As we draw nearer to Christmas, we have been buffeted by the increasingly barbarous and headline-grabbing exploits of the Islamic State. The spread of ISIS in its own territories, combined with the metastasis of its violence through the Middle East and the West, has convulsed the political establishments of Western Europe and the United States, and led to ever-increasing demands that the United States and its allies should “do something” about their atavistic zealotry. (Of course, many Orthodox Christians in this country count family and friends among those who are under the direct threat of ISIS and other players in Syria’s horrific civil war, lending an extra dimension of terror to their campaign.) While we can have a separate debate about the course of public policy action that should be taken regarding ISIS, I’d like to think here on a more personal level about how Christians might deal with this deluge of horrible news.
First, the obvious. Terrorist attacks are depressing. They maim and extinguish innocent lives. They smash up our stuff. By definition, they are designed to undermine our sense that we live in a basically stable environment, where we can go to work, take our kids to school, and have a cup of coffee with friends without crazy people with assault weapons and flak jackets randomly trying to massacre us for no apparent reason. Terrorism’s violence and unpredictability inspire and unmask our most basic instincts of fear and agitate our narrow, instinctual desires to destroy at any cost the threats – real or perceived – to ourselves and the people and places that we love.
Christians have always recognized these corrosive properties of fear. The Great Litany recited at each major daily office includes petitions imploring God to keep us free of the violence and deprivation that always threaten to activate it. The suffocating toxicity of terrorism-inspired anxiety warps and deadens our sense of life’s great hopes and possibilities. Our attempts to quiet our jittery nerves by constructing impenetrable protections from indiscriminate violence subverts our ability to be human as God intends us to be. By constantly absorbing mantras instructing us that we have much to be afraid of, we lose both perspective on the reality of our situation (which, at least in the West, is not actually that dire), and the capability of engaging with the world in a way that opens up the full potential of our humanity. Hunkered down in an inner chamber of disquiet, our vision is distorted by the lingering specter of death.
As we struggle to respond to the terror that now seems to leak into every facet of our lives, we should keep in mind that fear is the true face of evil. And we should remember that ultimately, evil is cowardly: it has a delight in power that springs from the gnawing unease that it might be hurt or vanquished. The arrogance of power comes from the belief that it is possible to be sufficiently armored, or sharpen the sword keenly enough, to render oneself immune from pain or outside control. Evil craves nothing more than amassing the strength and potency to resist all attack. Its anxiety is revealed in the exultation over its enemies’ weakness, and malign amusement over their ineffectualness. Yet in the Christian imagination, evil’s great mistake is its belief that security can be achieved purely through the amassing and application of raw power. We see evil’s flaw in the fact that it is Christ who has trampled down death by death, achieving salvation for all through weakness, while Hades sought to use its power to gain an easy victory over a frail human being, and then crumbled into ruin when it instead ran smack into God.
Of course, there will violence in the campaign against ISIS, because states have an obligation to protect themselves and their citizens. Sometimes the state pursuit of legitimate prophylactic policies involves inflicting violence and cruelty. We shouldn’t try to deny this, or downplay it, even while we should have debates about the acceptable boundaries of such violence. The world we live in requires states to be vigilant against threats to their people and territories and, sometimes, to unleash their physical power against those who seek to harm them. But violence perpetrated by states should never be confused with being either a Christian means or end to anything. Violence of any sort is always genetically related the violence that nailed Christ to the cross. The Romans who hung Jesus on the tree were, after all, simply pursuing the safety and serenity of their own state; what they were doing was not particularly unexceptional in their period. But we should not forget what side in the Christian drama they acted on, or mistake their soldierly duty as a Christian mission. Nor, in our own time, should we regard state violence undertaken in the name of security as having anything to do with the Christian Gospel.
The tools of the state are not Christian tools, because they are fundamentally and immutably the weapons of fear. Despite much blather to the contrary, the United States is not a “Christian nation,” and can never be so, because that phrase is a contradiction in terms. Byzantium, Russia, or other states that have held themselves up as either quintessentially Orthodox, or even simply as a “protector of Christians,” betray in their actions the contradiction between the power that is required for such a state to exist and prosecute its ends, and the abnegation of power that is a central requirement of Christianity.
Christianity does not allow us to establish an iron fortress against the world’s chaos. Instead, it asks us to lower our defenses, precisely so we can encounter other human beings on their own terms, as their own subjects, without the desire to bend them to our will and make them copies of ourselves. It requires us to be human in our diversity, to uncover the nuances of the unique personalities and gifts that God has given to us. This openness to others requires accepting danger, while rejecting fear. And it is Jesus Christ himself who shows us the way to being a “true human” through vulnerability to menace and power, a posture that leads inevitably to evil’s paradoxical defeat.
So the next time ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq, operatives in Paris, or wannabes in California blow stuff up, slaughter and oppress those in the places under their control, or shoot a bunch of people in the places that aren’t, we should by all means mourn the things that we have lost. But killing people and destroying things won’t lead to any kind of real victory for ISIS. That will only come if they kill and destroy the humanity that God has given to us. And the power to let that happen is in our hands, not theirs.