Who exactly are we fighting?
That is the question that dominates our political discourse these days. ISIS continues to perpetrate vile, reprehensible acts of violence in the name of religion. They name it a jihad, a holy war against the west under the banner of Islam. So now, what will we call it? A lot of the conversation about these matters within western Christianity is ostensibly motivated by a desire to protect Christians in the Middle East.
The question is not an abstract one for me. Because of my many Christian friends in the Palestinian west bank, Lebanon and Egypt, I have skin in this game. I have very particular names, faces, stories and places in my mind when people talk about these “issues.” It is hard to find a silver lining in the atrocities committed against Egyptian Coptic Christians in recent days. But I am at least glad, for the first time in my adult life, there seems to be some broad acknowledgment that Christians exist in the Middle East at all—not just Christians, but saints of whom the world is not worthy. It is wonderful to see American Christians in particular all of the sudden express such broad support for their brothers and sisters there.
This is especially heartening since much of what I’ve witnessed from the evangelical church in America has been a catastrophic, deviant preoccupation with violence in the Middle East that expresses no concern for the Church on the ground there at all. So-called “prophecy teachers” have built large political machines in the US, and have poured a tremendous amount of capital into funding self-fulfilling “prophecies” that seem to aim toward war more so than peace. This generally takes place in the name of love for Jews in Israel, but is actually indicative of a narcissistic desire to expedite “rapture” from any worldly suffering of our own. The theology of fundamentalist dispensationalism gives me a small scale of reference for peaceful Muslims who feel that their religion is being hijacked.
But yes, American Church: We do have family in the Middle East who has been begging for our attention and support for years. But we did not acknowledge them, because the presence of the Church in these nations did not fit our end-times charts and graphs or our games of cowboys and Indians. We did not listen when they opened their mouths. It took images of their severed heads for us to pay attention to them at all.
Now that these people who we have otherwise pretended did not exist do have a role to play in our high stakes game of Battleship, we talk with noble, righteous indignation. I hear the tremble in the voices of those who insist that we name this a war against Islam—they feel they are somehow standing up for the persecuted church. I do not want to interrupt display of piety toward Christians we have otherwise ignored for generations, but it is precisely because I know many of these believers personally that I get so squeamish about our rhetoric.
In a longer essay, I could tell you story after story of Christians I know living in the Middle East who have, for the most part, got along beautifully with their Muslim neighbors for decades. Going back further, I could tell you beautiful stories of where we have seen Christians and Muslims co-exist in peace historically. I sat with my missionary “grandmother” Sister Margaret Gaines a few weeks ago weeping as she shared many of these stories with me. I have seen these stories lived out on the ground. But these stories are not broadly publicized among Western Christians, and these are not the sorts of stories that get reported in the apocalyptic snuff porn we call “news.” To not pay attention to the ways and places that Christians and Muslims have already in fact found ways to live and work alongside each other, and to allow ourselves to be caught up in the rhetoric of holy war, does not help the cause of actual Christians who actually live in the Middle East.
I do want the world to be attentive to the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. I do want the world to be attentive to the horrors of ISIS. But it is again precisely because I fear for the lives of my brothers and sisters there that I get so uncomfortable with the push among conservative Christians to label this broadly a war against Islam, and why I was frustrated, for example, when Franklin Graham suggested that Islam was at its core a violent religion.
I frankly have little interest, in terms of a historical project, to argue whether or not the violence of extremist groups like ISIS is a deviation from Islam, or is representative of something intrinsic to the belief system in some core form. My concerns here are more utilitarian than ideological. This kind of rhetorical sparring is simply unhelpful with regard to the people we allegedly care to protect. But while I don’t agree with Graham’s premise, I am willing to work from it for a moment: So we get on TV and say that those who have perpetuated violence in the name of Christianity are not real Christians, but all those who are true to the teachings of Mohammed are violent, because their founder was violent. We suggest that Islam in its pure form is evil, malevolent. So then for a week, the news that dominated the Middle East was that a prominent American Christian is promoting Islamophobia. And whether fair or not, that story was in fact linked with that of that of the Chapel Hill shooting of three young Muslim students. In the name of care for Christians in the region, we claim that people need to broadly “wake up to the dangers of Islam.” This approach is not a way of playing Oskar Schindler to the Church in the Middle East. It will not save more lives. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that raises the temperature of the global conversation in ways that cause further harm to the body of Christ there.
I would think the best thing we could do for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East is to tone down/temper the reactionary rhetoric against Islam as a whole. Telling an entire religion that they are evil and violent at their core does nothing but encourage radicalization—and also cause Christians in the US and Europe to become more suspicious of peaceful Muslim neighbors. This will inevitably lead people among us to provoke unnecessary individual conflicts with Muslims in western countries that will only feed the constant cycle of propaganda, and start the mechanisms of violence all over again.
The most baffling thing for me is that those who claim to be the most spiritual refuse to consider the basic claim of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” The language of principalities and powers is loaded. It cannot be reduced to a kind of sentimentalized, black and white world in which every inch of the cosmos is directly ruled by angels or demons. There is much room in the witness of Scripture for chaos and for grey. We can’t just cast out devils to rid the world of all its injustice—real world problems are more complex than that. And we certainly don’t solve anything by embracing a dualistic folk religion in which we give every human being a white hat or black hat.
But on the other hand, the phrase suggests that there is very much a force of evil in the world that is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a spiritual darkness, a toxic spiritual energy, that is unleashed through our hatred and violence. While this toxicity is inclusive of earthly systems and structures of injustice and oppression, those systems cannot fully account for this spiritual contagion. There is in fact a soul malaise, a demonic deception, that is embodied through humans in the harm we inflict on one another. And because the disease is spiritual, the cure cannot be (in the Christian understanding) a simple matter of “taking out the bad guys.” From the cross of Jesus to the tale of the two witnesses in Revelation, to the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., the message is the same: sacrificial, self-giving love is the only way forces of evil can be conquered. Thus, to Paul again, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds.”
This is the unique claim and perspective of the Church. It must inform the way we view this conflict, and all others: as people who do not rely on the wisdom of this present age, but operate from a deep grounding in the ancient story of how God conquers evil with divine love. It is from this centered perspective that the Body of Christ must speak and act in times like these, not in the reactionary rhetoric of a world that does not know the Prince of Peace. We must speak and act with wisdom, precision, and deep love. We cannot be party to the forces that would use our religion only as a pawn for a broader ideological project that is something less than “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
I understand that these are complicated matters, and that these few words do not begin to sort them out. They are not intended to, but only to remind us again of our vocation. We are the ones who are called to remember, when the world is reduced to war between one people group and another, that the ultimate conflict is never with flesh and blood. Whether or not we embrace the toxic spirit/energy of the world around us, or whether we resist that violent spirit altogether with radical enemy-love, makes all the difference in the world we will create. And God does in fact call us to co-create the world with Him. We are, after all, agents and ambassadors of God’s shalom in the world, of God’s peace. We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the narratives of kingdoms other than that of the peaceable kingdom of Christ.
The ways we address these matters ultimately must certainly go beyond speech. Speaking the right words, cultivating the right kind of heart, will not solve any of these problems automatically. But they provide a good place to start. Language matters. Rather than engage in name-calling and labeling, we speak with perspective of those who recognize the battle is not with flesh and blood. In our time, sometimes I think we might add that the battle is not between conservatives and liberals, nor Christians and Muslims. The battle these days, it seems, is between literacy and spectacle, between crass labels and nuanced speech. Perhaps we find it unfortunate that these matters require the work of deep, sustained, prayerful reflection from the people of God, in ways that resist the unspiritual, violent speech of the world. But to live out our vocation as ambassadors of God’s peace, such depth of prayer, conversation and listening is the only we can take our vocation seriously. If we are called to be ambassadors of another kingdom in a violent age, at the very least we are called to think and pray hard, then speak and act carefully.