Like most Americans, I’m horrified by each new story I read about ISIS. A friend who works in the region wrote weeks ago to tell me ISIS had taken Rutba, the Iraqi town that showed us radical hospitality when we were there in 2003.
I closed my eyes and whispered, “Lord, have mercy.”
I have Western friends who were taken hostage before ISIS and made it out alive. I ache for the families and friends of Jim Foley and Stephen Sotloff.
But I find myself dwelling more these days on the Iraqis who have no choice but to live under ISIS’ reign of terror. Though it hasn’t touched most Americans as closely as 9/11 did, ISIS presents a different challenge than Al Qaeda.
What responsibility do followers of Jesus have when terrorists are not attacking us but terrorizing someone else?
The just war tradition, which President Obama has invoked, holds that love of neighbor sometimes compels Christians to defend the weak when they have no means to defend themselves. In the Wild West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto drove back the bad guys to give the underdog a fighting chance.
In Iraq and Syria, US war planes are expected to do the same.
Only, no one in Iraq or Syria thinks of the US as the honorable lawman in a white hat, swooping in to save the day. We are, in their experience, more the Western outlaw, wielding a big gun and taking matters into our own hands. “Cowboy Bush will never defeat this ancient civilization, ” an Iraqi said to me on the streets of Baghdad in 2003.
Acknowledging the power differential between the world’s last remaining superpower and people living on top of oil reserves, bin Laden set out to subvert US dominance through guerrilla tactics. He took down our towers with our own planes.
But ISIS is different. It aims to be a state on the world stage and uses a Western name for its territory–the Levant. ISIS isn’t subverting Western dominance. It’s confronting it head on.
ISIS wants to meet force with greater force. Yes, their violence is terrible. But this is the truth we have to face:
Their violence is an echo of our own.
Of course, we will object that we have higher standards–that we would never resort to beheading. But a child is just as dead if she’s the collateral damage of a drone strike as she would be if she were executed in front of a camera. In fact, we do execute our precision strikes on camera–and play them not only for training purposes, but as part of the nightly news and the evening TV dramas (albeit fictionalized for our entertainment).
ISIS acting like a state reveals the basic faith of all states: that the threat of death is the greatest power to control people and their actions.
But Jesus showed us a greater power–the power of love. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to pledge our allegiance to the One who refused to resort to violence, but submitted himself in love. Refusing the violence of Rome as well as the revolutionary violence of the Zealots, Jesus was convicted with good evidence on the charge of claiming to rule in a whole new way.
Whenever people confess Jesus as Lord, we are proclaiming that ISIS is not. The US is not. The threat of death is not the greatest power in our lives. We bow in submission to Jesus because we believe in a force more powerful. This is, in short, what the Bible calls “good news.”
To be a true evangelical in our time is to proclaim the good news by standing against the power of death wherever we are. Yes, we must pray and stand with those who face the power of death in the terrible form of ISIS. But most of us are not living under ISIS. Most of us are struggling to follow Jesus against the power of death right smack in the midst of middle class Western culture.
What, then, can we do? We can look into the mirror that ISIS is holding up and say, “This has to end.”
And if it’s going to end, then let it end with us. Let’s refuse to meet violence on our streets with militarized police. Let’s refuse to answer tragic killing with state sanctioned executions. Let’s refuse to continue a system that responds to the refugees of economic violence in Central America and Mexico with walls, surveillance, and detention centers.
With so many people suffering because of other people’s actions, we cannot avoid a fight. But our battle is not against flesh and blood. We struggle, instead, against states that claim ultimate allegiance to the power of death.