Viewpoint: A Christian Response to Terrorism

A few days ago—before the attack on Paris—I wrote that there is no mythical demon prowling the world called “Terrorism,” which does not mean that there aren’t people who commit acts of terror. What I was denying was the reality that there is some “essence” of terrorism that, in its self-same identity, is instantiated in various places throughout the world. I stand by that denial, because I remain convinced of that we can only deal with the world honestly when we deal with things in their particularity; so, it is not that there is no connection between Al Qaeda and ISIS, but that clumping the two together as “the terrorists” obfuscates more than anything else. More than that, a war on “terrorism” is categorically endless, because, by identifying no particular object of war, those who wage the war can in principle never know when they have reached their objective. (For those who care for the just war tradition, that itself is a basic disqualifier.)

The point is to reject ideological thinking, and I am aware that the refusal to think about generalities can be just as ideological as the inability to think about particulars, and I hope to avoid that too. So, of course I was disturbed and saddened by the news of the attack in Paris on Friday, and of course I immediately wondered if ISIS was responsible. And since hearing that ISIS has claimed responsibility, I have been bracing myself for what seem to be the inevitable calls for war, and the ritual of liberal responses which attempt to differentiate Islam-the-faith from Islamist “extremism.” With France’s airstrikes on Sunday, and the explosion of articles over the whole weekend, my expectations were confirmed.

At least in this instance, I have no desire to challenge war as a response, nor do I intend to wholly reject the liberal response. What I do want to say is that those responses are of themselves not the Christian response. This can be but does not have to be competitive; a Christian response is what it is, and may find an ally or an opponent in other responses, and how this exactly looks shouldn’t be determined beforehand. I will say this about the liberal response: I generally think it is done in bad faith, not least because of the bipolarity of liberal attitudes about religious conviction generally, and the overwhelming ignorance about matters of faith that liberals expose in those attitudes. Their basic measure for what makes an “extremist” is that an extremist is a religious person who won’t accept the privatization of his or her faith when entering into the secular public square. By that measure, I and a host of other people are extremists. Additionally, I doubt very much that the deluge of liberal responders is in fact populated by people who know what they’re talking about. Most Christians that I know couldn’t explain Christianity, and even fewer nonbelievers have a decent handle on Christianity; liberals are generally liberal Christians or just secular, and if they are so ignorant of the dominant religion on the West, I have no interest in their opinions, positive or negative, about Islam.

Indeed, the entire ritual after such events can be summarized as getting across one point: Islam is peaceful, and Muslim people are not our enemies.

This isn’t wrong or right; it is useless. “Peace” is a concept that only operates within a particular logic, and so within the logic of each religion that religion is peaceful, having defined what peace in fact is. The meaning of peace is not self-evident. When people insist that Islam is peaceful, they mean that Islam accepts the definition of peace that the liberal nation-state intends; but this is patently false, just as it would be false to say that Christians or Jews accept that definition of peace. By secular standards, we “Abrahamic” faiths are not peaceful. As for Muslim people not being “our” enemies, an appropriate Christian response is first of all, “So what?” And then the second Christian response is, “And who is ‘our’ in that statement?”

Islam may or may not be the enemy of Christianity. It is meaningless to refer to practitioners. There are doubtless Muslim individuals who count themselves the enemy of Christians, and there are certainly Christians who are enemies to Muslim people. But the Christian has no investment in denying that a person or even a group is an enemy. It simply makes no difference. Those who follow Jesus are under obligation to love their neighbors, and to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Christians do not deny that there are enemies, nor refuse to acknowledge that people hate them. So if there are a group of people claiming to be Muslim who are our enemies, Christians must still think creatively about how to love those people. For those who find this too demanding, there are a number of other lords to follow besides Jesus.

Christians must also come to call into question this notion of “our” having an enemy. It is not that Christians should not care when the nation has an enemy, but thinking through the right response has to involve a reframing of the problem. We may say, “Among the victims in Paris, some of our fellow Christians were killed. But it is France that has an enemy.” Nor is this a position of neutrality. The attack on Paris was evil, and there can be no equivocation about that. The point is that Christians cannot simply identify themselves with the state or nation. There are places in the world right now in which Muslim people are persecuting Christians; our response to those situations is not the same as our response to the attack on Paris, but this difference hinges on our insistence that we identify ourselves as Christians.

A Christian response to this is one that draws together the Christian community to act as a singular communal agent in the world to announce Christ’s reign and so his peace. The state will do what the state will do, and—not to be resigned—the church has little say in the matter. But the church may do what the church may do, and this doesn’t mean that we Christians are not implicated in the state’s actions. All this means is that we must act in the world as agents of Christ and his justice. This surely involves building relationships with Muslims, not because they are “not our enemies” or because our faiths are not all that different, but because we follow Jesus and because we must win them too to his peace. In this we do not fear death, nor do we avoid hatred. And acting in the world as Christ’s agent means also calling the nation to his justice. If the state is to go to war, the church must agitate for the war to be fought with some semblance of justice, and with a concrete end; indiscriminate air strikes and total destruction are unjust, no matter how justifiable the anger and hurt. The church must agitate to welcome refugees of war, and the church must ready itself for the hospitality that it demand. We must say to the state, “Let us welcome them.” Anything less is just sentimental talk.

Matthew Burdette is a two-time graduate of La Sierra University, with an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a Master of Arts in religion. He is currently a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Aberdeen, writing a dissertation on the theologies of James Cone and Robert Jenson. He writes at Interlocutors, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here by permission.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7190

I disagree. As soon as one casts such a religious judgment upon a political act, one

One needs to examine the details here. Highly technologically advanced and wealthy industrialized countries are using near-invincible often remotely located soldiers with amazing remote-sensing technology to deliver powerful weapons down upon the heads of weakly armed, poorly equipped, individuals engaged in a power struggle over land and water and food and local politics.

Those countries are backing multiple competing factions for their own politic and financial purposes. Count the players. The LA Times gets to 8 major foreign powers, each with their own agendas - and they ignored Israel. And then there are another 4 or more local groups. http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-players-syria-war-20151002-htmlstory.html

Now count the number of local civilians that these external powers have killed, injured, displaced, …

Now tell me how you can label this specific act as “evil” without similarly condemning most of the acts of most of the players in this tragedy.

The United States Constitution had buried in it the seeds of the Civil War by failing to resolve a huge problem - the treatment of the Blacks.

The actions of the UK, the United States, Israel, and many other foreign powers in this part of the world for almost a century have similarly been a significant factor in the tragedy that is there now, including making some groups feel that the only way to strike back at countries that send missiles into their communities is to likewise attack the communities in the countries sending those missiles.

Was ISIS smart to do this? Will it help or hinder them in achieving their goals? It is certainly clear that the West has been throwing lots of resources against ISIS. Maybe they calculated the increased awareness of how badly we are acting will exceed the extra actions that we will do because of this act.

It is a hard political and economic problem.

Simply labelling the act “evil” obfuscates the issues.

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Evil is never limited to one power; it is found in all power structures, even religious. How can killing innocents not be merely “unfortunate collateral” but evil regardless of the perpetrator?

Evil seeks to gain control and power over others. Is there a better explanation? It does not always involve bodily killing but killing souls of hope and love, replacing it with hatred. This is what wars have always perpetrated: first: hatred of the enemy; then making them inhuman so the killers can justify their actions.

During WW II there were slogans and posters everywhere, particularly of the Japanese as monsters; and the Kamikaze pilots, just like Jihadists today, knew that their missions to strike ships that would always be death for them. This enabled the U.S. to intern the feared Japanese citizens here because a great propaganda campaign convinced the majority that they were a danger and should be put away from society. Fear enables the worst in people to do what they would never do under ordinary circumstances.

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i feel uncomfortable over our church’s tendency to take the high road of non-combatant status come war time, and yet reap the benefits of free speech and freedom of religion procured for us by the blood of others…if everyone took our high road, would we even have the opportunity to exist…

earlier today i heard about two minutes of obama’s unconvincing press conference on ISIS, in which he made the point that they’ve been contained geographically, that the problem was complex and not amenable to a feel-good military invasion, and that none of his military advisors advocated boots on the ground…i believe i’m tired of obama’s pacifist management of the middle east…i hope america’s next president will be far more hawkish and less loathe to lead the world into war - from in front…

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Mark 10: 13-16
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

America, please, don’t let the children die. The children are hungry, America, we cannot question them why before we feed them. We cannot question them how cold and naked are their fear, before first bringing them to the warmth of America peace. The children are thirsty for homes, America, how can we wish them well before we open the doors to our hearts. The children are hungry for the gentle. America, we are the gentle.

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Hi Bevin

Although I may have sympathy for your views, it is a conclusion that is not necessarily correct in the case of these ‘terrorist’ acts.

I agree about your analysis on the religious reasoning. One thing the French have concentrated on is the religious angle, concentrating on Mosques for example.

But other countries have been focusing on radicalisation via communities experiencing deprivation. Slums where young people face high unemployment and consequential gang cultures and crime etc. This is where the ‘knight in shining arnour’ comes in, in the form of radicalising Imams. They offer redemption, forgiveness and promises of a place in paradise. They then turn these young people by brain washing them. Some go to Syria where they get further radicalised.

In this context, anything can be used to adversely influence the young people, including foreign policy.

This is just a partial view.

I would say we need to be careful about jumping to any conclusions and go where the evidence leads.

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It is my opinion that this article is no more than the authors excuse for not getting involved by hiding behind religion. It is the typical Adventist response to shower these terrorists and their organizations with Rose petals and gifts instead of good old fashion, God ordained, Old testament judgement and retribution.

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Total destruction of the Caliphate in which ISIS is based, is the only thing that will bring this round of atrocities to an end. They have made this abundantly clear, and if you don’t get this, you’re simply not listening.

This doesn’t mean of course that this is the end of Islamic violence. Others will arise who believe they are the instruments of destiny, and will walk down the same path yet again. But the present lot cannot be bought, reasoned with, bargained with or dissuaded. They will fight to the death, and I’d rather their death than mine.

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So, you’re just like Obama and his cronies; you won’t call it what it is: radical Islamic terrorism. These are not servants of “Allah,” they are barbarians who wish to destroy western civilization and Christianity. They won’t succeed, of course, because God will intervene to save His faithful remnant.

The Christian response should be what it always has been (and I’m not talking about the pseudo-Christianity that gave us the Crusades), as portrayed in the book of Acts: living and preaching the Gospel.

I read each of these comments with great interest, but confess that I was perplexed by the general trend of these comments to depict what I wrote in this reflection as a call for the state to not go to war; in actuality, the “thesis” of the article, insofar as there is one, is that the church must conceive of its own action in response to terrorism, and the church’s response must be normed by the command to love our enemies.

Nowhere in this article did I unequivocally condemn military action by the state; in fact, when I wrote this I thought about my friend Ron Osborn, and wondered if he would disapprove of this piece precisely because I so soft-pedaled this issue. The critique of the so-called “war on terror” is that it fails to meet the standards of justice laid out in the just war tradition, one of which is that war must have a concrete objective and end goal. A thoroughly committed pacifist like Ron would likely eschew the question of war’s justifiability, and get to the more fundamental question of whether war is ever just. My own conclusion–not a pacifist conclusion–was that the church should urge the state to fight justly if the state is intent on killing, and to urge the state to minimize killing however possible. These remarks should not be controversial, nor surprising coming from a Christian.

But again: the point is precisely that the church’s first concern is not the actions of the state, but the actions of the church. Unless the commenters calling for war are suggesting that the church as the church take up arms and do the killing, these commenters have ignored the question of the church’s response.

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OK, so are you prepared this Thanksgiving to invite 10 of those refugees into your Thanksgiving table - with the excellent possibility that one out of the ten is there to kill everyone?

Christ has asked us to attend to those in need, indiscriminately. That would be fine, if the only life in jeopardy is your own; but you have no right, even as a Christian, to place the lives of your family in jeopardy while you are living out your Christian duty. In the same way, it is the responsibility of any government to keep its citizens reasonably safe. this is why we have a police force (spare me the political denigration of the police, please), and a military.

I am prepared to acknowledge that those claiming to be killing in the name of Islam are just using that religion to brutalize for the power and the fun of it; however, when we do go hunting for them we invariably go to Muslim neighborhoods, not Catholic, Baptist, Buddhist, or any other. That is the religion that spawns ISIS, just as Adventism was what facilitated Waco; however, there has been very little outcry or tangible help from the Muslim community.

It’s insanity to let a bunch of young Syrian men, equipped with new parkas and backpacks to enter Europe and the US and Canada without knowing who they are and exactly why they’re here. Let’s bring in the women and children and the old men (of which there are very few). The strapping young men can fight for their freedom.

Obama took an oath to look after the citizens of the US. It’s time he started to act like the president of the United States instead of trying to live up to some sort of peace prize granted to him before he set his foot into the white house. lf it’s his legacy he’s worried about, wait until the next 9/11 happens on his watch because of his political ambitions.

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My wife and I, in whatever way is possible for us, would welcome refugees to our home. We worship one who was once a refugee. Also see my earlier comment.

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Thank you for a clarification of your article. Desmond Doss was every bit as brave as those that held a weapon. He didn’t bury his head in the sand and do nothing but spout pious platitudes. He did nothing less than his duty. As Americans and Christians we have every bit the same duty. As a Vietnam era Marine. I never met anyone who wanted to kill for the sake of killing. The rules of engagement were not to fire unless fired upon. I think America has been fired upon.

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I get my jollies out of reading what pastors and theologians write about war. Safe from front line duty. I was a non combatant in WWII assigned to infantry basic. The conference officer I appealed to for resolution was a class act jeck. I dismissed him and pleaded successfully my own case. I was assigned front line duty with the 40 the infantry division. Made three assault landings. Became chief concom in clearing company surgery by the age of 20.

Unless you have been there and done that you opinion is just that an opinion. how we have an alleged SDA running for Chief of the Armed Forces. it is a long distance from .C.B. Haynes. three generations and three unsuccessful wars. tom Z

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Also to @tjzwemer

I appreciate both of your perspectives, but you both are speaking in your capacity as Americans. This is not an opinion “about war,” safely distant from the “front lines,” wherever that exactly is. This is an opinion about the church, not the war.

Albert, I would take issue with your statement that “Americans and Christians…have every bit the same duty.” That’s what this article is denying. Christians have a duty that non-Christian Americans do not have; like all Americans, American Christians must seek to protect the welfare of America, but unlike other Americans, American Christians have the additional responsibility to love those who are their enemies. That’s the point of this article. If this point gives Tom his jollies, so be it. But his and your military experience, which I respect, doesn’t contradict this basic point. Christians serve a Lord who tolerates no competitors for allegiance, and therefore Christian service to the nation is always limited by what service to the Lord allows. And the church is responsible to tell the world God’s will, which is that the nations enact justice. This article never denied that America has enemies; what it said is that the church must insist that even though there really are enemies, these enemies must be treated with justice. And the church must not just insist on justice, but must indeed love them–and especially love those mistakenly identified as enemies (e.g., refugees).

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Such thoughtful comments about what has historically been an intractable issue are admirable. Adventist theology is in good hands. I wonder Matt what you would think about the following delineation of our dilemma?

“War” is indeed the wrong term for what we are up against, given the fact that it has nothing to do with an established “nation-state.” What about using this term: “international gangsters or thugs?” We often hear the phrase, “war on crime,” or “war on drugs,” also a semantic confusion. With gangsters, we function with “police” who seek to find and neutralize them with prosecutions in a court of law. In the court, we seek and hopefully find justice, but in incarceration, “loving” them is in very short supply. We do not want to spend the money on rehab (many are criminals because they are either damaged in their homes or in society) which tries to repair what either emotional or environmental failures dismantled in their earliest years. This is a task deemed too expensive within national borders (for most, Scandinavian countries being a possible exception). If this is accurate, it is clearly too expensive for us to deal with an international gang whose ideology prefers death to being taken before a court of law. This leaves the Christian community with very limited and onerous options: (1) To engage the gangs personally which seems to lead to slaughter (the moral power of such an act depends, as MLK pointed out, on the moral capacities of the oppressors–do they have any?); (2) To refuse to support “national” efforts to “eliminate” the threat by wholesale destruction of the materiel and people involved (this is not acceptable on any moral scale against a “gang,” much less an entire nation (think WWII).

I do believe we need some kind of “action” consistent with Christian values, but it is incredibly difficult to define it in situations like these. What do you think some options might be?

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Thanks, your reply cleared a lot about your first essay. but I was addressing the response of several pastors and other aggressive non involved rypes. Tom Z

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Tom, you were very active in WW II and know that war is hell. I kept up with it daily from a safe home in the U.S. but my first love and sweetheart was killed on Iwo Jima and we at home daily saw and heard reports in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Few today, except veterans of later wars: N. Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced it as few Adventists have volunteered. But there are plenty of “armchair generals” among the non-combatants in the church. In past wars those who did not serve were called “draft-dodgers”; but what should those be called who write glibly about what the U.S. should do to stop these terrorists and bring peace?

Let them dream on; they are not sitting in the Oval Office or in the many countries that are truly involved on their own turf. It’s so easy to “advise” and condemn the president for not doing more, but he has far more information about the problems and consequences of hasty action than we here in the safety of our homes. We should not urge more involvement when the first country we invaded, Afghanistan, still shows no signs of ending. Do we really want a repeat of the “100 Years’ War”?

A note to Matt:

Tom was DRAFTED, as were hundreds of Adventists; they had no choice. I was in college then and it was amazing how many young men switched to theology majors to escape the draft while fellow students were being pulled out of their studies regularly.

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I think following this vision can have profound positive effects on our world. From your lips to more Christians’ ears, Matt. Judging from the responses to the attacks I’ve seen lately though, you have a tough audience.

It seems to me often certain Christians (especially last-day focused Christians) think loving their enemies is a nice spiritual discipline but ultimately useless against the tide of wickedness that is present now and will continue to sweep the world until Jesus comes to destroy the wicked and save the righteous.

IOWs, there is no hope that their actions could actually set the world on a better trajectory. We are doomed, wickedness has the upper hand, and Christians should be kind and all but recognize evil for what it is, inevitable and powerful. Their primary job is to convert others, not try and make the world a better place, though if that happens in some small corner through their actions, that’s nice.

I think this mindset makes it easier to be fatalistic about evil and easier to label others as such. When groups like ISIS arise and flourish, they are less likely to question their own role in failing to care adequately for their fellow humans and instead see it as just an example of the inevitable, even prophetic, evil that they must fight (usually violently) until Jesus destroys those people forever.

The Christian values you discuss have the potential for doing so much good, but it seems too often other theology gets in the way.

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I agree with a lot of things in this - at least in my opinion - well-balanced article. The author is not hiding behind religion, but behind the state. It is quite clear that Jesus brought war on earth, as He said. It is also quite clear that all kinds of hatred, violence against people or war and murder are caused by sin and therefore remain of evil origin. The state can not replace our conscience by demanding good citizenship and compliance to man-made laws. Terrorism is of evil origin. The devil is behind all ideologies which deny Jesus. Adventists are for some weird reasons prone to solidarize with religious minorities, even if it is well-known that these deny Jesus. But we should love every person with the eyes of Jesus, providing practical aid along with witnessing our beliefs. Food and clothes and a home and a daily smile for muslim refugees, but facing them with eternal death without Jesus. We must speak frankly and without fear.