I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. Read more
Church-planters probably never even consider factoring this in when they start. That was certainly the case for some friends of mine in Turkey. For who would have guessed that setting up a cemetery might have to become a key feature of their growth strategy? Read more
A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.
I had one day to sightsee in Turkey last week which was fabulous. I even came back a bit sunburnt (much to the chagrin of every rain-drenched colleague on my return). Quite fun to be able to say that I got a tan at Laodicea. So here are a few photographic highlights. For the full Flickr set, click here. Having been based in Antalya (ancient Attalia) had a chance to visit Perga and Aspendos (along the coast to the east), and then travelled inland to the north west to the Lycus Valley (where Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae are).
First a general map and few panoramas from the trip… Click on each image for a closer view. Read more
It is a privilege to spend time with friends in Antalya – right on the south Mediterranean coast of Turkey. (Incidentally, and quite interestingly, in Turkish, the Med is called ‘Akdeniz’ which means ‘the white sea’ in symmetry to ’Karadeniz’ (The Black Sea) at the other end of the Bosphorus). And Antalya was of course the ancient port city of Attalia in the apostle Paul’s day. Read more
It came as a shock when this was first pointed out to me. Or rather, to be more accurate, it was a shock when I first realised how true it was of me. For a pastor friend was pointing out how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action to ourselves; and worse, how perfectly capable we all are of justifying any action in specifically spiritual terms. Read more
Just 3 nights in Istanbul hasn’t given a huge amount of time to see sights but I’ve had a few hours in between meetings. Managed to get to the old Chora Monastery (the most important remaining Byzantine church in the city, after the Hagia Sophia) and the vast Basilica Cisterns. Read more
Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.
- Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
- Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior
Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:
- Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
- The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
Strange Maps has done it again. This is great – maps full of prejudices, stereotypes and cross-cultural offence. But could there not be some truth to some of them!? No smoke without fire etc. Although some are definitely weird…
Check out the others and the fuller explanations.
Below are maps of Europe from: Read more
Last Sunday, I was teaching on the last bit of Hebrews 12. I found it a hugely challenging passage, inevitably. But throughout my prep, my mind kept drifting back to one of my Turkey jaunts just over a year ago. I met with some believers in a small, very remote town – where they are of course vastly outnumbered in the local population. This is a shot of the small room where they meet.
It struck me that to understand how this passage works, we need to restore some vocabulary sadly fallen into disuse. I put it like this:
Now at the risk of sounding like I’ve just walked off the pages of a Jane Austen novel, I want to resurrect the old-fashioned use of two words: Sensible and Insensible. For the original meaning of sensible was not being all boring and level-headed. No – if something was sensible it could be sensed whether through sight, taste, hearing or touch. If something was insensible, it couldn’t. Simple as that.
And we are so indoctrinated in our culture to believe that if something is not sensible (in the old sense), it’s not real. But that’s nonsense. We all know that human senses are too weak and limited to notice all kinds of things. Just try looking for butter in the fridge just by standing in front of it. But still the idea persists. And it is something that we must reject. If I can put it like this, we most open our eyes to the invisible.
The room doesn’t seat more than perhaps 25 or 30 – it no doubt gets pretty cosy in summer when they all come. And when they meet, they can still hear the sound of the imams’ call to prayer echoing around the city. And I tried to imagine something of the feelings and thoughts of the huddle of believers when they meet. Which is not perhaps that different from how many of the Jewish Christians might have felt back in the 1st Century: surrounded, perhaps even hunted down; pressured to return to the Jewish faith culture of their childhood and families.
And so I imagined how Hebrews might have sought to encourage them, using particularly the words of 12:22-24.
- You walk into this unassuming Turkish house. But you’ve actually come to Mount Zion: the rock on which the Jerusalem Temple was built – but not an earthly city, a heavenly city.
But it doesn’t look like it, does it?
- When you sing the opening song with your 15 out of tune friends in that room, you’re actually joined by 1000s of 1000s joyful angels in heaven.
But it doesn’t sound like it, does it?
- When your small group meets, you actually join the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven. In other words, the billions of fellow believers living around the world.
But it doesn’t feel like it, does it?
- You recall risks you took to get to church in the first place, but remember: you’ve also come to To God, the judge of all. He knows it all and will do something about it.
But it doesn’t seem likely does it?
- But in case you pay the ultimate price, remember that many others have and are cheering you on – they’ve gone ahead of you and are with you, those are the spirits of the righteous already made perfect.
But that doesn’t look possible, does it?
- But what makes it possible, worth it, above all, real? Well, when you meet, you come To Jesus and his precious blood shed on the cross. This blood brings forgiveness, it brings hope and it brings reality.
And supremely, it convinces us that this is no fairy story – but the reality and truth. It convinces us that the insensible is as real as the insensible. So much more is happening when we meet together than meets the eye. So in a way, yes, we are in heaven. Wherever we meet…
Some good friends have been involved in this great project, a 30 minute documentary called The Jesus Accounts. Filmed in Istanbul and in the UK, it is designed to help those who are sceptical about the NT documents (especially those from a muslim background). It draws on the expertise of a number of excellent NT scholars. It helpfully explains the background to the spread of the first manuscripts, giving details of the creation of papyrus and vellum parchment. Real highlights include the John Rylands fragment in Manchester, and footage of St Catherine’s monastery at Sinai in Egypt, where the Codex Sinaiticus originated.
The production values are excellent and the content stimulating. It is thoroughly recommended. Here is a 90 second trailer to whet appetites.
It’s coming out soon, so click here to register interest in getting hold of it.
There is a play on words that gets lost in translation from Turkish into English. I am by no means a Turkish speaker (as if), and I only discovered it when looking up information about the town in which Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated 2002 book is set. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the citation said that he:
in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.
One of my reading habits/disciplines is to try to read about every place I work in or visit. One of the dangerous joys of living near the unsurpassed Daunt Books is that it feeds this habit perfectly! If you don’t know it, Daunt’s warrants a visit to London W1 all by itself. Its genius is simple – a travel bookshop that groups fiction, history, maps and guidebooks altogether, by country and region. Now why don’t they all do that.
Because my Langham Partnership work takes me to Turkey twice a year (see various previous posts), I’ve been reading quite a lot about the country and its history over the last few months. I picked this book up there as a result and couldn’t put it down. Some may be familiar with Giles Milton’s other books (like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth etc) and he is a wonderful writer. This is no exception, though the focus is of a particularly dark chapter in European history. Read more
- A friend of mine, who works running tours in Turkey, has set up this wonderful photo & graphic resource tracing Paul’s ministry in the region. Fantastic.
- Jason Ramasami has a nifty site going of cartoons he’s been doing over the last few years. He even decided to use something from a Q post earlier this month. He linked to mine, so it’s only polite to link to his – click on the cartoon right to get connected.
- The chaps at Damaris have done a great job on resources for the new Darwin movie, Creation. Check it out…
- 70 years on from the start of the 2WW – here are some remarkable photos of Normandy then and now.
- Interesting effect of photo-editing: NYTimes & Cheney in the kitchen.
- The irrepressible and ingenious Quentin Blake has done a panoramic cartoon history of Cambridge University, in celebration of its 800th anniversary; and it’s now on display at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Click the image and watch the slideshow…
- The joys of multiple translations from Japanese to English and back again
- Feeling in need of some escapism? Check out these extraordinary photos of Bora Bora!
- The 1,000,000 to 1 Apple! Check this out:
- This is scary: a map of every McDonalds in the USA:
- Love this: Inflatable street art from New York (inevitably)
After lunch yesterday, and before our next meeting, one of my Turkish friends and I wandered through the mayhem of Beşiktaş’ backstreets. In the middle of the market place is an old Greek Orthodox church (they have a web presence of sorts here). You’d miss it if you didn’t know it was there – the only indication is a chi-rho symbol above the lintel of an old door set deep in a white-washed wall. Apparently, there is a cool, tree-covered courtyard on the other side (see right), which is no doubt a real refuge from the fierceness of the midday sun.
But I say ‘apparently’ because we never made it through the door. The Muslim shopkeeper next door advised us that the church never receives visitors but we tried our luck anyway. And there was just a voice on the intercom who said “we’re closed – we only take visitors from 9-11 on Sunday mornings”.
Now if you know anything about the fate of Orthodox Christians since the fall of the ottoman Empire, then you’ll know that this siege mentality is entirely understandable. 1000s upon 1000s of ethnic Greeks were forcibly removed from the new Turkey (see despatch 3) – and having been a large, thriving community, the Istanbul Greek community is now minuscule.
But one thing that has changed is that Turkey is experiencing the relatively new phenomenon of Turkish Christians (if an Ottoman Muslim converted, he/she was simply executed as was the one who evangelised). And they face incomprehension, opposition, and sometimes vicious hostility. I’ve touched on this in a number of previous blog posts, of course.
But as various people have related their experiences of all of this to me, i’ve been greatly impressed by people’s willingness to face suffering. That it will happen goes without saying here. But how you respond to it… well that’s a different matter. In Antakya, one believer described the nightmare the family have because of their neighbour: Constant abuse and insults shouted from the upstairs rooftop living area. To which the believer said, we have to love him. The reason is obvious: even though we might be treated as enemies, Jesus commands us to love our enemies.
And then it struck me like a thunderbolt. It’s completely obvious – and I’m sure you’ve thought of it often. But i’m slow of brain and it had never occurred to me. In order to love your enemies, you’ve got to have enemies! Of course, I DO NOT mean we go out looking for enemies! Jesus is simply getting at the point that people in the world treat us as their enemies. And you will only have that if you are out there. You see:
- Loving your enemies is a discipleship imperative that you can only obey WHEN YOU HAVE ENEMIES.
- And you’ll only have enemies if you are out there trying to do your best to live for Christ, flaws and all.
- And you can only show your love for those who treat you like this if you try to be in relationship with your enemies..
I understand the siege mentality completely. And I can so easily see myself succumbing to it. But a locked door and an intercom will never provide opportunities to love, however hostile the people we encounter are.
My Turkish brothers and sisters have showed me that – and i have found that a profound challenge.
I have a bit of a thing about panoramas. So here are a few I’ve compiled this time around.
The Mountains near Samandağ (pronounced “Samandar”)
Appropriately enough, I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings while here in Turkey. And I have to say that it is quite simply one of the most breathtaking and moving novels I’ve ever read.
It’s crafted on an epic scale (600+ pages), and has a fascinating dual focus:
- at the MICRO level, we get to know and love the many and varied inhabitants of Eskibahçe, a small fictitious town near the Aegean coast (placed not far from Telmessos, now called Fethiye)
- at the MACRO level, we follow the determined but bumpy path of Mustafa Kemal, as he forges the modern Turkey out of the embers of the defunct Ottoman Empire, becoming the father of the new nation, Atatürk. Read more
This photograph depicts an act of real courage. But of course, it probably doesn’t seem like it at first sight. But this is Turkey. And Christians simply do not share the rights that ordinary Turks enjoy in this society. Worse, though, is the fact that they are not necessarily safe here either. For it was only a matter of months ago that 3 Christians were brutally murdered in Malatya. The photo is of the car of one of the delegates at our gathering – bravely sporting a Christian ichthus symbol.
I talked about Malatya a year ago when I first came here (CT has some updated news on the investigations into the murders); but as I talk with believers here, it is a frequent topic of conversation. One can’t avoid it. And as we were working on Paul’s letter to the Philippians during our time together this week, the letter couldn’t have been more relevant. One of the more challenging verses in that letter has Paul explaining the impact that his Roman imprisonment had on the church there.
Phil 1:14 – Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It seems so counter-intuitive. Any sensible person would surely keep their heads down as the result of such persecution? But that’s not what necessarily happened in Paul’s day. And that’s not what has happened for many believers in Turkey. Many have been all the more prepared to be known as Christian. So here, having a fish badge on your car is more than simply the equivalent of those truck bumper stickers that ask ‘How is my driving?’ (as it is for many in the west). It is a very public, and therefore risky, declaration of one’s priorities.
But the illustration that really brought this courage home to me was given by one of the pastors I met. A few weeks after the Malatya tragedy, 2 members of his fellowship went to the authorities to get their Turkish identity cards updated. Every Turkish citizen must carry one; and one of the few details that it contains apart from the obvious is religious affiliation. These 2 brand new believers went deliberately to get their cards altered from Muslim to Christian, thus radically impairing their job prospects and their own safety.
I was profoundly challenged and encouraged myself by their willingness to stand and be counted. For just as with Paul in Rome, so with these brothers – if they are prepared to do this, the gospel is obviously something important enough to risk everything for…