I haven’t written anything in the past several weeks because I’ve been chewing on whether or not I should write what I really want to write. That seems like a no-brainer for a blog, but I know that many of my Christian friends are split on what I’m about to talk about so it is important that I am careful in my explanation. So after much consideration I want to talk about how Christians should respond to evil in the world.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS/ISIL) is forcing Christians to do a little soul searching. The Atlantic magazine recently published an article that does the best job I’ve seen explaining this group’s goal, which simply is to revert back to 7th century sharia law and force their interpretation of end times apocalypse on the world. They are doing so through outrageous acts of evil – killing anyone who doesn’t agree with them, including fellow Muslims, via barbarous methods, such as beheading, crucifixion, and burning people alive.
If you follow the news you know that Christians have been a main target; women of all ethnic groups are being rounded up and sold into sexual slavery. Even children are being massacred. ISIS isn’t psychotic; the group has a deliberate plan to implement its interpretation of Islam and plans very much to expand the territory of its caliphate via the sword, just as the prophet Mohammed did when he introduced Islam to the world.
So what do we do as Christians in the face of this obvious evil? I have a “progressive” Christian friend who advised that we should look at Jesus as our model, implying that Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and to love and pray for our enemies should be our response. True, Jesus did say these things, but He said a lot more, too, as does the rest of scripture. I think we need to take a deeper look into the context and intent of scripture to perhaps find an answer.
In Matthew 5, Jesus talks about “retaliation.” Starting at verse 36 He says, “You have heard that it is said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And is someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go a mile, do with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
To understand Jesus you have to understand the historical context in which He said these things. First, the “eye for eye” approach was not intended for individual retaliation. God gave that law to the Israelites in Exodus 21:24 as an example of how the law was to ensure the punishment fit the crime. Eye for eye was for the state to execute during legal proceedings not for the individual to use to justify personal revenge.
And this is why Jesus says for the individual not to seek revenge but to instead not resist and evil man. But what is interesting is Jesus did not say, do not resist an evil man who wants to beat you or take your life. Jesus follows His evil man idea by describing an evil man as one who slaps you on the cheek. In 1st century Jewish culture slapping someone on the cheek was a way of insulting them. Think about those old movies were some French officer takes off his glove and slaps a person across the cheek and then challenges them to a duel. It’s the same concept – Jesus is talking about accepting an insult without retaliation. Apparently this must have been a problem in His time and He addressed our sin problem with pride by in effect telling us not to be prideful but allow someone to insult us on both cheeks.
The immediate thought that comes to mind is someone saying, “But Jesus didn’t fight his enemies when they were killing Him. In fact, He even prayed for them.” Yes, He did. Jesus was clear, however, that nobody took His life; He gave it freely (John 10:18). Jesus came to die for the sins of the world so He had to go to the cross in the exact way He did.
So what does that mean for us? Christian pacifists would argue that scripture clearly shows that we are to fight evil with prayer and love. Here is how one Christian pacifist puts it, “Jesus revealed to us how to live in accordance with how his creation works. “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” ( Mt 5.44 , Lu 6.27 , Lu 6.3 ) “Do not use force against an evil man.” ( Mt 5.39 ) “Do not resist evil with evil.” “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Lu 6.37 ) “Do not be anxious about your life.”( Lu 12.22 ) “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” ( Mat 26.52 ) “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Mat 7.12 ). The rest of the New Testament contains more of the same. “Do not return evil for evil.” ( 1 Pet 3.9 , Rom 12.17 , 1 Thes 5.15 )
“Overcome evil with good.”( Rom 12.21 ) “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Rom 12.19 )
All good words to be sure. But each of these is directed to the individual Christian in their individual actions in their everyday lives. We are to live at peace so long as it depends on us (Romans 12:18), meaning as Christians we are to live our lives in such a way that promote peace and love for our fellow man. And I agree.
But this begs the question about what the Bible tells us about self-defense (are we sheep to be slaughtered?) and the bigger question of the State protecting its people and interests around the globe. The first is more problematic than the second, but let’s take a look at both.
When you read both the Old Testament and New Testament you see that scripture addresses two aspects of individual violence: Punishing Criminals (eye for an eye), and vengeance (retaliation for a wrong). Self-defense is neither of these. Instead self-defense is the preservation of life – your life – which is commanded in both books. (Don’t get confused by Jesus saying we must lose our lives to gain it in Matthew 16. This refers to dying to self and the world in favor of submitting to God and His ways).
Jesus doesn’t really address self-defense except in one passage in Luke where He instructs His disciples to have swords at the ready (Luke 22:35-39). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter does indeed try to protect Jesus from his accusers by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of one in the crowd. Here is how one writer put it:
“In these passages (Gethsemane passages), you get a sense that Jesus is saying, ‘Though we have a right to employ our swords in defense of this unrighteous arrest, we are intentionally putting aside our lawful right, and I am allowing myself to be taken without resistance.’ See how this is expressed: ‘Lord shall we strike with the sword?’ ‘No more of this.’ ‘This is your hour, and the power of darkness.’ ‘Put up your sword… or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father… all this was done that the Scriptures…might be fulfilled.’ ‘Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup…?’
Why does Christ tell Peter to put up the sword? Christ is willingly laying down His life, though He has the right to use sword and angelic legions to deliver Himself from this unjust arrest (Luke 22:51, John 18:11).”
We do know from the Old Testament law – the law Jesus came not to abolish but fulfill – that self-defense was allowed by God, and while Jesus clearly states that God’s plan for us is that we do not have to resort to violence of any type, God allowed for us to protect ourselves in certain situations. What God does not allow is violence for vengeance, violence beyond what is appropriate, and violence for violence sake.
My last thought on the self-protection aspect of violence has to do with Hebrews chapter 11 in which God lists the “Heroes of the Faith.” The list includes Abraham who fought against those who had kidnapped Lot and his family; Moses who led Israel in many battles; Gideon, Barak and Samson – judges who went to war to free people from oppression; David who slew not only Goliath but his “tens of thousands” as general and king; and the prophets, including Elijah who killed all the Baal priests. There is at least an indication based on this group of heroes that there is a time when God allows violence for His purpose.
And Jesus confirms this when He is challenged about taxes. There’s this great scene where Jesus is asked by a Pharisee if taxes need to be paid by Jews who were being occupied by Rome. It was a trap question: If He said yes, the people would revolt against Jesus; if He said no, the Pharisees could report Him to the Romans for disobeying Rome and causing sedition. Jesus looks at a coin and asks whose picture is on the coin. One replies, “Caesar.” Jesus says, give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
So what does that have to do with evil in the world? This idea is fleshed out by Paul in Romans 13:
“Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God. 2 Whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered; and anyone who does so will bring judgment on himself. 3 For rulers are not to be feared by those who do good, but by those who do evil. Would you like to be unafraid of those in authority? Then do what is good, and they will praise you, 4 because they are God’s servants working for your own good. But if you do evil, then be afraid of them, because their power to punish is real. They are God’s servants and carry out God’s punishment on those who do evil. 5 For this reason you must obey the authorities—not just because of God’s punishment, but also as a matter of conscience.”
Clearly Paul is extrapolating on what Jesus taught, saying that the State has the authority given to it by God to punish evil. In this context, Paul is talking about those individuals who may not abide by the laws of the land, but it is clear to see that the State also has the authority to fight evil wherever God calls it to (see Kings, Chronicles, Judges, Nehemiah, et al).
Which brings us back to ISIS. The first thing we must do in my estimation is determine if ISIS is evil or is it just a lost group that is sinning. The difference is important because those who sin are redeemable, but those who have embraced evil – those who have given themselves fully over to Satan and his rulers, authorities, powers and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms as per Ephesians 6 – are premeditatedly doing the work of Satan and while redeemable should they repent, they will not repent. Their intent is pure evil as they are used by Satan to pervert God’s kingdom.
For me I have come to the conclusion that ISIS is evil. Thus the state – the entity given the authority by God to punish evil – must stand up against that evil. I do not say this lightly, because I know that God’s intent is peace. But I also have read the Bible and know that Jesus told us that there would be wars and rumors of war, and in the Book of Revelation there is a final conflict between good and evil – and good must fight.
I very much respect my pacifist friends – so long as their pacifism is based in scriptural interpretation and not political opposition to the events at hand. But for me I believe a Christian nation – and yes, I see America as a Christian nation – must defend against evil. The Nazi’s exterminated six million Jews and another five million non-Jews and most did nothing. It is estimated Josef Stalin killed 20 million in his Soviet gulags and most did nothing. The Khmer Rouge killed two million of its people in the so-called “killing fields” and most did nothing. In just 100 days the Hutu majority slaughtered between 500,000 and one million Tutsi in Rwanda, and the world yawned. There is more but you get the point.
As you can see by these numbers the idea that more people have died in the name of religion than any other cause is grossly inaccurate. (The most extreme estimates put the historical total deaths at 25,750,000 – less than just Hitler and Stalin combined). However, ISIS hopes to change all that. Their goal is to kill everyone who they consider an infidel in their twisted religion, which pretty much is most of the world, an apocalyptic prophecy they are working hard to fulfill.
That all being said, I disagree that this is a “hearts and minds” issue or one where if we just get jobs to the disaffected they wouldn’t be terrorists. We are talking about evil, which is different than those who could indeed be won over through education, economic development, and other such programs, including embracing Christ. Evil is different and demands a different response even from Christians.
I certainly respect my fellow Christians who feel differently and fall on the side of prayer, peace, and love. I too pray for these things, as well as a transformed heart of those who have chosen evil. I know that Jesus can change a willing heart, but I also know that evil whether Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Baghdadi are not willing and must be dealt with for who they are not who we wish they would be.