In the summer of 430, the great Christian writer and bishop Augustine of Hippo lay dying as barbarians besieged his North African city – basically a mop-up operation in the slow-motion fall of the Roman Empire.
Today, in the fall of the year 2016, a lot of Christians can relate.
IN 1978, a Sojourners subscriber sent me this quote from a European newspaper reporting on Billy Graham’s visit to the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland: “The present insanity of the global arms race,” Graham said, “if continued, will lead inevitably to a conflagration so great that Auschwitz will seem like a minor rehearsal.” The U.S. media had not reported on Graham’s statement.
I wrote to Billy Graham and asked if what he said, after visiting Auschwitz for the first time, indicated a change of heart for him on nuclear weapons. Billy wrote back to say it did. He agreed to an interview with Sojourners to explain how his thinking had changed about the nuclear arms race, saying that it felt to him like a moral and spiritual question and not just a political issue.
August marks the 71st anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. When President Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year, he encouraged leaders to “pursue a world without nuclear weapons” (which is sadly and dangerously ironic coming from a president who is overseeing a 30-year, $1 trillion upgrade of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal).
Billy Graham, in that 1979 interview with Sojourners, was clear in his view of the threat posed by nuclear weapons:
Is a nuclear holocaust inevitable if the arms race is not stopped? Frankly, the answer is almost certainly yes. Now I know that some people feel human beings are so terrified of a nuclear war that no one would dare start one. I wish I could accept that. But neither history nor the Bible gives much reason for optimism. What guarantee is there that the world will never produce another maniacal dictator like Hitler or Amin? As a Christian I take sin seriously, and the Christian should be the first to know that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, as Jeremiah says. We can be capable of unspeakable horror, no matter how educated or technically sophisticated we are. Auschwitz is a compelling witness to this.
Ask Wah Nay Htoo how an evangelical church helped her refugee family after they arrived in Colorado and her list is long.
“Oh my goodness, Cornerstone helped our family a lot — everything,” said Htoo, 38, a Burmese woman who lived most of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the Denver suburb of Lafayette in 2008.
Before his death at 62, Christopher Hitchens, the uber-atheist and best-selling author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, considered becoming a Christian. That is the provocative claim of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, a controversial new book winning both applause and scorn while underscoring, again, the divide between believers and atheists Hitchens’ own life and work often displayed.
Bill Maher is known for his often vitriolic rhetoric against religion, especially Islam. But the comedian was actually raised Catholic. When Maher stopped by the Late Show to chat with Stephen Colbert, America’s most famous Catholic invited him to give Catholicism another try.
Their conversation was clearly tongue-in-cheek, but you can certainly feel some tension.
Alana Raybon was baptized as a child in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She attended youth activities and vacation Bible school and even sang in the choir. But today, she wears a headscarf and worships Allah.
Her mother, Patricia, describes Alana’s conversion to Islam as “heartbreaking,” and yet, they’ve found a way to love each other despite the faith divide. They share their struggles in Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, a book that begs a vital question: how would you respond if your Christian child converted to Islam?
Religion News Service talked to them about their experience. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Alana, tell us the story behind your conversion.
Alana: I developed a love and reverence for God in church, but I couldn’t connect with the idea of the Trinity. I didn’t let my mother know about these feelings, and patiently waited to feel a connection to this concept. In my 20s, I began searching for spiritual enrichment and came upon the concept of Islamic monotheism — the idea of God being one, solely, without any associate. I became inspired to learn more about Islam and converted to the faith as a junior in college and called my mother to share the news.
Q: How did you react, Patricia?
Patricia: I was devastated. A daughter can call from college with all sorts of news — forgetting her mother is still dealing with her own life. In my case, my husband and I had hit a low point in our marriage, my widowed mother had come to live with us, my other daughter was closing a business, and my husband had a cardiovascular emergency. In all of that, Alana called from college to say, “Mom, I’m a Muslim.” Emotionally, I had run out of steam. So I thanked her for calling, asked how her classes were going and if her car was running OK. Then after a few minutes of such talk, we hung up. Looking back, it was my oddest reaction ever to a phone call.
I was recently talking with friends about looking people up online. I told the story of being unpleasantly surprised to find, on someone’s Facebook profile, that he was affiliated with a sports-themed summer camp in the Middle East run by Christians with the not-as-subtle-as-they-think motivation of converting (or at least … influencing) young Muslim campers. As I told the story, I could see that I had probably picked the wrong audience: friends who, while they might not have signed up for such a project themselves, certainly knew people who would. I trailed off lamely, debating with myself whether to bother noting the obvious as an excuse for my reaction: that they had grown up in conservative churches and I in a liberal one.
But thinking about it later, I realized it was more than that. “I don’t believe in converting people,” I wanted to go back and say to them. “Not in the way that I don’t believe in wearing white after Labor Day — like a personal preference or moral objection — but in the way that I don’t believe in Santa Claus.” I do not believe it happens.
To be more specific, I don’t believe in people converting people. Conversion, obviously, happens. And other people may be there, even standing by and handing the convert a pamphlet. The convert may even be saying, “Because of you, I am converting!” But I don’t buy it.
I have never really understood personal evangelism. Maybe it’s because I have never really been good at sharing my faith — at least not with complete strangers. I have never stood on the street corner preaching to all within earshot. I’m not the guy with numerous stories about how I shared my life story with the person sitting next to me on the plane, inducing a tearful admission that he needs Jesus. (I am not condemning these types of encounters, nor am I condemning these practices altogether.) To be completely honest, I don’t think I have even one story like that.
Recently, I have been trying to better understand the Great Commission. I have to tell you what I hear Jesus telling me in that particular passage. You might be surprised to find that he isn’t telling me to share the Gospel with all who will listen (although, that is part of it); rather he is telling me (and you) to go and make disciples. The former is really just words; the latter is words and actions, ultimately culminating in a relationship.
Though we have many stories of people whose lives have been made better, few church leaders would argue that far too many people in the pew make significant spiritual transformations even though they’ve spent years in and around churches.
In my other life, I’m a fitness “coach.” I’m not so much a coach as I am an encourager and friend. The unrivaled aspect of working with people to reach their fitness goals is having a front row seat for transformation. We take pictures to note physical transformations, but changes in physique aren’t the most important ones. The most important transformations are spiritual and emotional ones. And quite frankly, the fitness community does transformations better than churches do.
When Karen Hunt Ahmed and her Muslim husband divorced four years ago, many friends asked her, “Now you can stop this Islam stuff, right?”
Some friends, she thought.
“Like it was a hobby I took up when I got married and now I’m supposed to drop it,” said Hunt Ahmed, president of the Chicago Islamic Microfinance Project, which she founded with two colleagues in 2009.
Hunt Ahmed, 45, is part of a growing sorority of female American converts to Islam, especially those who are or were married to Muslim men, who must deal with the perception that they converted to Islam because of domineering boyfriends or husbands.
The stereotype was revived in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, when news emerged that the wife of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Katherine Russell, converted to Islam after meeting Tsarnaev in 2009 or 2010 when she was about 21.
Two years ago, Chris Simpson led a white pride march.
Six months ago, he abandoned the white supremacy movement.
On April 15, he was baptized.
Five days later, Simpson sat in the waiting room of a skin and vein clinic, waiting to start the long and painful process of having his tattoos, most replete with Nazi or white pride iconography, removed.
"Hate will blind you to so many things. It will stop you from having so many things," Simpson said. "It consumes you."
God told Noah to build an ark, and God told Horace to build a tree house. That’s pretty much how this story goes.
In the 1990s, Tennessee landscaper Horace Burgess discovered a tall mass of trees near the road, and decided he wanted to turn into the world’s largest tree house. After years of working on his epic project, just as he was running out of steam, he became a Christian and then later a pastor.
Compelled, he says, by the Spirit of God, Burgess finally finished his project in 2004. And, to put it lightly, it’s pretty divine.