Credit: Getty Images
Terrorism’s path continues to widen in the West. Last year, it darkened streets in the City of Light on a November evening. Parisians and others were out for an evening of varied enjoyments, only for 130 of them to be murdered by eleven ruthless men. The next month, 5,600 miles away, a husband and his wife brought death to a facility for the disabled in San Bernadino. In 2016, so far, terror has struck geographically-ranging locales such as Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul and two more horrific events in France—the Bastille Day killings in Nice and the slitting of a priest’s throat in Normandy. All incidents were carried out by ISIS soldiers or associates.
So where does your heart run in response to these gruesome acts of terror? To shock? To rage? To sadness? To a thirst for justice … even revenge? For many Americans, a thirst for justice or revenge is the beacon our hearts hone in on.
America possesses and reinforces a certain culture of reaction to invasion or threat by an internal or external aggressor. It is captured in Colonel Christopher Gadsden’s famous yellow flag from the eighteenth century, which details a coiled rattlesnake and the words, “Don’t tread on me.” The snake is in both a defensive and offensive posture ready to strike if threat or attack occurs. Such an image coupled with such a statement embodies the American attitude.
The Church in America often exhibits this attitude as well when terrorism happens. With each incident, many Christians publicly or privately call on the federal government to destroy the terrorist network and call for this with “an eye for an eye” vehemence. This response is understandable seeing the evil acts are an affront to our security and our very lives. And American Christians have been infused with America’s individualistic culture, which is a significant catalyst adding fuel to the fire of this philosophy. During these times of horror, our minds default to American mantras like “Don’t tread on me.” The patriotic impulse kicks in and our defiant quest for justice is declared. Is this type of reaction justified? Calling for justice is not unbiblical. But we must also ask what our first reaction should be to such horror.
During the time of Rome’s occupation of Israel, justice was an endangered ideal. From the Temple to the tax booth to the throne, extortion and abuse of power and position was commonplace. Hence, personal justice and revenge were sometimes being carried out by the citizenry. Yet, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says that a lack of justice in the state does not legitimize an individual filling the void created by the government’s malfeasance. Instead, Christ directed those who experience injustice to demonstrate charity and deference. In light of His directives, calls for (lethal) justice against aggressors should be secondary.
Therefore, the American Church should have a different, primary reaction. Christians should call for terrorism to be stopped by the saving power of God. The religious extremists inspiring, planning, facilitating, and committing these atrocities have the same image of God stamped on their persons as the Amazonian witch doctor or the secularist in Tokyo whom the Church evangelizes. Being made in God’s image gives humanity an inherent worth. It is the value of a privileged existence separating mankind from all other portions of creation. If they never believe in Christ, these people have the same fiery fate as all others who fail to believe.
Love Your Enemies
“But, is not a call for justice or conquest the proper response to such evil?” one may ask. Consider Christ’s thoughts on justice put to practice. Shortly after his ascension, a key member of a religious minority (the Church) was arrested for his beliefs in the same region of the world where ISIS is now active. As is the case today, the ruling religious class was striving to stamp out all competitors. Their means were ruthless for those who disobeyed their blasphemy laws. For stating he saw Christ standing at the right hand of God, they stoned this man.
As he was dying, there were no precatory prayers on his lips. No curses upon those stoning or their families were uttered. Instead, Stephen prayed that God would forgive them. In due course, Paul would act in the same godly manner when persecuted. He even orchestrated his trial proceedings so he would have an opportunity to speak with the Roman emperor Nero, the chief terrorist of his day. Not to verbally condemn him, but to testify of Jesus Christ.
Stephen and Paul’s situations bear a resemblance to ours. It is not a full resemblance, but the spirit of their reactions is what must be pondered. When confronted with the threat of or immediate violence, these men responded with compassion, with pity. They did not see people as enemies worthy of death and conquest. They saw their humanity, souls which one day would be held accountable for their horrific, sinful acts, but not by them. They had been charged with the task of “making disciples.” To them, no horrific act by a person would disqualify that person from being evangelized or prayed for.
The Church in America cannot see (in part or in full) the “ripeness of the fields” if we are solely or primarily calling for the militaristic defeat of ISIS. We will see enemies and not fellow human beings likewise made in his image who desperately need the gospel as well. How we identify them will determine how we view them. One may support defeat militaristically or politically, but it should not be the Church’s primary call. If God’s salvation comes broadly to ISIS and the extremist portions of the world, the physical atrocities will decrease noticeably or significantly or altogether. Furthermore, lives will be saved and not ended.
Rome’s terror was eventually conquered by spiritual transformation and not by political solutions nor militaristic strategies. Exemplifying the spirit of Christ, i.e. loving one’s enemies, actually worked. It could very well do the same again.
This article originally published at Mere Orthodoxy.
Updated on November 6, 2019.