Tuesday, April 23, 2019
New details emerge about the attacks in Sri Lanka: The challenges of understanding the proper role of technology and the necessity of conversionist Christianity
The horrifying headlines coming from Sri Lanka are now a bit more defined, even as the death toll is approaching 300 with another 500 injured in a series of coordinated attacks focused on hotels, but more importantly, on churches gathered for worship on Easter. We now know that the Sri Lankan government has pointed the finger at an Islamist militant group, known as National Thowheeth Jama’ath. It's the kind of organization that doesn't gain the headlines, until it does, one of those Islamist organizations that is basically known for local terrorist activities, until it all of a sudden becomes part of a far-larger picture.
That was already known even before the group was identified. For example, in the coverage from The Wall Street Journal that came yesterday, the papers cited Kamran Bokhari, Director of the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C., who said, "That eight separate suicide bombings took place within a matter of hours suggests the presence of a sophisticated terrorist infrastructure in the country." That sophisticated terrorist infrastructure is almost surely a part of a larger jihad, and that would include the Islamic State, it would include Al-Qaeda, it would include other groups, and now, the latest to gain the headlines is National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Looking at this story within the Sri Lankan context, this is yet another reminder of how little many Americans know about many complex foreign cultures. For example, if you're looking at Sri Lanka, the vast majority of the population would be Buddhist.
Then, after that will come Hindus, and Muslims, and Catholics. The Catholic presence may go back all the way to the sixth century, but it became especially important during Sri Lanka's age of trade and early empire, but as you're looking at this story, we need to understand two different dimensions. They are both hugely important. One is what's taking place on the ground there in Sri Lanka and what that means, and then what the coverage and cultural conversation about these headlines means when you look at the United States and Western Europe. First of all, when you're looking on the ground, it is simply horror.
We are facing the fact that a deliberate set of suicide bombings led to the deaths of hundreds of people who had gathered for worship and were celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. We are looking at a plan that took months of preparation. It was sophisticated in terrorist terms. It included multiple simultaneous attacks, and we now know something we didn't know on Sunday. We didn't even know yesterday, and that is the confirmation of the fact that police authorities in Sri Lanka had begun to suspect the likelihood of such an attack, but national security officials apparently did nothing or nothing significant in response to those warnings.
As a team of investigators for The New York Times reported, "Top police officials had alerted security officials in Sri Lanka 10 days earlier about a threat to churches from the radical Islamist group, even named National Thowheeth Jama’ath." "It was unclear", said The Times, "what precautions, if any, had been taken, or whether that group had played any role in the assaults." The last part of that sentence is now confirmed. Sri Lankan law enforcement and security officials have identified the group as the perpetrators of this attack. There are further questions to be answered.
Exactly how does this fit into the larger jihadist movement worldwide? Exactly what was the intention of the timing? How does this play into the convoluted culture of Sri Lanka? This was a country that was torn apart by Civil War, until almost exactly 10 years ago. At that time, the government was fighting an insurgency group, known as the Tamil Tigers.
This probably has no direct relationship, but the timing might, and that's something that will only be made clear in subsequent investigation. There was another dimension to what happened in Sri Lanka and the aftermath of the attacks that has also become a part of conversation. That was the fact that the Sri Lankan government, hearing that the attacks were underway, shut down access to most major social media. They shut down major platforms, including Facebook and others. That raises a host of interesting questions.
"Does that help or does it hurt?" Answering in the affirmative, it just might have been the right thing to do to shut down the ability of terrorist groups to coordinate, or at least even to communicate by what might appear to be innocuous statements made in social media. That might be the affirmative. The negative is also very powerful however, because even as it was true that this prevented terrorists from communicating, it also prevented those who were the intended victims of these terrorist attacks from communicating with one another. This may have meant that there were those who could have been warned who were not warned. Once again, Christians looking at this see the double-sidedness of so much technology, there is good and there is evil.
Every new technology can be used for good purposes. It can be used for evil purposes. Setting it up or shutting it down can have both positive and negative effects. There is no way to negotiate a clean technology, not in a fallen world. The New York Times also deserves credit for comprehensive reporting on these terror attacks, getting right to the point that there is a theological agenda behind this violence, and furthermore, that Christians throughout all of Southeast Asia and South Central Asia, had been subjected to terror attacks, sometimes well-coordinated for Easter in previous years. The New York Times documented so many of those attacks, and the pressure is on Christians in this part of the world.
Speaking of the attacks in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, the paper said, "Christians were a primary target, and their faith has been increasingly under attack by militants and politicians across South and Southeast Asia." The reporters then write, "Over the past year, deadly bombings of churches by militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State have rocked the Philippines and Indonesia. In India, the Hindu right, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has targeted Muslim and Christian minorities, the latter group because of its symbolic association with British colonialism. The ruling party in Bangladesh, the secular-leaning Awami League, has partnered with conservative Muslim clerics who routinely call", says the paper, "For the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. In Myanmar, Christian minorities fear", says the paper, "They will be the next targets of the Buddhist-dominated government, and in Sri Lanka, a toxic Buddhist nationalist political force has agitated against minority Christians and Muslims, dismissing them as relics of a British colonial era when the Buddhist majority itself was repressed."
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, identified as a hardline Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka said, "We see how these radical Christian groups in the West come here and try to convert Buddhists. We cannot allow this to happen anymore." That becomes a rather comprehensive theme in this major report, coming to us from The New York Times. We are told that it is Evangelical Christians who are at the center of the concern, once again, because of the work for conversion. We are told that this has caused tensions in the area.
"Evangelical Christianity has found fertile ground across Asia, where the rapid rise of conversions has created tensions from India to Indonesia." The big lesson here for Christians is that non-conversionist Christianity actually is not Christianity. That's what's being demanded by so many, and we'll get to more complexities on that question in just a moment, but we need to recognize first and foremost that Christianity, the Christian gospel is about the call to conversion. The Great Commission orders us to, "Go into the world, not just to convert, but to make disciples, teaching them to obey", Christ said, "All that I have commanded." This is a comprehensive understanding of conversion.
It is rooted in what Jesus talked to Nicodemus about in the Miracle of the New Birth. It is a conversion that is the reformers themselves called, it is an evangelical grace. It is an act of God's grace and mercy. It is the essential sign of belief and faith. It is the essential transformation of a center into a Christian, into a believer.
Conversion is not just amongst the teachings of Christianity, it is central to the Gospel, and I'll just repeat, non-conversionist Christianity is not Christianity at all, but here, you see what is really at stake. So many of those, who are now directing attacks at Christians are particularly aggravated by the call to conversion. As you know, in most of the Muslim-dominated world, conversion is illegal, and in many cases, is actually a capital crime, but you'll notice here that it is the converter that is, it is the preacher of conversion or the people that are seeking to convert who are themselves the targets of the attacks in Sri Lanka, and as The New York Times documents, throughout much of South and Southeast Asia.
What the response to the Sri Lankan tragedy reveals about secularism and the West
Even as I affirm the importance of that report in yesterday's edition of The New York Times, I want to point critically to the headline. The headline tells us very little about what is taking place in Sri Lanka and a very great deal about what is taking place in the thinking of the Western cultural elites.
Here's the headline of the story I've been citing: "Religious Minorities Face Rising Threats As Secularism Wanes." Secularism wanes. What would that be about? Well, taking the headline at face value, it would imply that there has somehow been a dominant secularism throughout much of South and Southeast Asia, that is now unsettled, and all of these religious frictions and religious passions have been unleashed, but in what sense can you possibly talk about secularism being a major identity in South and Southeast Asia, for that matter, almost anywhere in the world, where people in the main are decidedly not secular? "What does it mean", this headline says, "That religious minorities face rising threats as secularism wanes?"
Well, there would be at least some truth in the headline if it is limited to understanding that at least some of the governments in the region for at least some time have been at least officially committed to some kind of secular constitution, but even that becomes a very slippery definition of secularism when you look at how it was really applied in the region. For example, some of the governments that were explicitly secular were also constitutionally committed to preserving, for instance, in Sri Lanka, Buddhism, because Buddhism was claimed to be an essential part of the culture. Well, at the very least, that is not really any legitimate form of secularity, but there's a bigger lesson to be learned here, and that is that the Western cultural elites really do believe that the default status of humanity is secular, unless otherwise disturbed, but that's just not throughout history true anywhere at any time. It's certainly not true in Sri Lanka, where a religious breakdown of the population reveals a majority, Buddhists, and then an inclusion of Hindus, and Muslims, and Catholics, but you'll notice, there really is no sizable number of those who identify as secularists. This is what makes the Western secular elites so alone in the world, but because of their elite status in the West, they think they represent the future.
The fact is, the secularism isn't waning in this region. It never waxed. It was never a major issue. It might have been at least to some extent the official commitment of the government, but it never did represent the people, and that official secularity, which was never really secularity, has itself now broken down. That becomes very clear in these deadly headlines, but there is another dimension of this story.
Again, I said the second dimension is looking at the Western secular elites. We have to understand that something extremely strange happened late on Sunday and into Monday. It was revealed first in social media, and the names involved are very big, former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State and Democratic Presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Both of them tweeted concern about the terror attacks. Both of those tweets are themselves extremely interesting.
The first came from President Obama, who tweeted, "The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka." Well, at least of interest there is the fact that Easter is simply described as a day devoted to love, redemption and renewal. Nothing there about Christians worshipping, nothing there about Christ at all, but the strangest part are held the worshippers were identified. They were identified as Easter worshippers.
That's strange, but it got a lot stranger when former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tweeted, "On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I'm praying", she said, "For everyone affected by today's horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka." How did that happen? How did you have two major figures, both of them, major figures in the Democratic Party, both of them very popular amongst the Western secular elites, even as neither of them identifies personally as secular, how did this term, Easter worshippers show up in a relatively short amount of time in tweets from both of them, and how was this constructed? How was this term put together, and why is it used, rather than to say something like Christians, or to identify those who were worshiping Christ? How did they become Easter worshippers?
The worst reading of this, of course, is simply the English language, which would, in this sense, indicate that the worshippers were worshiping Easter, but in fairness to the former President and former Secretary of State, that's almost assuredly not what they meant. What they meant was worshippers on the day of Easter, but why refer to them as Easter worshippers? Why is there an aversion amongst so many in the western elites to recognizing that it is Christianity that is being targeted, and what specifically targeted in these attacks? You don't come up with a phrase like Easter worshippers, and then see it used over and over again in a very short amount of time, unless it is an explicit effort to try to be creative and come up with some way, to avoid any reference to Christianity. Just Easter worshippers.
It's also really clear that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, officials in Sri Lanka had a pretty good idea that it was an Islamist organization that was behind the attacks. That was also pretty clear within the context, but there was an unwillingness on the part of the Western media to say that, until the Sri Lankan government confirmed it. We can say that that might be responsible journalism, but we also have to note just how understated Islam has been in the reporting, even after the Sri Lankan government made this clear. The secular West wants to avoid any kind of theological argument. It wants to act like all theological arguments are simply now relegated to the past.
It doesn't know how to handle a strong theological argument, whether it's coming from conversionist Christianity or militant Islam. It simply wants to act as if there's nothing theological going on here. Nothing to see, keep moving. We will give credit to The Wall Street Journal yesterday, even in the print edition, that newspaper ran a major editorial with the headline, "A Massacre of Christians." The Editorial Board of the Journal wrote, "The Easter Sunday slaughter of Christians in Sri Lanka is a jolting reminder that killers motivated by religious animus continue to be a threat to innocents around the world."
This is really important. The Editorial Board or The Wall Street Journal put the word "Christians" right in the headline of the editorial, and in the opening sentence, didn't waste any time at all, getting to the fact that this was a theologically a religiously-motivated attack.
New Yorkers are still worshiping this Easter, some by going to church and others by going to brunch
It was interesting that in Sunday's edition of The New York Times, there was an article in the style section entitled, Our Rites of Spring. The reporter was Jenna Wortham, and the point she's making is that New Yorkers have a multiplicity of ways of recognizing ceremonially, and in some form of ritual, the coming of spring. "Easter is part of that, but Easter", implied, if not explicit in this article, "Is a religious thing for some people, but it's a day of worship for just about everyone." She even uses that language. Writing about behavioral scientist, noting the commonality of rituals to welcome spring, and looking at the day of Easter, she writes, "The photographers of The New York Times have long documented our city has made this day into one of collective worship."
Her next line, "The traditions remain the same. Those who are religious head to services and a meal. Those of us who aren't head to brunch, or maybe the park, sporting a freshly-pressed suit, an elaborate hat, a big bow, a bright lip, a colorful jumpsuit, or one of those delicate-beaded Loeffler Randall bags that have suddenly and mysteriously become as ubiquitous as the cherry blossom trees in Brooklyn." An elite that really is increasingly committed to secularism, or at least they think they are, is an elite that is trying to make secularism normal, and is trying to argue that even as those religious people decrease in number in a city like New York, the city is not going to be minimized when it comes to worship. The issue is, people are going to worship in their own way. Some of them by going to church, more of them perhaps by going to brunch.
The Supreme Court chooses to take up cases on the application of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964: Is the original meaning of a text binding?
But here in the United States, really big, momentous news coming from the Supreme Court of the United States, it's not a decision that was handed down. It is a case the court has announced is going to take. Not just one case, three cases. The issue that unites these three cases is the question as to whether or not sexual orientation and gender identity are included as protected classes under the federal government's Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that made illegal discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. During the Obama Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the federal government, handed down a ruling, stating that that 1964 Act, once again, it prevented discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, also included under sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
It's a rather convoluted argument, and you have a split in the federal courts as to whether or not that was a justified conclusion. That split comes down to a positive argument and a negative argument. German Lopez at Vox.com sets out the two arguments. First, "Civil rights advocates claim that federal law should already shield LGBTQ people from discrimination because, they say, bans on sex discrimination also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity." He continues, according to those who argue this way, "Discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is fundamentally rooted in prohibited sex-based expectations."
"For example, if someone discriminates against a gay man, that's largely based on the expectation that a man should only love or have sex with a woman, a belief", he said, "Built on the idea of what a person of a certain sex should be like." Then, on the other hand, "Opponents argue that LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections aren't included in existing federal civil rights laws, because the authors of federal civil rights laws never believed or intended that bans on sex discrimination also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity." I'm going to correct that just a bit to say that any sane person has to agree with that second argument. There is no one who can plausibly argue that members of the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate, and the then President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 had sexual orientation and gender identity in mind. They didn't.
You can count on the fact that they didn't. There was no language for it. There was no public conversation about it, and even the intellectual ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity did not yet exist. It is simply intellectually dishonest to argue that in the legislative intent, there was any inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is simply so implausible that the people making the argument have to say basically, that it is included in the idea, even if the legislators and the then President of the United States would have no clue that it would ever even exist as an argument.
Here's where Christians need to step back and notice there's something else going on here. Obviously, this is an effort to use the coercive power of the federal government in the furtherance of a sexual and moral revolution, but what we're also seeing here is a basic question of how to read the law and how to read the constitution of the United States. That gets back to that basic divide over how we read texts, how you read the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Are the words and the original intention of those words binding? We simply have to note that if they are not, there is no coherent understanding as to what the law means, but we also have to note something else.
We see here an effort of the moral revolutionaries to try to further their aims by going around Congress, and instead, seeking action by executive order from a friendly administration. That's what happened during the Obama years, or seeking an ultimate victory in the courts, because they can't get that victory in Congress. Let's just state the matter clearly. Congress has the authority if it so wishes to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would then be amended. Congress has that power.
It would also take a president, signing that revision into law, and that's not going to happen anytime soon. Furthermore, there's something else to note here. Even on the democratic side, on the side of the party that declares itself in favor of this sexual revolution, those who are in contested districts, especially in the House of Representatives or who may be facing close senate races, they really don't want to have to put their name on this legislation one way or the other, because either way, they're going to lose some votes. Here's where we're looking at the fact that our separation of powers, our balancing of powers in the United States' constitutional order is very much endangered by the fact that Congress for a matter of decades has not lived up to its responsibility to establish the nation's laws. The left has been relatively happy about that because what they can't get in Congress, they have attempted to get in the courts, or at least by executive order, but those who treasure the American constitutional order know that that will eventually undermine the integrity of the entire system.
The Supreme Court has not only the opportunity, it has the responsibility to address this and to fix it, and it now states that it's going to do so during the 2019, 2020 term of the court. That means that an ultimate decision in this case, is not likely to come until June of 2020. That's a long time to wait, but history was made yesterday when the Supreme Court announced that it's going to take these cases and decide the issue. That sets the stage for an incredible drama to follow in the fall in oral arguments and next summer in an eventual decision handed down by the court.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I want to remind you of my new book just recently released, entitled The Apostles' Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits. That's exactly our age, an age of counterfeit religion, counterfeit Christianity most importantly. That's the great danger to Christians, and Christianity has faced this challenge for 2,000 years and more. The Apostles' Creed itself is evidence of the church meeting that challenge, and I've written this book in order to help Christians in this generation meet that challenge more faithfully. I also want to let you know about an important article I posted at AlbertMohler.com yesterday. It's entitled A Tale of Two Religions: Liberal Theology Without Illusions.
For more information and many resources, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.