The World Needs More Madrasas

Shari'ah Law: An Introduction

I’ve been reading about Shariah law because I don’t want to be ignorant, and the book is very enlightening.  I have learned that there is a long history of Islamic scholarship, and that there are four or five major schools of interpretation.  Some of these schools emphasize the letter of the law, while others emphasize the intention and purpose.  All recognize the historical context in which the laws arose, and all recognize to some degree the place of reason in understanding the laws.

Professor Kamali points out some plain statements in the Qur’an that are often ignored by advocates of harsh punishments.  For example, passages prescribing amputation of a hand for thieves or flogging for adultery, are followed by the words “unless they repent.”  Who wouldn’t repent for stealing when their hand was on the chopping block?

Kamali also frequently quotes the verse “there shall be no compulsion in religion.”  He also frequently discusses issues related to gender equality, supported by laws in the Qur’an and examples from the prophet’s life.

One of the most remarkable sections of the book, to me at least, was on the “Decline of the Madrasahs.”  The last two chapters of the book discuss the need for reform and challenging issues.  The decline of Islamic schools means that a generation of young Muslims is growing up ignorant of the Qur’an and the other sources of Shariah, as well as the history of Islamic scholarship. Consequently their ignorance makes them vulnerable to ignorant fanatics who recruit them for suicide missions.

In the discussion of that issue, Kamali makes it clear that Islamic law universally condemns both suicide and the intentionally targeting of civilians.

In reading this book I was reminded of a statement of Rabbi Gamaliel,

An ignorant person cannot be pious.  [http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-6.html  — the whole article is worth reading!]

I used to think this was snobbish, and I thought of Jesus appealing to fishermen, farmers, and day laborers.  But now I realize, Jesus called people from all walks of life to follow him and learn from him.  He called them to become disciples.  Jesus taught the people of the land.  In this sense, I think it is true that a Christian who willfully remains ignorant cannot be devout.

I also think of the difficulty conservative Christian centers of learning, such as Bible colleges, have in remaining conservative.  We knew a sociologist years ago who wrote his dissertation on “goal displacement” in Bible colleges.  He studied the inevitable drift away from specific doctrinal commitments and from a narrow curriculum to broader and more liberal curricula.  Most leaders of such institutions see this as a problem.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe being narrow and dogmatic is not a virtue.  Maybe an educated person cannot remain dogmatic.  Maybe it is impossible to study the Bible (or the Talmud or the Qur’an) without raising serious questions about traditional understandings.

My colleague Wes and I went to hear a distinguished professor of genetics who has devoted his waning years to destroying something he doesn’t understand.  I asked him what background he had in the study of theology or philosophy.  He replied, “I don’t believe in fairies, so I don’t study fairiology.”

If I believed fairiology was the greatest threat to our civilization, I would study it.

Ignorance is a threat not only to civil society and peace, it is a threat to faith.  I think Hillel was right after all.

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What’s Wrong with a Well-Regulated Militia?

The courts have ruled that the second-amendment upholds the right of individuals to “keep and bear arms.” Originally all adult, white male “responsible and law-abiding” citizens were members of the militia; therefore they had a right to keep and carry weapons, and use them when necessary. Individuals have a right to defend their own homes and families, the right to join together as part of the common defense, and the right to resist tyranny.

The framers of the constitution understood that all individual citizens (as defined above) were part of a well-regulated, trained, and disciplined militia.

The original drafts of the second amendment included a provision exempting persons with religious scruples from being required to own and maintain weapons. Any adult white male citizen not so exempted was expected to maintain his own supply of weapons should he be called up by his state militia.

Switzerland has a national militia. Anyone deemed “fit for service” between the age of 18 and 34 is required to purchase and keep at his home military weapons. They first go through a period of training.

A system like that would be better than what we have.

What would be wrong with a mandatory course of training, following high school graduation, say a six-week course? It could include firearms use and safety, first aid training, emergency and disaster relief training, legal matters, non-lethal self-defense strategies, anger management, and other issues. There would also be psychological testing and background checking (including juvenile offenses).

Conscientious objectors could be exempted or allowed to skip the weapons-part of the training.

This would not be a military draft; no further service would be required, but successful graduates would be allowed to own weapons and participate in the well-regulated militia as they chose.

Gun owners would be required to keep their weapons secure from use by unauthorized persons.

In effect, this would mean giving a license to possess firearms. Unlicensed possession could be prosecuted, in the same way that unauthorized possession of drugs is prosecuted.

The pro-gun lobby has been so powerful that politicians have been afraid to do anything to try to control gun violence. There are reasonable steps that can be taken to outlaw gun possession by irresponsible persons while protecting the rights of responsible citizens.

Eleven Years Ago

I’ll get back to Philippians, but I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on the events of eleven years ago today.

We had just moved from Memphis back to Kansas.  I was in about my third week of teaching at Manhattan Christian College.  My son was still in Memphis and had been in an accident.  I had been on the phone with him that morning.  I didn’t have an early morning class that day, but we did have a chapel service at 10:00 AM.

I was driving an old beat up pickup at the time, which didn’t have a working radio.  My commute to work is 27 miles.  I enjoyed the scenery on my way in.

Sonja had taken a job traveling to different cities to work in her profession as a health information coding specialist.  She had been in Milwaukee the last three weeks, working a four-day work week and coming home on weekends–and it was not working out.  On Sunday evening she drove to her sister’s house in KCK, to go to the airport early Monday morning.

Monday afternoon she showed up back in Manhattan and said “I’ll explain later.”  She had an interview at Wamego City Hospital and accepted the job.

Meanwhile I arrived on campus a little before ten.  I went into our chapel and things seemed confused.  The college president, Ken Cable, was there and explained we would be dividing into prayer groups.  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.

I heard someone mention the Twin Towers.  I said, no that was five or six years ago, and the explosion was a failure–a car bomb in the parking garage.  There were a few people killed, which is tragic enough, but it didn’t bring down the towers, and I believe they arrested the bomber.

I eventually learned what had happened.  I stayed in the chapel and prayed for a few minutes, then wandered back to the faculty building where some of my colleagues were watching a television.  We saw the second airplane hit the building then.

At some point, I believe I must have talked with my dean and told him I needed to go back to Memphis because of a family emergency.  I went home and watched TV for a while, stunned.  Then got in my truck, filled up with gas, grateful that the local gas station had not raised the price, and headed down the road with a cheap transistor radio.  I remember thinking, “I’ve got a family emergency, I don’t have time for a national crisis.”  Not a rational thought, just part of my confusion.

The skies seemed eerily calm.  It was a clear day.  At some point I noticed trails in the sky from fighter jets patrolling from nearby Fort Riley.  At that moment it seemed comforting that they were protecting us.  And I was glad Sonja was home.  She would have been stranded in Milwaukee, was it three weeks before air travel resumed?

Banned in Missouri

Kurt Vonnegut from http://www.alternativereel.com/includes/top-ten/display_review.php?id=00088
Click on image for more Kurt Vonnegut quotations.
  • I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.
  • I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

Are those thoughts contrary to the teaching of the Bible, or more specifically the teaching and practice of Jesus?  Evidently a school board in Republic, Missouri thought so and removed the book Slaughterhouse Five from the high school curriculum.

It’s been a while since I read the book.  I suppose there was some profanity in the language of some of the characters.  I don’t particularly like that and I tend to tune it out.  But that’s not what I remember about the book.  Slaughter House Five is one of the great anti-war books of recent times, one that makes us question our righteousness even in the one war we consider just, noble, and necessary.

My cousin read the book his senior year in high school, just before embarking on a career in the air force.  He thought it was a great book.  The questions raised by Vonnegut didn’t stop him from serving his country.  I think everyone who is going into the military should read the book.

More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.

What is Worse than Burning a Book?

Killing a human being is worse than burning a book, even a holy book.  A holy book may contain the words of God, but a human being reflects the image of God.  Killing a human being is a worse blasphemy against God than destroying the book of God’s words, because the book can be reconstructed.  Every human being is unique and irreplaceable.

James, who grew up in the same house with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph said that cursing or slandering a human being is the same as blasphemy.  He said it is hypocrisy to praise God with one’s tongue and then use the same tongue to curse a human being who is made in the image of God.

King Jehoiakim burned a scroll containing the words God had given his prophet Jeremiah.  Jehoiakim brought judgment on himself, but Jeremiah and his friends felt no need to be the agents of God’s vengeance.  They simply made a new copy of the scroll.  (See Jeremiah chapter 36.)

It is a serious offense to deface a book believed to contain God’s words.  But devout believers like Jeremiah know that God can defend and preserve his own book.

There is one case of book burning in the Bible; in Acts 19:19 we learn of those who had once practiced black magic burning their books of spells after they renounced their former superstitions.  They were not burning holy books of other people, they were burning their own books that now represented destructive practices.  It is more like people burning their collection of pornography today.

In the same chapter in Acts, Paul was falsely accused of blaspheming the local goddess.  One of the practitioners of Artimis worship defended the apostles saying, “These men have neither plundered temples nor blasphemed our goddess.”  Paul had his own beliefs and he defended them with reason and dialogue–but he did not resort to violence, ridicule, or disrespectful behavior.

The misguided pastor in Florida has been persuaded that burning the holy book of Islam would serve no good purpose.  But now the family of a former attorney plans to have its own Koran-burning ceremony.

These are the same people who rejoice and celebrate when soldiers die serving their country; so the thought that fanatics will kill people in response to their offense wouldn’t bother them.  I wish the media would ignore them, but since that’s not likely, the rest of us can speak up in defense of tolerance and respect.

A True Story from Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of distinct tribes speaking  830 living languages.  It is one of the most diverse places on the globe in terms of peoples, geography, ecology, and linguistics.  Many of the 830 languages have never been written down, have never had an alphabet.

My friend John Relyea gave his life learning, analyzing, and describing one of those languages–Aruamu–and translating the Bible into it.  His wife Marsha gave twenty-three years of her life working with John as his partner in learning and translating and in literacy training.

John died of a sudden heart attack in January of 2005, just after completing his life’s work and sending it to the printers.  In fact, April of that year was to be the celebration of the arrival of the Aruamu Bible.  After returning to the United States for John’s funeral, Marsha went back for the combined celebration and memorial service.

John and Marsha worked with Pioneer Bible Translators.  A few years before John’s death, I remember talking to a friend about their work.  I was asked, “Will they be translating Shakespeare and other great literature?”

I had two thoughts:  “I don’t see any English majors risking malaria and other dangers to bring Shakespeare to the tribes,”  and “It is certain no one will do that until they have an alphabet and literacy.”  Then I also realized, “They may have a great oral literature–but the rest of the world will never have access to it until their language is written down.”

Yale historian Lamin Sanneh argues that missionaries have done more than anyone else to preserve indigenous languages and cultures.  I remember John telling me about the adventure of learning the ways of the Aruamu people.

But don’t missionaries change native cultures? Not nearly as much as western corporations and entertainment do.  Modern missionaries are trained to respect indigenous cultures, traditions, and ways.  Do they sometimes encounter aspects of those cultures that need changing?  Of course.

About two years ago I met another Bible translator working with a different tribe in Papua New Guinea, who told of a man who said, “I wish you had brought us the Bible sooner.” He described how as a boy of about eight years he witness his mother being strangled to death by the village elders.

Why?  The boy’s father knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of his wife going to another man.  One taboo of the traditional religion they then practiced involved an idol.  If any woman looked at the idol, she had violated the taboo and death was the penalty.  The dying husband asked his friends to place the idol in a location where his wife would see it–and then catch her in the act–as soon as he was buried.  The friends carried out the man’s wishes, and a little boy saw his mother cruelly taken from him.

Many traditional ways are beautiful and meaningful.  Some are deadly.  If you have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to an island paradise and enjoy the hospitality of the island people,  thank a missionary that you are not on the menu.