Beheadings. Burnings. Mass rape. Torture. Bombings. Indiscriminate killing of civilians. Snuff films that revel in murder. Refugees flee their homes looking for safety anywhere it can be found. French families grieve, and we grieve with them even as we look on and wonder when the next atrocity will happen, and whether it will happen to us. Jesus’ words are clear. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. And yet in times such as these it’s understandable that these words seem little more than idealistic gibberish, completely inappropriate for the present moment.
Of course a Christian can never say that. If love is the greatest command, then to dismiss Christ’s words as irrelevant or inappropriate is to dismiss Christ altogether. And yet what does it mean to love in the face of atrocity? Can a Christian love ISIS? If so, then how? In today’s blog post I want to introduce readers to a recent book by Nigel Biggar entitled In Defence of War (IDOW). Biggar is Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford. I had the pleasure of meeting Nigel a few years ago when he attended a session at the Society of Christian Ethics national conference where I read a paper on war and Christian soldiering. He was a generous conversation partner, and my ongoing work on this topic has been largely shaped by Nigel’s substantive reflections on love and the Christian just war tradition. I see some problems with parts of his argument (I’ll explore these in a future blog post), but I concur with his central claim: In the just war, violence is “an expression of love for the neighbour” (IDOW, 61). Christians need not compromise Christian principle for the sake of expediency. Quite the contrary, love sometimes compels the Christian to embrace violence. Yes, it is possible to love ISIS, though some work needs to be done to clarify what this means. Biggar’s books offers a helpful starting point.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we are tempted to dismiss the idea of loving one’s enemies as hopelessly idealistic is that too many Christians sentimentalize love, especially in the face of injustice. “Yes, ISIS is committing grave atrocity,” some will say. “But Christians are called to love. We are called to forgive. We must refuse to return violence for violence. God calls us to the difficult task of witnessing to the nonviolent way of the cross. We should take up the risky alternative practices of God’s kingdom. We should be peacemakers and lift ourselves out of the cycle of violence that war perpetuates. We should pursue reconciliation with our enemy, not vengeance.” But what does this even mean? If this is what it means to love ISIS, then where does one even begin? It seems hopelessly sentimental to presume that nonviolent practices will curb the beheadings and apocalyptic fury of religious extremists. Yes, the evils of war are obvious, but what of the “evils of peace,” the untold numbers of men, women and children who will continue to be victimized while we talk about creative nonviolence? And what of the global threat that ISIS poses if left unchecked?
Biggar agrees with pacifists that reconciliation is a foundational hope for all Christians, but Biggar argues that pacifist appeals to forgiveness rely on a facile understanding of what reconciliation with one’s enemy means. Reconciliation is not a single thing but rather a process that consists of two distinct postures toward the enemy. First, says Biggar, Christians embrace compassion toward the enemy in their pursuit of reconciliation. Compassion is unconditional. To embrace compassion toward ISIS, for example, requires the Christian to admit our common humanity. We are all sinners. We face common pressures and temptations, and we know that some perpetrators of injustice “find themselves trapped in situations where only an extraordinary moral heroism could save them from doing terrible evil” (IDOW, 63). In the face of atrocity, it is tempting for us to demonize our enemy and to elevate ourselves. Christian love resists this temptation, reminding us that the terrorist too is a child of God. These are hard truths to admit in a time when our collective outrage points away from this sort of regard. Nonetheless, this is what compassion demands.
But compassion is only part of Christian reconciliation. Forgiveness also requires absolution, and unlike compassion absolution is conditional, premised on the repentance of the enemy for his wrongdoing. Biggar argues that too often Christians collapse forgiveness-as-compassion (unconditional) and forgiveness-as-absolution (conditional) into an oversimple portrait of our relationship with perpetrators of injustice. Compassion and absolution are both part of Christian reconciliation, but they occur at distinct moments in our relationship with our enemy. Reconciliation is not a single thing; it is a process that begins with unconditional compassion toward the enemy but withholds absolution when it is not warranted by repentance. This distinction is critical for understanding how the Christian might demonstrate appropriate love toward those who commit moral atrocity. Our tendency to collapse compassion and absolution is what transforms Christian love into irrelevant sentimentalism:
“I take it for granted that, in response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, it would not have been heroic but ludicrous for the US government to have addressed al-Qaeda and said, ‘We forgive you. We will not let what you have done sour our regard for you. We will continue to treat you as friends.’ If such absolution were the sum of forgiveness, then it could have had no plausible place in America’s reaction. If, however, forgiveness can take the form of compassion as well as absolution, then it could have had two plausible roles. First, it could have ordered the use of force toward the end of peace, and disciplined it away from vindictiveness. And second, it could have moved the US government to entertain the possibility that, though al-Qaeda’s ill-disciplined resentment had festered out of all proportion, not all of its roots were simply malevolent and irrational, and that in the rank growth of malice and falsehood there lay genuine grievances that deserved sympathetic attention–for example, the plight of the Palestinian people. Thus conceived, forgiveness could have had plausible political purchase even where violently coercive retribution is appropriate” (IDOW, 75).
Biggar’s argument offers a helpful starting point for answering our initial question. Can a Christian love ISIS? Well, yes, but Christian love is not sentimental. Loving ISIS entails that we reject vengeance and vindictiveness. Vengeance is by nature soul-distorting and excessive. Vindictiveness is incompatible with the unconditional compassion that love requires. To love ISIS requires that we remain open to the possibilities of absolution and yearn for the repentance necessary for absolution to occur.
But here is the point: loving ISIS does not entail that we withhold violence in the face of the atrocities that they commit. Violence does not have to be vindictive or vengeful. Between compassion and absolution is ample space for Christian love to manifest itself in resentment and retribution in the face moral atrocity. The resentment that we feel after the Paris attacks need not be unloving. After all, resentment is itself an appropriate response to injustice. “Not to resent an injustice,” says Biggar, “is akin to not grieving the death of a beloved. Something–someone–of great value has been damaged, perhaps destroyed. Not to react negatively is pathological–a failure to care for something that deserves to be cared for. And in cases where another person is culpably responsible for the damage, proportionate anger or resentment against that person is an appropriate expression of care for what has been damaged” (IDOW, 67). Retributive violence can be proportionate, and in the face of grave moral atrocity is a fitting response that attests to the gravity of the harm caused. When the Christian qualifies retribution toward ISIS with unconditional compassion and openness to absolution, the Christian embodies love toward the enemy, transforming what might otherwise be vindictive into a sort of “kind harshness,” in Augustine’s word, an “act of fraternal responsibility toward the wrongdoer,” (IDOW, 68).
To say that retributive violence can be justified as an act of love is not to say that every act of retribution is justifiable. It is to say that in principle love need not rule out a resort to violence when the lives of our neighbors are at stake. The justice we achieve through retribution is a limited justice. It is also a justice worth restoring.