Burning ISIS

RDG Stout

Editor’s Note: Stout, a Lutheran pastor, shares this anecdote about the origin of this piece: “For the first time in a decade I got into the pulpit this past Sunday, felt that my sermon stank, and made up a new one on the fly. What I can remember of it largely became Burning ISIS.

I want to talk about the Assyrians.

The Bible is full of evil empires that run roughshod over God’s people one after the other. The Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans. It’s easy for them to run together. But the Assyrians were different. The Assyrian Empire was not united by language or ethnicity or legends of shared ancestry. No, the Assyrian Empire was based on religion.

Their chief god was Asshur, and all you had to do to be considered Assyrian was to bow down and worship the Assyrian god. If you refused, well—the emperor was well within his rights to persecute you not only as an enemy of the state but of the cosmic order itself. Remember, the Assyrians are the people who invented crucifixion. When the nation of Israel broke in two, and 10 out of the 12 tribes of God’s people were scattered to the winds, never to reform again, it was at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the religious fanatics of their era, the archenemies of Israel. And I should note that they lived in what we now call Iraq. Basically, the Assyrians were the ISIS of their day.

This brings us to the book of Jonah. It’s a short book, only four chapters, takes about 10 minutes to read. Chances are that the last time you read the story, if ever, was back in Sunday School. We tend to treat Jonah as a children’s story or a comedy, and there are certainly comedic elements in it. But it contains a major twist, a real hook at the end, that makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. It goes something like this.

Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, there to prophesy that unless they repent of their evil ways God will destroy them for all that they have done. Jonah immediately hops on a boat—and takes off in exactly the opposite direction. He sails to the farthest land he can think of. And on the way, a great and terrible storm comes up, threatening to sink the ship. The crew, all gentiles and pagans, realize that there is something unnatural about this storm, and each man begs forgiveness and mercy from his respective god, to no avail. Meanwhile, where’s Jonah? He’s hiding from the storm down in the ship’s hold.

Finally someone thinks, “Hey, what about that Hebrew guy? Maybe he knows something about all this.” So they bring up Jonah and he says, “Yeah, this is my fault. My God gave me a mission and I refused to do it. You’ll have to throw me overboard.” And the pagan crew, to their credit, replies, “No, we don’t want to do that. Just say you’re sorry!” But Jonah stubbornly insists, “No, I’d rather get thrown overboard.” So the crew calls out to God, “We really don’t want to do this, but here it goes!” and they heave Jonah overboard. Immediately the storm is calmed.

Now Jonah is sinking down, down into the depths of the sea. And at this point he thinks, “Okay, maybe I should say that I’m sorry and ask forgiveness.” And right then, he is swallowed by a whale! Often the whale is portrayed as the punishment of God, but it’s not. The whale is actually what saves Jonah from drowning. And where does this whale finally spit Jonah up? Why, on the shores of the Assyrian Empire, right where he was supposed to head in the first place.

Now, the Assyrians have a god named Dagon—Asshur is top dog, but he’s not the only one—and portrayals of Dagon always envision him as a man being vomited up out of a giant fish. So when Jonah gets horked up on shore by a whale, what must the people think? Why, here is a messenger from God! “Great,” mutters Jonah, “now I have an audience.” And he utters the shortest and most pathetic prophetic speech in the Bible, just one single line: “40 days and Nineveh shall be no more!” And then Jonah goes up on a hill to watch the Assyrians be destroyed.

But wouldn’t you know it? Against all odds, the people of Nineveh repent! They beg forgiveness for their sins and turn to God in sackcloth and ash. And God says to Jonah, “Because they have turned from their evil, I will not destroy their city.” And Jonah goes ballistic. He yells out to God, “I knew it! I knew this is exactly what would happen! This is why I ran away in the first place! I knew that You were loving and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! I knew that if they turned towards You then You would forgive them—and I wanted to see them burn for what they’ve done!”

That’s the hook, right there. That’s what makes Jonah a very adult book indeed. Through the whole story we hear God pronouncing judgment and whipping up storms, and we think that God is the vengeful one. But He’s not. We are. We’re the ones who want to see evil punished, to see the bad guys get what they deserve. We’re the ones who want sinners to burn for everything that they’ve done. God doesn’t want blood. Man does.

It’s the same way when Jesus comes. He shows up and people flock to Him, throw palms before Him, try to make Him King. And they do so because they recognize Him as the Messiah and they expect Him to go to Jerusalem and kick out the bad guys.  At that point there’s a new evil empire over Israel: the Empire of Rome. And everyone expects Jesus to draw the sword and raise an army and conquer Rome—and He does! But not with violence. Not with fire and blood and steel. Jesus conquers Rome through the Cross.

We want Jesus to call down fire from Heaven. That’s how James and John earned their nicknames, “Sons of Thunder,” by asking Jesus to make sinners burn. That’s probably even why Judas betrayed Jesus, to try and force His hand. But that’s not how God works. He doesn’t burn up the wicked, no matter how badly we think they deserve it. Instead, He prays for those who hate Him, loves those who persecute Him, forgives us even as we are murdering Him on a Cross.

This is the love that conquers sinners. Who would’ve thought that Rome, the evil empire, would become the beating heart of Christianity for a thousand years and more? Who would’ve imagined that Saul—a religious fanatic who, far from being an Apostle, hunted down and persecuted and even participated in the execution of innocent Christians—would be struck down, not with fire from Heaven, but with a vision from Heaven, transforming him from the Church’s avowed nemesis into her greatest advocate?

Perhaps the hardest aspect of Christianity is the call to love our enemies, even as they hate us, even as they persecute us. This doesn’t mean that we love the evil that they do. We live in a world where fanatics behead innocent people and put it on YouTube. My God! We see the cruelties of ISIS on the news and we just want to see them get what they deserve. We want God to call down fire from Heaven—or if He won’t, perhaps the U.S. Air Force will. But God doesn’t work that way. If He sent His angels to slay every sinner, which of us could stand? We were all enemies of God once.

Christians have a duty to resist evil. But in the process we cannot allow ourselves to dehumanize our fellow man. Clichéd though it may sound, we must love the sinner and hate the sin, for indeed we are sinners one and all. And we are forged in the Image of God, one and all. You never know what the Lord will work through the hearts of wicked men. You never know what act of love will turn a sworn foe into a true brother. Grace is always available for those who desire it. And Christ is always bringing sinners to new birth in impossible and mysterious ways.

There are still murdering fanatics in Iraq who will kill anyone who does not bow down to their god. And we are still called, as we have always been, to love those who hate us and pray for those who persecute us. It’s a 2,000-year-old story. And it’s still our story today.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.

Notes from Niflheim: Death and Children


RDG Stout

Last weekend I picked up Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory from the local library. Ms. Doughty is the host of the “Ask a Mortician” web series and the founder of “The Order of the Good Death” over on Facebook. Her backstory is pretty straightforward: innocent, eight-year-old girl is deeply traumatized by seeing another young girl plummet to her gristly demise, and now as a millennial young adult seeks to change the unhealthy denial of real death (as opposed to the glorification of fictional carnage) rampant in American culture.

Her book is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a quick read and worth the time. I stumbled upon Ms. Doughty’s work in my followings of Caleb Wilde’s similarly themed blog, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Like Ms. Doughty, Mr. Wilde seeks a revolution in the ways that we deal with death, or rather our refusal to do so. Both seem to have a healthy following, though both have also been accused of being a bit too Generation Overshare.

Theirs seems a decent quest. As someone who’s worked in both churches and trauma bays over the years, I can attest to our culture’s general befuddlement when it comes to the grave. Then again, mine is not a particularly normal perspective on such matters. I honestly can’t remember when I saw my first dead body. Nor do I have any idea as to how many people I’ve buried, scattered, or otherwise memorialized. What I can tell you is that my record in the hospital was six violent deaths in six hours, from midnight to morning.

Death has been a reality in my life for as long as I can recall. Raised religious, I was always taught that a good death at the end of a long life was an accomplishment for which to prepare, and that untimely or tragic death never has the final say. “Teach me to live that I might dread / the grave as little as my bed,” indeed. As a young child, I remember family walks through the graveyard behind my grandparents’ house. I found it neither macabre nor morbid, but peaceful. Here rested so many people who had walked this same path before me. Here I was full of questions, and these silent stones reminded me that those here interred had found answers. Death may be scary, but the alternative—life without an ultimate aim in mind—seems unthinkable.

Nor have I ever viewed age as a bad thing. In truth, it’s been nothing but kind to me so far. Aging has let me outgrow childish neuroses and embarrassing inexperience. It’s made me stronger, calmer, wiser, and most importantly given me a family. I feel sort of sorry for folks who pine for their twenties, or worse yet their teens. Sure, I had fun back then, but I’m glad it’s over now. The older we get, the more real life becomes. Who would want to go back? I have a feeling that 35-year-old me wouldn’t have terribly much patience for my 25- and 15-year-old iterations.

Of course everything changes when we become parents. Growing up I lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, high school friends, my Dad. These losses always kept death in mind, but in such a way that it made me appreciate life. I didn’t go Goth or anything like that. But then kids come along—and suddenly there’s something in life so much more terrifying than your own death. Before parenthood, everyone has a different set of fears. After parenthood, there is only one fear, to the exclusion of all others. It is a hard bargain.

My wife and I were given a rather dramatic introduction to Every Parent’s Nightmare when our son, our first child, was born blue. Here we were all ready to take him home to the nursery, to start a new life as a family, and before we could hold him he was intubated, thrown on a plane, and flown to the opposite end of the state for $300,000 worth of heart surgery. All I got to see was his one little half-open eye staring uncomprehendingly at me before he left.

Don’t worry. He’s fine today. In fact, he doesn’t remember a thing. Even that massive scar has faded almost to invisibility. But his mother and I will never forget, and that jolt of terror never fully goes away. Even when the next two were born perfectly healthy and happy, I found myself sneaking into their rooms at night to place my hand on their chests, to feel them breathe. I still do that. We have friends who have lost children. They humble me.

(It’s funny, but I’d always assumed that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were all romantic poems. Then I started reading them, and found that they sing of how children stave off any bitterness associated with aging and death. Clever man, that. We should read him more.)

I work with undertakers all the time. They tend to have great senses of humor, deep compassion for the grieving, and incredibly healthy and grounded worldviews. In fact, my affection for undertakers is what led me first to the works of Mr. Wilde, then to those of Ms. Doughty. Working routinely with funeral directors, caring for bodies, and walking with families as they perform the last great duty that any of us can perform for a loved one, you start to think that death really has lost its sting. Easter arises triumphant.

But when I look to my children, happily turning our lives to chaos, so full of life that we haven’t slept through the night in half a decade, I still feel that spasm of fear. I don’t fear dying, and I never have; but the thought of them going before me is absolutely terrifying. At such times the casual, even cocksure attitude of the preacher is laid bare, and we are revealed as vulnerable to the Reaper as everyone else.

And so I cling ever more tightly to the Cross, to the God Who is a family, to the God Who lost a Son. Sometimes I am less amazed at the promise of life arising from death than I am at the idea that God continued to love us even when we killed His Child. That’ll bring me to my knees every time.

RDGStout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.