Who Would Jesus Bomb?: A Nonviolent Response to ISIS

Sunday, February 22, 2015

When speaking of nonviolence, the classic what-if question is "What about Hitler?" In our day that question for many people has become "What about ISIS?" Their brutality and violence have shocked and alarmed people the world over. Is there a nonviolent approach to ISIS, or is this an example of a time when the only viable response is one of violence?

Some Christian pacifists take the stance that Jesus commands us to renounce violence. For them this does not necessarily mean that nonviolence provides a solution to resolving conflict or keeping people safe. Rather it is simply a prohibition: They stress that as followers of Jesus we are not permitted to commit acts of violence, period.

I would like to offer some friendly push-back to this. Rather than merely being a prohibition, I would argue that on a much deeper level Jesus' way of enemy love provides us with a way of bringing about the kingdom of God, of bringing about justice, and caring for people. Our task as his followers of Jesus is to work out how to live that way out in our world. In other words, nonviolence is not primarily about a prohibition -- i.e. something you don't do -- it is much more importantly a way to bring about peace, resolve conflict, and make things right. Jesus points us towards that way and we need to do the hard work of figuring out how to faithfully live that out in our time.

In part the confusion here comes from the name "non-violence" itself, which with it's negative prefix seems to imply a non-action. Similarly the word "pacifist" is often conflated with the term "passive." However, this is not merely a misunderstanding of semantics. For many Christian pacifists -- particularly those from Evangelical backgrounds such as myself -- this is exactly what they stress when they teach nonviolence. Their focus on a prohibition, irrespective of whether they can offer any means of working for peace through nonviolent means.

Now, let me say that I have a ton of respect for these people. I consider them not only to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, but also friends and allies in our common pursuit of following Jesus' way of enemy love. I truly think they are awesome and deeply appreciate the work they do.

However, I disagree with them that the way of enemy love is primarily about what we don't do, and want to lovingly push back here and propose that it is far more about what we do. The aim of my own work on nonviolence and enemy love has therefore been focused on working to flesh that out practically.

One critique that is often voiced against this "non-participation" flavor of pacifism is this: "Well, that's fine for your personal life, but it does not provide a societal solution for dealing with crime or conflict." I think this is in fact a valid criticism. I think we do need to provide real alternatives, and that it is a moral responsibility to do so.

This should apply to every area of our lives. It should affect everything from our personal lives (how we deal with marital conflict, how we teach our children how to behave, etc.) to larger societal issues (how we deal with bullying in schools, how we deal with crime, how we deal with international conflict, etc.).

If we want to learn how to live this out, the best place to start is with ourselves, in learning to walk out the way of enemy love in our daily lives. From that understanding we can work towards the larger, and more complex issues.

I say that to stress that in addressing the problem of ISIS, I am really beginning backwards. I'm beginning with the hardest thing rather than the easiest, and that is not a great way to learn to practice anything. 

The reason I'm doing this is that for many people ISIS represents a logjam in their thinking about nonviolence. I don't here mean people who want to find a "gotcha" reason to discount Jesus' way of enemy love. I don't have much to say to those folks. I'm talking instead about people who recognize that Jesus clearly does call us to the way of enemy love, and who get stuck here, wondering how to faithfully live this out in the face of peril. 

That is, they are not saying "See? I told you that the answer is a gun and not Jesus!" Rather they are saying "I do want to follow Jesus, I see that his way of grace is amazing and life-changing in so many ways, but I just don't get how it would work here. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. Show me how to follow you well here."

Those are the people who I am speaking to.

Let's begin with the classic understanding of nonviolence, more properly known as nonviolent resistance or nonviolent direct action, made popular by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 

This has proven to be a powerful means for changing unjust and oppressive systems and governments. As I discuss in my book Disarming Scripture, beginning in the 1980s — for the first time in human history — nonviolent resistance campaigns successfully toppled multiple oppressive regimes across the globe, often in the face of overwhelming military power and brutality.

However, I am not sure it would work with ISIS.

The reason I say this has to do with the way nonviolent resistance works. Its primary method is to expose injustice. So when it is used, for example by protestors in Ferguson, it can serve as a powerful way to show how those in authority, who claim to represent justice and the good, are in fact acting in an unjust way. This in turn results in public outcry, putting external pressure (often economic pressure) on these authorities to change. This is how those dictatorships mentioned above were toppled nonviolently.

The problem with ISIS is that they are trying to shock and appall the world with their brutality. They are trying to draw a violent response from the United States.

That's why it's important to understand two things: First, we need to understand how nonviolent strategies function so we can use them effectively. Secondly, we need to realize that there are many ways to deal with conflict nonviolently and that nonviolent resistance is just one way among many ways. In the appropriate context it can be a powerful means of bringing about justice, but if used in the wrong context it can be ineffective and morally irresponsible. In my estimation, it would not be an effective response here.

So what can we do?

As I have discussed earlier, an important part of the solution needs to be long-term. We need to work towards addressing the conditions that become the breeding ground for groups like ISIS. At the same time, we do need to act in the short-term too in order to stop the brutality. So what could that look like?

It's important to understand here that the current approach of dropping bombs is probably not only ineffective, but likely will make things much worse. Similar to a hostage situation, ISIS fighters are in the middle of cities filled with innocent people. If bank robbers had taken hostages, it would clearly be a bad approach for the police to just drop a bomb on the First National Bank of Somewhereville. Likewise here, dropping bombs from afar might make us feel like we are "doing something" without entering into an extremely unpopular land war, but in reality it does not in fact restore order; but quite to the contrary, instead destroys infrastructure, results in collateral damage, and ultimately acts to destabilize the region even more. As Wardah Khalid (Peace Fellow in Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation) writes,
"Every single bomb we drop or troop we place in the Middle East is seen as a threat to the country’s sovereignty. This is what fueled violence against U.S. troops in Iraq for decades."
Okay, that's what we shouldn't do -- not only because we want to avoid violence (which, as Ron Sider points out, is a goal shared by Just War adherents), but also because it is in this case actually counter-productive and ineffective in achieving our goal of stopping the violence of ISIS.

This is of course really important. We don't want to make things worse. But it still leaves the question open of what we can do right now. Here again, I found the advice of Wardah Khalid deeply helpful. She proposes that we,
Create a comprehensive, multilateral strategy with our allies, including the Arab League and the U.N., that includes such tools as a regional arms embargo to prevent weapons from going into the wrong hands, penalties for purchasing illicit oil that funds the Islamic State group and more money for diplomacy and humanitarian aid. A political solution to Syria and its President Bashar Assad must also be revisited, as the power vacuum there is what allowed radicals and their foreign backers to first take hold. California Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee and Mike Honda’s recently introduced legislation calling for a comprehensive Islamic State group strategy would be a viable option for Congress to support.
As her colleague at the FCNL, Kate Gould (Legislative Associate for Middle East policy at the FCNL) notes, many reports show that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf nations have actively funneled weapons to the Islamic State which it has depended on for its growth. She therefore proposes that an effective means of stopping ISIS would entail a political solution which acts to starve them of the three things they need to thrive -- money, weapons, and recruits.

This article is of course just a brief peek into what is a larger comprehensive strategy, and for anyone interested in these issues I would highly recommend looking in more detail at the work of these two analysts. 

For myself, as I try to work out what it means to live out Jesus' way of enemy love, I find the work of experts like these to be deeply helpful and instructive. As a theologian I find it so important to be in conversation with experts like these. What they propose are effective and practical steps we can take to work towards peace and justice, rather than the simplistic "Hulk smash!" approach that so many in our government seem to gravitate towards. 

There is a tendency for people to stay within the borders of their own field, and it is easy to stay within the borders of theology and biblical studies. But as I have listened to experts in other fields -- ethicist, therapists, neuroscientists, political analysts, etc. -- not simply in sound bites in the media (which is often profoundly uninsightful, and works instead to sensationalize issues, perpetuating stereotypes and fear) but really digging into the work these experts do, I have found real and practical application of the way of Jesus.

Speaking of which, if you would like to see a really frustrating example of what is wrong with the media, you can watch Kate Gould being "interviewed" by Bill O'Reilly and how he goes out of his way not to listen or learn anything from her. He does this so much in fact that he feels the need to confess at the end "You know I'm obnoxious." I can think of some other ways to describe him, but since I'm trying to promote peace here, I'll just leave that to your imagination as you watch the interview. 

What I will say is that I am thankful there are people like Gould and Khalid who can help us to move towards finding real solutions for building peace and working towards a safe and just world, and I hope that we could learn to listen to their wisdom and expertise, rather than continuing in the path we are now on of reactionary fear-based enemy-hating militarism and violence. There is a better way.

Labels: , ,

Pass it on: Disarming Scripture is on sale on Kindle for just 99 cents!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My book Disarming Scripture is on sale on Kindle for just 99 cents, marked down from the regular price of $8.99. That's a pretty huge savings, and it's only for a limited time. So go get it

You already bought the book you say? Well, if you liked it then consider giving the book to that special someone. You can "gift" it to them for less than a buck. How awesome is that?

Why am I doing this?

Our world is increasingly becoming a violent place, and all too often that violence is justified in the name of religion. We need to face that in ourselves and learn how to approach the Bible -- learn  how to approach life -- like Jesus did.

That's why I believe that the message of Disarming Scripture: : Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did is so important. That's why I want to see the book reach a wide audience. And so, for a limited time, I'm practically giving the book away. 

If you feel the same, I could really use your help: Please help me spread the word about this with Tweets and Facebook posts. Email your friends and tell em too.


Disarming Scripture: Reader Questions, part 5

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Jump back to Reader Questions, part 4
Time for another installment of "ask Dr Derek" (I'm not really a doctor, I just play one on TV). Our question this time around is,
If the Bible's purpose is to bring us through competing views of God and morality along a trajectory that leads us to love, and if that trajectory is to continue past the New Testament, then why continue to use the Bible after God's Spirit of love has given us this new heart?
This question is different from the previous questions we've covered thus far (see the link above). The previous questions dealt with how to make sense of what we find in the Bible. This question takes that a step further and asks how that understanding affects our life and praxis as followers of Jesus.  This is where the rubber hits the road! What does it look like to read the Bible as our sacred text, as Scripture, if we reject the biblicism's approach of unquestioning obedience, and wish instead to follow in the footsteps of Christ's hermeneutic of faithful questioning?

Specifically, this question asks what it looks like to read on a trajectory. What I seek to show in Disarming Scripture is that Jesus read Scripture on a trajectory -- or rather that Jesus sets this trajectory for us with his message of radical forgiveness, grace, and enemy love, moving away from the way of violence as a means of bringing about justice (payback justice: doing harm to make things right) and replacing it with bringing about justice through agape love (the gospel: doing good to make things right).

Here what is crucial is to identify the core message of the gospel, of the kingdom of God, as Jesus understood, proclaimed, and demonstrated it. The traditional evangelical approach is to focus on personal salvation, in our entering into a loving relationship with God in Christ. I completely agree with this, but our being loved by God needs to spill over into a life of showing that same love to others, especially the least. Jesus says if we really love him, we show this in how we love others, and especially in how we love those who we find hard to love, who we find unworthy of our love. When we do that, we love with the same love that God loved us,
"God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us ... while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son" (Romans 5:8, 10)
As the above question notes, the Old Testament is multi-vocal. It contains multiple conflicting visions of God's will. The multiple voices can be divided into two main categories, the majority voice of unquestioning obedience which justifies punitive violence, and the minority voice which protests that this violence is unjust. The New Testament follows in the line of the minority voice of protest, but with a key difference: The Old Testament voice of protest questions the justice of the suffering they were experiencing, but they do not question the system of punishment for evil; they just argue that they are innocent.  In contrast the New Testament states that we are all guilty of hurt, and proclaims that the way God brings about justice is by redeeming sinners. That is the gospel of grace and enemy love. That is the trajectory Jesus sets which we are to follow in.

While the Old Testament is multi-vocal, the New Testament in contrast is not. The New Testament contains diversity, but all with the common goal of working out what it means to make Jesus Lord and live out the kingdom of God characterized by Jesus' way of enemy love.

This point is key because we are not simply pursuing a moral path that seems right to us (it does of course need to make sense to us since one cannot follow what one does not understand), but as followers of Jesus we are pursuing a way characterized by the kingdom of God -- characterized by the politics of God -- that Jesus proclaimed. That way is, at its core, characterized by enemy love. Our task is to work out what that looks like in our time.

Now as I argue in the book, we need to continue in that trajectory rather than stopping where the New Testament does. The classic example of this is slavery: We have gone beyond where the NT did and have recognized that slavery is immoral and must be abolished. A trajectory reading recognizes that in doing this we are not breaking with the New Testament, rather we are being faithful to follow in the trajectory it sets, developing it further. Slavery is just one example, but of course there are a million ways we could change how we live, including changing how our society functions, to bring this more in line with the kingdom of God as Jesus understood it. Our task as followers of Jesus is to work that out in our time and context.

This brings me to the tail end of the question, "if that trajectory is to continue past the New Testament, then why continue to use the Bible after God's Spirit of love has given us this new heart?"

Salvation begins with finding our identity in Christ, in being "adopted" into the family of God. In that context of being a beloved "king's kid" we learn to love as Jesus loves us. The Spirit works in us, transforming our minds into Christ-likeness. A major avenue that the living Spirit of Christ uses to do that is through our devotional reading of Scripture. Here Scripture becomes a sacrament leading us to  an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ -- not only in our inner life, but spilling over into everything.

Here we are not reading Scripture as something that tethers us to the past ("masters be kind to your slaves"), but as a springboard that points us to an ever greater furthering of the way of Jesus in our lives and world. We therefore read the words of Jesus and ask "how can I be faithful to this? How would that change the way I live my life?

For example, if I am an employer, I might ask, How would calling Jesus Lord change how I treat my employees? So instead of just caring about the "bottom line" of cash, we consider the truth of Christ's words "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Or if am a lawmaker, I could ask, How would calling Jesus Lord impact the laws I write? For example, making sure that we as a society prioritize human rights and caring for the poor and vulnerable.

Now, I fully realize that many politicians who claim to follow Christ actually come up with laws that promote values that are the opposite of Jesus -- values that condemn the poor and promote violence and punishment. The fact that they can do this in the name of Christ with a straight face reveals that we Americans as a whole apparently don't have a clue as to what Jesus taught, despite going to church every Sunday.

Let's work that out a bit: Let's assume that the politicians who claim to be Christians and promoting Christian values actually do love Jesus and are not just saying this just to get votes. Let's assume that they are essentially the same as the church-going people who vote for them, who sing heart-felt worship songs every Sunday with their hands stretched high in the air. Yet both these conservative politicians and those who support them endorse things that are diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus. Things that are morally primitive and hurtful.

What that shows me is that "God's Spirit of love giving us this new heart" as the question states is clearly not enough. This was the assumption I grew up with a charismatic evangelical. What we need is a changed heart and then everything will fall into place.  Yet it seems that it does not, as evidenced by the rotten fruit of these politicians and citizens who promote hurt in the name of Jesus. The problem here I believe is that they call Jesus "Lord, Lord" but have not immersed themselves in the way of Jesus. They have not let the mind of Christ become how they think and how they see, and instead are shaped by the worldly American values of money and guns.

That tells me that we need to read the New Testament more, not less. We need to let it shape who we are. It is striking that while enemy love is at the very core of Jesus' message and mission, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard a sermon on enemy love in the many decades I have been in church.
As a whole, what we need is not to stop reading the Bible, but to find a better Jesus-shaped way of reading it.  It is not enough to just rely on our relationship with the Spirit. The Bible plays a crucial role in our discipleship in giving us the core content of what living out Jesus as Lord entails. It's true that we do not worship a book, but that sacred book does serve as a vehicle, used by the Spirit, to bring us towards God and towards becoming people who reflect the values of our Lord. Scripture thus serves the role of leading us to Christ, and to Christ-likeness.
So we absolutely do need to read the Bible. However, we need to learn to read it in a Jesus-shaped way. Instead of reading the Bible as a static book of unchanging laws, we need to read it in a way that spurs us to grow and progress and work towards Christ-like justice. I think that is exciting, deeply relevant and important. Learning to read on a trajectory points us upward and forward, rather than holding us back. It spurs us to creatively grow and develop the new, rather than seeking to justify the old.

Labels: , , ,

On Being the Nuts and Bolts

Sunday, February 08, 2015

“I am a Christian, not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.” 

This quote is attributed to Rich Mullins, from the docudrama Raggamuffin which tells the story of his life. It's a touching story of one man's struggle to find grace. You can watch the film on Netflix streaming.

I really love the idea of people being the "nuts and bolts" of Christianity. I'd love to go to a church like that. But my experience has unfortunately been very different. Regrettably though, I don't think my experience is atypical. I wish it were.  

In my experience, in every church I have been a part of, over the course of many decades, across many denominations, both liberal and conservative, and even different continents, over and over it was the pastor alone who was expected to be the "nuts and bolts" for everyone. There was talk about how we should do this, too, but the reality was that it was just one guy (who on some rare occasions happened to be female).

This is reflected in the name "pastor" which means "shepherd," implying that the rest of us are basically sheep. The pastor cares for the flock, and the fear is that if any of us leave church we will fall away like a little lost sheep. 


Our faith and morality will crumble if it is not held up by our shepherd. The catholic idea of a "father" is basically the same. They are the father, and we are all dependent little children.


This infantilizing creates a learned dependency where adults learn not to think and act as moral adults. If anything, the role of a pastor should be the opposite. It should be to empower people to think morally and to be those "nuts and bolts" in a loving community.

But this unequal "division of labor" is not just a major disservice to the congregants. It is also deeply unfair to the pastor who is saddled with an impossible burden.  They are typically expected to be an example of moral perfection. Consequently, they fear to voice any struggles or doubts or failures they may have for fear their congregation may turn on them. The result is not only that they hide their real struggles (and like the rest of us, they of course have struggles, too), but they often work themselves to the point of burnout.

J.R. Briggs, in his book Fail catalogs some alarming statistics: 
  • 1,500 pastors a month leave the ministry forever due to burnout or contention in their churches.
  • Pastors who work fewer than 50 hours a week are 30% more likely to be terminated. 
  • 70% of pastors say they do not have a single close friend.
  • Medical costs for clergy are higher than for any other professional group.
  • 50% of pastor's marriages end in divorce.

As if this all was not enough, many pastors feel obligated not only to serve as a teacher, but also to act as a marriage counselor, social worker, therapist, addiction specialist, community organizer, and a host of other jobs that -- I can tell you first hand  -- you learn next to nothing about in seminary. It's then not at all surprising that, as Briggs notes, 90% of pastors say they were inadequately trained to cope with their job.

In short, pastors -- in trying to take on all these jobs -- act as if we were living in the middle ages when the local pastor really did need to be all these things since there was no such thing as mental health experts or doctors back then. But we don't live in the middle ages. To take this all on now is just nuts. Pastors don't know how to deal with clinical depression any more than they do a ruptured spleen.

What pastors (and the rest of us as equal members in a community) can do is love people. We can be a friend. That is something that is deeply important, and something a therapist or social worker can't do. Loving people is not a job you get paid for or get a degree in. But love is the central thing that Jesus said should characterize our lives as Christians.

It's important to note that this should be understood as a deeply important addition to the vital work that mental health experts provide, not a replacement. When you are sick, you need a doctor, but you also need human care and support. 

People with terminal or debilitating illnesses can often feel cut off from life and dehumanized. That's why it's so profoundly important in our struggles to have that human connection. We need people to support us, to stand beside us, to bring a casserole, or call on the phone to see how we're doing.

That's what the "nuts and bolts" of our faith are all about. This is not the job of one person, it is the job of all of us in a community.


This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.