Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, in contrast with more skeptical pronouncements from British Baptist and Methodist groups, morally defended Western military action against ISIS in his speech to the House of Lords last week.
“In the here and now, there is justification for the use of armed force on humanitarian grounds, to enable oppressed victims to find safe space,” he told his fellow lords. He explained that ISIS and similarly murderous groups like Boko Haram “have as their strategy to change the facts on the ground so as to render completely absurd any chance of helping the targets of their cruelty.”
Welby said “Christian and other leaders across the region… want support,” along with some Muslim leaders. He also emphasized that while armed force is necessary, by itself it would not suffice against a “dreadful barbarity” that’s “only one example of a global phenomenon” posing a “global, holistic danger.” He urged an “ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge and a more remarkable hope than that offered” by ISIS. “We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society,” he warned.
The Church of England’s primate, who remains his increasingly secular nation’s spiritual leader, warned that “if we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they may be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.” An effective “life-giving” counter narrative to ISIS is “rooted in the truths of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, relying heavily in the Middle Ages on the wealth of Islamic learning, the Abrahamic faiths — not necessarily enemies — and enriched by others such as Hinduism and Sikhism in recent generations.”
Religious leaders “must up their game,” Welby warned, with the church pointing beyond “national or political interest to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” Military force against ISIS is right, he concluded, but only a “short-term solution on a narrow front to a global, ideological, religious, holistic and trans-generational challenge.” There must be a spiritually “positive vision far greater and more compelling than the evil of [ISIS] and its global clones” that can offer “assurance of success in this struggle, not the endless threat of darkness.”
Welby, unlike many more pacifist church prelates, knows rhetoric alone can’t help victims of homicidal jihadists like ISIS. And unlike much of the materialistic Religious Left, which assumes that more free stuff from the West is the automatic answer to Third World grievance and terror, Welby names ISIS and radical Islam as a potently malevolent spiritual force with a wide following and captivating message, whose remedy requires a superior spiritual message.
But there should be more to Christian thinking about the war on ISIS than Welby’s brief appeal. He and others understandably stress the humanitarian urgency of protecting ISIS victims, including Christians. But nation states, not even superpowers, can militarily intervene in every military conflict for strictly humanitarian ends. There must typically be a strategic and national interest before Britain, the U.S., or any government deploys and risks the armed forces of its own people, whose resources and political patience are finite. The West is at war with ISIS because ISIS is at war with the West.
There also must always be acknowledgement from Christian leaders and thinkers that military force is often morally justified in our fallen world but will always, even with the most ideal outcomes, entail tragedy, death for the innocent, and unforeseen consequences. Peaceniks are not entirely wrong to warn that wars often fuel more wars and generate more enemies. Peaceniks err in their assumption that all war can be avoided and all enemies mollified through good will and patience.
Christians supporting force must forswear expectations of sanitized, ideal happy finales. There will always be another chapter in the long, unending story of human folly. It’s typical in Western liberal societies to demand military force with the greatest moral urgency, with some of the chief enthusiasts later reneging, claiming they were grossly misled, and denouncing the previous military action as a tremendous, tragic, avoidable misunderstanding.
Sophisticates, including religious elites, have followed this pattern, from World War I, through the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, including more strictly humanitarian interventions, as in Somalia. The reborn critics forget the moral and strategic imperatives that persuaded them towards force, and ignore the likely even more pernicious consequences had force been avoided.
Several years from now, some of the religious voices and others now affirming military force against ISIS will loudly repent, after regretting its unpleasant repercussions. But there are never cost free, non-tragic alternatives to forcefully confronting “dreadful barbarity.” At best, only a transitory, approximate form of justice can be achieved, often at great expense. Church leaders should recognize this unchanging human reality, after Eden, and before the Eschaton, while offering, in Welby’s words, the “message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.”