ISIS Is A Mirror That Shows Us What We Look Like To Our “Enemies”

Last week, the ISIS forces currently active in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, beheaded an American journalist. His crime was being American. And a journalist. It also seems to have been relevant to the logic of the murderers that his brother was in the US Air Force.

They also hacked his computer so that they could inform his parents what they were doing in advance of broadcasting it live on the internet.

This is a terrifying innovative kind of atrocity. The people involved have the technical expertise and attention to detail that suggests they would be most valuable if they were to become actual Muslims and dedicate themselves to social care of some kind or another. Instead they wage war for concepts and power, assert authority through the language of caliphate and jihad.

But the reaction in the media around me has been astonishing. The evil has been discussed as if it is a deep mystery about which no questions can be asked. Nobody has thought to quote a character from a Terence Malick movie and ask, “Where did it come from?” Instead we use big clunky words we have spent decades bankrupting like “evil”.

The answer to the deepest level of that unasked question invariably lies in theology, the thick accounts of creation and redemption as can be found in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Maybe that’s why we don’t spend any time asking it?

The surface level answer to that question is the War on Terror. And before that, the war on Soviet forces in Afghanistan and before that, the disassembly of the British Empire and before that, the British Empire. My historical knowledge doesn’t go beyond that, which is one of the consequences of being raised in the penumbra of the British Imperial force.

To stop the terrorists from achieving their aims, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter tweaked their algorithms to discourage people from sharing the video. This raises three important ethical questions:

    What does it mean when we gladly let publicly traded corporations explicitly filter our news for us?
    What does it mean when we need algorithms to counteract our desire, without which we would trade snuff movies on public websites?
    What does it mean that certain forms of murder are opposed and certain forms of murder are celebrated?

That last question is the critical one. We like to believe in moral progress. Even if you would reject that suggestion if I asked you in a YES/NO format, the commonplace call on us to recognise things in the light of “this day and age”, to disparage things we don’t like as “medieval”, and to imagine a moral trajectory (the arc of history) that modern people can discern indicates we do believe in progress. We believe we’re making progress. Thus, in this day and age, the medieval tactics of ISIS need to be opposed because the arc of history bends towards liberation.

The liberation we promise will be announced with bombs.

That is the response of our political leaders to a snuff movie made by soldiers from a phony caliphate. We will invade Iraq. Again. We’ll drop bombs on Syria. Again. We’ll sponsor the first bunch of men organised enough to oppose ISIS to do civilization’s work for us. Again.

But let us remember the preaching of our political masters: Cultures that feel the need to televise such slaughter don’t deserve the title “civilized”.

Your Correspondent, Is a big fat loudmouth, and can walk when he has to

11 Replies to “ISIS Is A Mirror That Shows Us What We Look Like To Our “Enemies””

  1. I was getting so angry about this in the car last week. Everyone on the radio seemed to agree it’s barbaric to behead someone (which it is of course) but to drop smart bombs on Baghdad and drone wedding parties or leave depleted uranium shells about or send in the Special Forces at night and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over oil or whatever that invasion was about 10 yrs ago isn’t barbaric.
    I get depressed thinking that so many people who are Christians and followers of Jesus are building weapons and arms, or selling arms, or serving in the Armed Forces.
    Violence and monsters everywhere you turn.

  2. Am i right in saying that a just-war theorist could not only agree with this post but wholeheartedly so?

  3. You’d have to ask one. Don’t worry, they’re easy to find. When Christian practice is reduced to theory, it is usually the case that the multitudes will run through that wide gate. 😉

  4. HA! good one. you’re becoming more like Hauerwas every day! What i’m really getting at is that i just can’t frame this discussion bout ethics in terms that make the alternatives, pacifism or nothing. For example i’d find it hard to believe that Oliver O Donovan or Vinoth would disagree with what you say above. Sometimes when i’m reading Hauerwas or about him, I get the feeling that he thinks everyone is lovely but that anyone who disagrees with him have ideas that are from hell! I can’t do that, its too black and white but as far as i can see the issue has some grey in it.

    In my experience most people aren’t into “just war” but rather they are into war. Full stop.

  5. Thanks for coming back at me Richie.

    I will take it as a great compliment that I am becoming more like Stanley. It’s not quite becoming like Jesus, but almost as much fun to have over for dinner.

    I haven’t framed this discussion in terms of pacifism at all. In fact, this is the rarest a thing: something I wrote that doesn’t mention “non violence”. I sometimes even have that on my shopping lists, to prepare me for carpark rage.

    What I tried to do here was demonstrate that if it is “uncivilized” to kill people with swords, it is even worse to kill people indiscriminately with bombs. If it’s morally repugnant to display that murder on YouTube, then every Western news network has been repugnant since the First Gulf War.

    I am sure that Vinoth or Oliver would raise no concerns against what I write here, but I am urged to ask: “So what?” 🙂 Are you saying I am offering banalities Richie? Should I be MORE vociferous? 😉

    One of the many things I appreciate about Hauerwas is how fair he is is to his intellectual opponents. For sure, there are parts of Hannah’s Child I would have cut straight out, because they were harsh in the extreme. But in the ordinary course of affairs, he is immensely generous in his reading of people diametrically opposed to him. Think of Peter Leithart or Oliver. And in person, he relishes people who stand up to him.

    If I could push back: One of the things I don’t appreciate about the readings of Hauerwas that are so commonly traded is that they pay less attention to what he says than how what he says makes people feel. He never suggests that non-violence is an easy option. He never presents it as black and white. He is the only theologian I have ever read, for example, who has deeply considered what it means to actually be a soldier. Maybe I need to read more, but from where I’m sitting, he is not offering simplistic answers.

    Also, this post is not about Hauerwas or pacifism. 🙂

  6. I suppose i see your pacifism behind alot of what you write these days. 🙂
    There was probably a better post to comment on, im really only trying to get at something that ive been thinking about for a while.

    And that is this:

    Yes Hauerwas makes me “feel ” uncomfortable. You do too!

    The problem is not how about pacifism makes me feel and certainly its not that Hauerwas et al present non-violence as an easy option but rather that they present it as the ONLY option, all other views are equally beyond the pale.

    Or how about this: I think there is a great distance between say, the ethics of war which your average PCI member has and the Just war of Vinoth. Yet when talking to pacifists i see no attempt to distinguish between the two. I’ve been bitten a few too many times when talking to pacifists (all online!) that I’ve become a bit shy about asking about it anymore and how can i learn if i cant ask questions!!

    It seems fair to me to say that when reading the NT there is only two options in their regarding our view of war, either it is permissible under certain conditions or its not permissible at all. That is my starting point but it feels like im being denied it.

    Whilst i’m on it. I saw you recommend Politics of Jesus and “a faith not worth fighting for” but do you have any recommendations that go into exegesis of the proof-texts both sides use? Rom 13 is a hang up for me personally.
    Also how do you deal with signing the confession given chapter 23? and also have you included pacifism in any of your sermons in Ireland? How did it go down?

  7. “The problem is not how about pacifism makes me feel and certainly its not that Hauerwas et al present non-violence as an easy option but rather that they present it as the ONLY option, all other views are equally beyond the pale.”

    That is accurate. Yoder, Hauerwas and their acolytes are convinced that non-violence is at the heart of the Gospel.

    Barth (who refused to go all the way to non-violence) was of course Yoder’s PhD supervisor and Hauerwas’ main reference point. He famously said that belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it. I suspect that thing that you find annoying about proponents of contemporary Christological non-violence (pacifism for short!) is that they have the temerity to preach to you. They believe that it is a matter of Gospel centrality that the followers of the God who was tortured and put to death do not torture and do not put to death.

    I honestly don’t know what the average PCI person thinks about war. I know what the average Western world leader thinks about Just War practices however. By their fruit they shall be known.

    I don’t agree that the NT has two options. It has one option. To say it presents two options is already to grant war – the randomizing of the internal organs of human beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made by our gracious God for the sake of some political power strategy – a status it does not have among the followers of the crucified one.

    To answer your last paragraph of questions:

    1) My claim isn’t some silly sub-evangelical nonsense about “this verse says that” but the very heart of what it means that Pantokrator was legally put to death outside the walls of Zion. I struggle to even know what a proof text for Christological non-violence would be??

    2) Romans 13 is an arbitrary line we have drawn that breaks it off from Romans 12, another arbitrary line. When the text is read in its proper flow, it is straightforwardly peaceful. It never says that ekklesia needs to be the polis.

    3) I will sign the Confession of Faith the way all the other people who have the same convictions as I have signed it in the past. My position is not an innovation, the genius imaginings of some Leixlip-born theological dynamo. The Confession says what the Scriptures say and echoes what Jesus said to Pilate himself: the state does have authority. The authority is from God. The state will make judgements with the sword. And the state and her agents will also be judged for those judgements. I have no idea why 23 would be worse for me than calling the Pope antichrist. 🙂

    4) I could not help but preach non-violence because I think it is the heart of the Gospel. I have never preached a sermon on “pacifism” because that is an idea I am not especially excited about and that can’t be found in the Gospel. Like every sermon I have ever preached, the sermons that dealt with this stuff led to revival, singing, dancing, rejoicing and the reshaping of swords into ploughshares (or in the posher places like Howth, into boutique platters upon which you could serve cheese at the end of dinner).

  8. Yeah stop preaching at me Kevin!!

    Ah sure i suppose im not convinced yet then. I don’t think non-violence is at the heart of the gospel, i don’t think just war is about a political power strategy. I’d still like to see a book on texts like the one found in Romans 13.

    i know what you mean bout the confession. It turns a lot of us into liars. btw it does more than say the state has a right to bear arms. It says it is lawful for Christians to accept the office of magistrate.

    I always thought the prooftext for pacifism was love your neighbour.

  9. The proof texts, if I was evil enough to go hunting for them, would be found among Pauline atonement claims. It is better to die than to kill, because God triumphed over death when we killed him. The truth of the Cosmos is laid bare on that cross.

    Maybe Declan has read a book about texts like Romans 13. As I said, it confounds me that people think they can build some Just War framework from an argument that begins, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of the world but be converted through the renewal of your mind!”

    The Confession doesn’t make us into liars, I think it disciplines us to remember our siblings saw things differently, which should relativize how firmly we hold things here and now. If I have to lie to sign the Confession, I won’t sign it.

  10. ah here… Lets not even touch the subject of the confession. Suffice to say. I disagree.

    At the end of the day my point (which I am failing to make ) is simple. You’re dead right that there is only one option regarding what the bible teaches with regard to violence. BUT pacifists/neo-Anabaptists/Christological non-violentists whatever, have AN opinion about what that is. They may be right, but Ramachandra, O Donavan, Augustine and Aquinas might be right also. You are acting, not like people with an opinion but like those who know that their opinion is the right one. You don’t know that. I don’t know that. Nobody does. We are not Roman Catholics, we don’t have a magisterium to act as an arbitrator between the differing opinions. On top of the that the church has only ever had two options, non-violence or Just war. They are both an ethic that has Christians who believe in them. They both can be seen in scripture. They both HAVE been seen in scripture. To talk as if just war can’t even be seen in scripture is arrogant and off putting.

    I talked to Declan about Romans 13. As I understand it the tension for pacifists here is that God clearly see’s the polis – “agents of wrath” – as a good thing. If this is good what’s to stop the ekklesia including it in their own “doing good”. Declan told me as well that Yoder uses a “dual mandate” one for the state and one for the church to interpret the apparent tension between 12 and 13. That’s at least plausible but there is nothing to suggest that ekklesia couldn’t involve itself with the polis even within that dual mandate scheme.

    Look, the truth is I don’t want to be a pacifist. Im scared of it. Whenever I’ve read neo-Anabaptist stuff, they not only speak a different language to what I’ve learnt (and loved!) over the last 14 years but a lot of them seem to have no time for understanding of the atonement and church that have given me great freedom. I suppose if they are telling the truth then I was in love with a theory and not with Christ and so be it.

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