My Take: Now and Not Yet
by Raj Attiken, April 23, 2015: In her 2015 book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues that a religious Reformation within Islam is the only way to end the terrorism, sectarian warfare, and the repression of women and minorities in the Muslim world. Ali, born in Somalia and raised a Muslim, grew up in Africa and Saudi Arabia before seeking asylum in 1992 in the Netherlands, where she went from cleaning factories to winning a seat in the Dutch Parliament. Currently, she is a fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Drawing some parallels to what Martin Luther attempted to do for the Church of his day, Ali proposes five things that need to be reformed in Islam – central precepts that have made Islam resistant to historical change and adaptation. One of the five precepts she identifies for reform is Islam’s emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now. This fixation on life after death and disregard for life before death, she posits, tends to “erode the intellectual and moral incentives that are essential for ‘making it’ in the modern world.” Worse yet, she observes, there is a fatalism that creeps into one’s worldview when this life is seen as transitory and the next is the only one that matters. In a chapter titled “Those Who Deserve Death,” Ali describes at length how the focus on the afterlife and its rewards, inculcated in Muslims since childhood, makes martyrdom a very appealing and desired option. Martyrs have all their sins forgiven and automatically ascend to the highest levels of paradise. Death – not life on earth – is their goal, the event that matters because it leads to the prize of eternal life.
My intent here is not to offer an assessment of Ali’s arguments and proposals. Instead, it is to invite reflection on the fact that Christianity also places emphasis on the hereafter, holding out to the faithful the promises of an eternal future in heaven and an earth-made-new. That the second coming of Jesus ushers in this long-anticipated future is a central tenet of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Jesus, in his teachings, and the writers of both the First and Second Testaments describe elements of the future home of the redeemed in highly desirable and blissful terms.
Despite how attractive and desirable this long-awaited “kingdom of heaven” is, its anticipation does not require that Christians renounce life on this earth, or even worse, seek to end it. Unlike the version of Islam that Ali describes in her book, Christianity’s focus on the future does not depreciate or devalue life in the present. Instead, Christianity urges engagement in this life with the intent of transforming it for the better. Christians are to be “salt” and “light.” They are to “seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, fight for the rights of widows” (Isaiah 1:17, NLT). Jesus affirmed, “God blesses those who work for peace” (Matt. 5:9, NLT).
Jesus announced the “good news” about the coming kingdom. He also declared that the kingdom of God has arrived – now! Many of his miracles were dramatic exhibits of what happens when life in the present is overlaid with features of the kingdom to come. In the kingdom to come there will be no blindness, so he will give sight to the blind – now! In the coming kingdom there will be no one that is lame, so he will heal the lame – now! In the future kingdom there will be no death, so he will raise from the dead a widow’s only son, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus – now! Lives were incredibly transformed when Jesus dragged the future into their present!
The Good News that we bear to the world is not only that a new world is coming; it also is that God is active in this present world. In the world to come there will be no hunger; Christians will, therefore, participate in God’s work to relieve the current world of hunger. In the world to come there will be an abundance of water; Christians will participate in God’s work to bring clean water to the villages, towns, and cities of the world now. In the world to come there will be no sickness; Christians will join in God’s work today to eradicate disease and to bring healing to the sick. In every way possible, Christians will drag the future into the present by being engaged in God’s present activity to bring relief, healing, justice and liberation.
It is not coincidental that Christian volunteers and Christian organizations have played a major role in reducing childhood mortality, illiteracy, hunger and other global social ills in recent decades. Christians have not only proclaimed the hope that there will be abundance in the world to come; they have also been involved in creating a world of possibility for those who spend their days scrapping and scraping to survive. Despite their many failures, the Christian Church, Christian ministries, Christian initiatives, and Christian organizations have, historically, played a significant role in making the world a better place for individuals and communities. The Church’s “success” in this regard over the centuries is unmatched.
Adventists, as do other Christians, face the challenge of maintaining a wholesome balance between life in this world and hope about the world to come. When we are consumed with the former, visions of God’s future fade and hope wanes. When we are preoccupied with the latter, we risk becoming incapacitated in our engagement with our world. Irrelevance and insignificance follow. Our voice becomes one of gloom and doom.
Our present-day sensibilities should be informed by the ways in which God has worked in the past to bring his future into the present. The Christian faith compels us to have a “now” and “not yet” focus. A wholesome expression of Adventism will include a robust balance between both foci. That’s my take!