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Viewpoint: A Christian Response to Terrorism


A few days ago—before the attack on Paris—I wrote that there is no mythical demon prowling the world called “Terrorism,” which does not mean that there aren’t people who commit acts of terror. What I was denying was the reality that there is some “essence” of terrorism that, in its self-same identity, is instantiated in various places throughout the world. I stand by that denial, because I remain convinced of that we can only deal with the world honestly when we deal with things in their particularity; so, it is not that there is no connection between Al Qaeda and ISIS, but that clumping the two together as “the terrorists” obfuscates more than anything else. More than that, a war on “terrorism” is categorically endless, because, by identifying no particular object of war, those who wage the war can in principle never know when they have reached their objective. (For those who care for the just war tradition, that itself is a basic disqualifier.)

The point is to reject ideological thinking, and I am aware that the refusal to think about generalities can be just as ideological as the inability to think about particulars, and I hope to avoid that too. So, of course I was disturbed and saddened by the news of the attack in Paris on Friday, and of course I immediately wondered if ISIS was responsible. And since hearing that ISIS has claimed responsibility, I have been bracing myself for what seem to be the inevitable calls for war, and the ritual of liberal responses which attempt to differentiate Islam-the-faith from Islamist “extremism.” With France’s airstrikes on Sunday, and the explosion of articles over the whole weekend, my expectations were confirmed.

At least in this instance, I have no desire to challenge war as a response, nor do I intend to wholly reject the liberal response. What I do want to say is that those responses are of themselves not the Christian response. This can be but does not have to be competitive; a Christian response is what it is, and may find an ally or an opponent in other responses, and how this exactly looks shouldn’t be determined beforehand. I will say this about the liberal response: I generally think it is done in bad faith, not least because of the bipolarity of liberal attitudes about religious conviction generally, and the overwhelming ignorance about matters of faith that liberals expose in those attitudes. Their basic measure for what makes an “extremist” is that an extremist is a religious person who won’t accept the privatization of his or her faith when entering into the secular public square. By that measure, I and a host of other people are extremists. Additionally, I doubt very much that the deluge of liberal responders is in fact populated by people who know what they’re talking about. Most Christians that I know couldn’t explain Christianity, and even fewer nonbelievers have a decent handle on Christianity; liberals are generally liberal Christians or just secular, and if they are so ignorant of the dominant religion on the West, I have no interest in their opinions, positive or negative, about Islam.

Indeed, the entire ritual after such events can be summarized as getting across one point: Islam is peaceful, and Muslim people are not our enemies.

This isn’t wrong or right; it is useless. “Peace” is a concept that only operates within a particular logic, and so within the logic of each religion that religion is peaceful, having defined what peace in fact is. The meaning of peace is not self-evident. When people insist that Islam is peaceful, they mean that Islam accepts the definition of peace that the liberal nation-state intends; but this is patently false, just as it would be false to say that Christians or Jews accept that definition of peace. By secular standards, we “Abrahamic” faiths are not peaceful. As for Muslim people not being “our” enemies, an appropriate Christian response is first of all, “So what?” And then the second Christian response is, “And who is ‘our’ in that statement?”

Islam may or may not be the enemy of Christianity. It is meaningless to refer to practitioners. There are doubtless Muslim individuals who count themselves the enemy of Christians, and there are certainly Christians who are enemies to Muslim people. But the Christian has no investment in denying that a person or even a group is an enemy. It simply makes no difference. Those who follow Jesus are under obligation to love their neighbors, and to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. Christians do not deny that there are enemies, nor refuse to acknowledge that people hate them. So if there are a group of people claiming to be Muslim who are our enemies, Christians must still think creatively about how to love those people. For those who find this too demanding, there are a number of other lords to follow besides Jesus.

Christians must also come to call into question this notion of “our” having an enemy. It is not that Christians should not care when the nation has an enemy, but thinking through the right response has to involve a reframing of the problem. We may say, “Among the victims in Paris, some of our fellow Christians were killed. But it is France that has an enemy.” Nor is this a position of neutrality. The attack on Paris was evil, and there can be no equivocation about that. The point is that Christians cannot simply identify themselves with the state or nation. There are places in the world right now in which Muslim people are persecuting Christians; our response to those situations is not the same as our response to the attack on Paris, but this difference hinges on our insistence that we identify ourselves as Christians.

A Christian response to this is one that draws together the Christian community to act as a singular communal agent in the world to announce Christ’s reign and so his peace. The state will do what the state will do, and—not to be resigned—the church has little say in the matter. But the church may do what the church may do, and this doesn’t mean that we Christians are not implicated in the state’s actions. All this means is that we must act in the world as agents of Christ and his justice. This surely involves building relationships with Muslims, not because they are “not our enemies” or because our faiths are not all that different, but because we follow Jesus and because we must win them too to his peace. In this we do not fear death, nor do we avoid hatred. And acting in the world as Christ’s agent means also calling the nation to his justice. If the state is to go to war, the church must agitate for the war to be fought with some semblance of justice, and with a concrete end; indiscriminate air strikes and total destruction are unjust, no matter how justifiable the anger and hurt. The church must agitate to welcome refugees of war, and the church must ready itself for the hospitality that it demand. We must say to the state, “Let us welcome them.” Anything less is just sentimental talk.


Matthew Burdette is a two-time graduate of La Sierra University, with an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a Master of Arts in religion. He is currently a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Aberdeen, writing a dissertation on the theologies of James Cone and Robert Jenson. He writes at Interlocutors, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here by permission.

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