Sunday, 13 December 2015

Advent and Apocalyptic Rivalry

An obscure group camped out in the Middle East believes the end of the world is nigh. Their bearded rabble-rouser of a prophet is proclaiming ancient, apocalyptic scriptures, and he says that the promised Messiah who will judge the living and the dead is coming soon, any minute now. They've been waiting a long time, so long that they start to wonder if their prophet is that Messiah, but he says not. The world is showing no signs of ending, and so many zealots want to take matters into their own hands, accelerate the end of days, do God's work by expelling the pagan occupation. At every setback, their leader tells them to be patient, because the judgment will most certainly come to pass. It is God's will. He will send a Spirit of fire to cleanse and purify. And for you, he says, for you who live righteously and believe, this is Good News: for He will judge justly.

I'm talking about John, of course. But which one: the Baptist, or the Jihadi?

Many of the Baptist's congregation were expecting a military Messiah. There were men who claimed the title and rebelled against the hated Romans. The Old Testament tribal chiefs had no difficulty massacring women and children to achieve their political hegemony, and these were the rebels' God-given inspiration. And when Siefeddine Rezgui Yacoubi opened fire on 38 tourists on the beach in Tunisia in January this year, he did so believing that he was not a murderer but a martyr, and the bombers in Beirut and Paris no doubt thought the same thing.

Like John the Baptist's group, the jihadis in Syria also believe that the apocalypse is nigh. This is not some eccentric minority view. According to recent research, more than half of the Muslims in nine Muslim-majority countries think that they will live to see the apocalypse. Some 42% of Islamic State propaganda is based on this belief, a belief startlingly close to that of the early Church represented by that other John, the Evangelist: that soon, within their lifetime, there will be a final battle between good and evil, with the Messiah leading God's forces against the Antichrist, whereafter Jesus will sit in judgment on us all.

The immediacy of the Apocalypse is such an important part of ISIS ideology that their slick magazine, 'Dabiq,' is named after the town in Syria where the Quran says this final battle will happen – it's the exact equivalent of naming a Christian magazine 'Armageddon.' And their leaders, too, tell them that although there will be setbacks, they must have patience, because God's will is predestined and will come true, and will be good news for those on the right side – which, incidentally, doesn’t include most Muslims, whom they view as apostate traitors.

Roman military might did not ultimately crush the little apocalyptic sect that would become Christianity. If anything, the martyrdoms only strengthened the Church. The bombing of Syria may or may not achieve much, and you will doubtless have formed your own opinions. But surely nobody believes that it will ultimately eliminate the threat of Islamic terrorism, because that threat is the product of an ideology, of a dream which expands far beyond any territorial borders. The Islamic State proper is a nation of the mind, and minds cannot be bombed. But it has conquered the imagination of countless Muslims worldwide, many of them young, able and idealistic.

The political philosopher Edmund Burke observed in the 18th century that "it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination." It doesn't matter who has the best idea, the best ideology, whether secular democracy, international socialism or a worldwide Islamic Caliphate: only the one which appeals to the imagination is going to last. And be in no doubt, the myth peddled by the Islamic State is doing just that. It's based on a widespread sense of estrangement among Muslims from a world dominated by liberal western powers which have not only abandoned traditional values but actively persecute those who try to promote them, a feeling of being bullied and humiliated for keeping the faith. Don't Christians feel much the same, whenever another Catholic adoption agency is closed, or the Bible is desecrated in an art exhibition, or a nurse banned from wearing a crucifix? The difference is that we still feel we can compromise and just about function in the modern world. For many Muslims, on the other hand, modernity is an enemy that needs to be stood up to. The Caliphate, says ISIS, is the answer: one God, one Caliphate, one Islamic people, standing nobly and chivalrously like Saladin against the Crusaders.

ISIS have the myth to capture the imagination. What they also have, which the early Christians lacked, is the means to promote that myth on an unprecedented scale. There's no need to go out to every town in twos proclaiming the Gospel. They can do it from their bedrooms: on social media sites, through slickly produced e-zines, by writing on blogs and fora all read by a generation that, research reveals, struggles to distinguish fact from opinion when it comes up on a computer screen. And because people know so little about their religion, other than the 'show-and-tell' stuff they get in RE lessons, Islamists can easily 'prove' their theological point. Their methods include highly selective references to Scripture and Tradition (the Quran and Hadith), dismissal of serious scholarship as 'apostate,' and simple black-and-white answers to very disputable questions, but all this is lost on a generation looking exactly for the dream of a black-and-white worldview. It's exactly like those Christian Unions at schools and universities which tell their members to go nowhere near chapel and bans them from academic theology because it will make them question their beliefs, and it's packaged in exactly the same sexy, trendy way.

No doubt the easiest way to get youngsters into mosque or church is to brainwash them. But that does no justice to the great Christian and Islamic theological traditions reasoned out over the centuries. Instead it fosters enmity, arouses a sense of entrenchment against everyone else. The only weapon that can break through those trenches is reason: theological reason, because this is a theological war, a war over interpretation of what God is and says and does.

So which John? Which God? Which Christ? Both the Baptist and the Jihadi believe in Jesus coming to judge at the end of the world. The difference is in who they believe Jesus is. The Jihadi believes, like some in the Baptist's company, that Jesus will be a warlord coming to kill the infidel. Christians believe that Jesus is God, and that there is nothing in God that is not like Jesus. We have the same kinds of apocalyptic prophecies but the lens by which we see them is quite different: because we believe in a God who triumphs, yes, but by emptying Himself of power and offering Himself for execution upon the Cross. When do not know the time when He will return to fight the Devil, but we do know what His weapon will be: love. And we know what His judgment will be: mercy. The Islamist's God cannot be true, because it is not Christlike. That is our dream. Our work now, the work of preachers, poets, lovers rather than soldiers, is to rekindle that dream in the world's imagination.

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