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Will Libya Ever Return To Its Roots and Embrace Religious Liberty?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

With baseball my spirit was always willing but my flesh was weak. One example: I never hit a home run in a game and came close only once. In 1976 I played in a University of Michigan graduate student co-ed softball league. Susan, who would shortly become my wife, batted ahead of me. She hit a ground ball and pulled a muscle leaving the batter's box. She displayed her tenacity—and the mediocrity of the league—by making it to first safely. (The third baseman fielded the ball cleanly but tried to compose the next few sentences of his dissertation before throwing it.)

I helped Susan limp to the sidelines and then went to bat, with a pinch runner taking her place at first. I surprisingly lined the ball over the head of the center fielder, ran the bases in my ponderous way, and while rounding third looked back and saw that the shortstop had caught the throw from the outfield and was prepared to relay the ball to the catcher. A good throw home would nab me so I stopped, pleased with my triple and thinking: No use risking an out, I'll hit a home run some other time.

That other time never came. I'll go to my grave homerless, hoping to play baseball in heaven. And that gets me to the issue of moments missed not by individuals but by nations. Russia had a window of opportunity two decades ago: Many American evangelicals went to help and were God's instruments in changing lives, but the nation as a whole ended up with Vladimir Putin. The United States has a crucial election next year, and 2012 will also bring a choice for Libya: change, or return to dictatorship.

The first Libyan signs are encouraging economically but not theologically. The New York Times reported that American and European business leaders "are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners. … Western companies hope to have some advantage over, say, China, which was offering to sell arms to Colonel Qaddafi as recently as July."

Money may talk but it appears that Christians will be silenced. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Committee and potentially Libya's new strongman, has proclaimed, "We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion." That means no liberty for Christians to evangelize. It may mean death for Libyan Muslims irresistibly called to Christ. And, sadly, this will all be occurring in the country that was a major Christian center during most of the six centuries following Christ's resurrection.

Tom Oden's Early Libyan Christianity (IVP, 2011) shows the error of those who claim that "African Christianity began only with modern Western colonialism," or that "Islam has more authentic claims to Africaneity than Christianity." Oden tells a striking story and he's a striking person: A scholar who edited the 28-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, he is a self-described "white guy from middle America, born in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression."

With that background he has spent decades learning and then showing the debt Christianity owes to Africa. His ancestors hailed from the British Isles and Scandinavia, so he has no skin in this game, but it's often that way with Christians, who oddly enough prefer historical truth to ancestor worship. Let's be honest, now: How many of you, dear readers, heard the news about Libya and thought "Simon of Cyrene," who carried Christ's cross to Calvary—but Cyrene was part of Libya? Libyans were present at Pentecost and at the stoning of Stephen. They were members of the Christian communities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and probably Rome.

Oden provides evidence that the Gospel writer Mark was Libyan, as were six centuries of Christian theologians and martyrs. They came close to hitting a home run, but Libya also had heresy and dissension. When Arab armies swept across North Africa beginning in 640 A.D., some saw it as a temporary setback—but nearly 1,400 years later Islam still rules those lands and brooks no opposition.

Christianity had its moment in Libya. How long, Lord, until it has another?

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