Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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What’s a Christian to Think?
The horrific reports of beheadings and live burnings that we see emerging from ISIS controlled territory in the Middle East, and the butchery and kidnappings by Boko Haram in Nigeria remind us of the worst that human beings are capable of. We are rightly horrified and outraged. Our response to these acts, however, can also lead us to demonstrate the worst of what we, ourselves, can become.
We saw this in the post 9/11 era. President Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech demonized not just the leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea, but entire populations. Muslim neighbors fell under suspicion, not for any acts they engaged in, but simply because of their religious commitments, their appearance or dress, and their national origin. United States troops engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib. A system of state sanctioned torture, devised by the White House, the Defense Department, and the CIA, and legally defended by alleged experts, evolved into a horrific network of secret detention sites, illegal rendition to dark sites around the world, painful and brutalizing treatment, and violation of the rules of international law. A recent book by a prisoner at Guantanamo details over a decade of brutal humiliation and civil rights violations imposed on someone never formally indicted for a crime by a U.S. court. A former vice president of the United States, when confronted with a lengthy report detailing our national crimes, shows no remorse and suggests that he would do it all over again. Much of the public just didn’t want to know. Yes, we know about the worst we can become when confronted by the worst that others have become.
Christian faith does not offer a strategy for how to respond to groups like ISIS or Boko Haram. The Bible, like most other sacred texts, is not a tactical handbook. Christians will have varied positions on the best national and international response to these dangerous groups that prey on vulnerable citizens. But Christian faith does inform our discernment about those tactics and strategies, and helps us in our efforts to be the best we can be in response to the worst others appear to have become. What words does our faith offer?
First, humility. The easy seduction of the simple assignment of good and evil is clearly upended by a careful reading of scripture and the theological tradition that has grown around it over the centuries. Labeling others “evil” tempts us to see ourselves as “good,” not only in relative terms, but in absolute terms as well. The splinter in the eye of another conveniently distracts us from the log in our own. Preoccupation with another’s evil easily leads to hubris and vanity, enabling us to avoid acknowledging and confronting the evil we do and the temptations to which we are subject, personally and corporately. Moral certainty can lead to catastrophe; the first decade of the 21st century provides ample evidence. And the danger is not just to our nation’s soul, but to our own. Humility, even repentance, is the first word we should attend to in this troubled time.
Second, Christian faith offers a word of restraint. Christian theology and the broad Christian Tradition offer two basic responses to violence or its threat. The first, pacifism, proposes that responding with violent force is never justified or useful. The second provides a set of criteria for how a violent response could, in some circumstances, be justified and exercised. In either case, unbridled, unrestrained violence exercised in a retaliatory manner is ruled out. Christians may disagree on how best in our complex world to restrain evil and protect the vulnerable. But violence used to punish, to further self-serving political ends, or to assuage our rage and anger is prohibited by a long historical and a wide ecumenical consensus that establishes clear constraints, whether absolute in the case of pacifism, or conditional in the case of just war theory. Restraint is the second word.
And third, Christian faith reminds us of the central mystery of human existence, namely, that each of us is created in the image of God, a reality our sinful behavior, no matter how abhorrent, cannot erase. This mystery, by definition beyond our human understanding, nevertheless confronts us with the sacredness of each human life, a reality which endures even when one human life damages or destroys another human life. Applying this to policy decisions may not be easy, but at the very least, from a Christian perspective violence against an individual or a group has no possible validity apart from a clear intention to fulfill a responsibility to protect the innocent and the vulnerable.
In our pluralistic world national policy should not be determined simply by an appeal to Christian Tradition. Such an approach silences the voices of many citizens, dishonoring the diverse and distinctive moral perspectives we collectively bring to the public square. And such an approach is dangerous, as we have seen numerous times in our history up to and including the most recent post-9/11 era. But Christians, seeking to be faithful even as they exercise their role as citizens, would be wise to remember these three words: Humility, restraint, mystery. They offer no simple answers, no obvious choices. But in our dangerous and complex world, simple and obvious may be the last things we really need.
John H. Thomas
February 5, 2015