Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Outlaws at sea, chaos ashore

Outlaws at sea, chaos ashore

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Those pirates tormenting ships off the coast of Somalia are no isolated band of cutthroats on an otherwise placid horizon.

They represent what author William Langewiesche calls the “outlaw sea” — global coastlines and deep waters increasingly plagued by buccaneers, hijackers, drug runners, smugglers and terrorists.

In his 2004 book of the same name (“The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime,” North Point Press), Langewiesche explored the vast expanses of blue. It’s a place where hundreds of pirate attacks occur each year from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean, where thousands of unsafe, unregulated merchant ships sail the globe under so-called “flags of convenience” to mask their origins and owners. This region beyond nations, which covers three-quarters of the earth’s surface, is a “reminder of the world as it was before, but also quite possibly … a harbinger of a larger chaos to come,” Langewiesche observed.

What “larger chaos”? The Somali pirates reflect what’s happening on dry land: “Failed states” continue to threaten not only their own people but the peoples and nations around them.

Somalia is the poster child for “failed states.” It fragmented more than 20 years ago amid clan wars. No stable national government exists. The chaos has sent throngs of refugees fleeing into other countries, subjected those who stayed behind to terrible suffering at the hands of thugs and warlords — and attracted foreign terrorists looking for bases of operation.

There are worse things than bad government. Anarchy, for instance. Ask the Somalis. Ask the people who endure seemingly endless violence in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, in particular, teeters on the edge of instability as radical Islamists wield expanding influence. Its neighbor and longtime enemy, India, watches with growing alarm.

“As much as India fears Pakistan, it fears Pakistan’s collapse even more,” reports Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic magazine. “The threat of Islamic anarchy in the region is perfectly suited to the further consolidation of Hindu nationalism.” Hindu nationalism, in turn, increases extremism and violence against millions of Muslims and Christians in India.

Everything is connected in a globalized, essentially borderless world. The current global economic crisis proves that proposition beyond reasonable doubt. That’s why Christians in safe, quiet places should be concerned about “failed states” and chaotic areas within states. Not only do they destabilize whole regions and cause massive human suffering, they directly affect the church and the transmission of the Gospel.

Many unreached and unevangelized people live within unstable nations and regions. Reaching them with the message of God’s love becomes all the more difficult where chaos reigns. Missionaries who set out to work in such places often never reach their destination because of risks and barriers. If they do get there, they may find themselves targeted as easy prey. Or, they may be unable to minister effectively because of ongoing danger and disorder.

Believers living in chaotic places also are vulnerable to violence and persecution. However, like the early Christians who evangelized the known world amid a crumbling empire, they find many opportunities to minister to desperate people and guide them toward Christ, the only true source of peace.

People who flee chaos for freer, more peaceful areas often encounter the Gospel for the first time. Somali Muslims who might have faced instant martyrdom for seeking Christ in their homeland can learn about Him elsewhere.

More than 150,000 Somalis have streamed into the city of London as refugees and asylum seekers since the early 1990s. They remain clan-oriented, wary of outsiders and strongly Muslim. However, they are finding friends among London Christians who help them with education, finding jobs and recovering from the traumas they have experienced.

Farah,* a respected leader in London’s Somali community, has a close Christian friend. Farah hasn’t decided whether to follow Christ as Lord, but he believes all Somalis should have the right to understand and freely choose their own religious beliefs.

“This is a man of influence, a man of peace, a man who desires to see better days for his people” wherever they are, says his Christian friend. One day, Farah hopes to return to his homeland and help rebuild it.

One way or another, God reigns over all nations — even the failed ones.

* (Name changed)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hope for the hopeless

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Several years ago I wrote about my friend George. Nice guy. Sincere. Loved to joke around and play basketball. Deeply depressed.

Eventually, he hanged himself.

On the last day of his life, the only words George managed to utter to his father, who later found his body, were these: “No hope. No hope. No hope.”

By the year 2000, suicide had become one of the major causes of death worldwide among men and women ages 15-44, according to a World Health Organization report. Many suicides, the report stated, occur “during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis.”

It’s hard to live, in bad times or good, without hope. You certainly won’t find it on the shiny shelves of postmodern culture. Phony substitutes and countless distractions, yes. Real hope, no. Most hopeless people keep struggling without taking their own lives, but they see little light in their darkness.

Medication and treatment can help the clinically depressed. At the end of the day, however, no therapy or drug, no self-improvement program, no political or social movement, no philosophy, no economic plan or number of possessions can bring hope to someone who has none.

Only the resurrection of Jesus Christ offers real hope — not just to His followers but to all the hopeless people of the world.

The pop atheists of our day want to bury the idea of Christ’s physical, historical resurrection once and for all, along with its impact through the ages. The world would be much better off, they say, if the “legend” of Jesus rising from the dead had never gotten started. That would mean no churches, of course, but also no schools or universities for the masses, no books or literacy, no hospitals or charities, no freedom for slaves, no great classics of Western music and art and literature.

More than all these put together, it would mean no hope for humanity.

Handel’s Messiah, originally an Easter event, celebrates Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. After conducting it for the last time in 1759, the ailing and nearly blind composer acknowledged the ovation by saying, “Not from me — but from heaven — comes all.” He expressed the desire to die on Good Friday “in the hope of rejoining the good God, my sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of His resurrection.” He died on Holy Saturday.

Some years ago, a woman who had never been out of China attended a performance of Messiah on her first trip abroad. As the last triumphant notes faded away, she turned to her hosts, trembling with exaltation and urgent curiosity.

“I must know,” she pleaded. “Who were they singing about?”

Messiah is a monument of Western music, to be sure. But if Christ is a part of only the Western cultural tradition, why are many of His most ardent followers in the East? Why are the fastest-growing church movements found in Asia? Why have Koreans become the world’s most determined missionary senders? Why are Muslims in many places around the globe seeking out the Gospel after having dreams about a man they identify as Jesus?

At Easter, local believers in a part of the Arab world celebrate the risen Savior and seek to share Him with their families and friends. They ask Him to soften hearts and minds to the truth that God not only gave His Son as a sacrifice, but raised Him from the dead and conquered death. They pray that gifts of Scripture, Easter parties, even dreams will open the door to sharing hope with unbelieving Arabs.

And they do this in places where persecution — particularly of Muslim-background followers of Christ — is increasing daily. They know something many of us in the traditional centers of Christianity have forgotten or rejected: The risen Christ is the hope of ages, the only hope for the world.

Lift up your eyes to the hills from whence cometh your help — and your hope.

“Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through,” sang Bob Dylan after his resurrection encounter with Christ. “Surrender your crown on this blood-stained ground. Take off your mask. He sees your deeds. He knows your needs — even before you ask.

“How long can you falsify — and deny — what is real?”