(I wanted to write this post over a week ago, but with building work going on and the house in chaos, I didn’t get a chance. Things are now calming down a little, so I hope to now be able to resume normal service.)
For the past few weeks, social media have been alive with justified outrage over the atrocities committed by the ISIS radical jihadist movement in northern Iraq. This grouping, the latest in a series of factions seeking to spearhead the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate spreading from the deserts of Iraq to the western border of Turkey, has been steamrolling through remote areas of northern Iraq forcing all who will not swear allegiance to its radical brand of Islam – including but not limited to Christians – to convert, pay a religious levy or be killed. Thousands have fled their homes and headed towards an uncertain and precarious future in Syria, while others – including women and young children – have been brutally mutilated and slaughtered. According to reports, some of those not willing to meet ISIS’s demands have been crucified, their bodies left hanging on crosses for weeks on end to serve as a chilling example to any who might entertain notions of dissent.
While questions have been raised over the veracity of some of the images being circulated, there appears to be little doubt that the situation in the affected corner of Iraq is at the very least a humanitarian catastrophe, if not an outright genocide.
As I indicated above, the general response to this awful situation has been one of widespread moral outrage. This, it seems to me, is entirely justified and appropriate. And, of course, it’s a short step from moral outrage to cries of “Something must be done!”… leading immediately to the question of what, precisely, can or should be done. Which is where things get particularly interesting for anyone seeking to be a follower of Jesus in this violent age.
The decision as to whether to provide humanitarian aid in the form of air drops of supplies to fleeing populations is uncontroversial. Where things get trickier is when Christians unite with non-Christians in calling for military action against ISIS.
Before I go any further, let me lay out a couple of important caveats:
– I am not out to judge anyone whose views on this matter differ from my own. I am not seeking to occupy a position of “My view is right, and any other view is wrong”. What I’m trying to do is honestly think through what it means to follow Jesus faced with this kind of situation.
– I’m very conscious that I’m writing this from a sheltered position of Western privilege. It’s easy to argue the toss about what should be done when there’s no immediate threat of jihadists knocking at your door. So if you want to dismiss me as someone who has little or no skin in the game and whose opinion therefore carries little weight, I’ll understand perfectly.
Now, with those caveats firmly established, let’s get down to it.
If you’ve been reading along for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m pretty convinced that non-violence in the face of aggression is a central tenet (in fact, arguably the central tenet) of Jesus’ life and teaching, and thus of the kingdom of God. I’ve thought and read enough about this by now that I’m persuaded that to deny it is to strip the gospel of much of its saving power. Indeed, while much of the church is happy to go along believing that salvation is purely a post-mortem affair, I’m increasingly convinced that what Jesus primarily wants to save us from is the folly of our own violent, retaliatory ways, and the suffering and destruction they inevitably reap for us in this life as much as in the next.
It seems to me that Jesus’ call for us to meet violence with non-violence is pretty clear. Of course, you can debate exactly what it meant to “turn the other cheek” in first century Palestinian culture – whether it meant passively accepting further aggression or whether it was in some way an act of honourable resistance that called to mind societal honour codes – but either way, what it clearly did not mean was to respond to violence with violence. In Jesus’ eyes, that option, as far as I can see, was off the table. And thus, insofar as we believe that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, that option must remain off the table today.
Now, we might be relatively willing to accept this hard but central teaching of Jesus when it comes to minor acts of aggression, such as being unfairly criticised or bad-mouthed. But when it comes to large-scale slaughter, we find the idea of non-retaliation much harder to stomach.
And so it is that much of the social media debate between Christians in recent days has been over whether and when violence might, in fact, be an appropriate response to violence – and particularly to grievous violence of the kind committed by ISIS in northern Iraq. On the one hand, there are those believers who, like me, insist that even in this situation violence is not the way of Jesus; and on the other hand, there are those who say, “Look, I get that we shouldn’t as a rule return violence for violence; but surely you can see that in this particular situation, something must be done!”
When I advocate for a non-violent (i.e. non-military) response to the atrocities in Iraq, I am most commonly met with one of two scenarios. The first is that I’m asked what I would do if I came into the house to find an unknown intruder about to rape and/or kill my wife and/or daughter. Would I still be so keen on non-violence, or would I kill the guy without hesitation? The second is that it’s pointed out to me that, if we (i.e. the West) don’t intervene military, countless more innocent Iraqis will die. Surely it’s better to kill a relatively small number of ISIS militants if doing so might prevent the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children?
For the remainder of this post, I want to try to respond to each of these scenarios.
The first is reasonably easy to despatch. On one level, I can’t say exactly how I’d respond if I came in to find my wife and/or daughter under attack. None of us can; it’s one of those situations where we can’t know quite what we’d do unless and until it, or something similar, actually happens. But that’s not really the point I want to make. The real point is this: constructing a hypothetical scenario might appear to be an easy way to score logical points in an argument, but it’s not an effective way. Simply put, if your method of argument is to put forward an artificial scenario with which I am unlikely to ever be faced in real life, well… you can prove just about anything you want to, because you can think up more and more far-fetched scenarios, as needed. But your arguments, based as they are on hypotheticals, only have any force in the hypothetical realm; they’re no good as a practical foundation on which to build a real-life ethic.
Moving on, then, to the second objection: surely it’s better to kill some ISIS jihadists in order to save lots of innocent Iraqis? This one, I’ll admit, is trickier to answer, but let’s take a shot at it anyway.
In the short term, it might seem evident that killing off some of ISIS’s manpower would save civilian lives. I won’t argue with that. But at what long-term cost? At this point we need to take a step back and consider how the current situation has come about. And we need to acknowledge that it is precisely Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria (and Afghanistan before them) that led to the kind of political fragmentation and power vacuum in which groups like ISIS could flourish. In other words, we did this. It was our vainglorious determination to go to war in Iraq that sowed the seeds for the atrocities that are now being committed. By the same logic, to intervene by force now may well save lives in the short term, but at the cost of even greater violence and death in the future.
And here we have the core problem with violence: no matter how worthy the reasons for it, at some point along the line it always, always, always breeds more violence. A cursory look at the history books should be enough to convince anyone of that.
The question that inevitably comes back, of course, is what actual use is non-violence in such a situation? How can the world possibly become a better place if our response to such blatant evil is to stand back and let it happen?
I’m not sure I have adequate practical answers to these questions at this point. All I can do it share with you where I’ve come to in my own personal convictions, which is here: if Jesus was all about ushering in the peaceable kingdom of God, a kingdom which we believe will endure forever, sooner or later we’re going to have to trust him that laying down our arms is not an optional extra. As long as we take a short-term, pragmatic view of the situation, we’re going to find it hard if not impossible to give up violence as a last resort.
The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that we cannot see how Jesus’ way of non-violence can ever really overcome violence. We think it’s a fine and laudable idea as far as it goes; but deep down we believe violence is stronger and thus will always defeat non-violence. However, if this is what we really think, I’d suggest we need to take a big step back and ask ourselves whether we’ve really understood what the cross was all about.
The crucifixion of Christ was the apparent victory of violent force over non-violence. Jesus might have gone about Galilee and Judea preaching peace for three years, but when the crunch came, Roman might squashed that preacher of peace like a troublesome fly. Did violence win on that dark Friday? To anyone who was there, no matter how committed they may have been to following Jesus, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”. And not only did violence win, it did so at the cost of the Messiah, God himself. God was slaughtered on a Roman cross. Violence wins; case closed.
And yet… we know how the story ends. Three days later, in a stunning move, this same Jesus rose victorious and greeted those who met him with words not of vengeance but of peace: “Shalom!”. What is this if not the ultimate proof that Jesus’ way of non-violence is finally the way to life, even when the path that leads to that life must first pass through death?
It seems to me, then, that we have a fundamental choice to make: either we take Jesus at his word and we follow his life’s example, or we don’t. For myself, I don’t see how I can coherently choose to say I believe in and follow Jesus while at the same time continuing to justify violence, even as a last resort, even to protect the innocent. As the Son of God, Jesus was absolutely innocent of any sin; yet he laid down his life rather than take up arms against an obviously evil oppressor. And later, after he had ascended, he did not use his divine power to prevent his closest friends from suffering violent deaths at the hands of that same oppressor.
And so I’m left with the paradox that sometimes, in the here and now, God’s great, unshakeable kingdom of peace appears to be easily crushed and trampled by violence and evil, just as Jesus was on that fateful day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. I must have faith to believe that, though I may not be able to see how, the non-violent enemy-love of God will eventually permeate the whole world. This is, indeed, an act of faith. But faith, if it is not to be dead, must be accompanied by works. And so I must begin in the only place I can: by renouncing retaliation and aggressive self-defence in my own life, every day, in the small, mundane things. If enough of us take up our crosses and do this, if enough individual hearts around the world are convinced to lay down their figurative and literal swords and not only advocate for peace but live it out in their lives every single day, perhaps we will one day live in a world where there is no place for ISIS, Hamas, or indeed violence of any kind.
Our beautiful, broken world desperately needs to end its love affair with violence. But this will only happen one heart at a time. My prayer is this: Lord, start with me.
For those keen to think further about non-violence as it pertains to current events in Iraq, I commend to you this article by Canadian theologian Andrew Klager.