It’s been 14 years since our government declared war on terrorism. How are we doing? It feels like a disastrous game of Whack-A-Terrorist, doesn’t it? We kill one terrorist hiding in one hole, and out pops another one from another hole. Now we are facing the newest threat, a terrorist organization seeking to set up a nation-state, ISIS or IS, as its leadership prefers to be called. The Islamic State, at least, would be a concrete opponent. If they hold on to territory and establish a functioning government, we could at least declare war on a tangible target. Though regrettable it would at least make sense within the logic of war in which states fight other states.
In a recent article for Patheos.com, David French uses Christian Scripture as a justification for “responding to ISIS with wrath and vengeance.” French is a lawyer, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He claims that, according to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, while individuals are called upon to love their enemies, there is no such call placed on governments. In fact, God has instituted governmental authority in order to execute his wrath against evildoers. And apparently, or so Romans 13 puts it according to French, to know who the evildoers are one simply needs to look at who governments are punishing. French quotes the relevant passage, Romans 13:3-5:
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [Emphasis added by French.]
French concludes that American Christians should have no difficulty determining the correct response to ISIS. Why? By the fact of determining that justice must be executed against ISIS, our government has determined that their violence is not only an offense against American citizens (he names the beheading victims, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) but against God himself.
French’s analysis strains credulity. Doesn’t he realize that the Romans to whom Paul was writing were themselves victims of government persecution? Does he think that these persecuted Christians felt they were being justly punished? And what about Paul himself, a Roman citizen who was persecuted and executed by the Roman government? Doesn’t French realize that by his own argument, the Roman authorities were executing God’s judgment against Paul? And by his own analysis, French is a captain in a military force that is from its origins a justifiable target for God’s wrath. Why? Because the founding act of the United States was a rebellion against a government, and “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:2)
French has analyzed himself into a corner. In his attempt to quickly and easily condemn others, he finds himself condemned as well. This is not a proper use of Scripture, to say the least. By reading Romans 13 at face value, by failing to take into account the audience and the context, and by neglecting to include the possibility of a text written ironically or with covert intentions, French not only fails to detect the subtlety and complexity in the letter to the Romans, he fails to see the subtlety and complexity in the current state of our war on terror.
The war on terror is not a black and white, God-pleasing contest between the righteous and evildoers. It is a never-ending war without borders, against enemies without uniforms, fought not on battlefields but in neighborhoods, front yards, and bedrooms. In our search for peace and security, we have paradoxically created chaos and a loss of distinctions so extreme that we cannot tell combatants from civilians, enemies from comrades, legitimate targets from innocent bystanders. We entered into this morass as victims, or so we thought at first, innocent victims on a quest for justice. But justice turns out to be elusive, to have turned against us because of all the victims we have created in our pursuit of the ones who made us into victims. When is justice another name for vengeance? When is a nation more at risk from its own misguided sense of self-righteousness than from any outside enemy? When is God’s purpose betrayed by God’s people?
It is time to move beyond black-and-white analysis. It is time to question where legitimate authority is to be found and indeed, where God’s agents are to be found. The ability to wrestle with paradox, that’s what’s needed now, to be so honest with ourselves that we can admit that we have become part of the problem we set out to solve.
Our mission at the Raven Foundation is to make religion reasonable, violence unthinkable, and peace a possibility. We invite you to join us in that mission by reflecting on 5 Peace Paradoxes that we developed for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In the years since, they have been used as a private meditation or in discussions with family and friends. Join us in daring to admit our failures and confront the very real possibility that Jesus’ words from the Cross may have been spoken on our behalf: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The 5 Peace Paradoxes
When the planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we all felt a terrible loss of safety. Our belief that we were secure here at home was shattered and we set off immediately to recover it. We even went so far as to have a color coded scale to let us know just how insecure we were at any given moment. When security is the goal, however, it becomes an excuse to justify aggression against anyone who might be standing in the way, even our fellow citizens. In the last ten years, we have not only turned our military machine lose against foreign nations, we have turned our security apparatus lose against ourselves.
It is hard to know if all these security measures have made us more secure, but we can certainly be clear about what it has cost us in financial terms, in lost and shattered lives, and in reduced freedoms at home and growing anti-Americanism abroad. Rather than seek to achieve security, we are better served by learning to live with insecurity. If we can find the courage to tolerate fear and insecurity, we are less likely to do harm to ourselves and others. Authentic peace requires the courage to live with fear and the heroism to include others in our vision of peace.
It is true that evil exists and that good people have a responsibility to identify evil and protect the innocent. But it is also true that evil is often where we least expect to find it, which is in ourselves, and that the ones we think are the most wicked of all too often turn out to be innocent victims of righteous violence. The only sure way to avoid using violence at the wrong time against the wrong people is to make our judgments about good and evil with a healthy dose of self-doubt. We can’t retreat into moral relativism nor can we self-identify as paragons of virtue. It’s necessary and right to take a stand, as long as keep asking ourselves, “What if we are wrong?” Humility is one of those paradoxical virtues of heroism that is absolutely essential for peace building.
Violence is reciprocal and prone to escalation. That means that we return violence for violence, but always with a little something extra. So we respond to a slap with a fist, to a stab with a bullet, to a terrorist attack with a war. You see how it goes – we do to others as it has been done to us and our great act of originality is to come up with new and better ways to hurt each other. Combatants are thus trapped in a self-defeating hall of mirrors. When both sides of a conflict are all behaving the same way, no true difference remains between them. Violence erases differences even as it continues to assert them.
In the cycle of violence, true originality is found in a refusal to retaliate. When we do refuse to return hate for hate, we are opening up the possibility for something new and creative to emerge. To be original, one must be courageous enough to take the blow and refuse to respond in kind. That is the only way to avoid becoming the mirror image of the thing you claim to despise.
On 9/11 all Americans felt as if we had been personally attacked. We all felt like victims, wounded and afraid, and we were overcome with grief at the senseless loss of life. Some of us instinctively asked, “Why?” and some were brave enough to wonder what we might have done to have triggered such an act of hatred and revenge. Now this is dangerous territory. Asking a victim to shoulder some blame for their trauma is to risk blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator. But it is a risk we need to take in this case, because the United States is not a defenseless or random victim. Honestly assessing our actions in the world does not in any way diminish the culpability of the suicide bombers or their supporters and is the only pathway to national integrity.
If we don’t question ourselves we risk falling into a trap that is the favorite friend of violence. We will give ourselves permission to divide the world up into good and evil and we, of course, will always be the good ones. We will become blind to the truth that no one person or nation or cause is completely good or evil. All of us, victims and terrorists, Christians and Muslims, powerful and powerless, are made up of both good and evil and to think otherwise is simply another justification for violence. In that case good people find themselves committing terrible acts of violence that they would condemn if perpetrated by their enemies. Personal and national integrity requires that if we use violence to achieve our ends, as our enemy has done, then we must give up our claim to being good. Goodness and violence negate each other and the truly good nation is one that holds itself to that highest of standards.
It’s truly a paradox that the biggest obstacle to peace is believing that there are obstacles to peace. Failing to believe that peace is a real possibility prevents us from making the creative and sustained effort that peace will require. And believing that obstacles exist, and that they are not our own failure of imagination, is once again an excuse to continue violent campaigns against whom or what we decide those obstacles to be. Taking full responsibility for the work of peace building requires that we recognize that it is the obstacles that are the illusion and peace the concrete reality. A reversal of conventional thinking to be sure, but one that we must embrace for peace to have a chance.