by Ryan Gear
Following the recent terrorist attacks, a few presidential candidates and other political leaders are calling for an increased U.S. military presence in Syria. For example, the CNN Republican presidential debate this week produced an unusually substantive debate on the wisdom of the U.S. engaging in regime change. As the political debate intensifies, followers of Jesus must once again reevaluate our stance on war.
For centuries, Christians have debated the most Christ-like position regarding war. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas developed the doctrine of Just War, and the Catholic Church includes their concepts in its catechism. Conversely, pacifists generally trace the origins of their nonviolence to Jesus.
One of the titles Christians use for Jesus is “Prince of Peace.” While living in a violent empire, Jesus taught his followers:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45a).
As conflict with ISIS escalates, how should followers of the Prince of Peace think about war? What questions should we ask before supporting a war? And how should we respond to those Americans who seem to be eager to go to war?
Here are 10 things followers of Jesus should keep in mind about a war with ISIS.
- ISIS wants a war with the United States to fulfill their apocalyptic scenario.
ISIS intentionally releases slickly produced videos of gruesome murders like beheadings and the burning of the Jordanian pilot, and they claimed responsibility for the Russian plane bombing and the terrorist attacks in Paris. They want their videos and attacks to be viewed by as many people as possible. Why? Perhaps ISIS releases these videos as propaganda in order to enrage the U.S. and other world powers with the goal of drawing us into a war.
Graeme Wood reports in “What ISIS Really Wants” that ISIS has their own version of the apocalypse. After drawing the world (Dajjal, in their view) into a final battle in the Middle East, “Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.”
You read that correctly. ISIS wants a final war, and they believe Jesus will come back to save them. The more rage and fear they can create within the United States, the greater their chances of drawing us, and the rest of the world, into their final war.
- The American news media profits from war coverage.
I believe that there are many honest and decent news journalists, and I most appreciate journalists who are willing to give a self-critique of the American news media. We know that the advertising profits of commercial television channels depend on advertising that is driven by ratings. When a war begins, news channel ratings go up. When news channel ratings go up, so do advertising profits.
On top of that, some media outlets are more fear-based than others. Psychology Today suggests that fear-based news follows a two-part formula – 1) Create fear with the headline, then 2) Suggest that the fear can be relieved by watching the newscast. What could possibly create more fear-based ratings than a war with terrorists? Again, I deeply appreciate honest journalism and responsible media. We must be aware, however, that war financially benefits those who give (actually, sell) us information.
- War will likely not stop terrorist attacks.
In Matthew 26:52, Jesus famously tells Peter, 52 “Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
In other words, Jesus says that violence begets violence. With every bomb that falls, ISIS terrorists are emboldened to kidnap and execute more hostages and attack more innocent people. The perpetual conflict in the Middle East is an illustration that the cycle of violence can last for hundreds of years.
- Christians who do support war cite Just War Theory, not a desire for vengeance.
Just War Theory began as a doctrine of justifiable war created by followers of Jesus such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. While I am not Catholic, I find the catechism of the Catholic Church enlightening regarding war. Criteria include:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- There must be serious prospects of success;
- The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The second criteria of “All other means…” could be endlessly debated, but it demands the question, “Are there any other means by which to address this conflict other than violence?” Certainly followers of Jesus should lead the way in suggesting alternate means of addressing a conflict.
- There are potentially more effective ways to decrease extremism than war.
If one criteria for war is “All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective,” we must ask, “What are some other means to put an end to conflict?
ISIS appeals to disenchanted young people who feel marginalized by using a twisted interpretation of Islam that moderate Muslims reject. Consequently, perhaps the two most effective means of confronting ISIS are to 1) Address the reasons for marginalization and 2) Promote the voices of moderate Muslims.
- Children and other innocent persons will die in a war.
This is a fact we would like to ignore, but innocent people are killed in every war. The innocent dead will include children who are every bit as valuable to God as your children and mine.
- Our children will be the ones fighting the war.
Those sent to fight will be the sons and daughters of peace-loving Americans. While the murders committed by ISIS are horrendous and inexcusable, a war will lead to the deaths of more people.
- Few Americans have been killed by ISIS, while thousands of Americans are killed annually within the United States.
Ten thousand Americans are killed by other Americans with guns every year, and “In fact, far more Americans were killed by gun violence in 2013 alone (33,636) than all the Americans killed on U.S. soil by terrorists in the last 14 years, and that’s including 9/11.”
According to CNN, U.S. officials are not sure how many Americans ISIS is currently holding hostage. One official said there may be “a number.” The article states that approximately 80 journalists from various countries are now held. Every life lost is tragic and horrific, but the number of Americans killed by ISIS is small relative to common causes of death within our own country.
Just across our southern border, staggering violence is occurring that is largely ignored by the American media. According to the Huffington Post, over 100,000 people have been killed in gang-related violence since 2007 in Mexico. Why do we see daily reports from the Middle East and far less reports about horrific violence closer to our country?
Motivated by love for our neighbors, followers of Jesus want to relieve misery, protect the innocent, and save lives. Relative to the causes of misery and death in our world, is a war with ISIS warranted?
- A war with ISIS will cost American taxpayers.
Much of American politics is an argument over how much the government should collect in tax revenue and how it should be spent. The Harvard School of Government found that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost U.S. taxpayers $6 trillion. That’s $75,000 for every American household. How much would American society benefit if that sum of money were to be invested right here in the U.S. in the form social programs, infrastructure, education, etc.?
- It is certain that more Americans will die in a war with ISIS than the number already killed by ISIS.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deaths of five Americans, and it is a certainty that more than five Americans will be killed in a ground war with ISIS.
On September 11, 2001, 2,996 Americans were horrifically murdered by terrorists. During the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,802 U.S. service members were killed, over twice the number of Americans killed on 9/11. Several thousand more U.S. contractors were killed in the two conflicts, and the number of civilian deaths is massive, perhaps between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Many times more people lost their lives in the wars following 9/11 than in the terrorist attacks themselves.
While I, personally, accept Just War Theory, I believe that Christians should sober-mindedly consider the teaching of the Prince of Peace regarding violence– do not murder, pray for those who persecute you, and those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Whether or not you support an escalated conflict with ISIS, as the drumbeat of war intensifies, those who follow the Prince of Peace should march to a different beat.