In the aftermath of the Parisian attacks last month, French President Francois Hollande vowed a "merciless" responseagainst ISIS.Within days, France had bombed an ISIS target in Syria and performed numerous raids within France itself, killing and capturing several terror suspects.
We can all understand this response. Terrorist attacks against civilians are horrifying. In an effort to seek justice for the slaughtered and to prevent future attacks, we turn to violence in our response.
As a Christian, should I have a problem with this?
How am I, as a follower of Jesus, supposed to reconcile this violence with the messiah who says ‘love your enemy’? How does this connect with Jesus, who responded to grave injustice and violence against himself, not with violence of his own, but with willing sacrifice?
Am I obligated to abhor violence of all types in absolute pacifism, or are there situations where violence bears a ‘negative good’ - that is, the results which occur are better than what would happen otherwise - and therefore deserve my support?
Thou Shalt Not Kill?
This question is not a new one. Most potential candidates to be the Jewish Messiah in ancient Israel advocated uprising. Jesus was a rare exception, as the Great Commission has nothing to do with overthrow of existing governments.
Augustine was forced to respond to questions as to whether Christians could serve in the Roman army during wars with the Goths.
Martin Luther King Jr. offered his thoughts on the morality of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons.
We live in an era where where a group which exists outside of the nation-state model is attacking non-combatants in multiple locations. Since 2000, over 140,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks by groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram.
How will we answer the question of how to use the tool of violence?
If we say that any and all violence is wrong, are we not giving free reign to those who would use violence against us?
What if the world had refused to use violence against Hitler? Who among us feels that the result of such non-violence would have been to the benefit of humanity or the Kingdom of God?
Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the attempt to assassinate Hitler believing that he may not be forgiven by God for undertaking the action.
You may have noticed by now that I am asking many questions and providing few concrete answers. That’s because most of what I have on this topic is questions.
One one hand, I certainly don’t want terrorism to continue to kill victims.
On the other, I see where Jesus said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth does not work. I also see where Jesus says “those who use the sword will die by the sword”.
When Jesus gives me a challenge that flies in the face of my best understanding, I have to remind myself that when Jesus tells me something, it’s for my own good. Jesus isn’t a passive aggressive jerk. He is a loving saviour who wants me to have abundant life.
When I incorporate the words of Jesus into my life, I’m doing myself a favor.
As the western world attacks ISIS, it reinforces the viewpoint that ‘crusaders are attempting the destroy the legitimate worldwide Muslim ruling government’. More people will choose sides. More people will fight. More people will die.
When I hear the words of a retired Lt. Col. saying, “You go wherever in the world the terrorists are and you kill them, you do your best to exterminate them, and then you leave, and you leave behind smoking ruins and crying widows. If in five or 10 years, they reconstitute and you gotta go back, you go back and do the same thing...”, I start to wonder how this could ever end the cycle of violence.
If we heard these words being uttered by a leader of ISIS about us, it would strengthen our resolve and possibly lead to more volunteers in our military.
With the idea in mind that Jesus points us to a life full of salvation, and gives us a call to be part of the process of inviting other men and women into this reality, here are some considerations we should each make when we find ourselves considering the merits of violence in responding to attacks:
- The government has the job of punishing those who do wrong. (1 Peter 2:14)
God has created the very concept of authority - who has the right to make certain determinations. God is also very clear that those who have authority bear the responsibility for it.
Part of the authority given to government is so that they can maintain order and preserve some level of seeking justice.
This is not to say that government orders can/should never be questioned, only to say that the pursuit of consequences for actions lies within the domain given to those who govern.
- Jesus takes a much broader picture when considering tragedy.
Luke, most likely recording records for Peter, writes in his Gospel about a conversation Jesus had regarding some violent recent events.
Pontius Pilate had murdered some people who were worshipping in the temple. Here was the response Jesus gave to his listeners:
“Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered? Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God.” (Luke 13:2-3)
Jesus then adds another tragedy which had recently occurred - a tower falling which killed 18 people and gave the same perspective: There are bigger things to focus on - relationship with God. While we are ordered to work for peace in this world, there is certainly no promise we will achieve it...quite the opposite in fact. Jesus may, in fact, be speaking of internal peace rather than external ‘I’d like the buy the world a coke’ kind of peace here.
- Jesus is both the crucified and the victorious conquerer.
We follow a Lord who calls us to come and die. Who tells us to take up our cross and follow him.
We also follow a Savior who will return riding on a white horse, his eyes looking like a flame of fire, wielding a sword and his robe dipped in blood coming to “release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress.” (Revelation 19:11-17)
Miroslav Volf, in Exclusion and Embrace, argues that in order to march with the Rider, we must first die with the Crucified. It is our tendency to wish to skip right to the latter.
I don’t want to argue about whether we must enter into redemptive suffering here, only to point out that Jesus himself tells us to follow in his footsteps: specifically to take up our cross and follow him.
If you only wish to reign destruction upon those who undertake even the most vile of actions of slaughtering unsuspecting civilians, you may need to spend some time considering how the sacrifice of the cross exists in your life.
If you feel that violence is never, ever permissible, I’d encourage you to give some thought to the role of Christ as the victorious rider and how we are called to follow his lead in this area as well.
Let me end this article in a manner that is probably on the first page of the ‘how not to end an article’ playbook: I don’t have the answers to the questions I’m asking. I’m troubled by the knowledge that there is no easy solution to the problems humanity has created for ourselves.
I grieve for the loss of fellow humans who are victims of violence and I grieve for fellow humans who are perpetrators of violence.
I will simply seek to apply the principles which Jesus gives: That I should work for peace, comfort those who mourn and point people toward the only one who can redeem and restore the brokenness of the world we live in.