Bloody ISIS, No Holds Barred

Last time the stage was set to explore the life of Mohammad. We learned two things. First, there is no really reliable source or sources of information about him. What follows is what is universally accepted by Muslim scholars. This is by no means exhaustive, since we are confining ourselves to why ISIS is so bloody in its actions, regarding even other Muslims not of their sectarian persuasion as heretics. Second, all Muslims, regardless of which sect to which they belong, regard Mohammad as the perfect man and blueprint for their own lives.

Mohammad was born in or about 570 AD, in what is now Mecca, 45 miles from the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca was a minor trading center, origin point and pass through point for caravans carrying goods such as leather, cloth from wool, goat, and camel hair, livestock, and perhaps, figs.

Arabia at that time was not a unified state. It was peopled by various nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin tribes, along with a greater number of town and village residents who settled in and around locations where rainfall or other water sources could guarantee some success at farming. They and the tribes lived in a continual state of give-and-take. Tribes would raid or trade, depending on individual relationships with the various towns and each other.

By this time the Peninsula was the only area of the Near East that had not become dominated by the monotheism of the Jews, or the Christians of the Byzantine Empire, or even the Zoroastrianism of the Persians with whom some of the caravans traded. Mohammad became known as an hanif (pious one). This was someone whose neighbors gave him the term because that person had come to accept the ethical monotheism of the Jews and Christians, but did not actually join either community.

As did many hanif, Mohammad periodically retired to a cave to pray and meditate. His chosen time was the month of Ramadan, the time of the annual pagan pilgrimage to the Ka’bah. At that time he would seclude himself in a cave on Mount Hira. It was during one of these times, about 610AD, that the dreams and visions began. In the first one, Mohammad was commanded to read the writing on a brocaded blanket. Claiming confusion, he was admonished to read, three times, during which the angel pressed him, that is physically grabbed him and choked him. Fearing death, Mohammad finally read, and later claimed the next day that what he had read was now written on his heart.

It is from this point that the results of Mohammad’s supposed visions begin to go haywire. Mohammad’s first conversions were his then first, and at the time only, wife, Khadijah, and her cousin Waraqa, along with another cousin. They were followed by the couple’s two adopted sons and the four daughters. Then came three more cousins and one of their wives, Mohammad’s own aunt, his nurse as a child, his freed slave Umm Ayman, and his oldest friend, Abu Bakr. Bakr brought in five young men, all caravan merchants like him, and two of his freed slaves. Twenty-two in all, all close family and friends. Shortly after that, the number of converts reached seventy, most of them men under thirty. This latter group were people from among the richest families in Mecca.

Due to his insistence that Allah was the only deity Mohammad and his followers fled Mecca for Medina, 250 miles to the north. Mohammad had been invited to live there so he could arbitrate the bloody feuds between the clans in and around Medina. These clans also included three powerful Jewish clans. Mohammad was duly installed, and remained a resident of Medina for the rest of his days, eventually taking eleven wives and two concubines over the course of time, despite a revelation that the number of wives should be limited to no more than four (Sura 4, verse 3).

The seventy or so people who followed Mohammad to Medina did not prosper. So he organized them to rob caravans. He was painfully and repeatedly unsuccessful at first, so he kept trying, especially targeting caravans to and from his old hometown, Mecca. Eventually, he and his band became successful, at the cost of lives, goods, and sums of ransom money.

Even in Medina, where Mohammad was valued for his position as an arbitrator, he had been the object of some disbelief for his new religion, and therefore the object of some ridicule by the local poets/entertainers. Three poets in particular, were victims of his desire for revenge. Two were men, one an old man, another a woman. In all cases, Mohammad complained to his close followers of the burden of their verses. The woman was murdered first, while she slept, holding her infant. The old man was killed in his sleep. The second man was lured from his home, beheaded, and his head delivered to Mohammad as proof the deed had been done.

Nor did Mohammad’s hostility simply target individuals. Evidence suggests that he had gone to the Jews and Christians expecting to be received as their next prophet, but both groups failed to accept his status as such because his pronouncements conflicted with both the Old and New Testaments. Here are some examples. Surah 3, verse 71 claims that both groups knowingly conceal the truth by perverting Scripture. Surah 4, verse171 warns both not to exaggerate their religion or say anything about Allah but the truth, claiming Christ was just another messenger of Allah. Surah 5, verse 15 tells both that Mohammad has come to explain what they hid in their Scripture and that he is willing to forgive much. Surah 5, 18 is quite plain, “The Jews and Christians say: we are sons of Allah and his loved ones. Say: Why then does He chastise you for your sins?” Verse 33 threatens death, mutilation and exile, followed by worse after death. Surah 9, verse 73 tells Mohammad to fight with both, to be harsh. Their ultimate end is in hell.

Jews suffered first, in part because they were the oldest residents of Medina and controlled most of the fertile land in the area as well as dominating the skilled crafts, such as jewelers and goldsmiths. The final straw for those three clans of Arab converts to Judaism who lived in Medina came when they refused to participate with Mohammad in the Battle of Badr. So in the same month when the second poet was murdered, Mohammad went after the weakest of the three Jewish clans. He besieged them in their fortified tower. When they surrendered at last, he would have had them all killed. But his followers convinced him to let the Jews leave if they left behind all they owned. Mohammad took a 20% cut.

Mohammad went after the second clan of converts with similar results. But when he went after the third tribe, matters took a much different course. Mohammad besieged the last Jewish clan, the Banu Qurayza. This time his bloodlust was not satisfied until all the men of the tribe, between 600 to 900 men, were lined up beside huge trenches and beheaded. The women and children were sold as slaves, except the woman he took as a concubine. Scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, do not doubt that the fate of the tribe was completely in Mohammad’s hands. He could have spared them if he wished, but his claim of being merciful did not hold up. It was genocide, plain and simple.

There is a lot more that could be detailed with references, but now is not the time. Suffice to say that Mohammad laid the blueprint. It was built upon by one of his successors, Umar, the second after Mohammad. Umar came up with the concept of Jizya, a special tax for non-believers which was supposed to guarantee their safety, under certain degrading conditions. The non-Muslim has no say in the conditions regarding that tax, who sets it, its amount, frequency of payment, or what constitutes an acceptable form of payment. Nor is the Jizya ever levied on a Muslim.

But the final words are really Mohammad’s. “If we so willed, we could have brought every soul its true guidance, but the word from me will come true: I will fill Hell with demons and men altogether.” Surah 32: 13

Getting Toasty

Screwtape Proposes a Toast is the epilogue to The Screwtape Letters. It was written in 1962, twenty-one years after Letters began being released as a series in The Guardian in 1941. World War II had now been over for seventeen years. Lewis was about a year away from his own death, still teaching and writing at Magdalene College, part of Cambridge University, while continuing to raise his two step-sons alone after the death of his wife. The boys were on the verge of adulthood, with the multitude of life choices facing them that any young person finds laid on his doorstep. Add that situation to his own long careers in higher education and writing, and it becomes easy to see why Lewis set the Toast at a fictional graduation dinner for tempters in the equally fictional Tempters’ Training College of Hell.

As it was in Letters, so it was in Toast. Lewis observed the conditions he had seen developing in England during the years since the close of the war. In his preface to Toast he wrote specifically that his intention was to remark on the turns higher education had taken, not only in England, but also in America. As such, he is a voice speaking from within an establishment that he knew quite well from his decades of experience there. So once again, a fictional setting and characters are used as a metaphor for what has passed and is coming to pass in our everyday world.

This writer has also spent time in the field of education, albeit not in the halls of world renowned universities. It is remarkable to note that the trends Lewis spoke about, along with their underlying causes both of the material nature and the spiritual nature, have shown themselves to be extraordinarily durable over fifty years since the publication of Toast. I see them every time I read discussions about curriculum development, student assessment, and philosophy of teaching.

The durability of Lewis’ observations about education is directly attributable to two things. The first is Lewis’ masterful insights concerning human nature. He drew wisdom from the trials he encountered in his own life: the loss of his mother at age ten due to cancer, service on the front lines as an infantry officer during WWI, to the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960, also due to cancer. The first two instances confirmed him in his atheism, but by the time of the latter, he had long since become a Christian. He drew wisdom from his own studies and reading. He could quote from the old Greek and Roman philosophers just as easily as he could from more contemporary sources. Finally, he drew wisdom from the Bible, once he had dropped his atheism after discussions with his friend J.R.R. Tolkien and works by the preacher and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton. His genius was the ability to take all these sources of insight, integrate them, and then apply them to the everyday lives of people.

The second reason for the durability of Lewis’ statements as found in Toast come from something a little less definable, even though it follows from what was just discussed. Lewis could recognize truth when he saw it, even when it was an unpleasant or distasteful one to him. By his own statement, his conversion to Christianity was accomplished only after he was dragged kicking and screaming into the realization of the truth of it. Once demonstrated, he never let that truth go.

Nor did Lewis ever cease to uphold and apply truth once it was embraced. The same tenacious grounding was applied to every other aspect of his life, as his non-fiction works demonstrate. Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain all come to mind. He was unshakable, even in the face of strong opposition.

Next time we will take up the ideas Lewis brought up in Toast through the mouthpiece of his wily creation, Screwtape. Lewis minced no words in his evaluation of where education was going. Nor did he blink when it came to laying out the effects of the conditions he saw. Perhaps that was because he could identify with both sides in the following exchange: “Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Are you a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one that is of the truth hears my voice.’ Pilate said unto him, ‘What is truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38a)

Painful Clarity

Letter thirty-one. Screwtape’s last letter to his nephew, Wormwood, but not his final word. But I get ahead of myself.

The Patient has died as a result of an attack on London by German bombers during World War II. The struggle for his soul is over. As Screwtape reminds his nephew, the opportunities to tempt, deceive, beguile, and distort are now all lost. Nor is those losses petty ones. The infernal gates will not receive that particular soul to be an appetizer to feed the egos of those who chose eternity behind them. Somebody has to pay.

Beyond what it is with any bully, Screwtape’s pain at the loss of the Patient’s soul goes far beyond simply that of an ego boost at the expense of a victim’s suffering. Wormwood suffers particular agonies that Screwtape well remembers and describes in detail. See if there is anything recognizable.

The first agony is that the Patient is released from any further suffering at the demons’ hands. He is no longer accessible. Bullies always suffer when there is no longer any target to demean. Somebody has to pay.

The second agony is that the Patient sees the demons for what they truly are, ugly repulsive things that had no care for him as a person, but only as a means to an end. No bully ever wants another to see the real, shrunken and pitiful soul behind the appearance of power. Somebody has to pay.

The third agony is the awful reminder that the Patient is sharing in something that Screwtape, Wormwood, and their ilk can never share. The salt in that wound is a pride offended by the fact that the Patient was always meant to share that something, from the moment of his conception. Bullies never like the thought of somebody having something they can’t, especially if their pride is offended in the process. Somebody has to pay.

The fourth thing is recognition of another sort. It is the sense of belonging. The Patient realizes that his death was a gate to a homecoming that was far greater than anything he could have possibly imagined. Not only does he find he is home, he also finds that anything else he experienced up to that point is as nothing compared to what he has now. What is worse for Screwtape,, this exquisite homecoming is permanent, beyond even the most imaginative definition of time. No bully ever likes to see a victim escape his reach, much less understand that his victim is truly satisfied and forever beyond that bully’s chance to recover. Somebody has to pay.

That is Screwtape’s situation. His victim is gone, gone beyond his reach to a place the demon cannot go, a place the demon cannot truly understand, a place that his mere nearness to causes him actual pain. His pride is offended because his victim, whom he has held in contempt, has realized his true value as a person. Nor can Screwtape, in his pride, understand how or why the Patient could set aside the pride he should feel at being intrinsically valuable once he realizes it. The demon cannot see the reasons for his own pain, offended pride, or ineffectual contempt. He cannot understand a Relationship that seeks the welfare of the other first, over its own. The demon cannot understand Love.

But Screwtape can understand loss, and someone has to pay. That someone will be Wormwood. He will not simply be thrown under the bus. He will be consumed. After all, the higher-ups still need their ego boost to feed their rage. If they cannot have the Patient, they can have Wormwood, who let him escape, and laugh at him for his failure as they consume him.

It is the same in real life. Spiritual warfare is no imaginary process, even though Lewis uses fiction as its metaphor. We can choose to live our lives as though every pit and pratfall is all there is or will be. Or we can look beyond this present life, as shown in the Gospels, and live according to what we find there: growing into an eternal and loving relationship designed for each of us and enabled through the sacrifice of Christ at the cross.

Getting Real . . . For Real

Letter thirty. We are nearing the end of Screwtape’s advice. The Patient’s life is also nearing its end. The Patient, while unaware of the immediacy of that end, is nonetheless aware of the increasing risk that he may not see the next day here on earth. Strain and fatigue mount. Screwtape is also very aware of that strain, and the probable outcome for the Patient. It galls the demon to think just how much his nephew has mishandled the Patient thus far. The situation has become desperate for the infernal legion. Something must be done, now!

That something is a last straw, a last desperate gamble. If this was a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, that demon Screwtape would be going all in, betting the house against the chance he could bluff the Patient out of his deed to his own soul. And why not? The risk of failure, and its consequences, all fall on the nephew.

The gamble for the Patient’s soul is a dilemma related to the human frailty called lack of perseverance. The weapon at hand is fatigue. Screwtape realizes that his nephew’s Patient can no longer be attacked intellectually. He is well established on that front. But fatigue could do the trick because it gives the emotions, especially the negative ones, more play than they would ordinarily have. The risk is that the patient can be pushed too far into fatigue. Someone who is pushed too far ceases to be negotiable. Reality becomes a stark, cold, fact that must be faced on its own terms, not on any set of preconceived hopes and expectations. When that point is reached, one’s spiritual condition and its consequences can no longer be hidden or ignored. There is literally no where to run, no place to hide, no bit of intellectual finesse to cloud the issue. In poker terms, the marker is due.

The art is to push the Patient just enough into fatigue that he sets up a series of false expectations and unrealistic plans concerning a hoped for relief or end to the suffering. If that happens, the emotions can be engaged. The resulting anger can brought to the point that it completely short circuits any intellectual reassurance and faith based surety. As Screwtape points out, “Whatever men expect, they soon come to think they have a right to: the sense of disappointment can, with very little skill on our part, be turned into a sense of injury.” In today’s terms, Screwtape is talking about a sense of entitlement, and how useful it is.

The general principle that underlies this specific application to fatigue is actually very simple. Screwtape wants to get his nephew to confuse the Patient’s sense of reality. Screwtape points out the obvious. Humanity has a dual perception of reality. One is based on the observable. The other is based on the perceptual. It is the ages old tension between objective reality and subjective reality. Both have validity in so far as human reactions are based on them. The difference is that in the first case human reactions are based on what is observed, while in the second case human reactions are based on an interpretation of what is observed. Let me illustrate. I have had occasion to be holding a cold soda in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. When I went to the sink to rinse the glass and cup, I turned on the tap and let the water flow stabilize. While rinsing the cold glass, the tap water felt warm. While rinsing the coffee cup, the tap water felt cool. But the tap water, having been stabilized, was at a uniform temperature. The objective fact was that the tap water was at one temperature throughout the process. But depending on which hand was under it at the moment, the tap water felt warm or cold. Objective reality versus two very different subjective realities, and both are going on at the same time.

Subjective reality allows for a wide variety of influences that may have little or nothing to do with what is actually observed. Those influences can range from a selective gathering of information out of the whole of what is observed, to flat-out denial of what is observed. That such selectivity or denial can be sparked or amplified by an emotional response or a longstanding and unexamined tradition only serves to root the reaction all the stronger in subjective grounds. On the other hand, objective reality sticks to the facts and follows them to their conclusion, regardless of where they might lead or how unpalatable that destination may turn out to be. Is it any wonder, then, that Screwtape would encourage any situation that would promote the subjective reality over the objective reality? Such a situation promotes feelings over good sense.

It is this writer’s opinion that emotions are good things. Without them we cannot experience joy, satisfaction, sympathy, empathy, and many other God-given gifts, including true relationship. At the same time, if we let those feelings run our lives they trade away objective reality for a fake reality that is entirely subjective. The consequences of that swap are wrack and ruin in both the present and the eternal. After all, who would you rather see holding the marker for your soul at the end of life? A loving God who paid off your debt? Or a hate filled demon slavering for his pound of flesh, and all that goes with it?

The Irrelevant Letter

What would anyone think if I said Screwtape’s twenty-ninth letter is now completely irrelevant? My statement is not given because the letter’s backdrop is WWII. Nor is it made because there was an epic fail in understanding human nature. Neither is it made because the concepts of fear, hatred, courage, cowardice, despair, virtue, forgiveness, and mercy no longer hold meaning. Something else has changed.

Screwtape does get in some good zingers, some valid insights before the letter becomes irrelevant. Tempters cannot create a virtue. So he cautions his tempter nephew to remember that allowing the introduction of virtue, even to bolster an evil stance, is to begin playing on God’s ground. However, a virtuoso tempter can add to a virtue in ways that twist it into something unrecognizable from its original intention and state. That is usually done by the careful splitting of hairs in order to introduce elements of fear, hatred, and pride into the gray areas thus created.

Scewtape rightly points out that fear and hatred go hand in hand, often producing a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Pride in what one accomplishes while under the influence of this feedback circuit adds to the downward incline, even as it adds spice to a tempter’s perceptions. The dish, the spirit of the human being lured to the infernal gates, becomes a more enjoyable feast if, ironically, the virtue of delayed gratification on the part of the tempter can be encouraged. Did I already say that Screwtape thinks virtue can be played to ill ends?

Of course, the kind of feral pride being induced all but guarantees in the human patient a lack of forgiveness and the absence of mercy. But the patient’s victims are not the only ones to suffer. The patient himself will suffer, too, when he grasps the great extent of the pain he has caused. Why? He suffers because someone who has gone that far down the road of unforgiveness will also be unable to forgive himself once he understands the full measure of the evils he has created. Worse yet, someone that far gone will never seek the forgiveness of God, or even understand that such forgiveness and mercy are possible. So, like a coward, he hides from his own actions and their consequences, and from himself. That ultimately leads to despair. Despair cripples and kills the spirit, if not the body.

Screwtape rightly points out one very obvious fact: courage is the bedrock of every other virtue. Moral behavior under any circumstance, if not supported by courage, is only conditional. Because one is therefore only behaving morally when the conditions favor doing so, one is not behaving morally at all. Put bluntly, under conditional morality (an oxymoron) one is acting like a self-serving coward.

Screwtape closes his letter with the following observation. “. . . the act of cowardice is all that matters; the emotion of fear is, in itself, no sin and, though we enjoy it, does us no good.” That statement ties everything up in a nice, neat package. But why play by those rules if they can be gotten around with a different method?

Think about this for a bit. As Screwtape has often pointed out, the perception of truth gives God a way to speak to us. The recognition of the cowardly act of hiding from ourselves and the consequences of our actions is an opportunity for us to go to God and get the situation remedied. So why chance such a recognition at all?

As in everything else Screwtape has a method for keeping such recognition from happening. That method starts with our children. How can a child recognize his own limitations and learn to deal with them, or even overcome them, when he is applauded for everything he does? What does a child learn if he is never told no? As noted, even the demons learn a modicum of delayed gratification when luring a human soul to the infernal gates.

How can an adult face his own shortcomings if he just wants to feel good about everything around him? I am not just speaking of things like alcohol and pot. Adults can lose themselves in anything that appeals: music, movies, games, professional sports, jobs, hobbies, a cause, even people; you name it. The minute any one of those things become the glue that holds one’s life together self-awareness and self-knowledge take such a big backseat they are no longer in the vehicle, even if it is a sixty passenger bus.

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Incidents and parables abound in the Gospels during which Christ spoke of the eternal consequences of living an unexamined life for any reason. Pick any one of them and take the time to read it. It’s the courageous thing to do. But be warned. You may realize something about yourself you might not like.

Chomping with False Teeth

Screwtape’s twenty-eighth letter shares a particular tone and point of view with another well known, evil literary character penned by another of Lewis’ contemporaries. See if this riddle looks familiar. “This thing all things devours: birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel; grinds hard stones to meal; slays kings, ruins town, and beats high mountain down.” If the guess was Gollum, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit, that would be correct. It is the last riddle Gollum posed to Bilbo during the riddling contest. Gollum’s victory would ensure he could do what this riddle’s answer does and devour Bilbo.

The answer to the riddle, the thing that can do all these horrible things listed in the riddle, is time. From Screwtape’s point of view, in the case of most human beings, there is never enough time to ensure that their spirits will pass through the infernal gates at the end of life. His particular example? World War II, which as raging on at the time Lewis was writing the book.

Screwtape looks at his nephew’s reports on the condition of the patient and the progress of the war and tells the nephew that when it comes to the patient, he has failed miserably. None of the strategies for distraction away from God have worked. Instead, the patient is in community with other Christians. He is in love with a Christian lady. He has found that the defense work he does has gone from being a chore and a bore he does out obedience to God to being a source of satisfaction derived from a chance to serve others. If the patient were to die suddenly as the result of a bombing raid, his spirit would certainly be lost to hell and its demons. There would be no feast on that patient’s fear and suffering. Death must be avoided, so as Gollum noted, it takes time to grind a solid foundation to meal.

So what is Screwtape’s remedy for this seemingly intolerable condition? His tempter demon must try to function as the patient’s guardian angel! That situation is so completely ridiculous on the face of it because it is a contradiction of the demonic nature. In the name of expediency the demon is forced to do something good in the hopes of obtaining something evil in the long run. The situation is made even more ridiculous because the time the demon hopes to obtain is to be used by treating the patient to more of the same failed procedures. And yet, it does oftentimes work!

The reason Screwtape and his ilk can renew their assaults with the same old weapons, and make them work, is due to one aspect of human nature. We fail to persevere. As time goes by, our ability to stick with things through thick and thin gets very spotty. Then we either take life for granted or give in to the circumstances around us. The high mountain of our faith can get beat down. Hell then stands ready to devour us.

The thin is adversity. When things do not go our way over the long haul we get tired. We fail to remember that God is with us, His strength available to us under any circumstances, His promises always kept regardless of how circumstances may appear. “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you.” (1 Peter 5:10)

The thick is prosperity. When things consistently go well we get too comfortable, too complacent. We forget to remember that what we have is really only on loan from Him in the first place, that any accomplishment we achieve is really the result of the talents and grace He gave us, that He is the one who really sustains us rather than ourselves. “Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, Comfort your hearts, and establish you in every good word and work.” (2 Thess 2:16-17)

Remember those last two quotes. The perseverance they encourage feeds into every aspect of our relationship with God: prayer, study of the Bible, staying in a community of believers, service to others whether they are believers or not, and the understanding God knows us intimately and, despite that, still seeks us out to have that relationship with Him. After all, Hell’s weapons of deception are nothing more than false teeth!