Calling terrorism by its true name: blasphemy

A theological meditation

by Ken Sehested

        In my mind, missing from the public conversation among mass shootings—about the clash between hatred and neighborliness of every sort—is the failure to acknowledge that behavior is always rooted in and propelled by a moral vision. That vision may be formally articulated and reasoned or merely be gut instinct and unreflected rage.

        That moral universe may be as simple as sheer anarchy, the struggle of each against all, but it does have a certain coherence. Our deepest convictions shape our behaviors, which then refine and reinforce (or rearrange or undermine) those core beliefs.

        All moral visions assume conclusions about the nature, intent, and purpose of power and, at least implicitly, the character of life’s destiny itself. Namely, who ultimately will endure; by what provisions; and aligned according to what design?

        I believe that every question of power is, in the end, a question about God: In a treacherous world, whose promises are sturdier? In Babel’s wake, whose words are trustworthy? In a world brimming with claims to authority—where significant commitments presume an outcome which cannot be verified ahead of time—whose covenant terms will endure?

        As St. Augustine said so very long ago, “We imitate whom we adore.”

        The inhabitants of terror’s province believe that death will have the last word. People of the Way, however, believe that the last word will be resurrection, where mourning and tears and pain will be no more; where death itself will be vanquished (Revelation 21:4).

        Therefore, people of faith need to understand that life lived according to the demands of justice and the prerequisites of peace—the two of which are mediated by the ministration of mercy—is not merely an ethical calculation but is adoration, is our true and proper worship, of which we need constant reminding. (Which is why we gather for worship.)

        As the Westminster Confession puts it: (Q) What is the chief end of humankind? (A) To glorify God. Yet all the church's historic creeds typically skip from cradle to cross to “crown of glory” with little reference to the actual mission and mandate of Jesus. When this occurs, redemption is separated from liberation; salvation becomes a divine bookkeeping transaction; and, in the words of Clarence Jordan, admiring Jesus is substituted for following him. Private souls are segregated from history; the Reign of God becomes an ephemeral, disembodied affair; and the Incarnation is emptied of all meaning.

        Adoration of God is not the result of heroic virtue, vigorous piety, or doctrinal rigor. Adoration is the result of being immersed in a beatific vision (and we all require lengthy soaking), a vision which takes concrete shape in the manner of Jesus, sustained and nurtured and interceded by the Holy Spirit. Doxology happens “when righteousness and peace embrace” (Psalm 85:10-13), when the commendation of Heaven is reflected in the restoration of Creation, human and humus alike.

        Adoration, doxology, is manifest in joy which, in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Such presence blossoms into the waging of peace. As the promise in Isaiah discloses, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace” (85:12), at which time the hills burst forth in song, the trees in applause. A new heaven and a new earth are joined as one.

        Given these things, it is proper to call terrorism by its true name: blasphemy. It is to call into question the integrity of God’s promise and provision. Even worse, it is denial of the very existence of One capable of either creation or redemption. Given that void (which Scripture personifies as "the Devil"), we are told that we are on our own. Take what you can; keep what you can defend. Violence, thereby, is evangelism for the Devil.

            The vocation of faith is the ongoing work of exorcism.

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