Christian Faith and War 10: Can a Christian Love ISIS?

Islamic_State_(IS)_insurgents,_Anbar_Province,_IraqBeheadings. 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 memewhere 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.








Christian Faith and War 9: A Different Kind of Soldier

menToday is  Veteran’s Day.  Those of you who have stuck with me through this series will notice that I keep returning to the moral experience of soldiers in my discussion of the Christian just war tradition. I fear that a lot of what we Christian ethicists write from our lofty academic perches speaks neither truthfully nor well about the complex moral experience of war. Over the next few blog posts I want to probe this idea more deeply. Today I want to pick up on an idea expressed by Charles Mathewes that I referenced in my last post.  Quoting Mathewes once again, the Christian just war tradition “is more comfortable at the level of existential soul-formation—not with the decisions but with the deciders, and those who go forth to enact the decision” (The Republic of Grace, 167).

But if this is the case, it is at least somewhat surprising that contemporary agapists have focused little attention on some critical problems that attend their account of the moral agency of soldiers.  Agapists assert that love both motivates and contrains the violence of just wars. But if this is so,  consider the range of questions that one might ask of the agapist perspective with respect to soldiers. What moral responsibilities pertain to the actions and motivations of soldiers in war?  What of the virtues, habits, and affections of just warriors?  What would it look like for soldiers—those trained to wage war and, potentially, direct lethal force against the enemy—to engage in war as an act of love?  How are soldiers formed as such?  Are the practices employed to equip soldiers to become capable combatants compatible with those practices necessary for their formation as loving agents?  If Timothy Jackson is correct that love “serves others most profoundly by making them loving in their turn,” (The Priority of Love, 127), then it is a deeply relevant question how such service is to be rendered toward those called to kill their enemies.

So what have Christian agapists said about the moral experience of soldiers?  Because Augustine has been so formative in the development of the Christian just war tradition, we might form a clearer picture by first considering his own ambivalence about the relationship between the perpetration of violence and Christian virtue.  Pointing to Moses and Peter as examples of biblical characters who employed violence in the face of injustice, Augustine elevates these characters as examples of the two-sided nature of violence:

[B]oth of them went beyond the rule of justice not out of a hateful cruelty but out of a high-spiritedness that admitted correction; both of them sinned out of a hatred for the wickedness of another but out of a love that was still fleshly—the one for a brother, the other for the Lord.  This vice had to be cut back and uprooted, yet such a great heart had to be cultivated to bring forth virtues just as the land must be cultivated to bring forth its fruits. (Answer to Faustus 22.70)

The motivations that inform human violence are an ambiguous amalgam of disordered loves and rightly intended action.  But while the motivations that lead to violence are ambivalent, Augustine expresses confidence that rightly ordered love can motivate soldiers in war.  He argues that the real evil in war is not the death of the enemy, but rather “love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power” (Answer to Faustus, 22.74). Such disordered affections, while perhaps common in war, are not inevitable.  Killing is a sin when motivated by passion, but in a just war soldiers who slay their enemies may do so as agents of law who are capable of discharging their duty free from such passion.

Contemporary agapists are similarly confident.  According to Jackson, soldiers may rightly demonstrate love toward their enemies, even toward those whom are the direct targets of their violence.  Violence can itself be a demonstration of love toward the enemy. “Although a “hard saying,”” says Jackson,  “it may sometimes be better/more just to be killed than be permitted to become a successful murderer, better/more just forcefully to restrain evil than to allow the political triumph of murderers…. [I]t may be to an aggressor’s moral benefit to nip his offences in the bud” (The Priority of Love, 108).

Similarly, Nigel Biggar has argued forcefully that just warriors embody love toward the enemy in their embrace of what he calls “kind harshness,” a benevolent violence that withholds vengeance and embraces hope for the repentance of the enemy (In Defence of War, 61). Love is not merely a moral norm that governs war but also a virtue, a quality of character in which we recognize the sanctity and dignity of our neighbor who, like us, is created in God’s image.  To be a loving agent is to be formed in a way that is compatible with the recognition of the full humanity of the other.

With respect to the character of soldiers, the Christian just war tradition, says Mathewes, asserts that political leaders and soldiers alike are to be moral and spiritual agents whose violence is tinged by an abiding awareness of their own guilt, sinners who embrace the obligatory violence of the just war with much regret.  Just warriors are, in his words, mournful warriors who accept the full weight of their responsibility to be agents of divine justice in a fallen world (TRG, 173).  The agapist perspective thus idealizes a vision of soldiers as moral agents who are keenly aware of their own sinfulness, regretful for the necessary violence that they must inflict against fellow creatures created in God’s image, and yet fully cognizant that this violence is a consequence of love itself.

There is much about this portrait of the just warrior that I find appealing, and yet I fear that the portrait of the ideal soldier that agapists elevate runs the risk of collapsing into a sort of sentimental utopianism that cuts against the realism so essential to the Augustinian tradition.  What seem lacking here is any substantive discussion as to how mournful warriors are to be formed and whether the actual practices that attend the formation of soldiers are compatible with the virtuous character that agapists elevate.  How does one become a “mournful warrior,” after all?

Mathewes correctly points to liturgy as the transformative practice elevated in the Christian tradition as the means for cultivating the inner disposition so vital to Christian character (TRG, 230).  In particular, Mathewes observes that the eucharist is itself the “central ritual” of Christian liturgy, a symbolic reconfiguration of ourselves from those who consume to those who are consumed, becoming part of the body of Christ, the church (TRG, 232). From this we might gather that the agapist perspective assumes a high degree of confidence that Christian liturgy can play the transformative task of ensuring that the sentiments and dispositions of soldiers are properly formed.

However, I worry here that such confidence is overstated.  The practices of Christian community, after all, are not the only, or perhaps even the primary, practices that form the moral dispositions of soldiers.  What of military training, the day-to-day practices essential to military cohesion and combat effectiveness?  The vocational training that soldiers experience is no less formative, morally speaking, than the practices of Christian community, and it is by no means clear whether such training is compatible with the formation of soldiers idealized by agapists.  Agapists have devoted little attention to analyzing the concrete practices and moral outcomes of military training—how boot camp, vocational labor, and the actual experience of war form the dispositions of soldiers.  While we may hope that the agapist perspective is correct that these practices are compatible with formation as loving agents, such compatibility cannot be assumed.  Indeed, with respect to war itself, the burden of proof lies with agapists who insist that a story about love-motivated violence correctly narrates the moral experience of those who fight.

Having said all of this, I am grateful to Nigel Biggar whose recent book In Defence of War explores in some detail the questions that I am raising here.  Biggar makes the case that Christian love is fully compatible with the moral experience of soldiers in war. I’ll try to unpack his argument in my next blog post. On this Veteran’s Day  I’ll conclude my post by acknowledging my deep appreciation for the soldiers our country honors on this day.