Friday, September 25, 2009

The World's Need for Atonement

This past week saw a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, before which President Barack Obama gave another "historic" speech, or so the media tell us. That same media breathlessly reported about how significant it was that all these world leaders could come to the same place and speak openly about the world situation and try to "embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect," as Obama put it in his address. From behind the same lectern, not only would Obama address the assembled delegates, but also Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Israeli President Benyamin Netanyahu would also speak.

From all the faith that the administration and the media seem to have in this policy of engagement—without preconditions, as Obama has promised—we should expect the dawning of world peace at any moment. Is that not all it takes? All we have to do, according to this formula, is to get world leaders in one room, and after a few handshakes and a couple of beers—voila! World peace! It is so simple: Just let them jabber at each other for a few hours, and they will walk out arm in arm, best friends forever!

If this will work so well for nations with deep-seated enmities and ancient disputes, just think how far it will go in solving our petty personal and domestic problems. Just apply the formula: Gather the fighting parties in one place, tell them that they have mutual interests and need to have mutual respect for one another, and let them talk it out without preconditions or anything. They should be bowling partners before dinnertime!

Seriously, do the administration and media really think we are so naïve? When has this formula worked before? Have we not lived through previous administrations that have tried variations of this policy only to meet with unmitigated failure and reduced international respect? Jimmy Carter tried this with the Iranian revolutionaries when they took Americans hostage at our embassy in Tehran. Did that not embolden terrorists throughout the Muslim world? To them, it was a perfect illustration of the fact that America was weak and easily led about by the nose.

The same could be said for Bill Clinton's disastrous policy in Somalia, where the "Black Hawk Down" scenario played out. The Somali warlords were not appeased in the least by our humanitarian efforts in Mogadishu and elsewhere. American soldiers were sent into that city without the military strength or the standing orders to be effective in anything except as targets for snipers and gangs of militants. Playing nice and being understanding and talking incessantly about peace did nothing but put Americans in harm's way—in Somalia and around the world—because it was clear to Muslim extremists that America was still soft and could not stand to see bloodshed.

So it was just nine months into the George W. Bush presidency that al Qaida hijacked four domestic airliners, flying two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, crashing one of them into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and plunging the last into the ground in Pennsylvania. About 3,000 people lost their lives because Islamic fundamentalists believed that, because America had been all talk and little action in the recent past, it would be a pushover this time too. However, they failed to realize that the Bush administration was made of sterner stuff, and America's retaliation was severe, at least in comparison to its former lackadaisical behavior.

This is the real world, but the Obama administration is looking at it through rose-colored glasses. Tyrants cannot be talked out of power. Millennia-long conflicts cannot be solved by timely concessions and photo-op handshakes. Radical ideologies cannot be disputed with reasonable arguments so that their adherents suddenly say, "Sorry! I was wrong."

That is not how the real world works. Tyrants fight to the death to hold onto their power. Ancient feuds blaze into war. Radical ideologies are stamped out—if that—only by overwhelming force. Human nature guarantees that this is the only way it works because human nature rarely, if ever, thinks that it is wrong. In fact, human nature will often choose death before surrender. This is the simple reason why humanity has never progressed into any kind of "Golden Age" of universal peace, mutual understanding, and prosperity. Our nature will not allow us to.

Obama's policy will fail, just as Bush's did, Clinton's did, Reagan's did, and Carter's did. Mankind cannot find the way to peace because it is not in man to be at peace. Even if peace suddenly broke out all over the world, it would soon pass—very soon—and the people of the world would be back at each other's throats in no time. On this, the prophet Isaiah writes, "Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known" (Isaiah 59:6-8).

Yet, the same prophet predicts, "It shall come to pass in the latter days that . . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:2, 4). What happens between the utter sinful, violent chaos of this world and that peaceful world to come?
Two things: The first is mentioned in Isaiah 2: "The mountain of the LORD's house shall be established" (verse 2). This is a reference to the return of Jesus Christ in power to rule all nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:11-15). Because of mankind's recalcitrant nature, He will be forced to deal with humanity sternly, as a conquering King, because man has rejected Him as the gentle and loving Lamb of God. He will set things right. This intervention in human affairs is foreshadowed in the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25).

Yet, that is not enough; the second event must occur, which is seen in the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, as the Jews call it. In the typical ritual of Leviticus 16 is illustrated what will happen after Christ's return. Two goats are selected, one to be sacrificed to pay for the sins of the people (fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on Golgotha), and one to carry the guilt of sin and be led into the wilderness. This latter type will be fulfilled when Satan the Devil is captured and imprisoned in the Bottomless Pit (Revelation 20:1-3), where he will not be able to influence mankind with his rebellious, sinful, destructive attitudes (see II Corinthians 4:4 Ephesians 2:2-3; Revelation 12:9; etc.).

Until the minds of human beings are freed from this constant persuasion to live selfishly, there can be no peace. Such is our need—the world's need—for the atonement only God can supply.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Coming: A Truly Benevolent Ruler

In Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the hero, a hard-boiled nineteenth-century New Englander by the name of Hank Morgan, opines that the best government is a benevolent dictatorship—particularly one with him at its head. However, a major problem with benevolent dictatorship is that what seems benevolent to one person—the dictator—appears tyrannical to another. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive."

In light of human nature, this is very true. What is good for the goose may not actually be good for the gander. One-size-fits-all solutions tend to be very confining for those whose "size" is uncommon. While most of humanity may not be too far off the norm—whatever that may be—people are so varied that the extremes are quite distant from the mean. Try asking Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel to clomp around in Shaquille O'Neal's shoes! The same goes for government policies. For instance, a general healthcare plan will not cover everyone's needs; someone—in fact, many people—will have diseases and infirmities that are not specifically covered. These people will either be out of luck or have to find an expensive alternative.

A program may work on a small scale yet not be viable on a large one. Some intellectual may have a wonderful idea regarding preschool childcare, and in laboratory-like conditions, it may work superbly. However, it may be entirely impractical to roll a program like that out on a nationwide basis either because of regional educational differences, dissimilar facilities, different levels of funding, differences in teachers and administrators, etc. Besides, not all parents want or need their children to participate in preschool childcare.

Finally, even for themselves, human beings have a limited understanding of what would work best, but their perception of what is best for others is inadequate to say the least. Some people are very happy to live alone and not be bothered by anyone, anytime. Yet, there are millions of Americans, it seems, who have little objection to some aspect of government poking into their affairs on a regular basis. How much is too little or too much government? What human leader has the correct answer to this?

In addition, even if the dictator is the wisest man in the world, the benevolent dictatorship literally has a terminal problem: The dictator will eventually die. He will have to give his power to somebody who is probably not as benevolent as he is. In fact, his heir will probably be a sniveling wastrel or an arrogant thug. Solomon bemoans this fact himself in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19, 21:

Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my labor in which I toiled and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. . . . For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

As much as he tried to make his kingdom, the nation of Israel, great and wonderful, he had to leave it to his son—and he could see that his son, Rehoboam, was nowhere close to his level of genius. But we know the story: Solomon himself did not turn out to be very benevolent, as he overworked and overtaxed his own people to complete his massive building projects. His ironic complaint ends up being just a conceit of one who felt he was a great, benevolent leader.

Surely, many of us have said, "If I were the President, I would [insert your own grandiose plan here]!" Have we not been converted and have the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16)? Do we not know the kind of government and changes this world really needs? Yet, even if we knew all the right policies to enact and enforce, and we did our job perfectly, we would ultimately be failures because we will die. We have only to look at the history of the kings of Israel and Judah to realize that good kings were followed by bad kings, and the people ultimately suffered for it. Even the most godly and benevolent policies and institutions fail because they cannot be perpetuated beyond a generation or perhaps two.

These reasons are why the only answer to humanity's problems is the return of Jesus Christ to set up His Kingdom and rule with a rod of iron (Revelation 19:15). Only our Creator knows what humans really need, as well as how and when to give it to them. And being immortal, He will never have to relinquish His throne to an inferior heir. His will be the ultimate benevolent dictatorship.

Once He has established His government on the earth and instituted His righteous, just, and equitable policies over Israel, they will begin to bring peace and prosperity to all who follow them. Others will see the joy that His way of life provides to His people, and they will seek His governance over them. His rule will spread over all the earth in perpetuity. In fact, I Corinthians 15:25 tells us, "For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet."

The church of God will be observing the Feast of Trumpets tomorrow, the holy day the Jews call Rosh Hashanah. We believe that God's holy days, described and commanded in Leviticus 23, reveal to us God's plan of salvation for all humanity. The Feast of Trumpets is the fourth of the seven annual holy days, sitting in the central position of God's plan, and the great event that it symbolizes is the wonderful return of Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

On this holy day, we look forward to the time of God's direct intervention into the affairs of humanity, to bring divine order and peace to a chaotic, war-torn, immoral, and deceived world. While some may scorn this as an impossible Utopian vision, we merely point to the pages of the Bible and Christ's promise, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am,there you may be also" (John 14:3). We would like nothing better than to live under the benevolent rule of our King, and thus we pray, "Your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:10).

Friday, September 11, 2009

9-11 and American Decadence

This morning marked the eighth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City by Islamic fundamentalists. On that day of tragedy, nearly three thousand people of all ages and ethnicities lost their lives in an act of terrorism that is still being avenged by American troops in Afghanistan. Most of the masterminds behind the attack are still at large, especially Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, who, in spite of an incessant manhunt, remains in hiding somewhere in the remote, mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan or Pakistan. September 11, 2001, was a horrible day for the United States of America, and it continues to reverberate through its people.

Curiously, the question of whom to blame is also still being debated. Although a surprisingly hefty minority believes 9-11 was an "inside job" by the U.S. government to incite the country into going to war for oil and to suppress Americans' freedoms to a greater extent, most people place the blame squarely on the shoulders of bin Laden and his fellow radical Muslims. Islamic terrorists have been plaguing U.S. assets, installations, and citizens for at least four decades, escalating their attacks as often as they can. In addition, they have targeted our allies all over the globe, from Israel to Britain to Australia to Denmark. Guilt for these atrocities is not hard to place.

If that is so clear, where is the controversy?

The arguments begin when anyone even remotely suggests that we Americans played a role in bringing these attacks upon ourselves. This morning on a Charlotte radio station, the host played a clip of a local Christian minister quoting Chuck Colson's May 4, 2006, "BreakPoint" broadcast titled "Decadence and Vulnerability":

Now, we want to be careful not to blame the victim—that is, to blame innocent Americans for murderous attacks against them. At the same time, let's understand how America's increasing decadence is, in a sense, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. When we tolerate increasing amounts of trash on television, when we permit pornography and gambling to invade our homes via the Internet, when we allow babies to be killed at the point of birth, we are fueling the flames of radical Islam. And when we talk about legitimizing homosexuality by granting same-sex relationships the status of marriage, we're giving powerful ammunition to those who use America's decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers. We're also making it much more difficult for Christian pastors and missionaries to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world—one more very good reason we need to clean up our act.

Colson plainly states that his intention is not to blame the victim but to show that America's increasingly secular and decadent culture adds fuel to the fire of Islamic fundamentalists' hatred. In their eyes, we are already infidels, and every instance of immorality that they see coming from the depraved West reinforces their belief of divine justification in putting us to slaughter. They are religious fanatics who, like a crazed rapist blaming his victim, feel that their horrid crimes are entirely warranted because their enemies had it coming to them. Colson writes:

Mark Galli . . . in Christianity Today . . . noted that Islamic militants are angry at the West for exporting "hedonism and materialism into their very homes through television, enticing Muslims to become religiously lazy and morally corrupt." Galli quoted a 1985 communique from the terrorist group Hezbollah which said, in part: "Our way is one of radical combat against depravity, and America is the original root of depravity." Members of these groups see themselves, not as terrorists, but as holy warriors fighting a holy war against Western decadence.

Had Colson suggested that a Christian reformation in America would stop Islamic terrorism against America and Americans, he would have been wrong. While he does suggest that a moral revival would modify Muslim impressions of Americans, it does not change the fact that we would still be infidels to them. They would still want to convert us to Islam either by persuasion or by the sword, for that is the aggressive nature of the religion.

However, Colson is a Christian minister whose focus is reaching and teaching the individual believer, not the whole society, although he would undoubtedly be thrilled if his teaching convinced all Americans to live moral lives. In his own way, he is doing his best to plant seeds of biblical truth that may one day sprout and mature, turning one person at a time away from the excesses of the modern American lifestyle. He knows, as many Christians know, that America's problems are moral and spiritual in nature, and if this nation is to solve its growing problems, the solutions to them must be moral and spiritual as well.

That being said, we would be foolish to leave God out of the equation. Notice Psalm 11:4-7:

The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven; His eyes behold, His eyelids test the sons of men. The LORD tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates. Upon the wicked He will rain coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the LORD is righteous, He loves righteousness; His countenance beholds the upright.

This is David's poetic way of saying that God is not playing intergalactic Space Invaders® while we humans run wild over planet Earth. No, God is watching. He tests mankind to check where they fall against His standards. If they are righteous, He extends His loving kindness and blessing, but if they are evil, He sends punishment in various forms of destruction. He is not a sap who lets decadence have the upper hand for long—witness Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).

There is plenty of blame to go around for the disaster of September 11, 2001. Certainly, the Islamists who perpetrated it bear most of it. Yet, we must also acknowledge that American culture is far from righteous, and God is amply justified in chastising this country. The question is: Have we learned its lessons?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Strengthening Germany

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," September-October 2009

September's general elections in Germany saw the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, remain in power. The CDU formed a conservative coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) led by Guido Westerwelle, but without a doubt, the Chancellor's party will be at the helm, particularly in the area of foreign policy. With amicable German-American relations over the last several decades, it would seem that they would continue to be "steady as she goes" into the foreseeable future. However, the signs are that rough seas are ahead.

Westerwelle, the next Foreign Minister, may indeed want to craft a pro-American foreign policy. His own views fit very nicely with American aims. For instance, the FDP campaigned on staying committed to the Afghan War. Like U.S. President Barack Obama, Westerwelle wants to pressure both Russia and China on human-rights issues and also desires the removal of nuclear warheads from Germany. On the questions of Iran and Israel-Palestine, he supports the current American approach of engagement and dialogue.

However, Germany has its own self-interests that will surely trump any altruistic desire to remain a staunch junior partner of America, no matter how enthusiastic both Germans in general and the government are about Obama himself. Having broken free of its Cold War restraints, Germany is beginning to use its considerable weight in Europe and elsewhere to proclaim that her presence will be felt on the world stage.

Berlin's initial unilateral action has been seen in the energy sector. Most of Germany's energy—in the forms of oil and natural gas—comes from Russia, making its industry reliant on Moscow's whim. During past winters, Russia has used its power to threaten to shut down its westward pipelines as a cudgel to force price concessions on Europe, and Germany does not want to be manipulated again.

One of the new government's policies concerns its aging nuclear power plants. The plan is to extend the life of the current reactors and to begin construction on new ones, thereby reducing the country's dependence on Russian energy. Further, to offset Moscow's displeasure in losing the German market, Berlin wants to invest in Russian ventures and to build oil and gas lines through Germany and/or the nearby Baltic Sea to become a conduit of Russian energy to other European nations. As a bonus, Germany would earn revenue by charging transit fees to recipient countries.

In Europe, Germany is undoubtedly the dominant state in terms of geography, population, and economic strength on the continent—with only France as a distant rival—and it is using its heft to push its objectives in the European Union. In tandem with France, Germany is the main force behind the retry of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty and subsequently the selection of an EU president and foreign minister. Once those things are a fait accompli, Berlin's agenda—moderated only by an often-compliant France and a currently weakened Britain—will effectively be Europe's agenda. With the combined economies of the EU states behind it, Germany's voice will have to be taken seriously in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.

In addition, Germany recently crossed another boundary line that divorces it from its post-World-War-II passivity. Just this spring, German military forces took part in a two-week offensive in northern Afghanistan, for the first time using heavy weapons and armored vehicles in firefights in an effort to repulse the Taliban from the region. Germany's 4,300 troops are now the third-largest national contingent in Afghanistan, trailing only the U.S. and Britain. It is likely that additional troops, perhaps as many as 2,000, will be sent to the region when the U.S. military's Afghan surge finally takes place.

And it is not just the German government that is becoming more confident. On May 23, 2009, Germans celebrated the Federal Republic's 60th anniversary with an outburst of German pride, waving thousands of black, red, and yellow flags, a practice once frowned upon as too nationalistic—too Nazi or neo-Nazi. In addition, the University of Stuttgart published a study earlier this year, reporting that 75 percent of respondents were proud to be German "despite the country's history," which was twice as many as responded positively to a similar question in 2001. As the older generation and its guilt continue to wane, the German people feel increasingly patriotic and unhampered by the nation's aggressive past.

As an analyst wrote in Stratfor's September 29, 2009, Geopolitical Diary, "The Return of Germany":

Germany is awake. It is thinking for itself. It has its own policy preferences, its own energy preferences and its own security preferences. It already is showing signs of developing autonomy in foreign policy and energy matters, and it is very likely only a matter of time before it starts developing autonomy in security matters.

This isn't your father's (or even your grandfather's) Germany. This is your great-grandfather's Germany.
The church of God has long identified Germany with the Bible's fierce Assyrians—"the rod of My anger" (Isaiah 10:5), sent to punish the idolatrous Israelites for their ungodliness. In verse 7, God remarks on the Assyrian character in a way that seems to fit Germany historically: ". . . it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off not a few nations." The nations of Europe have long feared German dominance on the continent for just this reason, having seen the horrific destruction caused by two German-instigated World Wars. To be sure, even in this time of peaceful relations among Western nations, there are many Europeans nervously wondering what Berlin will do next.