We Can Respond to ISIS as Christians or as Americans. But Not Both. | Sojourners

We Can Respond to ISIS as Christians or as Americans. But Not Both.

So what do we do about ISIS?

The U.S. and the U.K. have decided that the answer is to bomb them. And it’s looking more and more like the answer will become to send troops.

But what do we do about ISIS?

Does it make a difference whether I respond as an American or as a Christian? These days it’s hard to tell a distinction between the two. And that’s the question, and the answer, that scares me most.

For those trying to discern the difference, some history is in order.

It has become fashionable among American evangelicals to name Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as proof of the moral rightness of theological conservatism. Their opposition to the Nazis stemmed from their insistence on traditional orthodoxy — against the demythologizing innovations of the liberal Protestant churches in Germany, churches that acquiesced to the Nazis.

Thus, the thinking goes, American evangelical Protestantism is superior to its liberal counterpart because it is more likely to oppose evil, instead of becoming complicit with it.

This story is attractive for its simplicity and for the way it gratifies the conscience. But the conclusion that conservative evangelicalism is thus immune to falling into grave evil is wrong.

The problem with conservative evangelicalism is that it is not nearly conservative enough.

Here’s why.

The concept of the nation-state, relative to the life span of the church, is fairly young. Essentially, the nation-state was born in 1648. That was the year that battling Catholic and Protestant princes signed the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years’ War. Up until then, the world hadn’t been carved up into independent, sovereign countries with strictly defined borders. For example, when Marco Polo traveled to China in the Middle Ages, he didn’t have to present a passport at each border crossing. People didn’t understand themselves as citizens of a particular country — only, maybe, a citizen of a city-state, or a subject of a distant king.

Since then, people have moved to identify themselves as members of nation-states — Americans, Guatemalans, Nigerians. But nationality doesn’t have to be our most fundamental social allegiance.

If conservative evangelicals really want to be conservative, they should consider being more skeptical of an institution that’s been around for less than 400 years. The church has over a millennium and a half on the nation-state.

Barth and Bonhoeffer, along with other members of the Confessing Church, cultivated precisely that skepticism of the state. Their allegiance to Christ as revealed in scripture trumped their loyalty to the state, enabling them, in the Barmen Declaration, to declare to the Nazi-collaborator “German Christian” movement:

As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. …

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.

God’s “mighty claim upon our whole life” means that we are united with other Christians in a deeper, more meaningful way than we are united with other Americans. After all, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And if it is the case that the church is our fundamental social reality, then when we ask “What do we do about ISIS?,” we would do well to pay closer attention to Middle Eastern Christians than to American foreign policy experts.

And Christians in the Middle East plead with us, “Stop arming terrorists.”

Ignatius Aphrem II, the leader of Syria’s Orthodox Christians, left the U.S. in order to go to Syria in 2014. He echoed this sentiment. 

“Stop arming and supporting terrorist groups that are destroying our countries and massacring our people,” he said.

Aphrem is not interested in the U.S. putting weapons into the hands of supposed “moderates” who will fight Assad and ISIS. Nor is he interested in the West intervening militarily to defend Christians.

"State institutions need to be strengthened and stabilized. Instead, what we see is their forced dismemberment being fueled from the outside,” he said.

The U.S. is not the only nation to blame. But there is no doubt that funding the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war, two invasions of Iraq, bombing Libya, and dumping weapons into Syria is contributing to the “forced dismemberment” that Aphrem II is talking about.

And this outside intervention in pursuit of national security has been cheered by the American church.

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory when you have a majority in the House of Representatives.

“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus replies, to us.

Neither did James and John. The disciples didn’t realize that while Jesus would go to Jerusalem to be made king, his coronation would occur with a crown of thorns. He would not sit on a throne, but hang on a cross. And the seats at his right and left in glory were already reserved for two criminals.

Nevertheless, Jesus allowed them this: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are already drinking the cup that Jesus drank. And the baptism with which Jesus was baptized, so they are being baptized.

ISIS beheaded 21 of our brothers in February. Twenty were Coptic Christians, Egyptian migrant workers living in Libya. The identity of the twenty-first is unclear — there are reports that he was from Chad, others that he was Ghanaian.

According to one account, he was not a Christian. But when his executioner-to-be asked him if he renounced Jesus as God, after he saw his fellow prisoners beheaded with Jesus’ name on their lips, he replied, “Their God is my God.” And he died for it.

Serbian artist Nikola Sarić has created an icon of the 21 martyrs. In the icon, 20 executioners in black stand behind the martyrs, whose faces are turned up in supplication. Seated at the the top of the image, Jesus places his arms around the martyrs, wearing the same Guantánamo orange the martyrs wear.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What do we wish to inherit? The glory of the kingdom of heaven or the glory of the American nation-state? Either are available to us, but no one can serve two masters.

This much is certain: When we acquiesce to policies that threaten to annihilate the church in the Middle East, Jesus will not wear the same American red, white, and blue that we do.

We cannot have both.

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