3 Ways the Gospel Reoriented a 1st-Century ISIS Leader: Race, Patriarchy, Class
The images have been chilling and all too common: Masked figures staring into the camera in the desert or at sea-side locations before beheading Christians.
What if one of them wanted to talk with you about a dream he had where a man said, 'You are killing my people’?
That’s what happened to a Middle East YWAM worker. He was introduced to an ISIS fighter who had killed many Christians and wanted to follow Jesus after dreaming of a man in white.
Like Saul of Tarsus, Muslims gripped by the malestrom are being radically transformed because of their encounters with Jesus. According to Carolyn Custis James, author of Malestrom, this makes perfect sense: “Jesus’ gospel has a subversive power to reach behind enemy lines, draw men to Jesus, and free them from the grip of the malestrom.” (196)
Including ISIS enemy lines. Saul-turned-Paul’s story makes this clear:
If the internet had been available then, he undoubtably would have posted videos of himself online delivering threatening terrorist messages with a balaclava covering his face. (196)
Paul was a first-century version of an ISIS ring leader, making him the perfect candidate for Malestrom to illustrate what happens when the gospel collides with the malestrom of male violence.
When The Gospel and Malestrom Collide
“No one knows,” James writes, “but it is doubtful that any believer would have entertained the wildly insane hope, much less prayed, that the gospel could ever transform a man like Saul.” (197)
Paul’s story embodies the very definition of malestrom, the various ways the fall impacts men through violence, patriarchy, and power. “As a devoted Pharisee, Saul was fiercely committed to maintaining Israel’s distinctiveness and privilege as the chosen people of God.” (196–197)
Paul called this commitment ‘zeal,’ which extended to a willingness to use force to maintain Israel’s separateness from the nations. “Like a Taliban enforcer and with smoldering religious fervor, he relentlessly hunted down Christians.” (197)
It’s no wonder believers doubted whether such a person could be transformed! Canon Andrew White, Vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, reflects this sentiment:
At first I found it too hard to pray for the salvation of ISIS. They are just so evil. Then I realized they are just the kind of people that Jesus came to save…Pray that Al Bagdadi [ISIS leader and mastermind] may see Jesus on his way to Damascus just like St Paul. (198)
Redemptive stories like Saul-turned-Paul or the ISIS-fighter-turned-Jesus-follower “give us a greater sense of the power of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus is bigger than we imagine and has a surprisingly long reach.” (198)
3 Ways Paul’s Malestrom Story Was Reoriented
Paul’s story illustrates what happens when malestrom-shaped men collide with the gospel: “They are not confined by patriarchy or any other cultural definition of what it means to be a man, but instead reclaim their Edenic call to image God.” (200) Like this first-century ISIS leader, their perspectives are reoriented in 3 ways:
- Race: “Jesus shoves Paul across the racial divide between Jew and Gentile—a dividing wall the gospel shatters with the blunt force of a wrecking ball.” (200) This would have been incredibly difficult for Paul, given his Pharisaism. Yet Jesus calls Paul to dismantle this wall and proclaim the gospel on the other side of it. “The old zeal of Saul is not cast out, but is redeemed and redirected in Paul who will embrace the Gentiles as wholeheartedly as he once persecuted Christians.” (200)
- Patriarchy: “Paul has not only shed his Pharisaism, but also first-century patriarchal views of women.” (201) This seems clear from the list of women Paul depended upon as coworkers and fellow-sufferers: Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla, Persis, and more. “Paul becomes a new and different man, for whom patriarchy is no longer the obligatory social structure.” (201)
- Class: As an old man, Paul shatters the impenetrable barrier of socio-economic class through one of his more overlooked letters, Philemon. When Paul was imprisoned he met a Gentile slave, Onesimus. After sending him back to his Christian master, Paul not only pleads for the life of Onesimus, “but drops hard-to-ignore hints that Philemon should free his former slave who, Paul argues, is now ‘better than a slave’ to Philemon.” (202)
Paul’s famous triptych reveals how radical the gospel reoriented his understanding of the social structures of ancient patriarchy: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.”
Jesus didn’t come “to offer men a kinder, gentler patriarchy. His mission was to turn this fallen world right side up…When the gospel gets hold of a man, the world will know that Jesus has come and that his kingdom is not of this world.” (204)
Malestrom shows how when the gospel and the malestrom collide, the gospel will win every time.
Just ask Paul; just ask the ISIS fighter.
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