Americas Biola Published Articles

Good Mourning America

Good Mourning America

This article was originally published at The Table, of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.

In the days leading up to our presidential election, it seemed quite clear that Christians were not happy. But the ennui went beyond politics toward a greater sense that America was changing.

The unhappiness was rooted in good reason. Our principles were lambasted as backward, our policy stances were labeled as bigoted, personalities were labeled as bigots, and our politics were lowered into bouts of bravado. There seemed little for Christians to celebrate, save the requisite reference to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And then Trump won. Some rejoiced, while others cringed. But I suggest whether salve or acid, the underlying sentiment remains fundamentally unchanged.

With our eyes on the world and our changing national fortunes, we appear marked by vindication or frustration, tempted to pride or anger, either way ready to lash out ineffectively at our culture at large. Since apparently Jesus cannot keep us happy, perhaps with him we should try being sad?

But being sad is no cure all, either. Some of different temperament instead yield to depression, tempted to flagellation, ready to grumble unhelpfully at our Christian culture at large.

Being sad is an emotional response, much like being angry. Whether red, blue, or annoyed we are reacting to circumstances, and we should not be too harsh with ourselves. God has given us our emotions, and they are wonderful tools to tell us something is wrong, or at least, different.

For America is different, in her religious composition. Perhaps America is also wrong, in her moral choices. But God invites us first to examine ourselves, requiring of all a greater humility. But to get there, a step beyond sadness is needed, evoking a suffering we are conditioned to dread.

As American Christians, we must choose to mourn that which is different, and that which may also be wrong.

Mourning, unfortunately, carries with it the connotation of defeat, of finality. We know what it means to mourn over the death of a loved one, but here we must mourn over the death of an idea.

I posit that for so many Americans, our fundamental unhappiness stems from an inability to let go of our dream of a Christ-centered nation.

Nor should we. But to find peace we must understand what it means to mourn, to grieve. In the loss of a loved one, we recognize the fact that he or she is gone. The suffering comes not from the death primarily, but from every unfulfilled expectation, every lost hope, every dream for the future that will now never be. Mourning is the necessary surrender thereof.

America is changing, we Christians feel. But we have been reluctant to admit she has already changed. Denial is often the first resistance to grief, pushing off the uncomfortable mourning. Poll after poll bears out the fact, however, that Christianity is losing its national prominence.

Christianity Today recently ran a series analyzing the trends, and one of the most poignant is this: In a 1967 Gallop survey, two percent of Americans identified themselves with no religion; in 2015, a Pew survey finds the now-ascendant “nones” at 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation. That is a fact very near to a flatline.

Proper mourning, however, must identify the body. Though we cannot be happy, Jesus is still Lord and Savior. It is not Christianity that has died, and neither the church. The polls bear out this fact as well.

A Gallop survey in 1940 found 37 percent of Americans saying “yes” when asked if they attend church weekly. In 2015, the number dropped all the way to an astounding, wait for it, 36 percent.

Church going Americans are as numerous now as they have long been. What has changed, then? Where have the nones come from? In 1972 a GSS survey found mainline Christians to be 28 percent of the population. By 2014, they were only 12 percent. And as the former standard bearers of Christian civil religion eroded, evangelical Christians have grown to 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. That too is a fact, but it is not a pulse. Christianity in America is not dead, but Christian America? Yes.

At this point, it must become personal. I have my story to tell, but that is not what I mean. Every death is mourned differently by every bereaved. Two sons of a deceased mother will each grieve uniquely, for they had different hopes, dreams, and expectations for the life they no longer share with her. One cannot say to the other, “I know how you feel,” no matter the similarity of experience, nor the true comfort they can exchange.

The author of the Christianity Today series reflects on these religious demographic changes and says it may not be a bad thing. As nominal Christian expression recedes it gives the church more opportunity to correctly present the gospel life of discipleship.

Perhaps he is right. Of the 70 percent (according to a 2014 Pew survey) of Americans who identify as Christian, he divides them into rough statistical thirds: Cultural, due to birth and inherited identity; Congregational, due to communal attachment; and Convictional, due to belief and practice.

I do not disagree with his assessment nor the necessity of distinction. An evangelical reading of the Bible emphasizes the eternal importance of personal faith and practice. But as one in his category of convictional Christians, I mourn over our separation from the whole.

Perhaps I am wrong to mourn. Many evangelicals of my youth warned instead to mourn over those who falsely understood themselves to be Christians just because they were born into a household that attends church that way. One must be “born again,” said Jesus. Perhaps those who emphasize this message find vindication they have fewer mainline Christians to mourn over?

Likely not. Their sentiment is genuine, and their concern is real. Their witness comes from the heart. They love their fellow man, and they love America beside. For many, transforming the former is a means to preserve the latter. Some need patience, to endure their zeal. Others give praise, as their lives have been changed.

I, however, rightly belong to all three of the author’s categories. I was born into a Christian home. I value belonging to a Christian people. I adhere to time-honored Christian convictions.

Evangelical faith cherishes and nurtures all three. But I find the statistics are ripping away two-thirds of those who might otherwise be counted with me. And with them is ripped away the Christian ethos of America.

This is the death that I mourn—the hollowed out corpse of a once Christian nation. With it dies the expectation of my country’s inherent goodness, the hope of nominals still near to the gospel, and the dream of enduring Christ-infused values.

But again, some might rejoice that true faith is made clear. “We should be less American, and more Christian,” is a statement increasingly heard from many in the pews. Once more, I do not disagree.

But another tool to postpone mourning is improper substitution. Less apt if comparing to the death of a loved one, consider the reaction if your dog dies, or your girlfriend breaks up with you. How many people offer false comfort with the well intentioned words, “Just get another one?” And perhaps you will, wanting the replacement to fit the hopes you had for the old. Rarely does it work.

The dream of a Christ-honoring culture cannot be replaced by substituting out America for a more singular Christian priority. Likely a needed corrective, but it does not address the pain.

Nor do the more common reactions of striving harder and fighting back. How many people have you met who numb the loss of a loved one by drowning themselves in activity? Even if done to honor the deceased, it leaves unaddressed the underlying grief.

Many evangelical thinkers have outlined their “what do we do now?” strategies. Some say we should embrace our role as a prophetic minority. Others suggest we must reclaim the institutions of cultural influence. Some recommend a renewal in the church. Others encourage a revived evangelism.

Each is likely a fine way forward. But not yet. Wait. Rest. Mourn. Identify the dream you had, cry, and humbly suffer. Then, let it go.

What Christians attained in America past may or may not have been God’s will. Undoubtedly it fell short of his ideal. In so many ways, it was good. And as long as we live here, we have obligations to seek her best.

But the fact at this moment is that America is moving on from her Christian heritage. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is sorrowful that something so precious is being lost, a glue that holds much together.

Yet a loss fully mourned brings healing. Healing brings wholeness. Christ brings completeness. From here, God can give us new hopes, dreams, and expectations for ourselves and our nation, fitting a new reality.

American Christians—triumphant or frustrated, depressed or angry, denying or striving, of any and all statistical categories—should dream with him. The nones are waiting, as is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.



Biola Middle East Published Articles

The Arrogance of Enemy Love: A Poem to ISIS

Arrogance of Enemy Love
An early 15th century Coptic prayer book from Ethiopia. View the full book at

This article was first published at The Table.

Many have been impressed by the forgiveness Coptic Christians have offered to their enemies. Beheaded, ambushed, churches bombed, shot in cold blood – they have not retaliated. Instead, though anger boils, they pray for their persecutors.

In the links above you can explore the opportunities I have had to write about this suffering community, and in one article I partially translated a poem circulated on social media that one Copt directed to ISIS. The Arabic original is here, and the full translation is below:

I will not speak (as some have done)

And curse your religion whatever its name.

I have come that it be known:

My fathers’ religion and what it proclaims.

My fathers’ religion has love at its heart,

The meaning of which will call you to peace.

My fathers’ religion, right from the start

Offers forbearance that conflict will cease.

Your hatred and killing in no way suffices

To stop us from loving and praying for you.

My father’s religion, oh dear Uncle ISIS,

Is not a weapon to pierce you straight through.

I wish that you could come to see

Or just one time the answer seek.

That while you bomb and murder, we

Stay strong as if a mountain peak.

My fathers’ religion of spirit consists.

It is not a body whose end is the dust.

And for the spirit—despite death persists—

Awaiting are loved ones residing in trust.

My fathers’ religion, if you could discern,

Offers each wounded the medic of life.

Tomorrow when you will repent and return,

You will come to know just who is the Christ.


It is a phenomenal sentiment. Which is why I was surprised – and then cut to the core – when my Egyptian friend helping me translate it called it: Haughty.

When I showed him my translation he said: Well done. It is even more arrogant than the original.

My friend is a Muslim, but non-practicing, with a respectful dismissal of religion in general. Perhaps one can say such a person of any background might be offended by strong claims of religious conviction. I have previously written critically when it is labeled bigotry.

I don’t think this is true of my friend. He has a generous heart and speaks tongue-in-cheek. But while I cannot judge the heart of the one who wrote the poem, I can discern the heart of the one who translated it.

And my friend is right.

It is my job to represent what I understand to be the reality of Egypt. This poem, I believe, is an authentic expression of the Coptic community.

But it is more than that. It is an expression of the way I would like the Coptic community to be. Many are not there. Many struggle. Yet many of them hold as an ideal that this is what their Christianity calls for.

So the poem represents also my conviction, but once again more. It represents my triumphalism, my sense of the moral superiority of Christianity. I have written about this before, and it is not necessarily damning. We all judge deficient that which we find to be false.

These days, much of the world says this should not be done with religion. Fair enough. It is hard to weigh between metaphysical matters. Even so, is it not right to let each religion be tested according to its merits, its morals, and its history? Few issues are as important, once one believes in an eternity.

But set all that aside. When I translated the poem I was rejoicing in more than my conviction, I was rejoicing in my identity. When I shared it in the article I was not just encouraging fellow Christian readers with the example of brothers-in-faith. I was encouraging also an us-versus-them mentality.

The ‘them’ is everyone else. There is nothing in it particularly against Islam, but Islam is the context. In Egypt, Christians are surrounded. In America, we are media saturated. I wish to be of generous heart toward Muslims and their faith. This too, with the yearning expressed in the poem, is part of what I understand to be Christianity.

But is that yearning for the glory of God, or the wholeness of my fellow man? Too often, it is the yearning for a pat on the back, the placement on a pedestal. And who better to offer, than a forgiving, grieving woman turned into an icon? Do I truly care for her in the loss of her son or husband? Or do I care for the message we can make out of her?

This is haughtiness. This is arrogance. My friend knows me well, and I’m afraid he exposed me. At the least, he helped God reveal.

Perhaps a bit of Arabic and Egyptian context is helpful. The opening line of the poem, my friend explained, recalls a verse from the popular poet Gamal Bakheet. “Their fathers’ religion, what is its name?” was written at the time of the 2011 revolution, and is a thinly veiled jibe at the Muslim Brotherhood. (See his Arabic recital here.)

The poem speaks of “our fathers’ religion” in the context of sublime values. It praises not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism – and even the non-monotheistic religions. And it criticizes those outsiders who want to bring something more defined, more exclusive, and more politically instrumental to Egypt.

My friend has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his father – of whom he speaks respectfully – was a regional leader.

There is another context, even more illustrative. “Your fathers’ religion” is a common insult in Egypt. You can say it to anyone, regardless of their faith, to curse them and their whole ancestry.

In this light, the Coptic poem dips deep into Egyptian waters. It says it will not curse – but even in mentioning the phrase it practically does. It is a redirect, yes, to speak instead of “my fathers’ religion.” But it is soaked in the context from which it emerges. How many Copts have heard this expression hurled by wayward Muslims?

So let us salute them all the more, when they rise above and bless those who go far beyond insult. But remember, and be chastened by, the inherent temptation to pride.

The Bible tells a story of Abraham coming back from a battle, reclaiming his goods taken during a regional war. Upon meeting a friendly king he receives a blessing and yields a tenth of the spoils.

New Testament commentary establishes this king as a prefiguration of Jesus, establishing his covenant of grace as superior to the covenant of law that would be developed through Abraham’s descendants.

For the non-Christian reader, allow the logic to be complicated. But note the verse concerning Abraham and the king. “And without doubt, the lesser person is blessed by the greater.”

How easy it is, when we rightly note and idealistically contemplate the near-impossible calling to bless the enemy, to put ourselves in that superior posture. How easy it is to imagine ourselves in a greater community.

How easy it is to be haughty.

Is the poem a healthy encouragement and impassioned exhortation, or an arrogant celebration and smug self-validation? Only the poet knows.

The translator? The question hits too close to home. It is better to lean toward repentance.

How many of us should consider similarly?

Biola Middle East Published Articles

The Struggle for Enemy Love in the Arab Christian World

This article first appeared at The Table. For more articles featuring thoughtful Christian perspectives on the the nature and embodiment of love, growing through suffering, and acquiring humility, click here.

Love Your Enemies Arabic
Translation: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who persecute you, and whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also


I have long taken pride in the distinctive teaching of Christianity to love your enemy. It was not until I began learning Arabic I better appreciated what this called for.

Perhaps like many American Christians my pride was an identity marker more than a mark of Christ. I had never suffered for my faith, nor had any enemies to speak of. But in a pluralistic world of competing religious claims, widespread political polarization, and far-flung military adventures, ‘love your enemy’ became a mantra to lift me out of the morass and place my feet firmly on the moral high ground.

Only Jesus commands this, I thought; my Christian religion is different. I had always believed it was true. This was confirmation it was better.

The Sermon on the Mount allows us to cherish our ideals, with full admittance of the still mostly philosophical difficulties. Who has ever forced us to walk a mile? And beggars? They’re all in the big city. Turning the other cheek would be hard, but the envisioned moral strength? Powerful.

One morning years later I awoke surrounded by posters of smiling Arab pop stars. During vacation break from language school in Jordan I arranged for an immersion experience in the ancient city of al-Karak, home to a 12th century Crusader castle. One-quarter of the population remains Christian; one local family took me in and displaced their preteen daughter from her room.

But there at the door by the light switch a prominently placed sticker served as a reminder each morning as she left the room. Ahibbu ‘adakum. Love your enemies.

I went to the Arab world imagining a place where this command might be more practical. Muslims were not essential enemies, of course, and Jordan was well known as a place of coexistence. But perhaps they were theological enemies? In any case the region was characterized with tales of persecuted Christians. How would ordinary believers live the Sermon?

Ihsanu illa mubghideekum, the sticker continued. I was less familiar with this injunction. Baariku la’aneekum. Perhaps like many American Christians, Jesus taught me from the mountain. What I would come to learn is that Arab Christians quoted his Sermon on the Plain. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you.

The family I stayed with in al-Karak was well respected with no known enemies. But every morning their daughter entered a Muslim culture armed with instructions that have buoyed Arab Christians for 1400 years. Whether jizyah and jihad, or colleagues and citizens, they have been the minority ‘other’. American Christians, white-skinned at least, have little idea what this entails.

Going to Egypt, later still, I saw the results first hand.

I wished eagerly to explore the context. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s account end with the command to pray for those who treat you wrong, and more than other places in the Arab world, Egypt was understood to be a place of Coptic suffering. ‘It takes a presidential decree to fix a church doorknob,’ I was told. ‘Christians get attacked in their villages, and they are the ones put in prison.’ Over time I would learn that the reality is quite nuanced, but the sentiment is telling both for visceral incidents of suffering as well as the ethos they produce. Many have suspected that Christians of the region had bought a modicum of peace in exchange for evangelistic mission, beaten down by the task of communal preservation. I experienced Copts as simultaneously integrated in society and withdrawn into their churches. They would speak of Muslims as friends, but whisper of Islam as an enemy ideology.

But what of the celebrated Sermon on the Plain? How would they not just love, but also bless? Specifically and practically, how would they do good?

In one city south of Cairo I interviewed a man who provided a commendable, if telling example. Due to government difficulties in extending services to underdeveloped areas, Muslims and Christians have learned to take care of their own. Until recently Islamist groups had long provided a safety net for the majority, while the Orthodox Church ensured care for Christian widows and the Coptic poor. Neither group would profess denying help to the religious other, but both mirrored the reality of increasing emphasis on religious identity.

This man worked with a Christian agency that aimed to break the dichotomy and serve all. Unaffiliated with the church, Muslims were the employed majority as well as present on the board of trustees. By no means were they an enemy, but Christ’s love to the other was clearly among his motivations.

A jovial and cheerful man, he turned deadly serious on my next question: ‘To better reach your community, would you consider partnering with a Muslim organization?’ It seemed innocuous enough but touched a deeply sensitive nerve. ‘I swear by the Messiah,’ he answered angrily, ‘there is not one Islamic organization that also takes care of the Christians!’

He may be right; he was certainly the expert. But from the heart, the mouth speaks. Here was one of the best examples of a Christian doing good to people who many in his community would internally generalize as a sort of enemy. But despite his charity, he ultimately demonstrated an uncharitable spirit. Let there be little condemnation, but the question is fair though terribly hard: As I Corinthians 13 warns, did he risk becoming a resounding gong?

Nuance is necessary, for the other is not the enemy unless they press against you. For most Arab Christians the ordinary Muslim is an ordinary person, though the Islamist can be a threat in the desire to set his creed as the organizing principle of society. In a region with much religious conservatism, the line between Muslim and Islamist can be difficult to draw. This man railed against the latter, and perhaps with good reason. But it was clear his love for the other did not extend to love for the enemy. Instead of doing them good, whatever that could have meant practically, he was in existential competition.

In the years that followed Islamists rode a revolutionary wave into the presidential palace. Despite their conciliatory discourse with Western audiences, in Arabic some of their members and supporters uttered vile and vitriolic threats against their opponents, Christians included. One year later as Copts joined the masses that turned against the new political elite, they paid the price as their churches were burned throughout the country. Christians were praised for their patience, and rallied behind the military and millions of Muslims to oppose the Islamist enemy. In this case the term is at least rhetorically appropriate; once chosen as legislators and government ministers, they were now rejected as terrorists and an internationalist cabal.

Western opinion is divided over the veracity of this accusation, but as concerns local Christians it is largely irrelevant. Certainly they suffered; certainly they ascribed to widespread public messaging. But in the vanquishing of their enemy almost no voices of love were offered. These need not be in dissent; they might only be in pleas for due process or care for the relatives of the justly imprisoned. During Islamist rule many Christians worried and some chose to emigrate. Some, probably many, prayed for their new president. But if a few have since sought to bless the fallen Islamists who curse them still, their example has not moved the needle of Coptic opinion, where nary a tear has been shed.

How then is this spirit present in a ten-year-old girl who lost everything?

If Islamists in Egypt were a challenge, even a disaster, in Syria and Iraq they were a catastrophe. When the so-called Islamic State overran Mosul in July 2014, thousands of Christians left their homes and fled to Kurdistan. Among them was Myriam, who with her family lived in a half-built shopping mall. Interviewed a year later by the Christian satellite network SAT-7, her testimony went viral.

‘I will only ask God to forgive them,’ she said when asked how she felt about those who caused this tragedy. ‘Why should they be killed?’ Contrast her with the opinion of some Americans, who wonder why we have not yet bombed ISIS into oblivion.

Perhaps it is the depth of the loss that summons the breadth of compassion. Perhaps children are not chiseled as rigidly as adults. Beautiful testimonies of forgiveness have been offered by Egyptian Christians as well, whose family members were martyred by ISIS in Libya. Unjust suffering recalls a crucified Jesus, whose dying prayer to God was that sin not be accounted to his tormentors. From afar we recoil, and demand justice. Likewise, Egyptian Christians felt vindication when their government bombarded ISIS in Libya the next day.

Let them not be blamed on account of ‘love your enemy’. The children of Israel broke into song when Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. David prayed for deliverance from his enemies and a psalm of exile wished their children smashed against the rocks. Romans established the role of government in the preservation of order and punishment of the wrongdoer. And one day, Christ himself will wield the rod of iron as his enemies are fashioned into a footstool. Outcry against suffering is natural and must be voiced for emotional health. Justice is real, necessary, and must never become the antonym of love.

But mercy triumphs over judgment, and love covers over a multitude of sins. The Christian ideal keeps no record of wrongs, and hopes all things. This seems impossible when facing an enemy of any caliber, let alone the Islamic State. It almost seems perverse. The higher calling of love must uphold the lower calling of justice, and demands great discernment in weighing Jesus’ instruction to be wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.

Arab Christians are in an unenviable position. The Egyptian church must navigate this wisdom-innocence paradigm with the utmost care. The Syrian-Iraqi church has been scattered. If they have not yet lived up to the fullness of ‘love your enemy’ it only serves to remind us how far we are from what they endure. That God has kept them from abject loathing is sign enough of the Spirit’s power. That they fill up in their flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is reason enough to humbly bow and support them in prayer.

Unfortunately, my proximity has not enabled the vision of practical suggestion. Lord willing, the eyes of a foreigner have helped some see afresh the demands of the gospel. Ultimately, application is up to them.

But over the years I have come to see the Sermon on the Plain as a better template than the Sermon on the Mount, especially if read in reverse.

Pray for those who mistreat you. If persecution is rare, mistreatment is not. If love if ethereal, prayer is grounding. With an act of the will I can choose to place my enemy before God. Perhaps I even begin with the imprecatory psalms. But rather than grumble or plot revenge, I turn the matter over to him.

Bless those who curse you. Once in God’s hands the prayer can change, even with rising of the nature of offense. No matter how difficult in our power, the Spirit’s power enables our will to progress further. The step is tangible, but nothing is yet asked of the heart. With gritted teeth I seek God’s grace not only for my hurt, but for the ultimate well-being of my enemy.

Do good to those who hate you. But again, God pushes the envelope as the severity of opposition increases. Anyone might curse me in a moment of frustration. Hatred takes time. But in answer to a decision that hardens a heart, my decision is to loosen my own. In asking God to bless my enemy, he transforms me to do it myself.

Love your enemies. Whatever practical action results, something mystical occurs. At least, I can only trust God that it will. Somehow, and whatever it means and feels like, love happens.

It is this love that is the hallmark of Christianity, not my initial congratulatory pat on the back that I was born into and believed in a superior faith. This is the love that can transform conflict. But it is also the love that can get trampled underfoot.

Why has the latter been the trend for Arab Christians over the past 1400 years, as their numbers have dwindled to near extinction? Have they not loved enough? Have they not stood for justice? Have they compromised too readily? Have they allowed their hearts to harden?

We cannot know, and we dare not judge. Bear well that the sermon passage ends with a plea: Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Look upon them with sympathy, and upon the region. They are brothers in sisters in faith, within brothers and sisters in humanity. Surely among them are the ungrateful and wicked, but as sons and daughters of the Most High, in imitation we are commanded to be kind.

And remember, the Sermon on the Plain places the Golden Rule smack within the section on loving your enemies. It is among the most beautiful verses in Arabic: Kama tureedun an yafal al-nas bikum, afalu antum aydan bihum hakatha. Do not let the foreignness of the language exaggerate further the foreignness of the concept. Enemies need love even more than the rest of us. Invite Arab Christians to help us learn.