Andrew Garfield finds Jesus in SILENCE

25 04 2017

     I write a lot about loving your neighbor, or even loving your enemy, in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, where everything from prejudice to outright violent persecution is a daily reality for millions of people of faith. This crucible of the human experience is not lost on Hollywood either.

But rather than make a politically controversial film about Muslims persecuting Christians or vice-versa, Director Martin Scorsese brought to life the horrifying persecution of Christians at the hands of the Japanese shogunate 500 years ago in his film entitled SILENCE.

In the film, Andrew Garfield plays the role of a Jesuit priest tasked with searching for his mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have abandoned the Christian faith. To prepare for the role, Andrew studied diligently with a Jesuit father, James Martin. In a fascinating interview, Andrew shares that those studies became more important to him than the film, and what transpired through the studies surprised him.

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing,” Andrew says.

Andrew wasn’t a Christian when he started the film. But he recognized a certain pain in his heart. “The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises [the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola], was this feeling of not-enough-ness,” he said. But in meditating on Jesus’ life and words he found himself being transformed.

“I feel like this is what God is showing me,” he said. “I’m praying that I’m freer to offer myself vulnerably…and that these other voices, whether they’re internal or external, don’t have the same power over that flame, over the ability to offer that purest, vulnerable, cracked open heart…in service of God, in service of the greater good, in service of love, in service of the divine….If I can make storytelling a service, if I can be of service, and be as humble as I possibly can while doing it…”

He concludes, “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was…and where I believe God wants me to be.”

Meeting Jesus does tend to have that effect on people…

Back to the film…I absolutely loved it! The story presented two levels of religious conundrums. At the first level, Garfield’s character is challenged to deny his faith in Christ or die. He chooses his faith over his own life.

But then a more difficult choice is presented—to deny his faith in Christ, or others will die. This young Jesuit priest has to wrestle with whether it’s more Christlike to publicly bear witness to your faith though it will cost others their lives, or to sacrifice what is most precious to you (your public faith) in order to save others.

I won’t spoil the movie with what choice Garfield’s character makes. But I’m curious which choice YOU think is better—if you’re told to deny your faith or ten people will be executed, what do you think Jesus would want you to do? Post your comments below.

And then, check out the movie SILENCE.





Refugees—Fresh Starts Require New Friends

16 04 2017

(an interview with Nick Armstrong of Glocal Community Partners)

For the past 3 years Nick and Laura Armstrong have been working with refugees in Boise, ID. Over 50% of the refugees coming to Boise are Muslim, and not everyone in the community is ready to welcome them. So Nick and Laura built relationships with 45 local churches to train and mobilize Christian families to start a friendship with a refugee family. I asked Nick to share about the refugees’ rocky path to starting a new life in America.

JB: How does a refugee end up in Boise, ID?

NA: It’s actually quite difficult to come to America as a refugee. About 1% of the over 21 million refugees in the world get resettled to a “third country” such as the US (for example, a Syrian flees to Jordan and gets refugee status there and then applies for a third country resettlement) and about half of those actually get approved to come to the US. Those refugees who get approved to come to the US go through a vetting process that is, by far, the most stringent of any entrant classification (e.g. tourist, student, business visa), and it takes a minimum of 18 months to go through the US vetting process which includes the involvement of the National Counter-terrorist Center, the FBI, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense) with an average time of 3 years to pass through a stringent vetting process before they can come to the US. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in cooperation with “3rd country” resettlement governments determine where a refugee will go, which means they could end up in Finland as easily as in Boise, ID. The family ties a refugee has in a “3rd country” can influence that decision, but there are no guarantees.

JB: Who takes care of them once they arrive in Boise?

NA: The Organization for Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in Washington D.C. coordinates with resettlement agencies such as World Relief, to determine the allocation of refugees to the various resettlement cities and agencies throughout the US. In the case of Idaho, once the refugees arrive, they receive an 8-month Transitional Refugee Assistance (TRA) from the resettlement agency which receives federal government funding. There is additional financial support from state and local governments. This helps them to rent a home, look for a job, get kids signed up in school, get medical coverage, join English language classes, etc.

Our role in this process is to help the newcomers to find local friends. They’ve lost their friends and community, and we want them to find new friends and a new sense of community in Boise. These new friends can also offer much needed social capital to people who need as many positive connection points to the community as they can get.

JB: What are some of the challenges resettled refugees face?

NA: These refugees have spent their most recent years in camps, etc., with a service-oriented mindset. They fled their homes with nothing, so everything had to be provided for them. They arrive in a similar place of need and similar mindset. They need integration and independence skills, especially language, and this takes time and a lot of help.

Many refugees come with various degrees of mental stress and traumas from the past, some come with PTSD. Most come with feelings of isolation and grieving tremendous loss. They need healing for their hearts. Some are finding healing and a new sense of community. But a few, like one woman we know whose PTSD is so overwhelming she continues to hide in her home after 2 years, need more help than the 8-month government program. They need a loving community who will reach out and walk with them through this tough transition.

JB: How have the citizens of Boise responded to the refugees?

NA: Well, I think that overall Boise has been a very open city with a mayor who has led the way in reaching out to refugees, recognizing the many benefits they can bring to the community. Having said that, there are still instances of hate crimes and bullying. The recent political climate has stirred up fear of refugees being potential terrorists, although the data doesn’t support such fear. Since 1975 over 3 million refugees have entered the US, and not one single terrorist attack on US soil has been perpetrated by a refugee! Our refugee crime rates are lower than the general populace. So that’s one of the challenges for us, to educate people and especially the churches that we work with to cast aside their fears and offer true friendship.

In our program, we require each Christian family to commit to weekly visits for 3 months with a refugee family, after that their level of involvement is up to them. I’m happy to share that 44 of the 45 Christian families in the friendship program have continued long past the original deadline and are delighted by the two-way friendships they’ve developed with the refugee families.

JB: Nick, I want to thank you for the wonderful work you’re doing! I love showcasing people on my blog who really live out “love your neighbor as yourself.” God bless you and your work!





A Muslim Reformer

6 04 2017

In my last post I urged for Muslim voices to speak out for reformation and justice. Today I want to give you an example of one such reformer.

Mustafa Akyol is currently a senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. His new book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews became a Prophet of the Muslims follows some of the traditional Muslim views of Jesus, but shows a refreshing open-mindedness to learn from the Messiah.

(As a side note, this has been one of my biggest frustrations with Muslim teachers–most of them are so busy talking about what Jesus isn’t that they have no room in their hearts for acknowledging what he is. Akyol takes a more generous approach.)

I’m not endorsing Akyol’s beliefs as my own. But I’m thrilled to see a Muslim scholar trying to honestly interact with Jesus and see what he has to contribute to Muslims. Efforts like this reflect Akyol’s rejection of Qur’anic literalistic interpretations, Salafi extremist interpretations, and all forms of intolerance and violence within Islam; rather, he calls his own religion to embrace that the “Caliphate” is within them, much as Jesus argued the Kingdom of God is within us.  He both argues and backs it up with his life, that “A renaissance of Islam will take place only when we become more open-minded.”

I’ve often argued that instead of criticizing extremist Muslims, we’ll make more progress by befriending and supporting moderate, open-minded Muslims who can be a voice to their own people. And let us not forget to learn from them too, and be a voice to the extremists within our own religion as well.

I’d love for you to read this fascinating interview with Akyol and tell me what you think!





Are Christians Persecuted more than Muslims?

1 04 2017

Indonesian church burned by angry extremists (www.newson6.com)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel thinks so, calling Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world.” Other Western leaders have made similar statements. But I began to wonder, is it true? So the research began…

The first thing I discovered is that in terms of how many nations persecute those of another religion, Christianity and Islam are neck-and-neck. In measuring both government harassment and social harassment over the last ten years, Christianity and Islam are ranked #1 and #2 every year, frequently changing places, but averaging persecution in about 80 nations of the world. In terms of where they are persecuted, it seems to be a tie.

The major difference I found is in how, or to what extent, they are persecuted. While it may be difficult to get mosque permits in the US just as it is difficult to get church permits in Indonesia, there are other more severe forms of persecution studied that show clearly Christians are suffering more greatly overall than Muslims. These variances are catalogued as “Low, High, Very High” or sometimes “Extreme.” Muslim majority nations have numerous cases of long prison sentences or angry mobs beating someone to death because they questioned a religious teacher, shared any thoughts deemed “anti-Islamic,” or converted from Islam to Christianity, whereas it’s very rare to hear of such cases in Christian majority nations.

For example, in Brian Grim’s insightful TED talk, he notes that the disparity between High or Very High Government Favoritism in the Middle East and N. Africa is 95%, while the rest of the world is only 12 %. Similarly, Sectarian or Communal Violence in the Middle East and N. Africa is 50%, while the rest of the world is only 11%. These regions of High or Very High persecution are almost all Muslim majority nations persecuting their minorities, including smaller Muslim groups but especially Christians. And when the government favors one religion to the detriment of other religions, it tends to result in a higher rate of social hostilities. In many cases, heinous crimes against minorities even go unpunished.

In every list I found of the worst offenders of religious persecution, Muslim-majority nations dominated the list.

  • US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in their 2016 report listed 17 nations of highest concern and 11 of those are Muslim majority, with a 12th nation, Nigeria, devastated by the Islamic extremists Boko Haram. The only Christian majority nation on the list, Central African Republic, has been torn apart by civil war. Of the 10 nations of high concern, 6 are Muslim majority, none are Christian majority.
  • The Pew Forum’s 2014 report showed that the Middle East and North Africa are roughly three times more religiously restricted by governments, and experience roughly five times more social hostility than the Christian majority nations. Combining these two features of persecution and applying it just to the world’s twenty-five largest nations, Pew Forum ranks the large nations with greatest religious persecution as follows: Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey—again, 4 of 5 are Muslim majority.
  • Open Doors 2017 World Watch List claims that persecution of Christians has, for the third straight year, reached a record high. They count 215 million Christians that suffered high, very high or extreme persecution last year. Of the Top Ten nations with Extreme persecution, all except North Korea are Muslim majority nations.

This is a difficult subject to talk about with my Muslim friends, mainly because much of the media in the West, and many Christians, have concluded that the problem is Islam, that religious persecution and violence is an essential part of the Islamic faith. Most of my Muslim friends do not actively persecute those of other religions, and they would claim persecution and violence are not a part of their faith. So who is right?

I would like to make an appeal to both sides—

  • To my CHRISTIAN friends: Unless you want to claim as part of the Christian faith the KKK, the Serbian Christian genocide of Bosnian Muslims, the Christian-majority Central African Republic’s slaughter of minority Muslim groups, and a host of other historic examples when evil men used religion as an excuse for violence, please don’t assume that your Muslim co-workers and neighbors will support violence in the name of Islam either. Ask about their feelings—they may be more horrified than you are. In fact, they may personally know victims of Islamic extremist violence. Please remember that Muslims are also victims of horrific persecution at times, such as the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar. And please speak up for justice for the minorities around you.
  • To my MUSLIM friends: If you live in a Muslim majority nation, it’s time to stand up and demand justice for your minorities. Keeping silent or claiming ignorance of what others do in the name of Islam does not reflect the character of the Most Merciful, Most Compassionate. One of the reasons that extremist groups thrive is that they’re freely allowed to preach their poisonous ideologies. Meanwhile, governments show favoritism to one religion over others. And the majority of peace-loving Muslims turn a blind eye. If you don’t want your religion criticized by others, do something to change this situation.

Let’s work together to stop all types of persecution against all types of people, and work towards a just and true peace.





Award for A WAY OUT OF HELL

18 03 2017

I’m thrilled to share that A Way Out Of Hell has won the 2017 Illumination Award for Christian fiction!

I hope this award encourages more readers to try the book, and to consider the ISIS threat in the light of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and peacemaking.

You can order it from Amazon here.

Let’s continue to pray and work for peace!





Fighting God’s Enemies

6 03 2017

  Religion can bring out the best or the worst in mankind. It brings out the best, for example, when we follow the Great Commandment to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves; or as similarly commanded in Islam, habluminallah, habluminannas.

Religion brings out the worst in mankind when we decide that we need to fight those people that we believe are God’s enemies—as though God is incapable of dealing with them Himself!

By bombing an abortion clinic, vandalizing a mosque, gunning down people in a gay night club, or honor-killing a family member who chooses to change her religion, we have left the most basic teachings of our faith in order to “help” God bring judgment against those we disapprove of.

In spite of all our efforts at peacemaking, such tragedies still happen—such as the kidnapping of Pastor Raymond Koh in Malaysia.

On February 13, in broad daylight, three black SUVs forced Mr. Koh’s white sedan to the side of the road and masked men abducted him, while five other vehicles operated by masked men kept traffic away from the kidnapping. But while the police were slow to respond,  CCTV footage from a nearby building appeared on social media recording the entire event.

The Koh family offered a reward for any information about Raymond, but for the last three weeks there has been only silence—no ransom demands or news of any kind. The Koh family is not rich enough for this abduction to be financially motivated. The only logical conclusion is that it was religiously motivated.

This is not how the Prophet Muhammad treated Christian pastors! By referring to the Ashtiname of Muhammad, or the Charter of Medina (and its modern parallel The Marrakesh Declaration), it’s clear that Muslims were commanded by their Prophet to not only establish religious freedom for minorities, but even to protect them.

A survey of how Jesus treated those of other religions leads us to a similar path of peace. When dealing with non-Jews such as Romans, Syrians, Canaanites and Samaritans, this is what Jesus DID: healed, delivered, told them to share their miracle stories, revealed himself as Messiah and King, praised them for their faith, praised them for exhibiting the righteousness God wants, and announced they’d feast in heaven with the earlier prophets. This is what Jesus DIDN’T do: follow his own culture’s prejudicial norms, condemn, rebuke, warn of judgment or hell, argue theology or debate, quote the Scriptures, explain the Gospel unless they asked, or ask them to change anything. He certainly didn’t condone any violence against them, teaching his followers by his own self-sacrifice to overcome evil with good.

The greatest barrier to peace today is not any particular religion—it is misguided religious followers that pursue hatred and violence in the name of God. [This is what my novel A VIOLENT LIGHT is all about!]

Please pray with me for the speedy release of Pastor Raymond Koh, and for his captors to return to the most basic tenets of their faith—habluminallah, habluminannas.





If Kindness Came First

11 02 2017

pexels-photo-969612:00 AM. A deserted stretch of Texas highway. My five younger siblings and I stand amidst the tumbleweeds watching our widowed mother pray over our broken-down car.

Finally, we spot some headlights approaching. We desperately wave our fourteen hands. A red sports car slows, and pulls over behind us. Praise God, we’re saved!

Out of the car climb two of the biggest black men I have ever seen. Media stories about highway robberies bombard my mind. I’m the oldest male—what would I be willing to do to protect my mother, younger sisters and toddler brother?

“You guys need some help?” one of them asks.

After trying unsuccessfully to start our car, those two put their bulging muscles to good use, pushing our car a mile down the freeway to an exit ramp where we roll safely into a gas station adjacent to a motel. Then they walk the (extra) mile back to their car.

Twenty-five years later, that extraordinary act of kindness to strangers still causes me shivers of sheer wonder. It was one of those God-encounters that chipped away at prejudice in my heart, and led me down the peacemaking path I’m on today.

Thomas Cahill reminds us of a similar story where the hero turns out to be someone the audience would never have expected—the Good Samaritan:

“As we stand now at the entrance to the third millennium since Jesus, we can look back over the horrors of Christian history, never doubting for an instant that if Christians had put kindness ahead of devotion to good order, theological correctness, and our own justifications—if we had followed in the humble footsteps of the heretical Samaritan who was willing to wash someone else’s wounds, rather than in the self-regarding steps of the priest and the immaculate steps of the Levite—the world we inhabit would be a very different one.” (from Desire of the Everlasting Hills, New York: Doubleday, 1999. p.185)

In the midst of our theological debating, our crusading for justice, and our pursuit of the next great Christian conference, we’re in danger of provoking our culture to close their ears to our message, which sounds like a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” because their eyes don’t see our acts of love (I Corinthians 13).

People will never see Jesus in us apart from kindness. Let us be humble enough to learn from Samaritans—from those of different ethnic or religious backgrounds than us. Some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered have been Indonesian Muslims and Japanese Buddhists, both of whom revolutionized my concept of showing hospitality to strangers.

Or perhaps we could be humble enough to learn from those Americans we’re not likely to meet in our church, such as talk-show host and stand-up comic Ellen Degeneres, who says, “Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else’s expense. And I find that that’s just a form of bullying in a major way. So I want to be an example that you can be funny and be kind, and make people laugh without hurting somebody else’s feelings.”

Let’s have the humility to recognize that there are people who don’t believe the same theology we believe, but are following Jesus’ example of compassion, mercy and kindness better than we do! I think we should honor them (as Jesus did in his story), and get inspired. If Jesus can’t take us to a higher plane of self-less love than the world already demonstrates, what do we really have to offer?

How about we confront the world’s issues of prejudice, violence, racism, sexism, xenophobia and terrorism with a movement of 2 billion Christians showing extreme kindness to everyone? Wouldn’t that rock our world!

As one of the kindest people our generation has ever seen, Mother Teresa, once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” 

By pushing a stalled car, helping a crime victim, or even telling a joke kindly, thousands of people are already out there making the world a better place. It’s time we joined them.