Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


“It feels like we’re watching the last season, and the screenwriters are adding lots of things to make it really interesting.” That’s how a friend of mine described what these times feel like. Living through the Cold War and neighborhood bomb shelters, as well as Vietnam and the riots, the world has always been a little crazy. But these days feel unusually unstable. I used to travel through Syria—but not anymore. I have been leading study tours to Turkey, but now I am not so sure. I used to skip the news in the summer, given it is the slow season. But now you ask yourself, “What is coming next?” Is anything firm? Is time on the loose? Ross Douthat’s latest column in the NY Times is appropriately titled, “Are We Unraveling?”

Which got me to doing some serious summer reading, beginning with Joby Warrick’s, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS. ISIS seems to be the inspiration behind much of the recent mayhem, and I have never really understood it–until now. Warrick weaves a story, largely around a ruthless Jordanian terrorist by the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as if to say that to understand him is to understand ISIS. He and his followers have branded the name, and moved to create a self-declared Islamic state.

Black Flags is a must read for anyone wanting to make sense of a world seemingly gone mad. It is a difficult read, not because it is dense or confusing. The writer knows his craft, and he has done his homework. It is nearly impossible to put down once you begin reading. It is gripping and suspenseful–but it is also a journey, a steep journey, into evil. So much of the book is a testimony to man’s thirst for power, as well as his capacity to do violence in the most unspeakable ways. There is a resolute conviction on the part of ISIS that any who depart from its extreme and pitilessly violent form of Islam are enemies of Allah. They are not to be denounced, but slaughtered.

The book recounts story after story. that can become almost mind-numbing, but you read on to understand the reasons that drive such hate. How is it people can kill innocent and vulnerable people, women and children–be it in Nice or Istanbul or Baghdad or Orlando–without any apparent sense of guilt or remorse? How did this monster come to be?

It’s a complicated question, but Warrick’s book helps explain. Here are some of the ingredients: ruthless autocrats who used their power to abuse their citizens and destroy their enemies; a deeply flawed American foreign policy in Iraq that essentially created a very deep “black hole” and launched the career of men like Zarqawi; thousands of embittered youth looking for a cause, men formed into an army of hate, having no conscience, hailing Zarqawi as “the sheikh of the slaughterers;” the deep divide between Sunni and Shiite; and prisons that become incubators where hatreds were shaped more by incarceration than by any sermon or religious treatise.

Add to this a pathology that drove men like Zarqawi to see themselves as the incarnation of ancient Islamic warriors, anointed to inaugurate the new golden age of Islam. And behind it all, the Adversary the Devil, who works to create a culture of backwardness and terror by extinguishing the light of the mind.”

Imagine if all of this passion and energy and drive were, instead, given over to the cause of loving others, forgiving wrongs, embracing differences, affirming the discouraged, lavishing grace, giving honor, serving one’s needs, and working for the other’s success. This is the cause of the church, the message of Jesus. Imagine if we gave ourselves over to this mission with the same zeal Zarqawi gave himself to his bankrupted cause. How many would be crossing borders to sign on?




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