The ISIS invasion of Iraq and subsequent horrors, for which Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority is a chief victim, has reanimated talk about Christian Just War teaching.
Citing the call by Iraq’s Chaldean Patriarch for military intervention, a group of prominent Christian thinkers, with others, has declared that “nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.” Urging U.S. and international help for local forces against ISIS, they assert that “no options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table.” They want expanded U.S. air strikes against ISIS and U.S. arms for the Kurds, among others. The most prominent church official on this list is the Southern Baptist Convention’s chief public policy spokesman.
Pope Francis has seemingly agreed, at least obliquely, about the morality of force against ISIS. He said on Monday in flight home from South Korea:“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” Plus, “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.” Pope John Paul II is recalled speaking similarly during the 1990s Bosnian genocide. But typically pontiffs speak unequivocally against war.
The Religious Left’s strong pacifist wing has different thoughts about ISIS. A “post-conservative evangelical” writing for Jim Wallis’s Sojourners offered spiritually superior nonviolent options for dealing with ISIS. They include “immediately” halting funds and weapons to “all involved parties,” increased “economic development” to ensure “decent living standards,” and supporting “nonviolent civil society resistance movements.” But the Sojourners writer evidently isn’t a purist and still doesn’t “categorically rule out the use of violence in the short term,” while warning against the “mantra of the war-culture of our country that violence is the only option.”
Another more adamantly pacifist Christian Left writer emphasizes that ISIS combatants are made in the image of God, and all killing, even killing of ISIS, is a “re-crucifixion of the Incarnate Christ” and the “same” “sacred violence and mimetic impulses that killed God.” Castigating ISIS militants as “monsters” or “sub-human” is “exactly how ISIS has justified their use of violence against their version of the ‘Other,’” he warns. Urging prayer and studying “peace theology” as more spiritually acceptable alternatives to violence, he bemoans how “Christians will trust bombs and munitions more than divine intervention, whether to change the hearts and minds of the victimizers or to animate and strengthen those who are carrying out the nonviolent work of the Prince of Peace.” More candidly than most of his pacifist kindred, he confesses he’s “writing this from an elitist position in a peaceful society far removed from the brutality that has drenched the sands of northern Iraq in innocent blood,” so some may see his ruminations as “unrealistic and trite.”
Some church voices on the left have vaguely called for intervention in Iraq without specifying what. A World Council of Churches official appealed to the United Nations to “establish and maintain the necessary diplomatic contacts to ensure the rights, dignity and physical survival of the diverse peoples of Iraq and its neighbors,” while of course not saying how the UN might do so. He did admit that “when a national government lacks the control necessary to ensure citizens’ rights and wellbeing, the responsibility is taken up by international bodies and their member states.” So he possibly implies that states that can militarily intervene, i.e. chiefly the U.S., should do so. But he doesn’t want to directly say so. United Methodist officials in the U.S. endorsed this WCC approach.
Maybe this opaque green light for implied military intervention without specifics is the best approach for church officials whose ecclesial authority or influence is global, premierly the Pope. It also tacitly acknowledges the limited vocational expertise and mandate of church officials for political and especially military specifics.
As for the Christian pacifists and neo-pacifists, they might perform a service if they emphasized and demonstrated their own commitment to nonviolence. But their expectation of a disarmed state rejects orthodox Christian teaching. And dreams of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. style movement emerging in the Mideast are dangerously delusional.
The Christian thinkers and others who urged the “destruction” of ISIS within the parameters of Just War teaching offer bracing moral clarity. All persons of good will and realism must agree with them on some level. The challenge is to convey that even after the hoped for destruction of ISIS, violence and upheaval, which are intrinsic to humanity, will continue, especially in the Mideast. Christian thinking has to offer both hope and sobriety, each of which requires perseverance and patience.