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Four key pieces to the Middle East puzzle


Copyright by Bob Rogers.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, country singer Alan Jackson wrote a hit song, asking, “Where were you when the world stopped turnin’ that September day?” One line in that song expressed how little most Americans understand the Middle East:
I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you
The diff’rence in Iraq and Iran.”
So how does one piece together the puzzle of the Middle East? There are four important pieces to the puzzle that are key. Fit these four pieces in place, and you will get a good picture of why there is conflict in the Middle East:
1. Muslims are not all alike. Most Americans assume that all Muslims are the same. In fact, there are two major branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiite. They have different doctrines, and a long history of bitter conflict. On the Shiite side is Iran, southern Iraq, rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Bashar al-Assad, dictator of Syria. On the Sunni side is most of the rest of the Muslim world, including northern and western Iraq, the government in Yemen, the Islamic State (ISIS), the majority of Syria, and such large nations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Now take a look at the map above. See the two geographical giants, Saudi Arabia and Iran? Saudi Arabia is Sunni, and Iran is Shi’a, and the two nations are in constant struggle against one another. See Iraq between them? As Iran seeks to extend it’s influence, Saudi Arabia opposes Iran, and places like Iraq and Yemen are the battleground.
2. Middle Easterners are not all Arabs. Most Americans assume all Middle Easterners are either Arabs or Jews. In fact, there are three other major ethnic groups in the Middle East that speak different languages and have different cultures: Turks, Kurds and Persians. Jews dominate Israel, and most of the southern part of the Middle East is Arab, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but as one goes north, there are other ethnicities. Turks are the majority in Turkey, but some 20% of Turkey are Kurds, and Kurds are concentrated in southeastern Turkey. Kurds have a semi-autonomous self-rule in northern Iraq, and Kurds in northern Syria have dominated that region as they defeated ISIS during Syria’s Civil War. Iran is primarily Persian, but has Kurds in its western region. There are also ethnic groups in the Middle East like the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Druze in Lebanon, Assyrian Christians in Iraq, and Yazidis in Iraq (who speak the Kurdish language but have their own religion that blends Islam with Christianity and Zoroastrianism. ISIS considers the Yazidis to be demon-worshipers.).
3. Many of their national boundaries were forced on the Middle East. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled a vast area that included what is now Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (even Egypt was subject to the Ottoman Empire). The Ottomans sided with Germany in WWI, and lost everything but Turkey after the war. Europeans, who didn’t understand the region, drew new national boundaries to create many of the nations we now have in that region, most notably splitting up the region inhabited by 25 million Kurds into parts of Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Thus the Kurds have been a mistreated minority in their own homeland. What is more, the Europeans created a new nation called Iraq, out of three former Ottoman provinces that had no natural commonality, with Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the middle, and Shi’a Arabs in the south. No wonder Iraq is in constant conflict.
4. There are two sides to the story in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before World War I, the population of Palestine was about 90% Arab. The Ottoman Empire turned over Palestine to British rule after WWI, and the British encouraged Jews, who had no homeland, to move to Palestine. Jews immigrated there in such massive numbers, buying up the best land, that by World War II, the Jews were nearly equal in number to Arabs. Palestinians deeply resented this, which they saw as an invasion of their homeland. After the Nazi holocaust of World War II, many more Jews fled to Palestine. Britain tried to divide the nation between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews, but this just led to war, which the Jews won, establishing the state of Israel in 1948. Feeling disenfranchised, Palestinians have resorted to riots and terrorism ever since then.
This is only a simplified summary of the Middle East. There are many other pieces to the puzzle, and other complicating factors. But if you understand these four key pieces above, you will have a much clearer picture of the Middle East puzzle.

(Dr. Bob Rogers has a Th.D. in Church History, and has taught History of the Middle East at The Baptist College of Florida.)

Tuesday, day of confrontation

Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers

Tuesday of the final week of Christ was a long and active day of Jesus teaching in the temple. On that day he had constant confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders. Everything recorded from Mark 11:20 through Mark 14:11 happened on Tuesday: the fig tree that Jesus cursed is found withered, the Jewish religious leaders demand to know what authority Jesus has to cleanse the temple and do all that he does, Jesus tells a parable about tenants in a vineyard that implies that the Jewish religious leaders have rejected God’s Son, making them so angry they wanted to arrest Him. They try to trap Him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar and about marriage in the resurrection. Jesus turns the questions around on them, and then proclaims to the disciples that every stone in the temple will be thrown down and warns them to be on guard against persecution, false prophets and false Messiahs. Do you notice a pattern here? Jesus and the religious leaders are in constant confrontation. Finally, at the end of the day, we read that as the religious leaders were continuing to look for a way to arrest Jesus and kill Him, a woman anointed Jesus’ body with a very expensive perfume. Jesus knew where this was all heading, which is why He said that she was anointing His body for burial.
What an exhausting day of confrontation Tuesday was! From the beginning to the end of the day, it was full of conflict. Mark 11:28 records at the beginning of Tuesday the confrontational question of the religious leaders who were enraged by Jesus cleansing the temple: “By what authority are you doing these things?… And who gave you authority to do this?” Mark 14:10-11 records at the end of Tuesday how enraged Judas Iscariot was, who apparently was so disappointed in Jesus for being a humble, peaceful, sacrificial Messiah, that Judas went to the religious leaders to betray Jesus to them.
The problem they all had, from the beginning to the end of the day, was an unwillingness to submit to the Lordship of Jesus. We may not like to think of ourselves as in conflict with Christ, but whenever we say to Him, ‘No, Lord,” we aren’t really making Him Lord. Are we willing to submit ourselves to Him, or do we continue to argue with Him?
Tuesday, the day of confrontation, teaches us to make Christ Lord of our lives.

How to Deal with Difficult People

Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers

Your child is wronged by another child, and when you try to talk to her parents, they tell you off.
A fellow church member gets angry with you and refuses to talk to you.
A friend always interrupts you, and you want to be friends but you always get frustrated with the conversation.
A fellow worker never shows you respect, always going over your head.
How do you deal with difficult people?

Whenever there was a disagreement in church business meetings or family squabbles, my Grandfather Rogers loved to quote Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

This verse is the pivotal verse in the passage, Romans 12:14-21. It recognizes two important facts about dealing with difficult people: 1) we should live at peace with people, and 2) it’s not always possible. In fact, the passage leading up to verse 18 talk about when it is possible, and then with verse 18, the subject switches to what to do when it is not possible to live at peace with others. So let’s look at it this way.

I. When peace is possible

Most of the time, we can live at peace with others. Whenever it is possible, we should. But how? Verses 14-16 gives us some practical ways to live at peace with difficult people.

A. Be a blessing (v. 14)

We’ve all heard of family members who refuse to speak to one another for years. How sad! Most of the time, peace is possible between two people, if you are willing to make the first move toward reconciliation. So choose to be a blessing.

Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” This statement, like several others here, refer back to Jesus’ word in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus told us, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Paul must have remembered his own past with this statement, for many years before, Paul was the young Pharisee named Saul who held the coats of those who stoned to death the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Acts 7:60 records that as he died, Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Perhaps it was the impact of Stephen’s refusal to curse his persecutors that caused Saul to be so troubled in spirit and respond to the call of God on the road to Damascus, as is recorded two chapters later, in Acts 9.

B. Be empathetic (v. 15)

In verse 15 he adds, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” This is more than sympathy; it is empathy. It is identifying with those who hurt. It’s like the little 8-year-old boy who went over to see an elderly man next door whose wife had just died. When he came back, the boy’s mother asked, “What did you say?” The boy said, “Oh, nothing, we just sat on the porch and I helped him cry.” This is an extremely important response to a difficult person, because when we can identify with them and understand why they act the way they do, then we will be much better at relating to them.

C. Be agreeable (v. 16a)

Verse 16 begins, “Live in harmony with one another.” Literally, the Greek means to “have the same mind toward one another.” We can disagree in substance and still be agreeable in spirit.

D. Be humble (v. 16b)

Sometimes the reason that the other person is so difficult to deal with us because the problem is within ourselves! Thus Paul reminds us, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position (this can be translated, ‘be willing to do menial work.’) Do not be conceited.” As Proverbs 3:7 says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.”

You never know how if you would just be kind to people in low position, how you may benefit from your kindness one day.

II. When peace is impossible

Paul said in verse 18 to live at peace “if it is possible” and if “it depends on you.” He was recognizing that there are times when it is impossible for us to bring about peace in our own power. So what do you do when there is no peace? What do you do when it’s out of your hands?

A. Do not seek personal revenge (v. 17a, 19a)

Although I have listed this under the category of “when peace is impossible,” it probably fits under both categories. This is a principle that goes both ways.

Verse 17 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…” Verse 19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends…” Jesus also taught the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:39, 41). Jesus was not talking about social injustice; He was making reference to personal insults. This sounds strange to Americans who are used to demanding our rights, but the Christian is to be willing to give up his or her rights for the greater good of bringing peace.

However, even if peace is impossible, it is still the right response to the evil person. As Proverbs 12:16 says, it is wise to ignore an insult.

B. Do what is right (v. 17b)

You see, we do not need to let the meanness of another person drag us down to their level. Thus verse 17 continues, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” It would be very easy respond to the ugly text message with an ugly reply. It would be easy when a person blesses you out in front of others, to let them have it with a few choice words of your own. It would be easy when the competition cheats to get ahead, for you to cut corners and cheat, as well. We must decide that even when the other person refuses to do what is right, that we will do what is right. Even when we cannot keep the peace, we can keep our integrity.

C. Let God avenge (v. 19b)

What about a terrorist like Osama bin Laden? Is it wrong to seek revenge against somebody like that?

Verse 19 begins by saying, “Do not take revenge” but the verse goes on to say, “leave room for God’s wrath.” That is, we do not take revenge for personal insults and injuries, but we do make room for God to work his vengeance, particularly against social injustice like a terrorist.

There was a great German pastor in World War II named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who opposed Hitler. Bonhoeffer even participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and he was a Christian pastor! Why would he do that? Bonhoeffer did it because he knew that it would stop a greater evil. In the Old Testament, Moses was sent to Pharaoh and told to demand justice for the Hebrew slaves. God even sent a “death angel” as a final plague upon the Egyptians to set the people free. When the Hebrews fled across the Red Sea and Pharaoh chased them, God allowed the Egyptians to drown in the sea, and Exodus 15 records the song of rejoicing that Moses sang at their defeat.

How do we reconcile this with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies? We need to make a distinction between personal offenses and social justice. Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls.” Yet Proverbs 11:10 says that “when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” Both of these statements are in the same book of the Bible, and both are true. While it is a virtue to overlook a personal insult, it is not a virtue to overlook a social injustice. The former is gracious; the latter is gross negligence.

D. Overcome evil with good (v. 20-21)

Finally, we deal with the most difficult of people, the evil person, by overcoming evil with good. The statement in verse 20 has an application both ways, like verse 17, to personal insults and difficult people with whom we might reconcile, but it also applies to the more difficult and devilish people and situations from which we can expect no reconciliation.

Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22, saying, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

This can be interpreted two different ways. The popular way to understand it, is to mean “Kill them with kindness” and thus shame them into repentance. It reminds me of the church sign that said, “Love your enemies—it messes with their heads.” It is true many times that we overcome evil by refusing to respond with evil. By showing kindness, we can often change a heart.

Most Christians are familiar with this statement, “heap burning coals on their head,” and we’ve come to use it in the sense of shaming them by killing them with kindness. But there is a second way to understand this—a way that applies to times when it is not possible to find peace. In ancient times, Egyptians had a ritual of punishment for those who repented, where they had to walk on fiery hot coals, and in scripture, fire and hot coals were often used of punishment. Psalm 140:10 says, “Let burning coals fall upon them; may they be thrown into the fire.” How is this overcoming evil with good? Well, in the next chapter of Romans, chapter 13, Paul talks about how God has placed the government over us for our good. He says in Romans 13:4 that the government is God’s servant for God, the avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. President Barack Obama and former president George W. Bush are opposites in their political views, but one thing they both agree on was the government action is removing the terrorist, Osama bin Laden. They both said that while they took no personal pleasure in the death of Osama bin Laden, nevertheless, “Justice was done.”

Thus we could read verses 20-21 this way: On a personal level, respond to evil with kindness. If your enemy is hungry, feed him. Let his evil thus be so obvious and so exposed, in such contrast to your goodness, that evil will be conquered by good. God will bring about the vengeance, often by using the government law enforcement and military to bring about justice. In this way, you will heap burning coals of punishment on his head, but leaving room for God’s wrath. We need to be like the preacher who said, “I’m not going to get even. I’m going to tell God on you!” (Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, p. 495.)

How do you deal with difficult people? If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with them. If possible, be a blessing, be empathetic, be agreeable, be humble. And if none of those things are possible, you may just need to walk away and “tell God on them.”

How does God want you to deal with your difficult person?