Last weekend I preached a message that touched on the way we view our enemies (you can watch it here). I then receieved an email from a lady in our church who began to wrestle with these ideas and explore them further. I’m reposting myÂ correspondence with her (with permission) in hopes that it might address questions you have as well. Or even better, get you to a place where you start asking these types of questions. I have edited it slightly for grammar or for better readability.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m physically sickened when I hear or see what ISIS is doing. My heart aches as I know does the heart of God. Arriving at some of these tougher answers is not by ignoring the darkness we see in the world, but rather by looking for the light of Christ in the midst of that darkness.
Here’s her initial email:
I loved your message this weekend, and I have been thinking about it. But where I (and no doubt many other Christians) get stuck every time is the “love your enemies” part. What does that look like in a world that has the likes of ISIS, for example? Do we choose to lay down our weapons and just “love” them, despite their vision of a world-wide Caliphate in which our only choices would be “Convert or Die?” Or do we pray for them to see the love of Jesus as their only true path to redemption, but continue to kill them in the meantime? That even “sounds” weird! How do you love someone who beheads and enslaves innocents? This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and I have struggled with this for a long time. Does loving our enemies and trying to see them through God’s eyes mean that we should become pacifists? Do we not have an obligation to protect our families – and if so – aren’t Christians around the globe part of our “family”?
Any words of wisdom that you might have would be greatly appreciated. We have even dealt with this within our life group, but we don’t have an answer that I have peace with. What would Jesus do, faced with the likes of ISIS? Turn the other cheek? Pray for them? I honestly don’t know how to think about this topic, and as Christians this is something that we are facing now more than ever.
I know how busy you must be, but if you find a few minutes to answer this, I would be most appreciative.
This is a great question (and one that I ask often). While I don’t exactly have any answers for you that will wrap this up nicely, I can offer some perspective. First, I think we must remember that the government has a role different than the Church. So the question isn’t just “what should we do about ISIS,” but what should the government do about ISIS and what should we as Christians (the Church) do about ISIS? I believe Christians are called to be Kingdom Pacifists (not for political reasons) but governments are not. We as the Church are called to love even people in ISIS while we actively try to stop them without resorting to killing them. The “sword” should be a function of the government, not of the Church. Like we see in Matthew 22:20, Jesus shows us how to ask the clarifying question when it comes to power, “Whose image is this?” We can then discern what belongs to Caesar (government) and what belongs to God. We as Christians must be willing to separate ourselves from the function of government enough to live out the function of the Kingdom.
Secondâ€”and as crazy as this will soundâ€”I actually don’t think we have an obligation to protect others, at least not to the point where we must be willing to kill someone. Human life belongs to God first and foremost. That means the unjust loss of human life is an affront to God before it is anything to us. As we see with the early Church and with Jesus Himself, they simply didn’t go to great lengths to protect each other. Rather, they submitted their lives to Christ and went to their death when that meant being faithful to Him. We should be willing to protect others by stepping up for them, by risking our own well being, but NOT by a willingness to kill.
Here’s the tougher question: would our willingness to kill a member of ISIS be the same as that person’s willingness to behead a little girl? While they feel radically different, both are valuable human life in God’s eyes. Both represent people whom God loves and desires to see live in union with Him. As Christians, we must work to stop evil in the form of ISIS while also showing a love for the people of ISIS as well. Obviously, this is far more difficult to do which is why so few people attempt it. Killing someone is not showing them love and brings a finality to their alienation from God.
This is why a stance like this brings far more questions than it does answers. But in place of certainty we receive a new dependence on the living Spirit of God to move in our midst. There are three books in particular I would recommend for you if you’d like further reading on this topic. I have blogged a summary of each of them which you can find in the links below.
Thanks for the great question and for your courage to wrestle with this. I look forward to hearing your response!
At this point, I had no idea whether I’d ever hear back from Debbie. Oftentimes people reach out to me about something I said and if they don’t get the answer they were looking for I don’t hear from them again. To Debbie’s credit, she kept unpacking this topic further. Here’s her response to my email:
Thank you, Jeremy, so very much for this wonderful answer. It is clearly well considered, thoughtful, measured, and although somewhat “counter intuitive” to those who are “living in the world,” it makes a lot of sense to me and resonates at a gut level as “a Godly perspective.” I especially appreciate your distinction between our function as Christians and that of government. Thankfully, our country does not have a draft. But given your perspective on this, what should our stance as Christians be on serving in the military? Should defending our country be left to others, despite the fact that we are also the beneficiaries of such service? Or should we view the prospect of killing others as abhorrent and not of God, and thus choose to abstain from serving in the military? Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” If we “do nothing” – are we part of the problem? Of course praying and loving our enemy is not the same as “doing nothing” – but still…
Thank you also for the book recommendations. I will be very interested in reading them, since this is an issue that I have been grappling with for quite some time. (I myself have dual citizenship, and went to high school in Israel, followed by 2 years of Israeli military service. Talk about making dilemmas even more confusing! But I digress…)
Finally – from time to time I find myself ensconced in related discussions with my Facebook friends, some of whom are Christians and others who are still “in the dark.” If appropriate, would it be OK to quote all or part of what you wrote above, giving you proper credit for it, of course?!
Here is my second response to her:
I’m seriously enjoying this conversation! I appreciate the way you are processing through this and the issues you raise. There’s a couple big ones in your last response.
First, should Christians serve in the military? Just because we enjoy the benefits of American freedom doesn’t mean we have an obligation to kill others. On a side note, political freedom is very conditional because we are only as free as we can continually defend. Like most Americans, I’m grateful for many of the freedoms I enjoy. I would even say that it is noble for a person to sacrifice their life for others in service to their country. But our temporal civil freedom doesn’t negate God’s call for us to live as citizens of a different Kingdom. The question, as I see it, is this: “Should a Christian willingly choose to put themselves in a situation where they can be forced to kill another person?” Remember that the other person could be a Christian in another country. Regardless, a soldier won’t fully know why they are told to kill that person or persons. To this, I cannot see how we support this Biblically. To paraphrase Greg Boyd, “The easiest way to get someone to lay down the cross is to hand them a sword.”
Second, there is a difference between pacifism and passivism. This goes beyond semantics. Passivism is a non-response. This is what often gets stereotyped for the nonviolent position. This is what I’d say the Edmund Burke quote is about. By contrast, pacifism is an active response without accepting violence (particularly lethal violence). I believe we are called to resist the manifestations of evil as active pacifists while maintaining our love for both the victim and perpetrator. As we see with Jesus in John 8 and the woman caught in adultery, He actively stepped in on her behalf without throwing rocks at her accusers. This is the model we must follow. Taking an active stance in pacifism requires an open mind and a willingness to ask tough questions as well as a belief that God can creatively solve tensions like He did in John 8.
And what an interesting story you must have! I’d love to hear more about that and how that has led you to these questions today. You are more than welcome to use any of this in the future as long as I can post it on my blog too!
Enjoying the discussion…
Finally, Debbie replied with a great close to our conversation in this final response:
Thank you, Jeremy! This is compelling stuff here; imagine extrapolating it on an international scale! I have imagined exactly that, however, I have been focused on the negatives (ie. seeing it through MY eyes) rather than the positives (seeing it through God’s eyes). I assumed that the inevitable outcome of a “turn the other cheek” approach would be – in the case of ISIS – an eventual world of Shariah law. But in doing so, I realize that I am failing to give God enough credit. Credit that He will intervene and put an eventual stop to it at the time of His choosing. And I suppose – who’s to say that when we choose to intervene militarily – we aren’t perhaps thwarting or at the very least postponing the plans that HE has for the situation? Or taking away options for repentance and redemption – despite how unlikely that might seem to us.
Your distinction between pacifism and passivism is well taken. I think it is anathema to our western cultures – particularly our American one – to be anything less than completely proactive. Our national birthing pains came forth of rebellion – a few hundred years have not changed our DNA very much. LOL But Godly (Kingdom) pacifism is truly anything but passive. It demands a lot from us – and much that seems almost impossible to give. Ironically, it seems easier to pick up the sword than to willingly lay it down.
I am very grateful for the this conversation. These topics have troubled me for quite some time, and I did not know how to reconcile my goal of “justice” (not revenge) with God’s commandment to “love our enemies”. I guess that my goals are not God’s – and our only goal should be to see the world through His eyes rather our own. We only see the lower story, but He sees the big picture! Thank you again for helping me to see the bigger picture as well. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.
I know that I am not the only one struggling with these issues, so by all means, feel free to post any of this on your blog. If my group of friends is any indication, these are quandaries that many Christians are conflicted over these days.