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The peril of thinking that you are serving God

Shortly after commencing his ministry, Jesus called his twelve apostles together and commissioned them to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons.” He then added this ominous warning:

Behold, I send you out as sheep into the midst of wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” (Mat 10.16-17).

The “men” to whom Jesus referred were the religious leaders of Israel. How do we know this? Because in this prophetic picture, judgment is passed in the rabbinical council and punishment is meted out in the synagogue.

How ironic, considering that the Scribes and Pharisees were supposed to be compassionate and caring shepherds and the synagogue was supposed to be a place of prayer, worship, instruction, and nurture!

Jesus reiterated this warning just before he was arrested on the orders of the Sanhedrin and delivered up to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate.

“They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me” (John 16.2-3).

How could well-meaning religious people get to the point of murdering other human beings while thinking that they are doing the will of God? The answer is quite simple: because they do not have an intimate relationship with God, and do not understand His nature and character.

Even the apostles erred in this regard, wanting to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village that would not acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Lord. Jesus rebuked his over-zealous companions, declaring, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9.51-56).

Many years later, one of these men would reflect on this experience and the lesson that he learned, and write: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4.7-8).

Crusaders for Christ?

In the book, The Land that is Desolate, Sir Frederick Treves reflected on his 1912 visit to the Holy Land. The one-time Honorary Serjeant Surgeon to King Edward VII declared, “It is an unanswerable testimony to the power and vitality of the Christian faith that it should not only have survived but should have spread itself over the entire earth in spite of the slough of corruption through which the ministers of the Gospel have dragged it.”

The “slough of corruption,” as Treves termed it, was nowhere more evident than in the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries. Threatened by the rapid growth of Islam and the military strength of the Seljuk Turks, the Eastern Christian Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed to Pope Urban II for help.

Seeing an opportunity to strengthen the Papacy and become the undisputed leader of the Christian Church in the East as well as the West, the Pope preached a sermon to a convocation of church dignitaries and laymen at Clermont in southern France in which he called for a holy war to liberate the sacred sites of Christendom from the grasp of the infidels.

“From the confines of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth … an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God … has invaded the lands of those Christians and depopulated them by the sword, plundering and fire.” The Pope then listed the atrocities that the Turks had committed, such as the desecration of churches, the rape of Christian women, and the torture and murder of men.

With emotions running at fever pitch, the Pope sounded a call to arms: “Recall the greatness of Charlemagne. O most valiant soldiers, descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate. Let all hatred between you depart, all quarrels end, all wars cease. Start upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre, to tear that land from the wicked race and subject it to yourselves.”

At the conclusion of his speech the crowd began to shout, “Deus Vult! Deus Vult!” (God wills it), a catchphrase that would become the battle-cry of the Crusaders as they marched through Europe into Asia Minor and the Middle East. More to the point, it indicated that many of the Pope’s recruits believed that what they were doing was indeed, the will of God.

The Pope reinforced this belief by granting a plenary indulgence to all Crusaders which guaranteed their entry into heaven and reduced or abolished their time in purgatory. In effect, this became a license to rape, pillage, and murder in the name of Christ. The end — the preservation of Christian honour — justified the means, whatever that might entail.

The incongruity of the situation was demonstrated when the Crusaders reached Jerusalem on June 7th, 1099. Many of the “soldiers of Christ” wept for joy as they viewed the city they had come to liberate. Yet after breaching the walls on July 15th, these same Crusaders went on a murderous rampage, massacring thousands of Muslims and Jews.

According to eyewitness accounts, the streets of Jerusalem ran with blood. The anonymous Latin Chronicle of the First Crusade, Gesta Francorum, stated that the slaughter in the Temple Mount area was so great that the Crusaders waded in blood up to their ankles. Neither women nor children were spared. Some of the Jews fled for refuge to the Great Synagogue, but the Crusaders torched the building and marched around the perimeter singing “Christ We Adore Thee,” drowning out the screams of those trapped inside.

Granted, Muslim forces had perpetrated similar atrocities against Christians, in some cases eradicating entire communities from the face of the earth while shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). But does this justify the Crusaders’ egregious behaviour, given that the One they were supposedly serving expressly denounced violent retaliation in his Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5.43-45)?

Exactly a week later, on July 22nd, a council was held in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Godfrey of Bouillon took the leadership, assuming the title Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (Defender of the Holy Sepulchre), thus becoming the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is ironic that the Crusaders chose the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection — a place associated with love, forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation — to celebrate their enemies' demise and proclaim their socio-political supremacy.

Perhaps the Master was standing in the background, unobserved, weeping over Jerusalem, and saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19.41-42).

Putin, Trump, and Christian Nationalism

Fast forward one thousand years, and nothing much has changed in the world. Nations are still rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms, often claiming religious justification for their actions.

Take for example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24th, 2022. Like the Crusaders of old, Russian President Vladimir Putin used a religious pretext to justify the “special military operation,” claiming its purpose was to protect the millions of Russian-language speakers and the Orthodox faithful living there.

Putin has long portrayed himself as a defender of Christian values, castigating Western nations for embracing LGBT culture and abandoning their religious and cultural roots.

And until recently, many Russian Orthodox and Evangelical Christians hailed Putin as a deliverer, likening him to Biblical heroes such as Joshua and Gideon.

On September 21st, 2022, Putin announced a call-up of Russian civilians into military service, precipitating a wide-scale roundup of “recruits” and an exodus of military-age men to safe havens in Finland, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey.

Four days after the announcement, Pentecostal leader Andrey Dirienko addressed his congregation in Yaroslavl, 170 miles north-east of Moscow, and said that he thanked God when he heard the news. He quoted 1 Samuel 8, in which the Israelites asked Samuel for a king, and said the passage “points to the right of the king to raise an army. This is the biblical right of the king. You can’t argue with that.”

Of course, 1 Samuel 8 does not point to the right of a king to raise an army. Rather, it points to the wanton behaviour of earthly rulers and their propensity to “take” and “take” and “take” and “take” from the people they are supposed to be serving. (The word “take” is used 6 times in this passage). But the more serious question is, how could a Christian pastor rejoice over the announcement of a large-scale military draft, knowing that it would inevitably escalate the conflict and massive loss of life on both sides?

Andrey Dirienko is a colleague of the notorious Sergey Ryakhovsky, President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Pentecostals, and long-time Putin supporter and Kremlin power broker. And surprise, surprise, he is also one of two evangelical members on Putin’s rotating religious council. Not that anyone is suggesting a conflict of interest!

Herein is the crux of the matter: what we call patriotism, God calls idolatry. When we confuse the pursuit of nationalistic ideals with the extension of God’s kingdom, we are on the path to destruction. The same can be said for the support given to Donald Trump and his blinkered “America First” policy by evangelical Christians in the United States.

Ultimately, we are citizens of heaven, and sojourners and pilgrims on earth (Phil 3.20; 1 Peter 2.11). To serve God, we must set aside our sectarian attitudes and prejudiced worldviews, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us (Eph 5.2).

Indeed, serving God means loving His children, wherever they are and whoever they may be!

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