Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.--Mark 13:5-8
Do not be alarmed. This must take place. The end is still to come.
What words to have in the Gospel reading this past Sunday, less than 48 hours after the terrorist rampage in Paris. What a message to ponder as pundits piece together on the news the string of deadly attacks waged by those who claim to be fighting against Western ideals in the name of Allah, praise be his name.
Are these times the "birth pangs" of something else on our horizon?
The readings at the end of the church year are always of an apocalyptic nature. The diviners of our lectionary seem to want to remind us that we're approaching the close of the year, and that Advent is coming and will usher in a new round of quiet waiting and anticipation, and a chance to prepare the way for the coming of Christ back into the world in the most normal of ways: a baby born to a woman who would grow up to be the human embodiment of Love in his own violent and turbulent world of First Century Palestine. He would be "God with us," here to teach us to love our enemies, not curse them.
This perfect love of Jesus is tremendously challenging on a good day. It seems close to impossible on days when our news on television, radio, the paper and social media show us again and again that there is death and destruction and hatred all around. It's not much comfort in the morning office readings to have the Book of Revelation, with "the Devil" or 1 Maccabees with the "fight to the death" narrative. When one reads about Judas, called Maccabeeus, who"searched out and pursued those who broke the law; he burned those who troubled his people," it can feel as though you're right back on Facebook again!
What do we do about those who call themselves "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" or "ISIS"?
As might be expected, those Syrians who have been fleeing the civil war that is destroying their country, have been caught up in the crossfire of anger, suspicion, outrage, and fear. They are attempting to get away, but have been met at the border of some European nations with hostility. After what happened in Paris, France immediately closed its border and the news media has started alleging that there are ISIS members embedded in the streams of refugees getting out of Syria. This may be true. But it is also true that ISIS has successfully radicalized those who have felt disenfranchised and despised in their own countries because of their ethnicity or religion. While there are still questions about Friday's attack in Paris, the one thing that is clear is that at least one of the attackers was a French national. And there are some ties, it seems, that these terrorists may have had to Belgium. That's a far cry from Syria. The Syrian refugees are not the enemy. Unfortunately, in the case of those who are becoming radicalized, the enemies may look eerily like us.
What do we do? I wish I had the answer to that. I am not one who likes war or advocates for war or violence to deal with conflict. I believe that ISIS is attempting to get us to act out of our fears and enter into a war (which has apparently already worked with France starting to bomb ISIS points in Syria). For me, I have to remember to keep living my life in Love. I have to pray not only for the victims of violence, but to remember our enemies as well. Gut-wrenching as that can be, I have to ask for God's intervention to soften the hearts of my enemies so it will have the reflexive action of helping to keep me from getting too invested in anger and revenge. I have to trust that God hasn't checked out and is seeing and aware of this turmoil.
I also have to consider what the factors are that drive people to hate "our western culture." I'm not convinced by our government's narrative that they hate us because of our "freedom." I think they may hate us because of our misuse and abuse of our freedom. When our freedom leads to exploitation of others around the world, so that we reap the benefits of their resources, there's going to be trouble brewing. Does that mean I think the shooting of innocent people at a restaurant or a concert hall is OK? Do I condone the wanton taking of another life, the beheadings, the raping of the Yazidi women and girls? No way! ISIS is a barbaric organization which has seemingly lost all sense of humanity. I just don't want myself or anyone else suckered into diving head first into their pit of Hell and rage.
I don't have an answer for how to contain ISIS or how you can effectively destroy something that isn't a "state" with defined borders or has a conscience. This is an enigma. God help us all.