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The battle flags of religion

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — vexilla regis prodeunt, comparative version ]
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Two recent examples of religious iconography on the battle field.. from the Badr Brigade, outside Amerli, Iraq:

badr brigade

and from Pro-Russia fighters near the eastern Ukrainian city of Starobeshevo:

Christ flag

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The Vexilla regis is a hymn written by Venantius Fortunatus to welcome the procession bringing a fragment of the True Cross to St Radegunda‘s convent in Poitiers: the first line translates to “The banners of the king go forth”.

Here it is, illustrated with battle flags flown by Catholic and Royalist troops during the War in the Vendée:

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Sources:

  • Iraq
  • Ukraine
  • When the promise of the miraculous is disappointed

    Saturday, March 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — the role of promise and illusion in recruitment, disappointment and disillusion in CVE ]
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    Here’s an example of promise and disillusionment from the early Afghan jihad: upper quote below from Abdullah Azzam, lower quote from Mustafa Hamid.

    SPEC DQ miracles azzam & hamid

    **

    It seems that disappointed hopes are and/or should be a major focus in countering violent extremism, ie places where the jihadist recruitment “narrarive” fails when it comes in contact with ground reality. Because a caliphate that is losing ground is no caliphate. Because a caliphate that diverges from its own ideals and standards is no caliphate. Because the food is terrible, or battle turns out to be more real than bargained for:

    [ order of these two NYT paragraphs reversed here at Zenpundit ]

    During nearly a year in contact with New York Times reporters, Abu Khadija expressed gradually growing discontent. His grievances ranged from relatively mundane issues like eating canned food and being deployed to a front line far from his family because of a lack of fighters, to discomfort with the group’s strategic priorities and its extreme violence.

    “I can’t eat, I feel I want to throw up, I hate myself,” he said, adding that the executioners had argued over who would wield the knives and finally settled the issue by lottery. “Honestly, I will never do it. I can kill a man in battle, but I can’t cut a human being’s head with a knife or a sword.”

    Jessica Stern makes a similar point on NPR:

    I think that we need to hear a lot more from people who leave ISIS – somebody who says, gosh, I joined. I thought I was going to be making the world a better place, and it turned out that it really wasn’t what I imagined, that there were atrocities that I didn’t want to be involved in. There are people who are saying that. We need to amplify those messages.

    **

    The quote in the upper panel of the DoubleQuote above comes from Azzam’s collection, The Signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan. There are many miracles (both mujizat and karamat) described there. Among them, one of the most interesting to me concerns the Miraj and al-Aqsa mosque:

    Informing the people of the details of Baitul Maqdis after the night of Me’raaj.

    Rasulullah sallAllaahu alayhi wa sallam said: When the people denied (the Me’raaj), Allaah Ta’ala revealed the Baitul Maqdis to me and I informed the people of its details whilst looking at it.”

    The Miraj was the prophet’s night journey to the Noble Sanctuary / Temple Mount (Bait al-Maqdis) in Jerusalem, from whence he ascended the heavens and was given the instructions for Muslim prayer. The Noble Sanctuary was Islam’s first Qibla or direction of focus in prayer.

    The quote in the lower panel above comes from Mustafa Hamid in his forthcoming book with Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan. In it, Hamid illustrates both the spiritual aspirations and disappointed hopes at play in that earlier jihad.

    I have discussed Azzam’s and others’ descriptions of miracles previously in such posts as Of war and miracle: the poetics, spirituality and narratives of jihad, Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques, and Gaidi Mtaani, the greater scheme of things. Such stories are profoundly moving to those who are open to believing them.

    In Mustafa Hamid’s words, we see the equal and opposite influence unleashed when such stories, offered as promises in recruitment, prove unsubstantiated by reality.

    A hat-tip to Myra MacDonald, who pointed me to this quote.

    _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

    Side note:

    Students of comparative religion may find the following paragraphs, quoted in the Azzam compilation from the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanwi of interest:

    Karaamaat and Mu’jizah do not occur by a person’s design — that whenever the Nabi or Wali wishes he can execute such an act. Such acts only occur when Allaah Ta’ala in His Infinite Wisdom wishes to exhibit the act. It then occurs whether a person desires it or not.]

    A karaamah does not indicate that the person performing such an act is better than others. In fact, sometimes the karaamah decreases his status in the sight of Allaah, due to fame and vanity entering his heart. It was for this reason that many of the pious personalities used to make istighfaar (seek forgiveness) when a karaamah would manifest itself at their hands, just as they would make istighfaar when sins are committed

    The statement “It then occurs whether a person desires it or not” reminds me, for instance, of the tale told of St Teresa of Avila, friend and colleague of St John of the Cross:

    Legend tells it that as Teresa was in the choir singing among her sisters one day, she began to levitate. When the other nuns started to whisper and point, Teresa lowered her gaze and realized that she had risen several inches above the stone floor. “Put me down!” she demanded of God. And he did.

    There’s a deeper truth hidden in St Teresa’s request, I suspect: grace is not taken, it is given.

    Intended clouds and unintended consequences

    Thursday, March 19th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — this post is mostly concerned with unintended consequences in foreign policy, not Berndnaut Smilde‘s intended and dramatic clouds, but hey! ]
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    Nimbus Sankt Peter, 2014. Artist: Berndnaut Smilde

    Nimbus Sankt Peter, 2014. Artist: Berndnaut Smilde

    **

    Obama said in an interview on Vice this week:

    ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion. Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.

    **

    Rumsefeld said:

    As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

    Walt said:

    In international relations, at least, none of our theories are all that powerful, the data are often poor, and coming up with good solutions to many thorny problems is difficult. Unintended consequences and second-order effects abound, and policymakers often reject good advice for their own selfish reasons.

    Taleb said:

    Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.

    Clapper said:

    unpredictable instability is the new normal

    **

    Let me list them:

  • unintended consequences
  • known and unknown unknowns
  • second-order effects
  • black swans
  • unpredictable instability
  • Are these all what you might call “birds of a feather”?

    **

    Taleb also said:

    Viagra, which changed the mental outlook and social mores of retired men, was meant to be a hypertension drug. Another hypertension drug led to a hair-growth medication. My friend Bruce Goldberg, who understands randomness, calls these unintended side applications “corners.” While many worry about unintended consequences, technology adventurers thrive on them.

    and:

    Mandelbrot’s fractals allow us to account for a few Black Swans, but not all. I said earlier that some Black Swans arise because we ignore sources of randomness. Others arise when we overestimate the fractal exponent. A gray swan concerns modelable extreme events, a black swan is about unknown unknowns.

    It strikes me that we could use a Venn diagram of these things, so we can better understand what we don’t understand.

    **

    So let’s add a couple more to our list:

  • corners
  • cloud of unknowing
  • The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, speaking of God, says:

    For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

    Some recent words from the Forgiveness Chronicles

    Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — is this the foolishness of men, or of God? ]
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    Martyrs

    Icon by Coptic artist Tony Rezk. The martyrs’ faces are the faces of Christ.

    **

    In a CNN piece titled Coptic Christian bishop: I forgive ISIS, Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, had this to say:

    Q: Not long after the video released, you tweeted about the killings, using the hashtag #FatherForgive. Did you mean that you forgive ISIS?

    A: Yes. It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.

    Striking though that is, you might think it’s easier for a Church official to say such things in a pastoral context than it is for someone more closely involved.

    **

    As described in a Christian Today article, a Young Iraqi girl says she hopes God will forgive ISIS — the article links to a shorter version of this video:

    She’s a child, though, and children are inocent in a way that may not survive so easily into adulthood…

    **

    But then there’s a second Christian Today article, titled Brother of slain Coptic Christians thanks ISIS for including their words of faith in murder video. Here we have close family members of those who died, expressing the same grief, the same forgivess, the same assurance, in a second video:

    **

    In yet a third article discussing both videos, Videos showing Christians forgiving Islamic State spread through Middle East, we read:

    Beshir Kamel, from the home village of 13 of the 21 Egyptians whom the Coptic Orthodox Church has now recognised as martyrs, prayed that God would “open the eyes” of their killers to be “saved”. Myriam, from Qaraqosh in Iraq, said “God loves everybody” including IS members, but “he wouldn’t let IS kill us”. Sitting in a half-built shopping mall which had become her family’s temporary home, she ended her interview by singing a song of joy about being made complete in Jesus to a tune her mother had written.

    Samir said: “These clips provide a counter-shock to the horrifying videos of killings that people receive on mainstream media and to their effect on viewers. Myriam’s and Beshir’s calls are a form of resistance through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the core of the Christian message and the core of the message of SAT-7 at a time when mainstream media avoids reporting on Christians.”

    This is distinctly not tit-for-tat, even at close quarters.

    **

    I would like to close with this truly remarkable sermon, given by that same Bishop Angelaos, which sets the forgiveness we have seen above, in the context of theology, humility and witness:

    Saddening Sunday surprise, late late edition

    Monday, March 16th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — fire at Novodevichy Monastery — h/t Kristina Dei]
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    SPEC DQ Overnight fire at Novodevichy Monastery, Moscow

    Link to the text of Merton’s superb poem:

  • NPR: Elegy for the Monastery Barn

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