[This is the Part 2 conclusion to a prior Part 1. Check it out if you’re into checking things out. Here.]
Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I was in my second year of law school. When classes resumed on Thursday, September 13, I was sitting in Civil Procedure II and the professor, to his credit, chose to ignore questions of legal jurisdiction and venue to instead talk with his class about what had happened the day before. His conclusion – this is a man who, by his own estimation, may have lost 49 friends and colleagues in the South Tower in Manhattan – was that we should have “dialogue” with the people that did this thing, so that we can understand each other and reach peace. This was the sentiment shared – at least by those who spoke – of the vast majority of my class. I was the sole, vocal opposition. Shaking in my chair (not from fear) I countered with my belief that the only dialogue that these evil men understand is “swift and deadly violence.” It may have been lacking tact and perhaps “uncivilized,” and I was chastised at the time by professor and peers alike (not verbally, but with sidelong glances and clicking of tongues), but I believed it then and still believe it today.
“In this world are tigers.” T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War
“In this world are tigers.” I think it was Rudyard Kipling who originally coined this phrase (though I cannot for the life of me find the reference). Anyway, whether Kipling or Fehrenbach (also an excellent writer), the phrase is applicable to situations like the one the world now faces in the Fertile Crescent, and it rings solidly with truth. In short, it is a simple axiom that there is only one way to deal with tigers. You do not negotiate with them; you do not try to understand them, as they have no desire to understand you; you do not treat them like you would treat a friend, as they have no desire to treat you that way. A hungry, wild tiger wants to kill you. The only response to such tigers is to kill them before they kill you.
The men of ISIS/ISIL terrorizing Iraq and Syria today are the tigers in our world. But – and this begs the analogy – they are worse than tigers. They are men in tiger suits – which means that their actions transcend those of the simple, natural world of wild killers. They are killer men with evil hearts, acting wild despite that fact that they know better (because they are men, image-bearers of God, they know better). These men, like the men of Al Qaida that murdered thousands in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 (many of them are the same men), speak and understand only one language: swift, deadly violence.
In a blog of theology and religion – and specifically the religion of Christ followers – you may be wondering how and why I can say something like this. Well, here’s the thing: Despite the fact that I am a member (and elder) of a church with an Anabaptist heritage, I do not ascribe to a theology of “peace at all costs,” nor do I believe that God demands this of His people (this is a whole other conversation for another time – maybe we’ll have it – and I don’t mean to ascribe this simplistic statement of theology to the Anabaptist Church, whose peace position, I have come to learn and love, is far more nuanced that this). I have yet to hear or read a theological exposition that supports this notion (well, anyway). I think that I know Christ and His heart – at least to the degree that I am currently able to do so through the revelation of His word to my heart. I think I do understand what He meant when He said “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek.” I think, though, that I also understand what He meant when He told His disciples to “get a sword” if they didn’t already own one. I also think that “blessed are the peacemakers” does not translate only into one option or posture or position at the expense and exclusion of the opposite other. Indeed, I believe that the best way – perhaps the only way – to “make peace” is to enter into conflict – not necessarily to create it (though Jesus Himself did so), but to engage it, become a part of it if necessary, and thus bring about peace. Peace in conflict certainly may mean a resolution of two sides on grounds that are agreeable to both, but when the conflict is a conflict with men in tiger suits, what then? How do you make peace with evil that wants nothing but to kill you and everyone that you know and love?
The most violent act in the history of mankind was the Cross. The brutality of the act toward the most beautiful and innocent being that ever lived plays a part, for sure, but the cross was not the most violent act in history simply because of this or because of the physical nature of the crucifixion itself and what the Romans did – as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was no more (and possibly less) violent than the thousands or millions of executions by crucifixion (and other means) that occurred prior to and subsequent from that day. Rather, the Cross was the most violent act in the history of mankind because of what Christ did. On and through the Cross, Jesus violently shook Hell itself. He violently took the fight to sin and to death, and through blood – blood that covered the world – destroyed the power of both. The Cross was a violent collision of God’s peace with evil itself.
In addition to seeing and judging people through their nations and leaders, I also believe that God often uses nations and leaders to bring about His will and judgments. This is self-evident throughout history; if you don’t believe me, just look to the Bible. Egypt, Canaan, Israel and Judah, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome were all nations with distinct leaders that God explicitly used to bring about His singular vision and plan of Himself incarnate, redeeming, triumphant. I do not believe that this stopped with Rome, nor do I believe that the new and present Kingdom of Christ modified it – indeed, it is clear that all governments now rest on Christ’s shoulders.
The question is, what role does the Church – the Bride of Christ and the sons and daughters of God – play in this drama?
I am torn. I am torn on the one hand by the testimony of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and many others), who chose a path of peace in a time of great conflict and evil and who beautifully glorified the name of God. On the other hand, I am torn by the stark reality that the evil that Bonhoeffer opposed was only defeated by the strength of arms – war – by good men who chose to act violently in opposition to the evil. Was God any less glorified by this? Is it wrong to say that God’s will was for the evil of murderous, genocidal fascism to be defeated, destroyed, eliminated? Is it wrong to claim that God brought this about through human arms, and through violent war?
The Psalms contain a familiar and repeated refrain from the oppressed people of God: “How long, O Lord?”
How long will You hide Your face?
How long must we wait for You to rescue us?
How long will wicked men crush Your children?
How long will the enemy revile Your name?
I can hear the Jews in the German concentration camps cry out. I can hear the Christians (and non-Christians) of northern Iraq scream to the heavens. I can see the images, and they keep me awake.
And I wonder along with them, “How long will you delay, Oh God?”
And I see the images of the faces of the concentration camp survivors, liberated by good men with strong arms and violent weapons. And I can see the images of the faces of the innocent in Iraq – Muslim and Christian alike – as they, too, are liberated by good men with strong arms and violent weapons.
And these images keep me awake, too.
And I hear God respond to my lament, “How long will YOU delay? Are you not my son? Are you not a prince in authority over these things? Are you not my arms, my hands, my feet, my tongue, my eyes, my ears, my tears? For what are you waiting?”
And this keeps me awake.
Is there really ever a time for war?
My days as a warrior are behind me. I’m old, achy (obviously cranky), and out of touch with the modern military and its tactics, techniques, and procedures. So I recognize that a call to arms is a bold statement from someone with no skin in the game. So what do I do? What do we do?
I will go to war. I may not command the tanks or pull the triggers anymore, but I can fight in the spiritual realms that Paul talks about, for I am told this is the real battle. I will fight in this realm by taking up my own cross (for crosses are never borne on one’s own behalf) and, among other things, pray for the deliverance of the innocent, the children, those people that I once knew and still love. But I will also pray that evil and wicked are crushed – even by violence, if God sees fit. Please get in the fight with me.
[Postscript: Since writing these two essays, it is obvious that our nation has chosen some level of responsibility and war in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. The effectiveness or fecklessness of this decision and effort is also the fitting subject for another conversation.]