Ain’t It Grand (to Be an Ayatollah)!

To become a Grand Ayatollah, one must be steeped in the Qur’an, in Islamic history and law, in the Shi’ite Hadith traditions about Muhammad, Ali and the eleven Imams descended from him. One must be recognized by other ayatollahs, mullahs and aspiring “seminarians” as having reached the summit of Islamic learning. Such was the case with Ruhollah Khomeini, who indeed was not satisfied merely with such recognition, but strove to be “first among equals,” which happened when by popular demand he became the “father of the Islamic revolution of Iran.”

To accuse Khomeini of misunderstanding Islam would be laughable. So when he speaks to fellow Muslims, especially to other clerics, about the message of Islam, one may be sure he is authoritatively reflecting orthodoxy (to which Sunni leaders would also agree).Khomeini on politics For those laboring under the misapprehension that “Islam is a peaceful religion,” please read the following message which Khomeini delivered on Feb 4, 1985 to Muslim leaders from some thirty countries:

Brothers, do not sit at home so that they [the enemy] attack. Move onto the offensive and be sure that they shall retreat….This was what happened in Iran and Iran’s power [under the Shah] was far greater than most of the other countries….Do not content yourself with teaching the people the rules of prayer and fasting. The rules of Islam are not limited to these….Why don’t you recite the sura of qital [armed fighting]? Why should you always recite the suras of mercy? Don’t forget that killing is also a form of mercy….There are ills that cannot be cured except through burning. The corrupt in every society should be liquidated….The Qur’an teaches us to treat as brothers only those who are Muslims and believe in Allah. [It] teaches us to treat those who are not thus differently; teaches us to hit them, throw them in jail and kill them.

— (As quoted in Amir Taheri’s The Spirit of Allah, p. 298.)

Khomeini and other Muslim leaders (whether Shi’ite or Sunni) did not always speak so openly about Islam’s call to subjugate or kill those unwilling to become Muslims. Instead, they made liberal use of various types of deception, as permitted under Muhammad’s teaching and example, in order to advance the reach of Islam in the world. Muslim leaders today in similar settings do exactly the same. In my next post, I will explain five terms used by Muslim jurists to justify various forms of deception permitted to Muslims in particular circumstances. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

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J. Herbert Nelson as Stated Clerk of the PC (USA) — a Match Made in Liberal Utopia?

It’s a Brave New World. No longer will the members of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) have to seek out God’s will together to know the mission of the Church. Instead, the Stated Clerk Search Committee has nominated a “priest and prophet” to lead the denomination to utopia.brave new world.jpg

I will reserve personal judgment as to whether J. Herbert Nelson will serve the people of the PCUSA  well or not until we have enough experience with him in that office to make an educated assessment. But from what has been released by official PCUSA news outlets so far, and especially the Vimeo announcement by Rev. Carol McDonald (moderator of the Stated Clerk Search Committee), things do not look at all promising.J-Herbert-Nelson

Having spoken side by side with J. Herbert at a Wee Kirk Conference, and having interacted with him a few times subsequently, I find him to be a warmhearted, engaging, high energy person, committed above all to social justice causes. I like him personally. Our understandings of the gospel are very different. But that is not at the heart of what bothers me about his nomination to become Stated Clerk.

My deep concern is that Rev. Nelson has no background or skill set to actually do the job detailed in the official job description of “Stated Clerk.” The qualifications which he is touted for having in fact have little relevance to the work of that office. No doubt he is a charismatic speaker, and is committed to the church, and has served a number of roles in the denomination, and is eager for the job. To hear the Search Committee moderator’s reflections on J. Herbert’s qualifications, one would think he is being selected as Head Bishop or Pope to lead us into a Brave New World. Rev. McDonald thrills to the idea that “…he will call us to be who God is calling us to be in this 21st Century.” He will be “…priest and prophet to us within our denomination.” He will build bridges and speak with prophetic voice. He will lead us into a golden age. He will usher in the Kingdom. The lion will lie down with the lamb. (Those last three sentences were my own addition.) And so on and so forth.

However, the job description of the Stated Clerk is more prosaic than messianic. Its duties and responsibilities are divided into four categories relating to: Administration; Ecumenical and Interreligious/Interfaith Ministries; the Constitution; and meetings of the General Assembly. I would estimate that 80% of the work is administrative and bureaucratic, needing someone with an authoritative grasp of the Constitution as well as of the interrelationship of all the moving parts of PCUSA bureaucracy. There is nothing about making pronouncements to the world, acting as priest and prophet, speaking eloquently as the voice of the denomination. The Stated Clerk’s role is not to lead the Church anywhere, but to correctly interpret the Church’s Constitution to keep the denomination from straying from its self-determined principles. He/she is to create the structure needed for General Assemblies so they may “do the business of the Church,” and to prepare budgets that accurately reflect the will of the GA in its purposeful spending. The Stated Clerk prepares dockets, transmits reports, receives overtures, ensures preservation of records, sits as a member of various delegations, reports decisions of the GAPJC, is an ex-officio member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and of the Advisory Committee on Litigation, and conducts general correspondence of the PCUSA. It is an administrative calling, neither priestly nor prophetic in nature.

Unfortunately, to date we ignoramuses (who have no inside scoop) know nothing of Rev. Nelson’s qualifications to carry out the published job description. A look at his employment history does not instill confidence that he is the right person for this calling: no evidence of parliamentary wisdom; no history of bridge-building among disparate groups; a highly partisan figure focused on one edge of the larger denomination’s stated goals; a trailblazer rather than an interpreter of ecclesiastical maps.

I hope I am wrong, but so far the fawning adulation over J. Herbert Nelson by the Search Committee makes me wonder if they truly read the job description before they made their choice. Perhaps in the coming days they will roll out evidence of his abilities to actually handle the job for which he is being nominated. If so, and if it is strong, well and good. If not, batten down the hatches.

Perhaps the words of King George III upon hearing the news of the demise of another Nelson (Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson) apply here, mutatis mutandis, “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice.” In this case, time will tell.

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“Scowl. You’re on Candid Camera!”

Did you ever notice that all the photos of Khomeini put out for public consumption show a man with a perpetual scowl? khomeini2They made him seem irritable, angry, even irascible. I used to wonder if he suffered from stomach ulcers, or lived with a contentious wife. I don’t know about the former, and I learned from The Spirit of Allah that he actually felt affection for his lifelong mate, Batool. The truth is that Khomeini did experience happiness at times, but he went to great lengths to cultivate a persona which conveyed seriousness, even joylessness. One of his first acts, upon returning to Iran to direct the revolution after the Shah’s departure, was to make sure that “…only approved pictures of him be printed and displayed” (p. 241). There were two in particular which especially displeased him. “One showed him wearing spectacles, which might create an impression of frailty, if not outright disability. The other showed the Ayatollah smiling benevolently. Islamic tradition maintained categorically that the Prophet never smiled, and dismissed those who did as superficial and morally loose (italics mine). Within a few days all the objectionable portraits of the Imam were replaced with new ones, showing him knotting his bushy eyebrows in a posture of angry determination” (p. 242).

Yet the image was not divorced from reality, as far as Khomeini’s understanding of Islam was concerned. He attempted to banish music from the lives of post-revolutionary Iranians. In a speech broadcast nationwide on July 11, 1979, he declared, “Music corrupts the minds of our youth. There is no difference between music and opium. Both create lethargy in different ways. If you want your country to be independent, then ban music.  Music is treason to our nation and to our youth” (p. 259). But music was just the tip of the haram iceberg for Khomeini. A month later, in a message broadcast from his home in Qom, he taught, “Allah did not create man so he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious. Islam does not allow swimming in the sea and is opposed to radio and television serials…” (p. 259).

What a sadly distorted vision of life! And what a grotesque picture of God as a slave-master whose goal is make man’s life miserable in this world to see who will gut it out in obedience so as to find sensual reward in the next. How different from the God of the Bible, who creates Adam and Eve in His image out of love and places them in a garden filled with “every tree pleasant for sight and good for food…” (Gen 2:9), and who fills His redeemed people with His presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, one of whose goals is to bring abundant spiritual fruit to bear in our lives – including as of highest priority the first two in the list of Gal 5:22, love and joy!

When I read of the bleak mindset of Ruhollah Khomeini, I can’t help but compare his vision with that of C. S. Lewis, who portrayed the Son of God as the larger-than-life Lion of Narnia Aslan playingwho could on the one hand command the obeisance of all in his presence, but on the other hand could roll around in the fields laughing and playing with children. It was also Lewis who said these words I’ve never been able to shake: “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”

It’s no wonder the trajectories of Christianity and Islam can never merge. The God of the Bible and the Allah of Islam are and will always remain universes apart.

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The Spirit of Khomeini

The Spirit of Allah, written in 1985 by Amir Taheri, is a fascinating biography of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from his 1902 birth to five years after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Spirit of Allah imageThe title of the book comes from the literal translation of “Ruhollah” into English. To me one of the most striking points of the biography is how easy it was for Khomeini to accept, encourage or even command evil against others as he plotted his rise to power. From lies and slander, demonizing innocents, turning a blind eye to rank injustices, ruining the religious and/or political aspirations of rivals, cajoling children to die in battle against Iraqi armed forces, even approving kidnappings and assassinations, Khomeini was obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of Shi’ite Islam, being recognized as A’alam, the one authority universally acclaimed as knowing more than any other ayatollah/religious leader and hence worthy of complete obeisance. Yet his striving was not driven purely by ego. Apparently he believed that he was called for the sake of the ascendancy of Islam to stand at this pinnacle, even if it demanded climbing over the corpses and reputations of hundreds of thousands of others.Khomeini

Time and again, Khomeini and others employed “loopholes” in Islamic ethics which allowed them to lie, mislead or dissemble in order to advance their own agendas (which of course they legitimized as Allah’s agenda). One gets the impression that good and evil are not measured by objective standards but only by whether actions will help or hinder the cause of Islam. When Taheri, who is Iranian himself, discusses Khomeini’s campaign of terror against the disparate groups within Iran opposed to the burgeoning Islamic revolution, he notes that the Grand Ayatollah saw this repression as “a necessary surgery.” Indeed, according to the author, “The argument [of Khomeini] was that no act was evil so long as it was performed in the service of Allah, whereas acts normally considered noble would be nothing but crimes if directed against the Almighty’s will” (p. 278). Such a view ultimately disintegrates into an “end justifies the means” mentality, which certainly proved itself to be the case repeatedly for Shi’ism’s “divine agent.”

Most amazing of all to me was the fact that no one castigated or condemned Khomeini’s actions on religious grounds – that is, while many opposed him when his plans or decisions stymied their own agendas, no one called him out for doing what was forbidden in Allah’s eyes, apparently because there was no absolute standard by which to judge his actions, only the very elastic guideline of advancing the rule of Islam.

I tried to imagine what would happen if a Christian leader attempted to use these same unethical tools in seeking ascendancy within the Christian world. Certainly there have been many cases of unethical Christian leaders lining their own pockets, bilking innocent and naïve victims, engaging in wide-ranging sexual improprieties, lying to save their own skins. But creating elaborate falsehoods to destroy other ministries? Ordering assassinations? Deliberately misleading others while plotting their deaths? Breathing hatred publicly toward enemies, vowing to “kick their teeth in”? Perhaps some of the Borgia Popes may have fallen into this category, I don’t know. But I do know that nothing in the New Testament would allow such behavior among God’s leaders, while the Qur’an leaves a lot of wiggle room, as long as Islam expands its reign as a result. If Khomeini truly represents the apex of Shi’ite spirituality, our Western societies may be in a world of hurt, especially after U.S. capitulation to Iranian demands in the recent “nuclear accords.”

More to come on Khomeini, according to The Spirit of Allah. Stay tuned.

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The Man of La Mainline

Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is our very own reincarnation of the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote.don quixote Riding on his tired old horse, Rocinante, whom he imagines to be a valiant charger, Don Quixote races into battle against ferocious giants that in reality are windmills. His sidekick, Sancho, tries to help Quixote see the truth, but the crusading knight will have none of it, and so becomes famous for “tilting at windmills.”

Gradye, in his apparent quest to outdo do other mainline religious leaders at curing all manners of social injustice, has been busy this last month, riding the tired nag of the PCUSA and leveling his lance at some of the ferocious giants facing our world. Tilting at WindmillsNotably, he has signed his name to letters seeking to extinguish some monumental evils:

On March 7th he penned a passionate missive to President Obama, urging him to participate in the signing of the international Paris Agreement on climate change to be held in NYC on April 22nd. According to Parsons, the PCUSA has been deeply encouraged by the Obama administration’s “…strong commitment to working for climate justice and environmental responsibility,” and the President’s presence is necessary to keep the momentum going in the right direction.

On March 9th he joined an amicus brief filed to support the Obama administration’s appeal to lift a court-ordered injunction against the President’s executive actions on illegal immigration policy.

 On March 16th he joined his name (and that of the PCUSA) to a letter urging the House of Representatives to vote to “…end our long-standing and counter-productive embargo on Cuba.”

On March 29th, he put out a call to the governor and legislature of North Carolina to repeal a new law which bans people from using bathrooms that don’t match the sex indicated on their birth certificate. While this might seem a common-sense protection to most, in the eyes of social justice crusaders it smacks of discrimination.

No doubt the Stated Clerk’s lance is drooping after taking on such ferocious giants of evil, but if he has any energy left, I might suggest some smaller giants to tackle, now that he has trounced the varsity team:

How about a letter to the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, who is the reigning theological leader of Sunni Islam, calling on him to eliminate the dhimmi laws of Islam, which discriminate against non-Muslims in Shari’a-governed societies. At the same time, the Sheikh could be asked to ban the death penalty carried out against those who leave Islam, or who say negative things about Muhammad, the Qur’an, or Allah. While not as serious as the issue of who can use what bathroom, such a change would save thousands of lives annually and ease the sufferings of millions living within Muslim lands.

How about a letter to the Castro brothers, urging them to stop arresting Cubans protesting for democracy, and to release their political prisoners?

How about a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, taking him to task for beheading Christian and Yazidi men, for raping and selling into slavery women and girls as young as nine, for throwing alleged homosexuals headfirst off the highest buildings in the city, for stealing others’ possessions as war booty and forcing them to convert, flee or face execution? Why not urge him to see the light of mainline Protestant social justice concerns? What strides could be made in cooling the planet, freeing up bathrooms from the gender Nazis,  forcing recalcitrant churches to stay in the PCUSA, if only we could get the 30,000 Islamic State radicals to buy in to the PCUSA agenda!

How about a letter to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” and is the second largest intergovernmental organization after the UN, calling on them to take action not just to denounce Islamic terrorism and genocide against Christians but to eliminate these evils from the face of the earth?

How about a letter to HAMAS, challenging them to remove from their Charter the jihadi commitment to destroy Israel and hunt down every Jew before the Day of Judgment?

How about a letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, or Grand Ayatollah of Iran, or the Presidents of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria (take your pick), urging them to wipe out Muslim-generated violence against innocents (including fellow Muslims), and to release prisoners of conscience, especially those arrested due to their non-Muslim convictions?

How about a letter to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, pleading with him to discontinue to financing of Wahhabi mosques throughout the world, including within the United States, and to renounce the teaching and spread of anti-Semitic and anti-Christian curricula through madrassas around the world?

Last but not least, how about a general letter of apology to the hundreds of thousands of former Presbyterians who have left the denomination over the last fifty years due to its “progressive” decisions to champion a “social gospel” and to downplay if not completely discard the gospel of the New Testament?

Certainly such issues do not rise to the level of bathroom rights, but perhaps if Mr. Parsons has some spare time before his term ends this June, he might take a crack at one or more of these minor “justice” problems.

Just some attempts at sanity from a wannabe Sancho Panza.sancho

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ISIS Is to Islam What Same-Sex Marriage Is to Christianity???

Five years ago, I wrote a blog about the PCUSA decision to normalize homosexuality and predicted that one of the fall-outs of this error would be the inability of PCUSA missionaries to reach the Muslim world. Since Muslims are taught within their own Scriptures that homosexual behavior is sinful, they would quite naturally conclude that any group espousing that homosexual practice is fine with God would have nothing trustworthy to say on any other spiritual topic.

I had not imagined five years ago that this homophilial stance of the PCUSA and other mainline denominations could produce further bitter fruitbaby and lemon in Christian-Muslim relations. But it has.

In an interview with Ishaq Akintola, an African  professor of Muslim Eschatology and Director of Muslim Rights Concern (“Islam has no age barrier for marriage — MURIC Director, Akintola,” Punch, March 6, 2016), the professor is asked to defend the morality of Muslim men marrying young girls. His response is that Islam has no prescribed age barriers, and that those outside Islam have no business judging something happening within Islamic practice — they should, as Jesus told his disciples, judge not lest they be judged. But his second defense is that Christians should look to their own house before they criticize the houses of others. Specifically, he cites the fact that churches are now conducting same-sex weddings. “So, instead of paying attention to marriages conducted among Muslims, Christians should do something about gay marriages inside churches” (emphasis added).  In essence, Mr. Akintola is saying to the Western (“Christian”) world, “Who are you to pillory us for something that our religious law allows? At least we still see marriage as between members of the opposite sex. But you allow the perversion of homosexuality in your churches and even celebrate it with a marriage ceremony.  You have no moral high ground to stand on — we have no obligation to listen to you. In fact, your practices are reprehensible before God while ours have divine sanction.”

A second helping of bitter fruit was served through remarks made by Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam and Sheikh of Al-Azhar University (the head spokesman of Islamic theology at Sunni Islam’s premier institution of higher learning)al-azhar while he was at a conference at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta on February 23rd of this year. When asked during Q&A time about the status within orthodoxy of the Islamic State, he responded with the logic that in the same way that some Christian groups approve of homosexuality but we don’t thereby assume that orthodox Christianity normalizes such sin, so also groups such as the Islamic State embrace and practice certain evils but Islam as a whole does not approve of such actions. Stunningly, the Grand Imam compares the rise of homosexual advocacy in mainline churches such as the PCUSA with the rise of ISIS in the Islamic Sunni world!

What Sheikh al-Tayeb fails to note in this comparison, however, is that while the Bible nowhere advocates for homosexual unions and in fact every time homosexuality is mentioned it is in the context of sin and judgment, the Qur’an, Hadith and the Sira (early biographies of Muhammad’s life) amply condone and support the violent and hateful actions of ISIS — in fact, the leaders of ISIS regularly quote passages from the Qur’an, backed up by associated Hadith traditions reflecting Muhammad’s words and actions, as well as by the oldest, most respected biographies of the prophet penned by Ibn Ishaq and al-Tabari, and they appeal to legal rulings issued by Islam’s early and highly revered jurists, all in order to lend credence to the spread of their poison. This is not in spite of orthodox Islam but in fulfillment of it! In other words, while an objective reader of historic Christianity would rightly conclude that approval of homosexuality is a radical distortion of biblical teaching, that same objective reader of historic Islam would conclude that violence against infidels and hypocrites (uncommitted Muslims) is part and parcel of the religion from its inception.

Sheikh al-Tayeb did, Ahmed Tayebhowever, have some sobering words of warning for leaders of the PCUSA and other mainline denominations that have folded to the social pressures of the pro-gay movement in America: “It is extremely regrettable that some heads of churches in the United States conduct [homosexual] marriages.  I wonder how little of the Injil [Gospel] is left to them and how they will face our master, Isa [Islamic version of Jesus]. ”

The state of the mainline church is pretty deplorable when the head of an Islamic University makes more sense than all the “Christian” moderators, stated clerks, presidents and poobahs put together. One wonders, indeed, how little of the gospel is left to them….



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Cur Potestas — God, Allah and Power

Often as I teach on Islamic vs. Christian theology, I ask the crowd, “What word would a Christian use to define the essence of God’s nature?” Invariably, the answer is “love.” Then I ask, “What word would a Muslim use to define the essence of Allah?” Here, the answers show some variety, but cluster around one theme: power, sovereignty, will, majesty. This of course makes perfect sense for a religion which names itself Islam, i.e., “submission. zeusAllah is all-powerful, all-sovereign, and everything in creation is meant to show submission to him as a way of highlighting his “rightful stature.”

Of course, Christians would also say that the God of the Bible is all-powerful and all-sovereign. But why do we not see His power as defining who He is? A few weeks ago, while in a worship service prior to teaching a class on the question of whether the God of the Bible and of Islam are one and the same, the answer stared me in the face through the words of an old German hymn written in 1675 and translated into English as “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above.”

Sing praise to God who reigns above,

The God of all creation,

The God of power, the God of love,

The God of all salvation. 

As we sang these words, it suddenly dawned on me with fresh force that the reason Christians focus on God’s love over His power is that the gospel demonstrates that God has employed His power principally in the service of His love for huIMG_0904manity. There are three major foes against which human beings are by nature powerless: sin, death and the devil (extra-human, personal evil). We cannot extract ourselves from sin, we cannot defeat death, we are over-matched against the devil. In our state of moral and spiritual incarceration, with death and judgment looming, we are helpless. Only power from heaven can open the cell doors, pry loose the icy fingers of death, force demons to flee. The message of the gospel is that God has come in His love to champion our freedom through defeating sin, death and the devil in His incarnate sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection – He wields His power on our behalf because human beings are the apple of His eye. He invites all to find shelter in His invincible life and love. God exercises His power under the direction of His love for sinners.

In Islam, on the other hand, Allah shows no evidence of inherent love for sinners. In fact, he hates sinners. Love (seen not as a state of the heart but as an impersonal reward of blessings, both earthly and paradisial) is granted as a worldly reward for those who have demonstrated their worthiness through obedience. The power of Allah is wielded as a threat to plunge into the furnaces of hell all who refuse to bow before him, and as a promise to create a garden-like paradise of eternal sensual pleasures for all who surrender their will to him. Why? To demonstrate that he alone is Allah, and that none can compare to him.

The God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ loves, because that is His nature – “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…” (John 3:16). The God of Islam demands subservience, because that is his nature – “Lo! religion with Allah (is) the Surrender (Islam)” (Qur’an 3:19).

In Christian thought, the defining purpose of God’s power is His love for the lost. In Islam the defining purpose of Allah’s power is his ego. It’s as simple as that.

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