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.

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At 6:36 PM, Blogger Chris Hipsher said...

Very insightful. As a Mennonite trying to promote peace, I thoroughly enjoy your work. I'm thrilled your book is climbing the charts. It's a must read for all.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Tony Corsaro said...

Good thoughts Derek. Best piece I've read on practical ways of responding to the craziness in our world.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I doubt that there are really that very many people who see non-violence merely as avoiding any acts of violence, though that simplistic idea is held by some to be sure. In my life experience I am finding that there are many non-religious folks who are joining non-violence because of pragmatic reasons, and they are right. Violence begets violence, but simply not engaging in violence does not inherently lead to peace. Peace is the goal and non-violence is part of their way of getting there. That's a good thing.
To people in the Christian religion there is a deeper problem that must be addressed. Most see God as angry and vengeful. Since that describes their God they also have no problem with following the same way of living - if it's good enough for God it's good enough for me. To this group we need not only to promote the pragmatics of peace and non-resistance, it is MORE important that we first demonstrate that Jesus is THE image of the Father and when we have seen one we see the other. Jesus is the prince of Peace and his example on earth shows us a God who is also peace loving and peace giving and peace promoting. We need to show these people that God is genuinely a God of grace and peace and life and not the vindictive reciprocating violence for violence God that the vast majority of western Christianity worships. This is where the hard work is, in my opinion, because these wrong ideas of God are entrenched ever so deeply. They cannot see that THIS is the main reason why young people are leaving Christianity, they are sick and tired of worshiping a God who hates. As long as God is a hating God who is focused on revenge based "justice" those that worship that version of God will not become peace makers, with non-violence as one of the key pillars of making peace.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Chris,

I've learned a great deal from Mennonites, and the folks I mention above are Quakers. Seems the peace churches are really walking the walk and forging new ground. That's inspiring and exciting.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Tony!

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Jake,

I totally hear you. In fact, if you look at the books I've written you'll see that my work has focused on understanding the gospel and God's heart and way from the perspective of restorative rather than retributive justice (Healing the Gospel), and then how to navigate through the Bible's conflicting pictures of a hateful violent God to the loving grace-focused image of God we see in Jesus (Disarming Scripture).

That groundwork leads me to pursuing the way Jesus shows us i.e. the concrete application enemy love addressing the very real problems of our world in practical and effective ways.

At 11:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Derek,

I am new to this whole non-violence thing, but I am glad that people like you exist in this world. As a Christian, I cannot condone killing, but I have been stumped when it comes to a practical and efficient alternative. Thank you for showing people there is another option, one that we as a nation have not yet tried. As Jake said, violence begets violence. Violence created the problem of ISIS, so how can we expect to try the same thing and get a different result? In the words of Jesus, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'" Hopefully our nation will evolve to a state of non-violence before this happens. Keep up the good work!!!

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

Hi Derek,

I like reading your posts because they are challenging. And I appreciate that you come at it from a positive point of view, suggesting alternatives to violence rather than just preaching non-violence. While I don't necessarily agree with the idea of taking violent options off the table as a matter of principle, I do agree that we tend to resort to violent options too quickly and need to put more effort into finding non-violent ones--therefore, yours is a voice that is needed.

That being said, when I read the title to your post, "Who would Jesus bomb?", the answer that came immediately to mind was Sodom and Gomorrah (quite nearly a literal "bombing" by God). Jesus makes reference to this event Himself, using it as an example for the judgment of the ungodly (Luke 17:29, Matt. 10:15). Peter makes this even more explicit in his letter (2 Peter 2:4-9). I'm curious what you do with this?

Again, I must say that I am with you in that we should not always jump to violence as the first solution. Even with Sodom, God was patient. Peter talks about how they had the witness of Lot among them, yet rejected that. God tested them with the angels before consigning them to judgment. "Bombing" them was not a first solution, but a last resort. Nevertheless it was still on the table. I see it as a sometimes necessary evil, like divorce. Ideally, divorce should never happen...it is emotional violence. But, sometimes it is needed (such as in an abusive relationship). Sometimes it is the lesser of two evils when every other option has been exhausted.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Derek, This week is the first I have heard about you. I would indeed like to get your book. Amazon Canada teased me with the showing that your Disarming book is free right now, but at checkout it's $9.99. Not a lot but I will have to wait for a while - disability pension does not leave much meat on the bone as it were.

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yeah Amazon doesn't offer the Kindle Countdown deals in Canada currently.

At 7:11 AM, Anonymous Derek said...



At 7:25 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


The discussion of God's use of violence is a longer one, but there is one thing that is quite clear from the New Testament: we cannot use God's violence as a model for ours. "vengeance is mine" God says, and it is not ours. So we absolutely cannot use something like Sodom as a justification for we humans using violence. We are not God.

That said, I actually agree with you that we should not rule out violence in the case of ISIS. As you said, the problem is that we are not using violence as the last resort but as the only resort, and we also not considering the negative consequences of that may make things worse rather than help them. So if we use violence we need to think a lot more about it.

You mention divorce, and I think that is a good comparison. Another is to compare war to amputation. Amputation may be necessary to save a life, but is a real loss nevertheless and we should of course look for ways to treat the sickness before amputation is the only recourse.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

And a little child shall lead them . . .


Our suffering brethren in the Middle East are living this truth.


At 12:16 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

That's beautiful ofGrace, thanks for sharing that!


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