When I think about ISIS and what our response as a nation should be to their reign of terror my soul is in anguish.
Why the anguish? Does ISIS not 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 them?
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 Iraq 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 effort.
In one sermon Stanley 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.
Is violence ever justified? According to Jesus it is not. Hence, my anguish of soul. I am a Christian minister but I am not yet willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.