Wednesday, March 30, 2016


I lost several months worth of writing. I want to eschew technology and return to paper. I'm upset at life and pretty mad at myself. That with some other things have made this a pretty shitty week. Since all my ideas and half-written posts are gone, it will probably be awhile before I get back to blogging.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Never Again, and Again, and Again... (part two of two)

“Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” –David Cameron

In my last post, I talked about the report from the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians demonstrating the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in ISIS territory. This post summarizes some of the report’s findings on ISIS’ intent and actions of genocide. 

The intent of ISIS is clear. ISIS jargon is rife with references to war against Christianity. It sees itself as a continuation of the medieval Crusades. The city of Dabiq (ISIS’ magazine shares this name) is said to be the location of the Armageddon, the final battle of the caliphate and Rome. Rome is shorthand for all western influence, but they mean it literally too. They call Pope Francis the “crusader pope,” and they want to physically hold the city.

An article in Dabiq states (from the report):
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women…” and “nothing changes for the Islamic State, as it will continue to pronounce takfir [abandonment of Islam] upon the Jews, the Christians, the pagans, and the apostates …And it will continue to wage war against the Christians until the truce decreed sometime before the Malhamah. Thereafter, the slave markets will commence in Rome by Allah’s power and might.”(9)

An icon of the 21 Coptic martyrs,
killed for their faith in 2015
The group’s actions have been consistent with its intent. In Islam, Christians and Jews are considered “people of the book.” Sharing the Abrahamic God means people of the book hold a few more privileges in Islamic countries than pagans (in theory). One such privilege is the jizya; instead of fighting for an Islamic country, military-age Christian men could pay an extra tax to fund their defense. Under ISIS, the jizya was used to find the Christians. In Ninevah, ISIS collected money, then went back to kill, kidnap, and rape Christians, as well as destroy their buildings. In Raqqa, Christians were given the offer to pay jizya only after the churches were closed, bibles burned, and priests kidnapped. Generally, ISIS doesn’t even offer jizya to Christians, claiming that trinitarianism is polytheism, making Christians pagans, not people of the book. 

Christians mainly face two fates: murder or enslavement. Mass graves have been discovered. Reports are that 500 people died when ISIS took over Mosul in June 2014. There were about 30,000 Christians living in the city; they were told to convert, pay a tax (usually whatever was raided), leave, or die. The Christian community of Mosul had existed for 1,900 years; it is no more. This was repeated in several cities.

Many have been able to flee; their communities are destroyed, scattering amongst refugee camps and various countries, unable to return. The report states, “In 2003, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million. Currently the Iraqi Christian population is estimated at 275,000.” (223) In Syria, the 2011 Christian population was estimated at 1.25 million. Today, the estimate is 500,000. Of the total Syrian population of 20 million, over 6.5 million are displaced. 

Women are taken as rewards to the ISIS fighters. A list shows the prices by for “Christian or Yazidi” women on sale in the slave markets. (203) Children are taken as slaves (including sex slaves) or to be raised as the next generation of ISIS fighters. 

How is something that sounds like it belongs on Game of Thrones happening in the current world? It is so foreign, so outlandish, so unreal, that it is difficult for me to actually accept. I think many Westerners are like me, numb by either shock or denial. This doesn’t happen again. It can’t happen again, because we would stop it, right?

Back in 2013, the Assad regime in Syria was battling a revolution. This conflict created the power vacuum that ISIS so willingly filled. There were the signs that Syria was at a tipping point. PM David Cameron said in May 2013, “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” A few months later, Assad used sarin gas on civilians. The conflict was getting worse. Secretary of State Kerry said in August 2013, “As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”

In the last minute, the US didn’t intervene, instead meeting with Russia, negotiating for the removal of chemical weapons in Syria in exchange to not invade. We didn’t want yet another war. We were tired of policing of the world. We wanted diplomatic talks to work and local revolutionaries to prevail. And although I don’t know what government intelligence might have known at the time, I doubt they foresaw ISIS growing so strong. I think history will note the things we should have done in 2013/2014 (or 2008, 2003, 1990, etc. depending on how far back you want to look). Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and while we’re always warning against another Hitler, we don’t really think it will happen again. We’ll see it; we’ll stop it. Humanity will recognize where the line is this time. And then we’re surprised and stricken numb by the images and reports of refugees and causalities. 

Iraq's oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah, before (2011) and after (2014) its destruction by ISIS.
The monastery had stood in Mosul for over 1,400 years.
There are Christian communities, now scattered across Turkey and Jordan and Europe, who will never return. Some of the oldest Christian art and churches are simply gone. My community is injured. These are my people, my churches, my history. Christianity in the Middle East is further weakened, and I ache for it. I think the violence there will intensify before anything is resolved. More civilians will lose their homes, their families, their own lives. I don’t know what policy is really the best course. I don’t know how we could have stopped it, and I don’t know how to stop it now. So I’m left repeating the refrain we lie to ourselves: Not again, never again.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Never Again, and Again, and Again... (part one of two)

“The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
On Feb. 12, 2015, 20 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS in Libya. A 21st man was a non-Christian from Chad, who, when asked to reject Jesus, reportedly declared, "Their God is my God." The 21 martyrs have been canonized in the Coptic Church.
When learning about the Holocaust in school, I was always told that it was most horrific act afflicted on humanity. A dark, morbid event that must never happen again. We were learning about it so that it would never happen again. Except there were fifty-plus years between the Holocaust and my classroom, and it had already happened again, several times, from the post-war Sudetan Germans to the Bosniaks on the evening news at the time.

Genocide happens all the time. A group, an “other,” gets singled out as a problem. People are stripped of their individual identity; they are as guilty as the group. They are not entitled to rights or dignity. They must cease to exist for the social/political cause. There are dozens of cases in Africa, Central/South America, South Asia, and Europe since the end of World War II. Each case is different in its context, scope, and style, but they all led to the deliberate and systematic destruction of communities. People died by the hundreds of thousands. 

If my history lessons were to be believed, we had avoided the repetition of history. We were wiser now. Civilized countries didn’t do such things. The rest of the world would stand up and stop it if genocide reared its head. And the global community has worked to stop genocide when it’s happening and to bring perpetrators to justice. But we’re not doing as good a job as “Never Again” suggests.

Which gets to today, and ISIS. It’s already pretty well known that ISIS is evil. Its constant use of forced deportation, killing, rape, destruction, and desecration is celebrated in its own media. And now, several years into its campaign, the world is finally building the case that ISIS has (and is) committing genocide on religious minorities. It’s difficult to think of Christianity as a religious minority when it is the largest of the world religions and the state or de facto state religion of so many countries. But in many parts of the world, Christians are a minority and have been for centuries. So like the Yazidis, Jews, Kurds, Shebaks, and even Shia Muslims, Christianity in ISIS-controlled territory faces the threat of elimination. Basically, any non-ISIS group is in danger, but the genocide of one group does not negate the genocide of another. The Nazis were able to kill Jews and Roma. The Turks were able to kill Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. But I’m going to focus on the Christian genocide because of the report I read, not to malign the other groups facing the same fates. It’s difficult here in the Bible Belt to picture Christians as one of the groups ISIS is silencing. They have no political voice. They have lost their homes and churches. They are losing their families and lives.

The Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians have written a petition to the State Department requesting that the U.S. recognize the current genocides in ISIS territories. The petition includes a report which lists the intention and actions of ISIS to destroy Christians in their region.

The report states:
“On February 4, the Knights of Columbus co-authored a letter to Secretary Kerry requesting a meeting to brief him on evidence that established that the situation confronting Christians and other religious minorities constitutes genocides. While there has never been an official response to that letter, we were contacted by senior State Department officials who requested our assistance in making the case that Christians are victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS. Given the specificity of the information requested, our focus in this report is on the situation confronting Christians in areas that are or have been under ISIS control, primarily in Iraq, Syria and Libya. ISIS has also targeted Yazidis and other religious minority groups in a manner consistent with genocide. Thus, our contention is not that Christians should be designated as the sole group facing genocide, but rather, that given the overwhelming evidence and the international consensus on this issue, that the United States government should not exclude Christians from such a finding. Doing so would be contrary to fact.” (6-7)

In the past two years, several world leaders and religious leaders have labeled ISIS’ actions as genocide. Last month, the European Parliament voted to recognize that genocide is occurring in Syria and Iraq. Genocide carries a specific legal definition. In order to be genocide any of the following acts must be committed “with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (21) 

Once this is proven, it must be acknowledged. And once acknowledged, there must be action to stop it. It has happened again. It is happening again. Despite our hopes and efforts, it will happen again. It is a dark side of humanity, the side that would treat people as obstacles to eliminate. But it is also a dark side of humanity that watches it happen again, from a distance, and says nothing.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Witness to Mercy

On Wednesday nights during the Year of Mercy my parish has adoration and confession. I hadn’t gone the first few weeks, but decided it would be a good practice to go during Lent. Plus, the allure of adoration and incense does eventually break me down. I settled in, said some prayers, read some from a devotional I had brought (which turned out not to be that great), and wound up just sitting silently in Christ’s presence. 

It was then that I began to really take in my surroundings. It was crowded; people were continuing to come in. The nave was fuller than it was most early Sunday mornings. It smelled holy (again, sucker for incense). Except for baby gurgles, it was pretty quiet. Several priests were offering confession, so they were stationed around the church: one back in the confessional, one in the side chapel, and one near the statue of St. Joseph (the front right). There weren’t any partitions. It was hard to look toward the front of the church without seeing who was at confession up there. Someone a few pews closer might have been able to make out what was said, but even across the room I could see the priest’s and penitent’s faces.

I was amazed by the people who went to confession during that hour, so publicly, in front of so many. Sure, the rest of us were mostly preoccupied by adoration, but still, the confession was taking place literally right in front of us. In the front of the church, lighting and acoustics are against any hope of privacy. 

In the early church, confessions were made publicly to the congregation. To sin against God was to damage the community of believers. It’s difficult enough for me to go now, in private, with a screen and seal. But I can see how everyone being that vulnerable and raw would bring the community together and help hold one another accountable. I wonder if the people I saw confessing felt some of that. When you go to confession, you’re at a turning point. You’re reaching out for grace. The weight and stain of sin is peeled away. It’s a glorious, intimate moment. I’ll admit, it would take me being in pretty dire straits to go to confession so openly. I was both baffled and impressed by those that did. 

I think that the front-of-the-church confessions were a great representation of the Year of Mercy. It was beneficial to me to watch a sacrament with a bit of detachment. It’s just as beautiful when it happens to someone else. I got to witness something normally tucked privately away. I got to witness that others struggle, too, and I got to witness them being washed in mercy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

I Want to Believe, Maybe

In the last post, I talked about how people understand the world differently and our ideas of what is or can be true are at odds. Why does Mulder believe in aliens but not God, and why does Scully believe (sometimes) in God but not aliens? In an empirical materialist’s mind, both are equality unlikely. There are different philosophical proofs that could weigh the two, and psychoanalytics into why someone believes one over the other. I think it sometimes comes down to cost assessment. Will believing this ruin my good life? Will it improve my bad life? What do I have to sacrifice about myself to pursue this path that I find true? What purpose or obligation comes with believing? 

In the same episode I mentioned last time (s3e11 “Revelations”), the priest repeats a line that Scully keeps hearing throughout the investigation: “Sometimes we must come full circle to find the truth.” When she doesn’t say anything, he asks, “Does that surprise you?” She replies, “Mostly it just makes me afraid.” He asks, “Afraid?” She replies, “Afraid that God is speaking, but that no one’s listening.” 

How many coincidences were signs that were ignored, either by unbelievers or by believers afraid to demonstrate their belief? Mulder is a true believer, and his life is overrun by his beliefs. He always sees connections. He’s given up the prestige he had to work in a dead-end, basement job. He is shunned by his peers as “spooky.” He has no home life. He puts himself and his family in danger. It’s a total sacrifice, but worth it for the truth, right? Until the truth turns out not to be true, and his faith crumbles. Then it was all a wasted life. Commitment to faith is high risk.

In mid-season 5, Mulder has abandoned his faith in aliens, believing instead that all the alien evidence is diversion for the government conspiracy. That his faith in the lie was used against him. He no longer believes his own memory of events. He believes in nothing, not even himself.

Scully, although skeptical to his beliefs, finds a believing Mulder better than one who believes in nothing. When he asks for her help (s5e14 “The Red and the Black”), she asks why she should. She says, “Five years ago when I met you, you told me your sister had been abducted. By aliens. That that event marked you so deeply that nothing else mattered. I didn’t believe you. But I followed you, on nothing more than your faith that the truth was out there, based not on facts, not on science, but on your memories that your sister had been taken from you.” Why should she take any risk when there isn’t anything, not even faith, for to risk herself? Mulder urges, “If I could prove that I was right, and I what I believed for so long was wrong.” She replies, “Is that what you really want?”

Scully recognizes his dark night of the soul. He wants to believe, but can’t. On the other side, Scully strives to remain skeptical, but experience after experience makes her question her own stance. She returns to church more often, and she continues to believe in messages from God. But she also sees the dark side of believing—a man who’s given up everything, who gullibly chases every rumor, who can’t let go of the past. Why would she want that?

In many ways, we don’t choose to believe. We just do. But at the same time, we do choose. We choose to live in accordance with that belief system. We alter ourselves to align with the truth as we understand it. Regardless of what the belief system, that change, that alteration, that radical upheaval, is usually difficult. So many of us believe, but we choose not live as if we believe. We compartmentalize our beliefs into manageable boxes, certain places and certain times of day. We believe when it makes sense, when it won’t be ridiculed, when it brings comfort. That helps starve off a dark night of the soul, that lingering feeling that all is wrong, all is loss, all is outside of our control. Less risk. 

I want to believe. I want to be the kind of believer that lives like I believe. But I don’t. I want to play it safe, hedge my bets, fit in—a myriad of other excuses. I want to believe and also be in control. But I’m not sure that’s how it works. 

There was a time that I thought that being comfortable or thinking that you had the answers was a bad form of faith. Then I got comfortable and liked the answers I had. As Mulder says in one episode (s7e9 “Signs and Wonders”), “People think the devil has horns and a tail. They aren’t looking for a man who tells you what you want to hear… Somebody offering you the answers could be a very powerful thing.” Faith isn’t as simple as affirming a creed or answering an altar call; it involves work and risk. James 2:26 says, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” While I don’t think works could ever merit salvation, I do think that works demonstrate faith in two ways. First, one can do works without giving assent to the belief, kind of “fake it until you make it.” Second, one can do works because belief is so strong, that it is all-encompassing, spilling out from the intellectual, mystical abstract into a measurable, tangible demonstration.  

On a good day, my apathy is brought on by a dark night of the soul. But mostly, it’s brought on by my own insecurities, my own laziness, my own comfort, my own weak faith. I want to believe, but it’s really hard.