Jesus and ISIS

Assyria, a big, bad, evil empire that was known for, amongst other things, skinning people alive, is on the doorstep of the Southern kingdom Judah, and Assyria sends a spokesperson to give them a warning.

He says the following:  Don’t let your king Hezekiah deceive you.  He won’t be able to save you.  Nor will your God.  Listen to the King of Assyria.  He will give you peace.  Or you will die.  Do you see all these lands before you?  We destroyed them all.  Their kings didn’t save them.  Their God’s didn’t save them.  They’re all now either our captives, or they’re dead. The choice is yours.  Get in line, or die.  (Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7).

This sounds an awful lot like another army that we know of, doesn’t it?

A group that has its eyes set on world domination.  A group that has used their own religion as motivation to expand their kingdom through violence, to recruit through propaganda, and to intimidate through gruesome, public executions, primarily beheadings, but also crucifixions.   A group that specifically targets Christians in their area.  The name of the group we are talking about is named… Rome.”  – Bruxy Cavey

“This was the state of affairs when the New Testament was written.  Rome set about to conquer the world, were terribly violent, people had to pronounce Cesar as Lord and Saviour, and they accepted no compromise.”  – Bruxy Cavey

There’s a Latin phrase for this:  It’s called Pax Romana, which means Roman Peace, or as I like to call it:  The choice is yours.  Convert, or die.

This is the world that Jesus was born into.  A world with real enemies, not just our neighbours whose dogs bark at all hours of the night, or people who vote differently than me.  Real enemies who might just hang you up on a cross to make a point.  The early church even recorded stories of Christians being use as torches for dinner parties for Roman emperors.

It’s in this context that Jesus taught us and shows us how to live.  So when Jesus says things like, “Love your enemy”, and “do to others as you would have them do to you”, he kind of knows what he’s talking about.

The first century world under Rome would be a similar context to what the world would be like if ISIS invaded the world, and won, and we were all living under their caliphate.  And it was in this context that the early church grew, expanded and shared a radical message of love.  – Bruxy Cavey

A question that has been batted around here, and in many other places, is this:  “What should we do about ISIS?  How do we respond to ISIS?  Should we be bombing ISIS?”

How we answer this question leads us to a fork in the road.  I’m going to go down one path, and then I’ll come back to the fork and go down the other, and then I’ll try to wrap it up.

“What should we do about ISIS?”  Well, let’s pull a Jesus and answer the question with another question. Who’s the “we” here?  Last time I checked, most of us here don’t have planes and bombs in our sheds, put away for the winter, so maybe let’s start off by talking about what you and I can do.  This is a church, where we as Christians ask the question:  “How can we follow Jesus?”

So, down this first path, lets’ say that it isn’t our job to get the government to act like Jesus, but that it’s our job to get the church to act like Jesus.  “That alone will keep us busy the rest of our lives.” – Bruxy Cavey

In the face of an oppressive, violent regime, what does Jesus tell his followers to do?

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…  31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. – Luke 6:27-31

There are no qualifications on these instructions.  It’s not, “Love your enemies, unless they’re coming to kill you. Then you can kill them.”  It’s not, “Do to others as you have them do to you, unless they’re doing really bad things.  Then what I just said doesn’t matter.”  This seems to be quite the unequivocal statement.

And even on the cross, after hours of suffering, what does Jesus say about his killers?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing?” Luke 23:34

Or, as Miroslav Volf puts it nicely, “If you take the ‘love your enemy’ out of Christianity, you’ve ‘un-Christianed’ the Christian faith.”

And, to quote a bumper sticker that I find is a good reminder:  When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” I think he probably meant don’t kill them.

Seems kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Yeah.  But if it was common sense, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to say it, because everyone would have already known it (thanks Andrew Unger).

Loving your enemies probably sounded ridiculous to the disciples of Jesus as well.  But one of the best parts about who the disciples were is that Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans, and Peter was a zealot who was trying to violently overthrow the Romans.  These guys hated each other, they were from opposite sides, one was funding the Romans and the other thought the only good Roman was a dead Roman, and then Jesus goes tells them to do good to each other (He’s such a sneaky guy, that Jesus).

But since this is about you and I this morning, people trying to follow Jesus in our world, how do we love the soldier ISIS?  On a side note, do you see how we’ve even changed the question?  We went from “Should we bomb ISIS?  to “How do we love the soldiers of ISIS?”  I know this is a provocative question,but I don’t see how, if we confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour, we can NOT ask the question about how we love the soldiers of ISIS.

Well, the answer has a simple starting point.  We love them like we try to love everybody else.  Which, when they’re across the world, is quite difficult.  So, right now, my love for my enemies means that I pray for them.  That God can bless them.  And forgive them.  And help them to make better decisions.   And I pray for their families too.

Because, ultimately, I believe that we are all beloved children of God, and that we are all image bearers of God, and that our lives are worth more than the worst of our sins (this is also why I am against capital punishment, but I digress…).

Now, praying for my enemies isn’t easy.  I don’t exactly wake up in the morning excited to pray for ISIS.  I do it through clenched teeth sometimes.  Or at the very least I say, “God, this is hard.  Help me to pray for people whom I am trying not to hate.”

But there are a couple of other things that we, you and I, here this morning can do.  We can love our Islamic neighbours, which is quite funny, here in Steinbach, because we don’t necessarily have a lot of Islamic neighbours.  But, there are a few stories worth mentioning.

When I was in youth, 16 years ago, Phil took us all on a Islam Learning Tour.  We learned about Islam, and then went for a field trip to a mosque.  It was a wonderful event on building bridges, and I’ve led at least 3 more church groups to a mosque in the city to learn and understand this religion of over 1.5 billion people.  They’ve all been great experiences, and the Imams were more than happy to host to us.

But do you know what Phil did after 9/11?  He sent our new friends at the mosque a card in the mail, saying how that no matter what happens over the next little while, we are praying for them and that we still consider them our friends.

Churches in Chicago did similar things after 9/11.  They set up night-watch crews around local mosques to prevent them from vandalism.

And then this happened in Cold Lake Alberta right after the shooting at Parliament Hill.

cold lake mosque 2

And then this happened.  Isn’t it wonderful?

cold lake 1 cold lake

But there’s more that you and I can do this morning. We can support the peace building work of organizations like Christian Peace Maker Teams, which seek to bring together people and develop peace building skills.  It takes a lot of money, and a lot of time, but it seeks to empower people to solve conflicts non-violently before they get out of hand, or give people the healing and resources to rebuild their communities after trauma has occurred.  (Visit Christian Peacemaker Teams for more information.  They’re awesome because of who they believe Jesus is.)

We can also support the work of organizations that help resettle refugees.  Right now, there are more refugees on the planet than we’ve ever seen before.  This is not out of the realm of possibilities for us here.

And we keep praying.  Even when it’s hard.    And when we can’t pray any more, we ask God for help.

Because Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, even if they’re doing horrible acts of violence.

Now let’s back up and go to the fork in the road. We asked the question:  “How do we respond to ISIS?”  We went down the path of “We” being the church.

What about the “We” as kind, compassionate, well-meaning, tax-paying, voting Canadians who care about suffering in the world?

Is it our job to encourage the government to act like Jesus?

Well, I don’t have a good answer.  But I have some wonderings and thoughts that will hopefully be helpful.

There are Christians in Canada who want a caliphate as well.  Actually, many of us do.  Some of us want the government to make laws that follow traditional Christian understandings about abortion, same-sex marriage, and whether or not we can pray in schools, because we think those are important.  Others of us don’t really care what the government does with those things.  But still others of us want the government to work to reduce the number of murdered and missing indigenous women, we want the government to create tax policies that are beneficial to low-income families, and we want the government to spend a bit less money on fighter jets and bombing people and more money on health care, because we believe that Jesus tells us to care about the those who need it the most.  And others of us don’t what the government does about those things.

I think when we seek to engage the government, we’re all trying to shape how the country will be run.  But here’s the thing.  There is ZERO support for this in our New Testament.  Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of this world by Satan, and he declined that kind of power.  Nowhere does it say that the church should tell Rome how to do its business.  Paul wasn’t writing letters on change.org to Rome asking them to be less violent.   The early church wasn’t knocking on doors to get their political party in power.  Nothing in our New Testament is written assuming that Christians will have any power, other than love.

But as someone who is fiercely political, and believes that government can make a positive difference in the lives of its people, I don’t know what to do with this yet.  Maybe a good place to start would be trying to engage government to work for the common good of everyone.

The common good of everyone.  Sounds nice.  But even that’s loaded.  Who is everyone?  And whose defines what’s good?

Well, we may think that a good starting point should be us doing something about ISIS because of all the innocent people they’ve killed.

You’re right.  They have killed a lot of people.  It’s remarkably hard to pin down a number, but the best estimates I could find on the internet were between ten and thirty thousand people.

Which is horrible.

But how many of us know that since 1998, 5 million people have died in a conflict in the Congo, and in ways just as or far more gruesome, than ISIS is doing?  Someone who I consider quite well read told me:  Wow.  Because of ISIS, I now know of the war in the Congo!  5 million people, and our government in Canada has generally done … nothing.   (Read this by Neil Macdonald from CBC.  Seriously, do.)

And so, when I read politicians speak about Canada bombing ISIS, and how we have to go to war to stop this evil, and how God calls us to use violence to defend the cause of the weak and the needy, and God bless Canada, and how Canada is a good guy going out to stop the bad guys, I ask:  What about the Congo?  Because we’ve done pretty much nothing (Let alone all the other conflicts in the world…).

But then I’m a jerk for asking a question that challenges the accepted narrative.  Plus, there’s less oil in the Congo.

One might say, “But there are still these atrocities going on in Iraq!  If we can’t stop every conflict, maybe we can stop this one!”

But… Can we really stop violence with violence?

My friend from Christian Peacemaker Teams, who spends 6 months of the year in Iraqi Kurdistan, told me two weeks ago:  “I truly believe that bombs create more terrorists.”

“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.  Their violence is an echo of our own.” – Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove

Well now that’s depressing, isn’t it?

So is the fact that this conflict is rooted in hundreds of years of history that most of us don’t know, that some of the weapons ISIS is using are American, that ISIS is a direct result of Western intervention, that almost all of the war lobbyists are funded by the military industrial complex, that some of Canada’s allies when we were bombing Libya didn’t hand in their weapons when the fighting was over and are now using those weapons in ISIS against civilians, plus a city in Libya, and country that Canada helped “liberate” from Gaddafi , has now declared itself for ISIS, plus the fact that 3000 of the soldiers in ISIS have come from Tunisia, and most of us couldn’t even find Tunisia out on a map, and at this point, I truly, truly, am starting to question whether violence can actually solve violence.  Especially when it’s well meaning elected politicians from North America making those decisions. (Read this article by Nahlah Ayed from the CBC)  (Plus, I know that I have read all these somewhere but can’t find the sources right now.  If I’m wrong, please let me know and I’ll fix the information).

Can violence truly stop violence?  Or does it just create more?

Often, the burden of proof is on the pacifist, saying:  Well, your little pie-in-the-sky hippy idea of love and peace doesn’t work in the real world.

Here’s a short video to show you a short video that actually leads me to believe that the burden of proof isn’t on the pacifist, but rather on those that see violence as a legitimate means to an end.

(Seriously.  Watch the video.   It’s less than 100 seconds).

Well that’s depressing, isn’t it?  But trust me guys.  This time it’ll work.  Really?  Fool me once, shame on me.  Fool me twice, shame on you.  What about the 4th time?  We don’t even have a saying for the 4th time.

I mean, surely if you gave some really smart Iraqi pacifists 25 years, access to trillions of dollars, all the capacities and infrastructure of Western armies, the green light to sacrifice thousands of soldiers lives and hundreds of thousands of civilians lives, they could probably come up with something that would look better than the mess we have today in Iraq, couldn’t they?  Would it be any worse?

But no government will ever give them the chance, will they?  Because giving someone that much access to human and capital resources is insane.  Which kind of proves my point that the burden of proof shouldn’t be on the pacifists, but rather those that choose violence as a means to an end, and that war is a monstrous failure of imagination.  – Adrienne Rich

So what are we to do about ISIS?

I talked about you and I, the church, and the Jesus way of love.  And I talked about you and I, as compassionate tax-paying Canadians who vote, and challenged the idea that violence can really stop violence.

So where does that leave us?

Last week, Mel reminded us that we, as humans, are the same before we are different.  And part of the reason why we have all the evil and violence and hatred in our world is because we forget that we are the same before we are different. We see others, and we start pointing fingers, we get angry, we get frustrated, we accuse, we blame, we separate the world into us and them, and we react to the world around us out of fear.

Something the monk Thomas Merton wrote years ago has stuck with me:

 “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

If you try to pray for ISIS, pay attention to that hesitancy inside of you.  Isn’t it remarkable that we’re averse to simply praying for somebody?

This starting point to loving anybody else – our family, people we go to church with, our neighbours, our enemies, those who choose violence and hatred – The starting point has to always be ourselves.  Otherwise, I really believe that we risk becoming what we hate.

And when we ask God for healing for our own hatred and cruelty – I think we’re on the right path to the Mountain of God that Isaiah speaks of.

In the face of the mighty Assyrian army, Isaiah looks with anticipation to a time where we will learn to walk in the ways of the Lord, where we will beat our swords into ploughshares, and we will not train for war anymore.

Amen.

I got a lot of this (even word for word) from Bruxy Cavey at the Meeting House.  You can listen to his sermon here.

And if you want some more thought provoking reads on Jesus and ISIS and non-violence, click here and here and here and here and here.