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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Same Old Terrorism, New Face ~

"Invicta Roma Aeterna." That's what was written on the coins of the Roman Empire. It means, "Eternal, unconquerable Rome." Jesus must have been amused at the pride of human power when He asked for a coin to make a point about the separation of church and state. From 400 years before His birth to 400 years afterward, this eternal city indeed was the world's superpower.  In  A.D. 410, the Roman Empire collapsed under the might of 40,000 foreign troops. Christianity was a legal practice and its scholars were busy writing and formulating religious orders and communities. St. Jerome wrote, "Rome was besieged. The city to which the whole world fell has fallen. If Rome can perish, what can be safe [in this world]?"

Roman Emperor Constantine espoused Christianity only a 100 years before the fall of the empire and some suggested that was a retribution by the Roman gods. In response, St. Augustine wrote his classic work, "The City of God." How do people aspiring to be Christlike react to foreign invasion? "The City of God" addressed sorrows, torment, fear, and "dangerous temptations." Unlike the rise of Islam 200 years later, Christian theologians and philosophers echoed Christ's teachings and the practice of His disciples after His ascension that the Kingdom of God is "not of this world," distinguishable from civil powers organized by humans to govern themselves. Indeed, all the superpowers throughout history had their rise, reign and fall. This will continue. And looking back over the past few centuries, including the 20th, it appears that superpowers rise and fall much more quickly than in antiquity.

Before Rome fell, Jerusalem did, as predicted by Jesus: " 'Do you see all these things?' he asked. 'I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.' ...So when you see standing the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel -- let the reader understand -- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloack. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!..For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now -- and never to be equaled again" (Matthew 24). This was literally actualized in A.D. 70 when the Roman Emperor Titus completely destroyed Jerusalem. The temple stones were pried apart to gather the gold leaf that drained from the roof of the temple set on fire. Furthermore, an image of the anti-christ was placed on the former sacred site. Josephus was a respected Jewish historian who personally witnessed this destruction and concurred with the predictions of the Christ in his eye witness account. This was the great tribulation prophesied by Daniel and recounted by Jesus, "and never to be equaled again."

Of course, there were other horrible tribulations that tested the faith and strength of humankind. Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and soon after England. The well known C.S. Lewis was a lecturer at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford. His address to his students at that time reminds me of my own to students assigned to me to learn science and mathematics in the inner city plagued with its own tribulations, always wondering how relevant was my assignment in those conditions in which my students lived:
"It may seem odd for us to carry on classes, to go about our academic routine in the midst of a great war. What is the use of beginning when there is so little chance of finishing? How can we study Latin, geography, algebra in a time like this? Aren't we just fiddling while Rome burns?
"This impending war has taught us some important things. Life is short. The world is fragile. All of us are vulnerable, but we are here because this is our calling. Our lives are rooted not only in time, but also in eternity, and the life of learning, humbly offered to God, is its own reward. It is one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty, which we shall hereafter enjoy in heaven and which we are called to display even now amidst the brokenness all around us."

Terrorism reigned in his day. The "brokenness" of today's terrorism is our reality. But not a new one. Not even one that can be compared to that our ancestors suffered under, fought and died. St. Augustine died in A.D. 430 as another storm of terror descended on the western European continent. You probably heard of the "Vandals", from which we got our English term "vandals" and "vandalism." Under command of their leader, Genseric, this occupying army dealt violence, destruction, and torture to Christian churches. Christianity was challenged again with how to respond. Some Christian factions surrendered to martyrdom. Some to military resistance. This era was a challenge to how Christendom would respond to violence targeted at its demise.

Two hundred years later Islamic devotees claimed control and occupation of the land holy to both Christians and Jews. Perhaps that was the straw that broke the desert camels' backs. "Crusades" were organized to win back control of the holy sites. This is an ugly scare on both the Muslin and Christian legacy. And it continues today. The sacred Dome of the Rock sits on the sacred temple site of the Jewish temple that was destroyed into oblivion in A.D. 70 as Jesus predicted. Both Muslims, Jews and Christians lay claim to this sacred site.

St. Augustine wrote a book entitled "Confessions." Here are some comments about the most famous evangelist of modern times, Billy Graham, that could also merit the same title:

Those recordings ultimately brought about Graham's own darkest hour. In a conversation released in 2002, Graham was heard exchanging anti-Semitic remarks about alleged Jewish control of the media. The shock of the revelation was magnified because of Graham's longtime support of Israel and his refusal to join in calls for the conversion of the Jews. "If it wasn't on tape, I would not have believed it," says Graham. "I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself—I couldn't believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness." In a statement, Graham said: "Much of my life has been a pilgrimage—constantly learning, changing, growing and maturing. I have come to see in deeper ways some of the implications of my faith and message, not the least of which is in the area of human rights and racial and ethnic understanding." The lesson for Graham was that earthly power was alluring but perilous for a man of faith. The bitterness of the Nixon connection was complete, and Graham saw the wisdom of the Psalmist, who wrote: "Put not thy trust in princes."

A unifying theme of Graham's new thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: "Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't ... I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have." Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham's view, only God knows who is going to be saved: "As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible's Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven," says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. "However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart."

There is something about old age that indeed begets wisdom. We see it in the writings of Jesus' apostles and the early church fathers. Now we see it in the musings of Rev. Billy Graham. His son, Franklin, sees things differently than his father. Actually, Franklin is following his father's footsteps when his Dad was a conservative fundamentalist preacher. Experience with world reality however does shake us up. Billy Graham's shake up was augmented with his relationship with former president Nixon. They were buddies, as was Graham with many presidents as their spiritual advisor. But Nixon's deceitfulness concomitant with the release tapes of his White House discussions punctuated with obscene language had Graham thinking again. Franklin has not yet learned from his father's experience. Some things cannot be learned other than by experiencing what our ancestors already did and wrote about.

Terrorism is old. Our ancestors may well be amused at our definition of it. The Roman Empire controlled its world with terror. Stalin exceeded Hitler's terrorism by 63,000 deaths and thousands more sent to suffer until death in the gulags and Siberia labor camps. The people of North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Central America, China and many African nations have tried to explain to the world what truly is terrorism. Our own prisoners in the US who are innocent speak through the channels of legal venues. (The U.S. Justice Department reports that at least 15% of those incarcerated in the U.S. are innocent.) Without a voice from outside their prison walls they remain helpless. They live in terror for their lives and so do their families. 

We live in a broken world, and the threat of terrorism is worthy of all nations' attention. Such a realization may be relatively new to the North American governments. Indeed it is, since the U.S. was admittedly surprised and caught off guard by the 9/11/2001 attack, as we were by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In this political environment, it is rather unexpected for governments to bear expressed responses to the calling of Christ. As individuals, we can retreat to the forests and embrace with delight and thanksgiving the design, the light, the magnificent beauty and mystery of God's creation. Those that govern the world do not do that. So they lack divine wisdom. Can any entity govern a nation without divine wisdom?

Sometimes I wonder what I would utter just before I die. I thought of many things, but one may well be my choice, from Psalm 31:21: "Blessed be my Lord, for He showed His wonderful love to me when I was in a besieged city." Come to think of it, I will pray that now before I die, for it is the prayer of living on this earth, besieged with terror of all kinds.


John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
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Spiritual Resource Services  © September 28, 2006
 

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