Buy the Book

An Irish Methodist Challenges America’s Churchly Pacifists

It is “morally corrupt” to excuse terrorism, the theologian William J. Abraham writes.

By 3.14.13

Send to Kindle

Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology
By William Abraham

(Highland Loch Press, 200 pages, $34.95)

One of United Methodism's most distinguished theologians has written a powerful new book on terrorism that challenges the unthinking pacifism dominant among many Protestant and evangelical elites.

"If terrorists come knocking down my door, I want to have soldiers and a helicopter nearby," declares William Abraham of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in his just published Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology.

Abraham speaks from some personal experience. He is from Northern Ireland and grew up there during the Irish Republican Army's war of terror. As a robustly orthodox theologian in a liberal mainline Protestant milieu, Abraham is especially unusual for challenging the reflexively anti-military stance of many peers. Many of his colleagues angrily opposed the George W. Bush Library coming to SMU, largely because of the War on Terror. In his book, Abraham specifically challenges the highly influential neo-Anabaptist ideology of Stanley Hauerwas and others, who insist that Christian faithfulness demands opposition to all violence.

Growing up in Ulster, terrorism was the "bedrock order of the day," Abraham recounts. He contended with IRA bombs and Protestant paramilitary thugs amid years of murders, funerals, robberies, and intimidations. After becoming an American he thought he had left terrorism behind until 9-11. He says Al Qaeda had noted British impatience with terror in Ireland as evidence of the West's lack of resolve against persistent foes.

"Terrorism is intrinsically evil," Abraham declares, and all who excuse it are "morally corrupt." He regrets this high octane talk discomfits many intellectuals who don't like moral absolutes. Sadly, terrorism is often aligned with religion. In his youth Abraham converted from atheism to Methodism, which he observes arrived late in Christian history so never was tied to power or violence. Methodists were always "inescapably nice people," and were never numerous enough in Ireland to threaten anyone.

As a boy Abraham imbibed the Northern Irish melding of Protestantism and British democratic order. This perspective rejected terrorism but assumed the state's vocation for rightful force. Services and parades commemorating the world wars were frequent. Quakers in Ireland existed but were respected oddities. In his Methodist youth group Abraham once tried to defend pacifism but failed. He recalls that neither IRA nor Protestant para militarists typically linked faith to their terror, which was purely political. The specifically religious motives of al Qaeda on 9-11 were very different. These killers relied not on nationalism but a passionate theology.

Politicians who hail Islam as a religion of peace do so understandably in an appeal for calm, Abraham grants. But plain talk requires admitting that Islamist terror speaks for a significant historic stream within Islam that embraces specifically religious violence. He compares this strain somewhat to medieval Christian crusaders or the radical Reformation. And he describes it as thankfully a minority strain within Islam. Even the Koranic text urging death to idolaters warns against killing innocents. Abraham extends good wishes to Muslim reformers trying to liberalize their faith, who contrast with Christian liberals in not giving "away the store" and having more modest but important goals. Yet he's not overly optimistic about their long-term project, citing liberal Christianity's ultimate failure. Traditional revivalists for both Islam and Christianity seem more robust than liberal revisionists. On a trip to Nepal Abraham found a radical Islamic polemic with ties to Osama bin Laden available in English and was later surprised it was taught at a Dallas-area mosque. Traditionally the West has had a "filtering system to keep out toxic material." He wonders if that system will function against radical Islam, or even the theocratic claims of mainstream Islam. Yet he also pleads: "We should not get our underwear in a twist simply because a new religion has arrived in the neighborhood." And he warns against "intellectual paranoia."

Abraham describes "A Common Word Between Us and You," a 2007 public appeal from Muslim clerics to Western church leaders that excited approval from many U.S. liberals, as essentially a call for Christians to convert. He derides it as a "sophisticated exercise in irrelevance" that avoids the deep issues, which include religious freedom, the right to convert, pluralism, sharia, boundaries between state and religion, and Israel's existence.

The most fascinating part of Abraham's book is his chapter on just war. He recounts a radical Irish nationalist who was shot in her home by Protestant terrorists in 1983, and whose life was saved by the British military, for which she was utterly ungrateful. He observes: "The first line of defense of anyone threatened by terrorists is the state, even for those who are resolutely opposed to the existence of the state."

Abraham admits that pacifism superficially offers moral arguments against terrorism, but its medicine is worse than the disease by disallowing defense of the innocent. He opines: "It requires a very special kind of intellectual malfunction and self-deception to sustain pacifism over time." And he specifically challenges the particularly fashionable form of "pragmatic pacifism" espoused now by Glen Stassen of Fuller Seminary as "just peacemaking," which he decries for failing to address terrorism seriously. Its pseudo-scientific claims he calls "bogus and misleading." Although maybe offering occasionally useful "partisan" policy proposals, just peacemaking ultimately aims to shut down the case for force, can offer "false hope," and ultimately may only fuel further terrorism.

More adamant religious pacifists like Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University who root their argument not in pragmatics but in divine revelation assert their willingness to accept suffering and death, just as Jesus Christ did. Hauerwas goes even further, Abraham writes, insisting the "truth about war and politics can only be known inside his world of divine revelation." He claims his "exclusively privileged access" comes through the church but fails fully to identify this true church. Even more egregiously, Abraham complains, Hauerwas conflates terrorism with war, incapable of "distinguishing in this instance truth from propaganda." His special claim to revelation shows "intellectual corruption," and illustrates that truth sometimes better arrives through common grace than through the ostensible prism of any church, whose truth claims always have both "weeds as well as tares."

Both radical Islamists and Hauerwas-style pacifists claim that "reason can only operate inside their chosen world of revelation," leaving no recourse to discussion, Abraham notices. And like radical Islamists when they claim to speak for their faith, the Hauerwasians actually offer only a "minority report." Abraham offers this searing critique:

Christian pacifists have taken isolated elements in the teaching of Jesus, say, in the Beatitudes, that are meant to apply between persons, and extended them to apply between state and state, or between states and their citizens. They fail to see that the anger of God in judgment is the anger of love not hate. They sin the sin of refusing the God-given vocation to exercise the office of arrest and judgment. They cannot see that love in public relations “takes the form of mutual respect, of law, justice, liberty, and even help—especially to the weak.” As a consequence of these mistakes Christian pacifists are bereft of positive illumination when it comes to the right ordering of our political life together. In reality they either opt out of political life altogether, or they fall back upon the platitudes of pragmatic pacifism, or they buy into negative stereotypes of the state and nation that correlate conveniently with their ideological commitments.

According to Abraham, there are few, if any, viable pacifist political policy proposals even on the table. Their options of disbanding the Defense Department or disarming police "represent political lalaland," revealing pacifists as "freeloaders within the current social and political arrangements."

Abraham hails the just war tradition for morally justifying the defense of the innocent from terrorists and other aggressors. He questions the "maximalist" view of just war that potentially applies suffocating "moral straightjackets" especially inadequate against an unconventional enemy. The "minimalist" stance relies more on "informed judgment" and more adequately understands just war teaching not as a stringent code but an evolving tradition. "Dealing appropriately" with terrorism requires adopting the minimalist view "without apology." It must not "cut military and political action loose from morality" but understand the "world is shot through with evil and sin; people deliberately and systematically reject the full resources of grace in their private and public lives; the default position in human life is war not peace."

The church's role in public counsel over war and peace is "modest," Abraham writes. At its best, he suggests, the church "bears witness to a World that stands above our political realities; and that World calls us to a judgment that puts all our temporal interests in their proper place in the life of eternity."

Shaking Hands with the Devil offers an unusually authentic Christian realism for addressing war and peace from a broadly classical orthodoxy. Irish Methodists are not often renowned for their influence on America Christian thought. But hopefully this particular one at Southern Methodist University will make a plucky splash with his challenge to sloppy thinking about the War on Terror.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.