God Only Knows

Rogue deity must decide which side he is on.

You gotta feel a little sorry for God these days. The hotline from the White House has been hopping off the heavenly hook; the pope has urged shrines, parishes, communities and families to "persevere in unceasing prayer;" and cries of "Allahu Akbar" echo from the streets of Gaza to those of Baghdad. In Touch Ministries even distributed a pamphlet to U.S. soldiers in Iraq urging them to pray for—George W. Bush. One suggested prayer: "Pray that the president and his advisers will seek God and his wisdom daily and not rely on their own understanding."

Being omnipotent, God of course has no problem fielding all these calls. He can probably even take time out to mediate a dispute in the Louisiana state legislature over whether painting a giant U.S. flag with the words "God Bless America" in 37-foot-tall letters on the roof of the New Orleans Superdome would cut the value of the naming rights to the stadium, which are up for sale. Still, it is hard to imagine that he isn't experiencing a wee bit of cognitive dissonance.

President Bush, of course, has frequently invoked God's blessing on our incursion into Iraq. (The president's close friend, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, according to USA Today, says that "Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time,"—a belief reinforced, he says, by the knowledge gained while earning his history degree at Yale.) But even as the president's invasion message was being broadcast, there was a televised Saddam Hussein assuring his nation that "God's victory will be ours soon." He also transmitted a message from the Almighty that had apparently sneaked by U.S. signal blockers: "God has ordered you...to cut their throats."

Meanwhile Osama bin Laden, in a taped message noting that he was "following anxiously the preparations of the crusaders to conquer the former capital of Islam and steal their wealth," called upon the Muslim world "to fight for the sake of God, not for nationalism or any infidel regime, including Iraq."

Osama's mention of crusaders inevitably brings to mind the long history of divine invocations in support of battlefield mayhem. "[T]he two kings were causing Te Deums to be sung in their camps," Voltaire dryly wrote of two Christian armies poised for mutual dismemberment, to be followed by the usual round of rape and pillage. Viewing the aftermath, his hero, Candide, "took a resolution to go and reason somewhere else upon causes and effects."

But of course, the ways of God are not the ways of man. And while the divine injunction "Thou shalt not kill," may seem pretty straightforward, religious scholars have long pointed to numerous Old Testament texts to demonstrate, as one Christian pastor wrote recently in The Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch, "The God of the Bible is not a pacifist! God loves and protects the innocent and the weak. He often does so by declaring war on tyrants and oppressors."

That being the case, and Saddam and Osama being joined in perfidy if not in friendship, it seems reasonable to assume that the mandate of heaven has indeed been conferred on the White House in its chosen war. (True, there was that sandstorm shortly after the invasion began, but that was probably just a little reminder about where the ultimate Commander-in-Chief resides.) That does not mean, however, that the president and his most ardent supporters call upon heaven with one voice. For instance, the alliance between evangelical Christians and predominately Jewish neo-conservatives in opposition to Saddam, both within the White House and among the larger population, has drawn attention in the press.

As some have noted, from an historical perspective the coalition might seem odd, given that Jews, along with Catholics and blacks, were once the frequent targets of the more irredentist denizens of the Bible Belt. The route to their latter-day meeting of minds runs through Israel. In the final decades of the last century, with the millennium and its many portents looming near, evangelical thoughts naturally turned to the prospect of the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ. From there it was only a short jump to—Armageddon. On that hill, or at least on the plain it overlooks, say those who parse the New Testament's enigmatic book of Revelation, armies of the East and West will be enticed by Satan to draw together. Thence they will march to Jerusalem where (as is often overlooked) they will do joint battle with the returning Christ.

What happens next is open to many interpretations, not least of which involves different views about who gets "raptured" (i.e. raised bodily into heaven) and when (before or after the time of "tribulations"). Controversies rage among such factions as the Pretribulationists and Posttribulations and the Pseudo-Ephraemists and the Psuedo-Psuedo-Ephraemists—not to mention among believers in the Manifest Sons doctrine or the doctrine of the lost 10 tribes. But it is generally agreed that an important precursor is for the Jewish people to be back in control of the land of Israel before the action begins.

Despite this coalescing of interests in the protection of Israel, a point of contention between the two groups remains: Will anyone but the Christians have a shot at being raptured? Evangelicals have hastened in recent years to assure Jews that they will not be automatically excluded. According to the World of the Bible, "Those Gentiles...who came to faith in the Jewish Messiah during the time of Jacob's trouble...will join with redeemed Israelites in the true worship of God." Says the Pretribulationist Ed Tarkowski, "What lies ahead of them is seven years of tribulation, out of which he will bring a Jewish remnant." [emphases added] Whaddya mean by redeemed? And what's a remnant? God only knows.

Nor are all members of the coalition in tune with the we-don't blame-Islam White House line. While Bush has showcased his visits to mosques and he and his aides have gone out of their way to stress that our fight is not with Islam per se, some of his adherents are less circumspect. "I think Muhammad was a terrorist," the Rev. Jerry Falwell told a 60 Minutes audience in October. "Islam as a whole is evil," said the Rev. Franklin Graham at the National Prayer Service in Washington in November. Graham (son of Billy) spoke at Bush's inauguration. Howard Davis of the United Church of God provides a more nuanced perspective. Even as he reclaimed Jerusalem after the First Crusade, Davis writes, "Saladin was amazingly merciful, in dramatic contrast to the Crusaders of the previous century." More representative of evangelical web opinion is Randall Price, who writes, "[D]espite the U.S. administration's desire to separate the religion of Islam from the tactic of terrorism, the religion of Islam is the common denominator for all the groups with which we are at war."

Add to this those troublesome messages from "old church" prelates. Start with the pope and his tiresome remonstrances about a "religious catastrophe" and stubborn refusal to christen the Iraq incursion a "just war." Small wonder that some bible web sites devote lengthy sections to the apostasies of Rome and its errant vicars. "The Catholic Church has all too often been at the center of the 1,400-year-old struggle between Islam and Christianity," avers one such critic darkly.

If these doctrinal disputes weren't enough to clog the celestial pipelines, across the country Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu religious leaders have gathered to pray for, of all things, peace. Back to you, God.

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