have been written, and philosophers have debated for two millennia. Part of the problem is a lack of understanding within our human frame of reference to properly define the subject. We are like a group of blind men debating over the meaning of a rainbow.

What do we know of Jesus? Everything we know comes from the writings of Jesus’ closest followers, who recorded not only his words and actions while he was among them, but also their impressions and interpretations of who he was.  These are compiled into the New Testament of the Christian bible. 

In the few centuries after Jesus a population hungry for information about their savior created a cottage industry of religious fiction. People invented stories about Jesus out of whole cloth, spreading rumors and legends that had no basis in fact, and advertising it as legitimate scripture. This trend continues even two thousand years later, witness the market success of books such as The Da Vinci Code – an admitted work of fiction which some credulous people accept as history even today!

The council of Nicaea established the Canon of the Christian church in the year 325 CE, and in the process dismissed many apocryphal writings about Jesus as not in keeping with the traditions that were handed down from the original 12 apostles, or lacking evidence of authenticity. The books and letters that made the cut formed the Bible that we still accept today. At the same council, the Bishops of the Christian faith voted against the Arian position that Jesus was only the figurative son of God, the majority of the most learned men of the church understood the teachings handed down were that Jesus was the literal Son of God.

From these books we learn that Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin. We learn that he was the Son of the living God, and indeed he was God himself. All of these concepts are in the writings of those closest to Jesus.

Muslims have a strikingly different view of Jesus. Muslims believe Jesus was a mere prophet, no different from Moses or Elijah, or in the Islamic view, Muhammad himself. They do not accept that Jesus was the begotten son of God, or that he was God himself. To understand the roots of this belief, we have to understand the religious climate where Islam took root. Desert dwelling Arabs were by nature fairly mystical, and the Judeo-Christian tradition struck a resonant chord within the Arab heart. The stories of the Old Testament and Jesus of Nazareth were quite popular among the illiterate Arabs.

In the sixth century, the complex Arab language was just beginning to be transcribed, and most Arabs could not read or write. This didn’t mean that they lacked in language skills or weren’t intelligent. Like most other pre-literate societies, they had a rich and complex culture based on verbal tradition in the form of poetic stories. Poets were held in high regard as the composers and keepers of historical tradition.

As Judeo Christian religious stories filtered by word of mouth through Arabia, there was no way for the Arabs to discern the apocryphal tales from the canon accepted by the church. The Arabs had no choice but to lend all the stories they heard equal weight, and then select among the ones that seemed to make the most sense and reject the ones that made the least sense. Muhammad had a richer exposure to religious literature than most, as his travels during his time as a caravan overseer took him deep into Byzantine Christendom. Lacking the catechism that accompanies the traditions of the church, he failed to grasp the importance of mysteries of the divinity of Christ as accepted by Christ’s disciples. He rejected the idea that Jesus was the son of God or that Jesus was God as being too fantastic to believe in.

The monotheism that Muhammad synthesized out of his knowledge of Christianity contained equal parts apocryphal and canonical writings, since Muhammad had no way to tell the difference. Since Muhammad claimed that he was in communication with God himself, his theology had to be consistent and not expose him to uncomfortable questions to which he couldn’t give a coherent answer. The mystery of the divinity of Christ is one of those questions, and so had no place in Muhammad’s theology. Much easier to deny the whole thing than to try to explain the inexplicable. What Muhammad the poet failed to grasp was that the written source documents hold a greater authority than the word of mouth transmission of oral tradition. He held that the belief of Christ the Son or Christ as God was the opinion of some Christians, and in error. He didn’t know that the source documents of Christianity, penned by those closest to Jesus when he was on earth, were the source of those opinions.

So what was Jesus? Son? God? How could he be both?

To properly answer this, we have to compare and contrast Jesus to others, and discover how he was the same, and how he was different.

First of all, Jesus was not a prophet. In all of our accounts of prophets, even Islamic accounts of Muhammad, it’s clearly recorded that God spoke to the prophet in question. The prophet heard and responded to the voice of God, or in Muhammad’s case an angel that he identified as Gabriel (Note that Muhammad is the only case of a prophet being spoken to through an intermediary. All of the Hebrew prophets heard God directly). There is no record in any of the Gospels that Jesus heard the voice of God or was instructed by God in what to do or how to act. There are references in the New Testament that may suggest he was a prophet if taken out of context. These cases fall into two categories: either someone has identified him as a prophet (John 4:19, 6:14, 7:39, 9:17, Luke 7:16, Matt 21:10, 21:46), or Jesus has made an observation about prophets that are also applicable to him (John 4:44, Luke 4:24, Mark 6:4, Matt 13:56 ). Indeed, Jesus can not be a prophet, because “out of Galilee arises no prophet.” (John 7:52).

Even Islamic scripture identifies Jesus as the Messiah, which translated to the word “Christ” in Greek, the anointed one. But Muhammad and succeeding Muslims misunderstand the depth of meaning of this word and the implications it held to the Hebrews. The Hebrew history resonated with the kingship of David, who forged the tribal lands of the Hebrews into a nation among nations. The Messiah was to be the restoration of this exalted monarchy, a King among Kings, the final arbiter and ruler of mankind. 

The key thing to remember when comparing Jesus to God is the logical postulate that a difference that makes no difference is no difference. Jesus was a man, but how was he different from God? If you say that Jesus was just a man and therefore could not be like God, then you’ve neglected that God made Man in his own image (Gen 1:26). 

Jesus was a creation of God, not a mere man who found favor with God in his majority. Prophets were uniformly recognized as such after being called by God and answering his call after they had reached adulthood. They were often introduced in scripture as being men who walked in the ways of the Lord when the Lord called them.   Jesus, by virtue of his being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin ( Luke 1:34-35, Quran, 19:20), was the son of God. What are the implications of this? A Son inherits the estate of the father. Since God is infinite, there would be no inheritance in human terms. Is Jesus to spend eternity as a pauper, or will he reign at the right hand of the father? Christian tradition tells us that he will reign with God.

But is Jesus merely a son? He had the full personality of God, the compassion, the anger, the patience, the frustrations, and above all the overwhelming love for his creation. Jesus spoke with the full authority of God: Whatever Jesus willed was as if God had willed it. Given that Jesus was able to command this authority, is there anything that God could do that Jesus could not? Is there anything that Jesus wanted to do that God did not? Is there anything that God wanted to do that Jesus did not? The answer to all of these is no. For all intents and purposes, if you had met Jesus, you met God. Jesus confirmed this when he was asked “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us”, to which he replied "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'?” (John 14:7-8)

How can we differentiate Jesus from God? We could have touched Jesus. We could see him. In a certain way he was more real than God in heaven, to our limited senses. But is that a difference worthy of differentiation? Very few people who read this will ever hear my voice or touch me or even see me. The sole tangible evidence that I even exist to you, dear reader, is the words in front of you. Are they different from me? No, when you read my words, you are experiencing me in a small way. So it is explained in the first chapter of John, that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Then in chapter two we are told that the Word was made flesh and walked upon the earth.   Jesus was the Word of God incarnate. In a very real sense, he was God.  

But, the Muslims gleefully point out, Jesus prayed to God! Yes he certainly did. Many times he demonstrated to his apostles how to pray. Jesus led by example. He taught the Apostles not to pray in repetitious prayer, and not to make a big deal out of praying in public (both lessons the Muslims missed) (Matthew 6:1-8). He taught that God knows what you are going to pray for and knows what you need. Then in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to God for strength and supplication that he might be spared the agony and death he was about to experience. He knew that he had to suffer and die. He knew that from the start, for that was the mission on which he had been sent, to redeem the sins of man, to demonstrate by his example that nothing – no sin - is greater than God’s love for us, not even his beloved son. This was to close the circle with Abraham, who was willing to offer his most beloved son to show that nothing was more important to him than God.

Jesus knew what was coming, better than anyone else, and petitioned God that if there was a way, that he be spared. As a man, he was terrified of pain and death. But as God he knew what must be done, and ended his prayer in the devotion “Not my will, but yours be done.” God in the form of Man subordinates himself to the desire of God in Heaven, from whence he came and to whence he would return. Muslims should note that all Jesus had to do was start walking, and he would have escaped his fate. Any other man – including Muhammad – would have done just that.

Does this conflict with what I said earlier, that God and Jesus wanted the same thing? No, because God did not want to sacrifice Jesus any more than Jesus wanted to be sacrificed. In just the same way, Abraham didn’t want to sacrifice Isaac any more than Isaac wanted to be sacrificed. How could God withhold his hand from an act that his servant Abraham was so willing to perform for him? God is not less than Abraham, and as the superior party in the covenant, could not stay his hand and treat the intent as good as the act, as Abraham was allowed to do. For this and many other reasons, Jesus had to suffer and die to fulfill prophecy.

Muslims point to Jesus’ final petition from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani?”. . . “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34) as something that Jesus would not have said. They ignore the many other things Jesus said from the cross that no one but Jesus would have or could have said: The petition to forgive his executioners (Luke 23:4) and the charge of John to henceforth care for Mary as his own mother(John 19:26-27). This particular statement was made to fulfill prophecy made hundreds of years before in Isaiah 49:14 and a thousand years before in Psalm 22:1.

Muslims claim that Christians pray to three Gods. This is patently false. The concept of three Gods implies three personalities, three motivations, three separate individuals, each with their own particular quirks and foibles. In a polytheistic theology, various Gods are not equal, and being of different minds, can be separated by men and singled out for special petitions, special responsibilities. But the trinity has none of these characteristics. The Father, the Son and the Spirit move as one, indistinguishable from one another in intent, method, power, authority, and identity. The only differentiation is the method by which mere mortal man perceive the Word that is God. The Father, who created all, the Son, when God walked among us, and the Spirit that guides the hearts of all men who chose to accept Him.   All God, indivisible.

Can God duplicate himself, in the flesh? Muslims say no. Again, I marvel at the Islamic inclination to limit God, and say what he can and cannot do. God can do anything he wants! Which brings the thorny question: If God duplicated himself, would he be two, or one?   Again a difference that makes no difference is no difference! If I pray to God the Father or to God the Son, how is one different from the other? Would I achieve results from one and not the other? Would the answer to my prayer be different from one to the other? Would one hear my prayer, and the other not be able to? Would I be able to pit one against the other? When God and Jesus move with one mind, act with one intent, have the same power and authority, and there isn’t an iota of difference between them, then how are they not one? One in action, one in intent, one in experience. There is no difference. When you petition Jesus, you petition God.

Confusing, hard to understand? No harder than the blind man’s perception of the rainbow. When regarding the God of Abraham, we are all blind men. This is one of the big distinctions between the God of Abraham and Allah. Allah is not beyond the comprehension of mortal man. Indeed, from all accounts, he’s comfortably subordinate to the preconceptions of man. This should bother anyone who professes that such a deity is the author of the universe.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Trinity: a Primer for Muslims

A recurring criticism that Muslims use to differentiate themselves from Christians is the concept of the Holy Trinity. The first part of the fundamental proclamation of faith to a Muslim is that “There is no God but Allah.” Muslims are quick to observe that the concept of the trinity violates this concept. Indeed, Muhammad himself condemns it twice in his Quran:“Say not ‘Trinity’: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One Allah: glory be to Him: (for Exalted is He) above having a son.”  Surah 4:171. “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.”  Surah 5:73.

The debate about the Trinity and the unity of God is not unique between Muslims and Christians. Many early Christians sects grappled with this concept in the early days of Christianity. In the time of Muhammad, the debate was mostly centered around the divine nature of Christ. Nestorians and Monophysites hotly debated the nature of Christ - how his divinity reconciled itself with his obvious humanity.

Christianity of the sixth century – like Catholicism today – was founded on two pillars: Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Holy scripture is obvious, this is the recorded words and actions of Christ and his apostles. This is the starting point for understanding Christianity. But the Apostles and early church leaders recognized that the relatively limited record in the Gospels could not possibly convey every action, every nuance of teaching that Christ delivered during his ministry. Christ not only taught with words, but with actions. He led by example. Many of his words are subject to interpretation due to context, tone of voice, a turn of phrase that might not survive translation. The early church was fully aware of this, and relied on the traditions established by those who knew Jesus personally to flesh out the skeleton of the Gospels, to fill in the gaps in understanding with personal interpretation. In the Acts of the Apostles – a most important book of the New Testament which is frequently overlooked by Muslims - it's very clear that the early church leaders were guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit. The church knew that the gospels without the traditions to provide the frame of reference would be subject to interpretation that is contrary to the spirit which originally inspired them. This is the flaw in most Protestant churches today. The Protestant movement has offered a rich legacy of fresh interpretation of scripture, but lacks the theological Rosetta Stone of tradition to ensure that the interpretations are consistent with what the early church fathers believed and taught. In contrast, the Catholic church could reasonably be criticized for being too conservative and reluctant to embrace fresh insights. The Catholic position is err on the side of safety.

To explore the concept and confusion of the trinity, we have to examine the theological landscape of the sixth century. Christianity had become the de facto religion of the Roman Empire, from which the Byzantine empire inherited it. The church was not a homogenous monolith of belief, however. The problem was that the written word of Christianity traveled far more easily than the traditions that accompany it. Pagans throughout southwest Asia and the Mediterranean basin were eager and hungry for the promise of salvation that Christianity offered. Religious scripture was in high demand, so much so that a cottage industry arose that produced “scripture” in copious amounts, often fictitious writings by religious free thinkers that reflected their wishful thinking about how Christ’s life should have been. This is the source of many of the apocryphal works, such as the “Gospels” of Thomas and Judas Iscariot and the Apocalypse of Peter. These works were rejected by the council of Nicea as not being authentic, either because their pedigree was unsubstantiated or because their teachings were not in line with the traditions practiced by the church since the first days of Christianity.

So there was a core of Christian thinking and teachings surrounding the original churches that had been established by the Apostles. These churches understood the Gospels, and practiced their beliefs and their theology in a fashion consistent with the Apostles’ understanding of the teachings of Christ. Surrounding this was a periphery of Christian beliefs that had little or no direct experience with the traditions, and had become so large that the core of the church could not adequately catechize them. This periphery was left to try to interpret and understand the holy scripture as best as they could without direction from the “traditional” church. Debates arose, and competing ideas were hotly discussed. This was the Christian world that Muhammad was born into.

Christianity was not unheard of in sixth century Mecca. Indeed, there were icons of Jesus and Mary in the Kaaba. But the word of Jesus had arrived without the teachings and traditions of the church. The apocryphal works were as readily available as bona fide scripture, and the Arabians had no way to tell one from the other. The Christian movement attracted a certain amount of curiosity from the relatively open minded and tolerant Arabs. Most still worshipped their pantheon of desert gods of old. Jewish settlers to Arabia were tolerated. The Jews did not proselytize their religion, and where they settled prosperity often followed. The ever curious Arabs learned of the single God of the Jews, but were put off by the idea that the Jews had a proprietary claim to their God and seemed indifferent to share him. When the idea of Christianity reached Arabia, the metropolitan Bedouins accepted it as a more welcoming version of the staid Judaism of their neighbors.

Those arabs which embraced Christianity were attracted to the relative simplicity of a Unitarian God. They rejected the pantheons of weaker Gods that their ancestors worshipped for the concept of a single, all powerful God. This made sense to them.

This is the religious climate that Muhammad was raised in. Most Meccans worshipped the pantheon of Gods of Qusay, Muhammad’s ancestor who had wrested control of the Kaaba for the Quraish tribe. The Arabic language was just beginning to be organized into a written form. The main source of news and history was verbal, often in poetic meter to better preserve ideas. The main industry of Mecca was the Kaaba, a small, relatively nondescript religious shrine that served as a focus point for the local Bedouins. The surrounding tribes would make an annual hajj to this shrine. When they did there was much barter and trade in a festive, market atmosphere. The Meccan keepers of the shrine would capitalize on this through sacrificial offerings to the shrine, and through providing goods which were caravanned in from Syria which were hard to come by in Arabia. The trade goods acquired from the Bedouins at the Hajj were then shipped north for sale in Syria, and the next year’s inventory was brought back.

As a citizen of Mecca, and the young husband of a very prosperous trading business woman, Muhammad had plenty of time and inclination for religious pursuits. Without going into motivations in this article, he accepted monotheism as the superior theology, and began his church based on that.

The problem of the Christian trinity was a thorny one for Muhammad. How could he reject polytheism and accept that God is one, and then seem to do an about face and admit that God was indeed three? This question still echoes now after 1400 years.

The problem with the Muslim understanding – or lack thereof – of the Trinity is their seemingly deliberate insistence that the three aspects of the Trinity are unique beings, separate from one another.

Muslims proudly point out that the Trinity is never mentioned in the Bible – a disingenuous argument when they will insist that the Bible is corrupt in the same breath, a topic I discussed in a separate article. This is partly true – the word “trinity” itself is not in the Bible. But the concept is there, and spelled out very clearly in Matthew 28:19-20 (Jesus' direct words): "Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." The further letters of the apostles frequently refer to each of these parts of the Trinity, either individually or in company with one another. Instead of gleaning the Bible for sound bites, Muslims would do well to read the New Testament as a whole for an appreciation of what the Apostles understood to be the truth that Christ brought to us.

The Father is God in heaven, creator of all that is. From the Greek, "Logos". This is existence itself, for without God there is no existence. The root of all that is logical, Logos also translates to “The Word”. This is the basic understanding of God. This understanding describes God as we envision him when he said “Let there be Light.” The understanding of the early Jews was that to experience God in this form could be a death sentence. Muhammad accepted that this was a reasonable way to envision his Allah.

The son is God as man. From the opening of John; "The Word (Logos) became flesh." God descends to earth and walks among us as a man. Same God, different raiment. seven hundred years before Christ, Isaiah foretold the coming of God as Man: Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. “But,” Muslims cry out with glee, “His name was Jesus, not Immanuel!” Hold on just a second, Matthew teaches us non-speakers of Hebrew that “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." It’s not a proper name, but a Title. Matthew is very clear that Jesus represents “God with us.” John is even more direct, unabashedly stating that Jesus was God. John was one of the twelve, often described as the “most beloved” apostle of Christ. Who would know better than John? An illiterate seventh century poet from a thousand miles away who converts from polytheistic paganism says Jesus could not be God. The man who was closest to him throughout his ministry, who took his mother as his own and cared for her for the rest of her life says Jesus was God. This is not even a close call.

Muslims are quick to trot out a number of scriptural references – from the supposedly corrupted bible that magically becomes authoritative when it supports their position – that seem to demonstrate that Jesus was not God. Never mind that there are just as many to demonstrate that he was God. They miss that many times Jesus is making a statement in order to force his listeners to follow the logic and derive their own conclusions about who he really is (Allah doesn’t expect or force his followers to think. The God of Abraham requires it). In many other cases, Jesus is leading by example: i.e. “When you pray to God (me), do it like so.”

God as Spirit. God's spirit resides in the hearts of man. Does Allah have a spirit? God is omnipresent, he is everywhere. When we sense his presence, when we feel his guiding hand, we identify that as his spirit: the Holy Spirit. Not a separate entity, but God himself, manifest in action. The Holy Spirit played a central role in the Acts of the Apostles – a book which I’ve not found many Muslims who even admit to have heard of.
But wait, Muhammad seems to be of two minds with regard to the Holy Spirit, because he does acknowledge him:

Surah   2:87. We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of Messengers; We gave Jesus the son of Mary clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the holy spirit.

Surah   2:253. Those apostles We endowed with gifts, some above others: to one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honor); to Jesus the son of Mary, We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit.

Surah   5:110. Then will Allah say: "O Jesus the son of Mary! recount My favor to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity.

Surah 16:102. Say, the Holy Spirit has brought the revelation from thy Lord in truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as a guide and Glad Tidings to Muslims.

It’s clear from the context that the concept of the Holy Spirit that Muhammad refers to here is not at odds with the Christian concept. So what is it, Muhammad? Is the Holy Spirit an angel? A djinn?    It certainly doesn’t seem so from the way it’s used in these surahs. I don’t know, perhaps it’s my prejudice, but I have to assume that Muhammad is referring to the same thing we Christians do in these Surahs – the spirit of God himself, moving and making his will manifest here on earth. Is it part of the one God or a separate being?  Obviously it’s part of the one God, not separate, or Muhammad would have admit that God is at least two. This is not different from Christian theology, regardless of what Muslims insist. In their insistence to resist the Trinity, they need to create a straw man argument of what the Trinity is before they can logically deconstruct it. Unfortunately for their argument their understanding of the Trinity has nothing to do with Christian understanding, which is more in line with what Muhammad obviously understood about the Holy Spirit, even though he was unable to follow the logic or appreciate the ramifications of what he was saying.

One God, not separate beings. The only difference is in how he is experienced by men who are not equipped to do so.

Would God walk among us as a man? CAN God walk among us as a man? Muslims say no, to which I reply God can do ANYTHING he bloody well pleases! Who are you to tell God what he is not capable of? I always laugh when Muslims say Allah can’t have a son, Allah can’t become a man, Allah can’t do this or that. Allah seems like a pretty limited God, who has limits to his omnipotence. Allah might live under such restrictions, but the God of Abraham does not. Allah is wrapped up in his own majesty, and would not deign to lead by example, but instead leads by the whip of a slave-master. Our God is Love, and in love he came to set the example, and to demonstrate - as Abraham was prepared to do - that nothing is more important to him than his love for us. In this love he is among us today, as his spirit guides us.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Did the Jews Want Jesus Killed?

Recently, a Hindu friend of mine who is interested in Christianity saw the movie the Passion of the Christ. She asked a very excellent question. Why did the Jews want to kill Jesus?

Of the four Gospels, only the Gospel of John specifically says that the Jews were the ones who wanted to kill Christ. I don't know if this is a problem in translation from the original Aramaic, or if John carelessly identified the ruling judicial body of Jerusalem, as "the Jews". This identification in the Gospel of John has caused unimaginable misery among the Jewish people trying to live with their Christian neighbors for the last 2000 years.

Let's remember first and foremost that Christ himself was a Jew. Let us also remember that just a week before the crucifixion, Christ was received into Jerusalem by crowds of people lining the streets waving palm branches and shouting hosannas and calling him the Christ. The movie the Passion of The Christ alluded to this as Pilate asked if this is the same man that the crowds that turned out for the week before.

The Gospels tell us that Christ was an intensely popular figure throughout Judea and Galilee. We're told in the story of the sermon on the Mount that he preached to 5000 men that day. In common Jewish literary form, women and children are not counted in population estimates. A conservative estimate of those who heard the sermon on the Mount could easily be 7500 people, possibly as high as 12,000 people. This was not a unique event. Jesus regularly drew crowds whenever he approached a village.

The Jews under Roman occupied Palestine were not the same people that we usually think of when we read the Old Testament. The Jewish nation throughout much of the Old Testament consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, shortly before the Babylonian exile, Assyrians had invaded Israel from the North and carried off 10 of the 12 tribes into bondage. These tribes were never heard from again. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were defeated by the Babylonians and carried off to exile for approximately 50 years. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great granted the Jews permission to return to Israel and as a part of reparations offered to rebuild the Temple. The original Temple had been intended to be the resting place of the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments, written by God and given to Moses. The ark disappeared from history when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the city. The new Temple, even though it was more majestic than the old temple, was largely symbolic since it didn't contain the ark.

The temple was an incredible source of wealth for Jerusalem. Observant Jews for hundreds of miles around frequently made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the holy days of Passover in spring. They would make offerings
of money and sacrificial animals at the Temple. Temple merchants capitalized on this by providing animals to be sacrificed for sale during the pilgrimage weeks. The primary beneficiaries of all of this were the Temple priests, and the aristocratic classes of Pharisees and Sadducees. They directly received monetary contributions that were given to the Temple and indirectly received remuneration from the numerous Temple merchants, who operated with the permission of the priests. The priests became the ultimate authority on judicial dealings in the Jewish community. The priesthood was a hereditary position. This made the priests arbiters of all things legal, the spokesmen of God himself, with no responsibilities to the people or answerability to society. They became wealthy due to the sacrifices of those who were productive in society. Naturally, this made them an aristocratic class, set apart from day-to-day Jewish society. Senior priests formed the inner circle of the Jewish Sanhedrin, led by a high priest whose office rotated among the senior priests. The full Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members from wealthy and influential families in Jewish society. As is the case of any ruling body which does not answer to the people, the primary use of the Sanhedrin's authority was to ensure that the Sanhedrin stayed in authority.

Such authority was not sanctioned or approved of by God. The serious scholar of the early New Testament knows that God disdained the idea of a temporal government for the Jews from the start. It's instructive to read the commentary that God gave to Samuel, when the people told Samuel that they wanted a king. God explicitly warned about the abuses that a king would lay on the people.

Then Jesus arrived on the scene. His 12 close disciples were themselves commissioned with 71 followers in a hierarchy that deliberately mimicked the Jewish Sanhedrin. The popularity of Jesus’ ministry gave him an undeniable authority that had nothing to do with heredity, position or power. Jesus, in effect, set up a shadow government that was intended in one way to mock the Sanhedrin, but also to challenge it. The Sanhedrin had used its religious authority for secular gain. Jesus demonstrated by example how such a body should be used to serve the people, not to enslave the people. The people responded with wild adulation. This did not go unnoticed by the priests.

The priests had sought to discredit Jesus every chance they had. They devised riddles or logical traps from which no answer would be appropriate. Jesus adroitly avoided these traps. They sought to drive a wedge between Jesus and his followers by claiming that he did not follow their strict interpretation of Jewish law. He made them look foolish by teaching them that the spirit of the law that came from God was logical. He taught them that the law should be applied with common sense; that only a fool would apply the law without regard to consequences.

In Roman occupied Palestine, news traveled by word of mouth at the speed of a walking man. There were no experts to compile statistics and take polls and analyze trends. A person's perception was shaped by those with whom he spoke. The Temple priests knew that Jesus had a following, but they were sufficiently disconnected with the population that they didn't appreciate how large that following was. On the first day of the week before Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem to be greeted by huge crowds in the streets exuberantly celebrating his presence. This was a wake-up call for the priests. They suddenly realized that Jesus wasn't just an annoying cult leader, but the wildly popular leader of what was shaping up to be a massive political movement.

This threatened the priests in two ways. A direct challenge was placed to their religious authority, the authority that they derived from their position in the Temple. Indirectly, but perhaps more serious, a popular figure like Jesus could be viewed by the people as the new David, the new leader to lead Israel to another golden age. One must remember that Palestine was governed as a protectorate of the Roman Empire. At this time, such a popular movement would quickly seek to throw off what most Jews believed to be their Roman oppressors. Rome had a long history of putting down such rebellion with brutal, even genocidal force. The high priests had a better appreciation of the power of Rome than most. From their point of view if they joined Jesus, Rome would crush Israel and their way of life would be ended. If they opposed Jesus, his numerous followers threatened to overthrow them and replace them with Jesus' shadow government. Again their way of life would be ended.

It's very important to remember that the priests were frightened of Jesus and the power he wielded because of his popularity with the crowds. The day Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem was a ticking time bomb. The city was filled to overflowing with pilgrims there for the Passover. The Romans had recently made the mistake of placing a Roman banner bearing a head of Caesar in public display. Images such as this are very offensive to Jewish people. A group of Galileans had torn down the banner and incited a riot. The Romans had met this with their usual brutal efficiency and crucified the Galileans. Passions were running high in the crowded city because of this. Both the priests and the Romans were terrified of an uprising.

The Temple guards apprehended Jesus after midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was brought to the house of the high priest placed on trial before the Sanhedrin. Several Jewish laws were broken in the process. The full Sanhedrin was not present. Jewish law required a quorum of the Sanhedrin to be present to try a capital case. The case was tried in the dark hours of the night. Jewish law required that cases be tried in daylight. Witnesses were required to convict in a capital case. The witnesses presented were contradictory and dismissed by the Council. Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death on the same night. Under Jewish law a sentence of death could only be handed down after one day and one night had passed since the conviction. The problem that the priests faced was that they had to carry out the sentence before Jesus’ followers could be rallied to his defense.

When questioned directly as to whether he was the Messiah, Jesus responded "I am". This is a direct allusion to the name God had given Moses on Mount Sinai. The priests convicted Jesus of blasphemy on the basis of this testimony. The penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning. Instead of performing the execution themselves, the priests sent Jesus to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. They claimed that they could not put Jesus to death. This is categorically false. Jews routinely stoned people to death and the Romans took no notice. This was a political maneuver, because they knew that if they ordered Jesus to be stoned that their blood would run in the streets from Jesus’ followers.

Pontius Pilate was a political animal, who knew the lay of the political landscape in Judea. On one hand, he knew that condemning Jesus to death could easily spark a riot among Jesus’ followers and Roman blood would run in the streets. On the other hand, he knew well the power of the priests and knew that they could incite a riot themselves. If he didn't do what they wanted again Roman blood could easily run the streets. Caesar had grown weary of the volatile situation in Judea and had warned Pontius Pilate to keep the peace or suffer the consequences.

Pilate did everything he could to avoid putting Jesus to death. He first tried to avoid it by saying wasn't his problem. Jesus was from Galilee so he sent him to Herod, who was the King of Galilee under Roman jurisdiction. Herod, unlike his father Herod the Great, had no great love for the Romans. He sensed the dilemma that Pontius Pilate was in regarding Jesus, and enjoyed a certain amount of satisfaction from Pilate’s discomfort. He chose not to give Pilate an out and returned Jesus.

Under Jewish law a prisoner could not be tortured to death. Pilate knew this and ordered Jesus to be scourged, and hoped that this would preempt the high priests’ call for execution. By this time Pontius Pilate, and the high priests were playing a high-stakes game of chicken. The priests called Pilate’s bluff and raised the stakes. They brought Roman politics into it by saying that Jesus had fashioned himself as a king, and therefore was a threat to Caesar. This made Pilate's choice clear. He would either do what the high priests wanted him to do or be declared an enemy of Rome. Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the blood of Jesus, demonstrating that he did not want Jesus to die, and then ordered his execution.

It seems incredible to us today that crowds formed to mock Jesus as he carried his cross to Golgotha. Once again we have to remember to judge by the times and not by the standards that we’re used to in the 21st century. Although Jesus had a large following, by the numbers of people in Jerusalem that day relatively few had actually seen him up close in person. Add to this that after the beatings and the whippings, Jesus was probably hardly recognizable as the same person. It was quite common for crowds to mock prisoners on their way to execution. Remember that Jesus wasn't the only person being executed that day, two other people were crucified with him. Some say they were revolutionaries, others say they were thieves. The same mob mentality that caused people to turn out and celebrate Jesus entry into Jerusalem a week before brought people to mock the prisoners on their way to execution. In both cases, many people probably didn't even know who they were celebrating or mocking. Remember also that there was no mass media. Most of the events that took place that day were done in relative secrecy. Jerusalem was a very busy, very crowded city that day, as pilgrims from all over the countryside prepared for the upcoming Passover feast. Most of the people in Jerusalem who actually followed Jesus probably didn't even know about the crucifixion until after the fact.

The lesson to be learned here is something that one should be aware of when reading any part of the Bible. Bible stories are part history, part moral lesson, part article of faith. In many cases the authors of the Bible weren't historians and didn't appreciate the scholarship which would be required of future readers of the Bible who were from different times and cultures. The authors assumed that the readers would have a common frame of reference, and consequently didn't take the time to explain things that seemed matter of fact to them, but seem unusual or mysterious to us now. This leads to a story of characters and actions that sometimes is missing a necessary backdrop from the scenery, and therefore they seem to behave strangely, because we’re missing a crucial assumption in the story. In order to properly appreciate biblical stories, the reader must immerse oneself in the place and time that the story takes place in order to appreciate the historical perspective.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Martyr" in Islam Means "Crappy Fighter".

One of the things that just frosts me to no end is the common Islamic abuse of the word “martyr”. They throw this word around and imply that Islamic “martyrs” are equivalent, or perhaps even superior to Christian Martyrs. Part of the purpose of this is to purposefully blur the distinction between Christianity and Islam, in an effort to further legitimatize Islam. 

In effect, they are trying to say that as the Christian community reveres its early martyrs for the faith, so too Islamic martyrs should similarly be revered. 

The problem with this is that an Islamic “martyr” has nothing in common with a Christian martyr.
The Quran has very little to say about martyrs, except that they’re among the righteous and rub shoulders with prophets in paradise (4:69), and that they’re generally fine people to be around. But what does it mean to be a martyr? We find the answer in the very first mention of a martyr in Hadith Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2 Number 35:
Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, "The person who participates in (holy battles) in Allah's cause and nothing compels him to do so except belief in Allah and His Apostles, will be recompensed by Allah either with a reward, or booty (if he survives) or will be admitted to Paradise (if he is killed in the battle as a martyr). Had I not found it difficult for my followers, then I would not remain behind any sariya going for Jihad and I would have loved to be martyred in Allah's cause and then made alive, and then martyred and then made alive, and then again martyred in His cause."

Well, there its pretty clearly spelled out: A martyr is someone who dies during jihad. This also puts a pretty fine point on the misdirection that jihad is an internal moral struggle. I’m not aware of many people who die in a struggle of conscience. Jihad is specifically called for in the Quran (9:5) 

Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

Martyrdom and jihad are inextricably linked. You cannot be a martyr in Islam unless you are conducting jihad. Jihad is described as “Holy Battle”. Its specific purpose is to spread Islam, or to subjugate non-believers and relieve them of their possessions. One of the clearest statements to this effect is in Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, Number 254:
Narrated Abu Burda Bin Abi Musa Al-Ashari:

. . . .by Allah, we took part in Jihad after Allah's Apostle , prayed and did plenty of good deeds, and many people have embraced Islam at our hands, and no doubt, we expect rewards from Allah for these good deeds.'

The value of jihad in Islam cannot be understated.  Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 41:
Narrated Abdullah bin Masud:

I asked Allah's Apostle, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the best deed?" He replied, "To offer the prayers at their early stated fixed times." I asked, "What is next in goodness?" He replied, "To be good and dutiful to your parents." I further asked, what is next in goodness?" He replied, "To participate in Jihad in Allah's Cause." I did not ask Allah's Apostle anymore and if I had asked him more, he would have told me more.

Indeed, it is considered the highest deed a Muslim can do. Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 44:
Narrated Abu Huraira: 
A man came to Allah's Apostle and said, "Instruct me as to such a deed as equals Jihad (in reward)." He replied, "I do not find such a deed."

So Muslims are charged with the highest calling in Islam: to use holy battle to force non-believers to embrace Islam. If you die doing this, you are a martyr. 

Does anyone but me see a problem with this philosophy and the whole concept of no compulsion in religion? 

All of the Surahs and sunnas regarding martyrs come from after the Hijra, the flight to Medina. There was no question of martyrdom before the hijra, because the two dozen or so social misfits who followed Muhammad on the Hijra were hardly in any shape to fight anyone, let alone stand up and die for Islam. The no compulsion clause in the Quran (2:26) clearly comes from the pre-Hijra period in Mecca, when Muhammad was trying to make nice and recruit members nicely. This is a classic case of abrogation. Did Allah really write all this down before he created the universe, or was he making it up as he went along, responding to events as they happened? One answer makes Allah out to be an imbecile, and the other answer is pretty conclusive evidence that he was a product of Muhammad’s fevered imagination.
So is an Islamic martyr really a good person? Let’s see, his initial goal was to force me, a non-believer, to embrace Islam by threatening me with death or a ruinous head-tax if I didn’t. And for those of you who smugly say the Jizhya is a pittance, in the Syrian campaigns, the Jizhya was a gold Denarious per person – approximately four ounces of gold, more than $3500 in today’s currency. This person is so fanatical about his cult belief that he’s willing to kill me or die in an attempt to make be believe the same way he does. I don’t know, maybe it's just me, but I just find that a tad obnoxious.

Now, let’s examine what it means to be a Christian martyr. In Christianity, a martyr is someone who dies for believing in the word of Jesus Christ. Often such a person is compelled to renounce the teachings of Christ and is killed when he refuses. A hallmark of martyrs is that they do not actively resist their persecutors, but speak the praise of Jesus to the end. Typical of the example of scores of martyrs in the early church was the first Christian martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:54-60): 

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."

But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.  When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.  They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep.

For you literalists, “falling asleep” is a common new testament euphemism for dying (Matthew 27:52, John 11:11, Acts 13:36, 1 Corinthians 15:6, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 2 Peter 3:4).
Christ died on the cross, and he did so in submission. He did not protest, he did not fight, he did not try to avoid it – he easily could have left Jerusalem and avoided capture. When he was in fact captured, one of his apostles, Peter, sought to use violence to defend him, and was rebuked: 

Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave's name was Malchus. So Jesus said to Peter, "Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" – John18:10-11
When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, "Lord, shall we strike with the sword?" And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus answered and said, "Stop! No more of this." And He touched his ear and healed him. – Luke 22:49-51 

Early Christian martyrs followed Christ’s example. Muslim views of Christianity are narrowly focused on the crusades as seen from a jaundiced Muslim perspective. They see the crusades as a series of wars of conquest and a deliberate attempt by Christians to spread Christianity by force. They are blind to the fact that the crusades were wars of liberation, an attempt to retake formerly Christian lands and peoples which had been forcibly converted to Islam (see The "Peaceful" Muslim Expansion). Most Muslims believe that Christianity began the same way Islam did – at the point of a sword. 

In a way it did, but the sword was poised at the throats of Christians. It was illegal for three centuries to be a Christian in Rome. To be discovered to be a practicing Christian was a death sentence. The Romans made good sport of the public spectacle of feeding Christians to the lions in the coliseum as a form of entertainment.   The remarkable thing was that Christianity not only survived this period, but grew exponentially as it did so. Indeed, Christians felt it was an honor to die because of their beliefs, but to die as an example of piety and faith, not because they were trying to force anyone to join their religion. A group of people presented themselves to the Roman governor of Asia, C. Arrius Antoninus, declared themselves to be Christians, and encouraged the governor to do his duty and put them to death. He executed a few, but as the rest demanded it as well, he responded, exasperated, "You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by."* 

Such examples of faith led people to be amazed at how these people went willingly to death without a fight. This led to curiosity about what kind of faith could inspire people to such bravery, and caused many people to be drawn to Christianity. They were not forced, were not bribed, and had no expectation of an earthly reward when they chose to follow Christ, but instead were risking a cruel death.  

For me, I find the Christian martyrs to be an inspiration of faith. Utter faith that death awaits them to be cradled in the bosom of the Lord, if they keep to his commandment to do no harm to others. Such faith led millions more to follow Christ without one person being forced or coerced. I find the Muslim martyrs to be men of little real faith who died trying – unsuccessfully – to justify their own empty beliefs by compelling everyone else to espouse those same beliefs. The lack of substance in the Islamic faith is best exemplified by the Sharia law that mandates that apostates be put to death. What kind of faith is it that resorts to having to kill people to keep them from leaving? 

* Quoted in Bowersock, G. W. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995