One cannot help being deeply troubled by the latest wave of persecution against Christians perpetrated by the ISIS movement. It is a terrible situation that demands from Christians everywhere some sort of response. To do nothing seems intolerable. We feel we must respond, but how? From many different quarters I am hearing and reading the thoughts of Christians about what the appropriate response should be to such brutality against our brothers and sisters. It seems just about everyone has an opinion. But to tell the truth, I do not yet have an opinion. I feel very upset, angry even, but my experience has taught me that when I feel upset and angry about something, that is specifically not the time to be deciding what to do about something. I have always regretted words I have spoken and decisions I have made when I was angry and upset.
When I am angry and upset I am blind to the obvious—or rather, what seems so obviously the right thing to do or say when I am angry and upset is almost always (actually, is always in my personal experience) not life-giving, helpful or in any way actually salvific. When I speak or act while anger is still bubbling inside me, when I haven’t been able to return to peace in myself, and I speak or act with this disturbance still churning inside me, I have always just made things worse. But isn’t this also what St. James tells us when he says “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1: 20)? I have found, however, that writing about my thoughts, does often help me clarify things. So who knows, maybe by the time were done here today, I will have found an opinion I can get behind.
There are many possible Christian responses to ISIS. In fact, basically any way a Christian responds is a Christian response to ISIS. Some Christians are more sophisticated than others in providing a biblical or theological or historical defence for their response, but basically, how any Christian responds to ISIS is a Christian response to ISIS. So I think this category of “a Christian response” in many ways is not very helpful. A different category, a category that I am finding more helpful as I am trying to think about my response to these very disturbing matters is not, “what is a Christian response,” but “what is a Christ-like response?”
I think a good example of a Christ-like response to ISIS is the official response of the Coptic Church to the martyrdom of twenty-one Coptic Orthodox Christian men working Libya. These men were given the opportunity to convert to Islam, and having refused were decapitated for their faith in Christ. How has the Coptic Church responded? It immediately canonized these saints, giving them a day on the Coptic Christian calendar to be annually venerated. The Coptic Church glorified these men, setting them up as examples for all of the faithful. I think this is not only a Christian response to ISIS, it is a Christ-like Christian response.
Another Christ-like Christian response to ISIS is found in the words of a brother of two of the men who were murdered for their faith. Here I will quote my source directly:
In an interview with Christian channel SAT-7 ARABIC on Wednesday, Beshir Kamel, brother of two of the Coptic martyrs, even thanked the Islamic State for including their declaration of faith in the videos before killing them.
“ISIS gave us more than we asked when they didn’t edit out the part where they declared their faith and called upon Jesus Christ. ISIS helped us strengthen our faith,” he said.
Beshir said that he was proud of his brothers Bishoy and Samuel, saying that their martyrdom was “a badge of honor to Christianity.”
But even more than Beshir’s response, I think the response of Beshir’s mother is the most Christ-like Christian response I have encountered so far.
When asked what his reaction would be if he saw an Islamic State militant, Kamel recalled his mother’s response.
"My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven,” Beshir said.
Basher’s mother seems to me to be the most Christ-like in her response. Loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who despitefully use and persecuted you—these are the ways Jesus told us to respond to violence.
You might ask me then, based on what I have said so far, “Is there never a time when Christians should use violence to stop evil? Are you a pacifist?” No, I am not. I am not a pacifist. I do indeed think there are times when in our fallenness we can see no other appropriate way to respond to evil other than with violence. Sometimes, it seems, that violence is the least sinful way we can respond in a situation. However, if we feel we must use violence, then at least we should acknowledge that this is not the way Christ showed us. Christ, our pattern, our type, our guide, never killed any one. He rather let Himself be killed. It is true that once Christ did forcefully drive money-changers out of the Temple—causing a few bruises and minor lacerations perhaps, but not killing anyone. And Christ did once tell his disciples to acquire swords (Luke 22:36), but then he rebuked the disciple who used a sword (John 18:11). And so we have these two ambiguous instances in the Gospel that suggest that violence may sometimes be appropriate; but against these two we have Christ’s behaviour before Pontius Pilate and his words, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my followers would fight” (John 18: 36), and then there is the whole content of Jesus’ moral teaching (“if someone strikes on one cheek, turn to him the other,” etc.).
It seems that if we are going to look exclusively at what Jesus did and said as our example, then a pacifist certainly does match more closely the example of what Jesus did and said than does almost any Christian military response that I can think of through out history. But this should not surprise us, Christians have never been very good at following Christ. I certainly am not. But then what human being doesn't fall woefully short of his or her ideals?
And of course, Christians don’t simply follow the example and teaching of Christ as it seems best to them. They follow the example and teaching of Christ as it has been interpreted for them through the Church, through the Apostles and their successors the Bishops. And this is a very good thing. Sure, sometimes I chaff at this, sometimes I wonder if all of this interpretive tradition is really a good idea. I wonder this especially when in my self-righteousness I think that my interpretation of what Jesus said and did is better than everyone else’s. (Ah, yes, the ultimate experience of self-righteous delusion: if everyone would just see things my way and do what I say, the world would be such a better place.) No, it is really a good idea that we have and respect the holy tradition we have been giving.
Yet even in the Holy Orthodox Tradition, there is ambiguity. There are warrior saints, on the one hand; but on the other hand, most of these these same warriors lay down their arms and submit peacefully to martyrdom or leave military service altogether to spend the rest of their life in prayer. Yes, on the one hand the Church gives us prayers for weapons and prayers for soldiers about to go off to war, and then on the other hand, the Church imposes a severe penance on soldiers who have killed in battle (it’s a ten-year excommunication, I think). On the one hand, the Church teaches us to honour the emperor (an archetype of a military despot) and on the other hand, a priest is not allowed to carry a weapon and is laicized if he kills, even accidentally. And so within the tradition of the Holy Orthodox faith, we have a certain ambiguity about war and killing. Yes it is, at times, allowed; but no it is never good.
I wonder if the Church’s view of the use of military force couldn’t be perhaps likened to its view of divorce. The Church teaches that divorce is never good. In the Orthodox teaching, one man and one woman are married—joined by God—not only for life, not only “until death do you part” (as in the western wedding service); rather the Orthodox Church teaches that not even death breaks the marriage bond: “Whom God has joined together, let not man break asunder,” Jesus said. Nonetheless, the Church recognizes that in our sin and brokenness sometimes marriages fail, and sometimes people are not able to remain continent after the death of a spouse. And when that happens, after a season of healing and repentance, the Church does allow a second and even a third marriage. But this is a condescension to human weakness. This is not the teaching of the Church on marriage. The church never encourages divorce and remarriage even if it does recognize that it is sometimes the least sinful response to an already very broken situation.
And if I am not too far off the mark in comparing the Church’s blessing of the use of military force with it’s blessing of second marriages, then I think the Church must always lead with the message of peace, the message that military responses to violence—fighting fire with fire—is not how God would have us respond to violence. Martyrdom is preferable to violence. This, it seems to me, should be the message that the world hears from the Church in times of persecution, as we have indeed heard from the Coptic Church in its response to the twenty-one martyrs killed in Libya. If our political and military leaders, those of whom St. Paul said they “do not bear the sword in vain,” if these decide to respond to violence with violence, then I think the church reluctantly should bless even this. The Church should bless not as though saying that the Church advocates or encourages violence as a response to violence, but because the political and military leaders have made their decision, and the Church needs to bring its blessing even into very broken places.