I don't know him, but it kind of feels like I do.
He grew up just across the state line from where I did. He memorized the same Bible verses I did, probably using the same Sunday school curriculum I did. He went to Vacation Bible School, probably doing the same crafts and singing the same songs. He walked the aisle down a Southern Baptist church, just like I did, and was baptized, by immersion, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
And now he fights for Allah in an Islamic jihadist terrorist group.
This past Sunday's New York Times magazine features a story about Omar Hammami, a leader of an Al Qaeda-linked African terrorist group. Like many jihadists, he has a Muslim father, and deep resentment against the United States.
Unlike most radical Islamic jihadists, he grew up in an Alabama Baptist church.
Omar's father moved to the U.S. from Syria, and married an Alabama girl, a Baptist. His father liked the Bible Belt, the Times says, because "the women he encountered didn't drink or smoke." They gave birth to a son, and he grew up, like his Mom, in Bible Belt Christianity, with everything from youth camp to Christmas cantatas. Young Omar professed faith when he was six, and won 60 dollars for naming all the books of the Bible in a "sword drill."
But Omar was deeply conflicted, the Times article contends. With his father's larger family, which he would meet while traveling to Damascus, he would be confused by the two religions. His father's relatives told him he'd be lost eternally if he didn't submit to Islam, just the opposite of what his home church said. He wondered, the article says, how Jesus could pray to God, when Jesus is God, without being "a narcissist."
In the end, he chose Islam, but he rejected his father's moderate religion for the most virulent form of terrorist rage, and now trains himself and others for war somewhere in Somalia.
It's easy to read about Omar and to let your blood pressure rise in disgust. Who could leave all the blessings he had given to him in order to fight with bloodthirsty killers? It might even be easy to wonder what was wrong with the witness of his home church, as though there's any church in history that didn't have prodigals.
But, if you think about it a little bit longer, you might realize that Omar isn't as strange as you think.
I wrote above that I felt like I know Omar, even though we've never met. In some ways, I feel like I am Omar. I'm internally conflicted too.
I find myself often drawn more to Bible Belt morality than to the gospel. When I go without prayer, I can still recognize the goodness of a just social order, a loving marriage, a stable community. But, when that happens, I don't see myself as a sinner and, as a result, I don't see God in Christ. I see God in myself. Unless I see myself in Christ and him crucified, I see God as, at the core, justice, not love, as solitary, not a Trinitarian community of love. When I forget about the gospel, I imagine that God is seeing me in terms of some cosmic scale of my good deeds and sins. That leads me to pride or despair. And it's crypto-Koranic, not Christian.
I love my country. I hate terrorism. And I'm hawkish on the war against radical Islam. But I sometimes act like a jihadist too. Every time I believe that God's vengeance ought to be administered by me, rather than by the Cross or the Judgment Seat, well, that's something other than the gospel (Matt. 26:52).
I don't want to bring in the reign of God with bombs or box cutters, but I sometimes want to do it with my words, with a well-crafted rebuke, or even with my keyboard. Every time I do such, I act as though my God is a capricious, blood-thirsty idol who is sending me into the world to condemn instead of save it — instead of a loving Father who sent his Son into the world to save it instead of condemn it (Jn. 3:17).
That's what I mean when I say I'm internally conflicted. It's hard for me, sometimes, to see my way to the Place of the Skull. I'll bet that's true for you too. And I'll bet our church nurseries are filled with babies and toddlers, just like Omar was not long ago.
They're singing "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," and they look awfully cute. But one day, and one day soon, they'll be looking to us, and to our lives — not just our songs and Bible stories — to see if we really believe in the gospel of Christ — or in something else. They'll wonder whether we really believe God is love and God is Trinity and God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Let's remember what's going on here. Yes, our government should protect us from murderous cells, like the one with which this man has aligned himself. That's the God-granted responsibility of those who "bear the sword" (Rom. 13:3-5). But let's also take note of what we can learn from this tragic example, what we can learn about ourselves and about the next generation for which we'll give account. Let's remember the gospel.
And, while we're at it, let's pray for an ex-Southern Baptist named Omar. He was confused, he says, on a trip to Damascus. He was confused enough to believe he could, with weapons, wipe Christianity off the face of the earth. He's not the first.
You and I heard the gospel because of another jihadist's trip to Damascus. Saul of Tarsus was filled with indignant zeal and, armed to the teeth, he thought he could terrorize the name of Christ off the face of the earth. What stopped him wasn't a set of arguments. What stopped him was Christ. And the gospel he found on that sandy road was later propelled, through him, across the world right down to wherever you, and Omar, first heard it.
God saves sinners like us, and like a repentant ex-terrorist who called himself the "chief" of them (1 Tim 1:15). This same Apostle said his story on the Damascus Road happened that way for a reason: so that "in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life" (1 Tim. 1:16).
As long as that's true, there's still hope that Omar could find Jesus, even on the road back from Damascus.