What to Do About ISIS? A Christian’s Anguish
When I think about
what our response as a nation should be to their reign of terror my soul is in
Why the anguish? Does
completely devalue human life and are they not committed to the utter
destruction and mass enslavement of all people who refuse to surrender
allegiance to them? Does this not warrant the use of military action to stop
The reason I am in anguish is because I take seriously the nonviolent life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth whom I strive to follow. In the temptation narrative Jesus renounces the option of wielding power as a means of accomplishing God’s will. In his conflict with the religious and political powers of his day, Jesus chooses the way of suffering every time instead of the way of violence. At the time of his arrest he tells his disciples, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus dies powerless and mocked, absorbing the animosity of his tormentors without wishing them harm.
Less we think this was somehow unique to Jesus, he instructed any would-be follower to renounce all violence by taking up his or her cross and getting in line behind him (Matt. 16:24). He even told his disciples to love their enemies by praying for them and doing good to them (Matt. 5:38-48). In his letter to the Romans, Paul echoes basically this same teaching (Rom. 12:14-21).
Not all Christians have or do take Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies seriously. Church historian and religion professor Charles Marsh researched some of the sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead-up to the first
war. He discovered that many, such as Franklin Graham, Paul Crouch (Founder of
the Trinity Broadcasting Network), Jack Graham (then president of the SBC), and
popular Baptist preacher Charles Stanley, to name a few, fully endorsed the war
In one sermon
admonished, “We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible.” He
quoted Paul in Romans 13:1 about being subject to governmental powers, but
completely ignored Paul’s instruction to not repay evil for evil, refuse
retaliation, and do good to our enemies in Rom. 14. And with a wave of the hand,
he totally dismissed Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and love of enemies in
Matt. 5, claiming that Jesus was speaking to us as individuals, as if that
somehow justified completely rejecting it. Marsh observed that Stanley expressed “no
anguish, no dark night of struggle,” no “hint of apprehension, or words of
caution, about the certain violence inflicted on civilians.”
For the first three centuries the vast majority of Christians rejected all expressions of violence and refused to take up arms under any condition. The reason: They sought to be faithful to the life and teachings of their Lord and his alternative kingdom. That all changed when
Constantine wed church and empire, and made Christianity
the official religion of Rome.
Since then the majority of Christians have endorsed violence or sought to justify it under certain conditions and circumstances. Many have simply ignored, dismissed, or rationalized Jesus’ life and teaching as if they did not matter.
Father George Zabelka was the chaplain who administered catholic mass to the bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on
Nagasaki in 1945 resulting in the mass
destruction of civilians. Later he came to repent of his complicity in the
destruction. In an interview with Sojourners, he described the Christian ethos
of the times: “I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the
church [the church at-large/the majority of Christians] in relation to mass
bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at
best—at worst it was religiously supportive . . .”
There have always been pockets of resistance to violence from peace-loving people, and from Christian communities that have born prophetic witness to both state and church, but for the most part Christendom has a sad history of acquiescing to violence.
I struggle with Jesus’ teaching and do not claim to renounce violence in all circumstances as Jesus commanded. I cannot fault Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for I probably would have done the same. I suspect I would employ any means available, including violence, to save family and friends from death by violence (if an intruder invaded my home, for example), and so I struggle with the question of what to do about
ISIS. Do we, as a nation, have a
moral obligation to our sisters and brothers in that part of the world to
protect them from genocidal destruction?
By the way, I wish our president and national leaders would frame the question as a moral obligation to humanity, though I don’t expect them to. They tend to frame the question the way empires frame the question: What must we do to protect national interests and our own people? A follower of Jesus must frame the question in terms of the dignity and value of all human lives, not just American lives. Anything less is not Christian.