As the United States begins attacks on the Islamic State in Syria/Levant (ISIS/ISIL), with the aim of degrading and destroying this violent faction of fundamentalist Islam, it is imperative for Christians to reflect on how we approach war and what it means for who we understand to be our neighbors and our enemies. As the power and reach of ISIS/ISIL has grown over the past six months, threatening the balance of power throughout the Middle East, we have seen the cautions shifting of political alliances so those who usually distrust one another are willing to work together to defeat this force of evil. The United States is finding itself in dialogue with nations like Iran that we have previously regarded with suspicion or outright hostility. Meanwhile the rhetoric against fundamental Islam becomes increasingly caustic, and I wonder how this impacts the relationship between the US and our new “allies.” And what does it do for the relationship between Christians and Muslims in general, particularly the large majority of both faiths that are neither fundamentalist nor violent?
Since the days of St. Augustine (5th Century), followers of Christ have debated whether and when it is appropriate for Christians in particular and Christian nations in general to resort to violence to protect their interests or even the common good. Jesus’ witness of non-violent resistance all the way to his death leads some Christ-followers to shun violence altogether all the time. According to Christian just war theory, the use of violent force can be appropriate but only when certain conditions are met: all non-violent options have been exhausted; the threat must mean imminent danger for public life; the war must be carried out by a legitimate authority; the benefits of waging war must be proportional to the harm caused without war; there must be a real probability of success. The role of the church is not to endorse every bellicose impulse of the state but to help the state seek peaceful resolution and to guide the state toward entering a war only when the cause is just. While there are some today who might wonder whether this is too much mixing of religion and politics, the church has a long, rich, and relatively recent history of participation in the public debate about war. Church leaders help call political leaders to account if they are too quick to take up arms. What a war is just, church leaders also provide encouragement and reassurance to men and women who are called to serve the military in times of war.
I have heard little debate, either publicly or privately, among Christian leaders today about whether these early leanings toward war with ISIS/ISIL might be considered “just.” The sheer brutality of ISIS/ISIL’s tactics, including murdering civilians and broadcasting it on the internet, causes all of us to agree that ISIS/ISIL is evil and must be stopped. But is war the answer? (Formal declaration of war or not, airstrikes look like war to me, and “troops on the ground” have not been ruled out.) Christian ethicist and activist Jim Wallis says “no” to war. The Vatican is a bit more vague. I certainly do not pretend to be skilled enough at either just war theory or international affairs to understand whether the current crisis in Iraq and Syria demands war. (If war is not demanded, then it is certainly not just.) And I do not envy the difficult position of our President who wants to avoid war for some of the right reasons, and perhaps some of the wrong reasons, too. I will do what I hope all of you will do: I will study the world and the Scriptures to improve my understanding of both; I will seek wise counsel to help me interpret what I study and make informed judgements; and I will pray – for the US and her leaders, for civilians in harm’s way, for men and women in the military, and yes for our enemies. Most of all I will pray for peace.
One other thing Americans in general and Christians in particular can do as this conflict escalates is to refuse to participate in discussions that demonize all Muslims or brand Islam as a violent religion. Christianity has plenty of violence in its history (remember the Crusades), and the cause of peace is not advanced by stereotypes and generalizations. We do well to remember the advice of Mother Teresa: “Peace and war begin at home. If we truly want peace in the world, let us begin by loving one another in our own families.” In other words, peace is not first of all a global phenomenon but a personal one. The more we can do to make peace with our Muslim neighbors, the more effectively we can build peace in our world. I want to invite you to meet some of those Muslim neighbors at the end of this month. On September 29-30 a group of Palestinian culinary and film students will be visiting Hilton Head and Bluffton in a celebration of Palestinian culture. They will joined by Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian and pastor of Christian Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. The festival provides an opportunity to meet and understand some of our global Muslim neighbors, fellow travelers in the journey for a more peaceful world.