Speaking Christian: Obama, Francis and ‘War’ Against ISIS

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2014 — 6 Comments

Was8864155Like many of you I’ve been- in equal measure- transfixed and sickened by the horror ISIS/L has brought to TVs and computer screens all over the world.

Watching martyrdom in the moment all but sanctions an anything goes retaliation, which can be seen in many Democrats’ willingness to jettison their rather clear Constitutional obligation when it comes to declarations of war.

It’s exactly when we think an enemy deserves no love and no forgiveness, neither compassion nor quarter- that we should submit to Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies.’

It’s exactly when we’re faced with an evil for which there is no justification and to which any violent response seems justified that we should recall how we are justified- made right with God- by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

            The faith of the One who died rather than kill unjustly.

The minute we think we’re facing a ‘real world’ situation for which the words and witness of Jesus have no ‘practical’ application is the moment in which we should shed ourselves of the pretense and cease bothering to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ commands are not abstract teachings to which we look for the exceptions; they are teachings to be applied no where else if not to the ‘exceptions.’

While pols and pundits now debate the scope and nature of President Obama’s ‘war’ it may be helpful, I think, for Christians to remind themselves that- speaking Christianly:

action against ISIS cannot rightly be called ‘war.’

The Christian journal Sojourners this week posted an editorial entitled ‘War is Not the Answer’ which seems to me not only cliche but beside the point. Dangerously so, for to accept the use of the term ‘war’ all but forsakes the Christian field of view.

ISIS is a terror group, a criminal network, representing no state (their chosen moniker aside) or government and abiding no exact borders- certainly not massing at our borders.

According to the demands of Christian Just War Tradition, then, war against ISIS cannot be just.

Indeed it cannot be war.

According to the Christian Just War tradition, the just and appropriate response to something like ISIS cannot be narrated in the language of war but only in the language of policing.

ted-cruz-350.gifStopping them. Not, as Joe McCarthy Ted Cruz recently said to cheers, ‘wiping them out.’

This isn’t just semantics or language games, for truthful speech requires that if a war is not just- if it’s not even rightly called a ‘war’- then we must call it something else and how we speak of it will necessarily shape how we prosecute it.

I suppose it’s not surprising (being Catholic and all, where the Just War Tradition has remained robust and urgent) but Pope Francis recently framed the threat posed by ISIS and a potential response in clear Christian terms.

That is, unlike President Obama et al, Pope Francis spoke Christian:


“Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor…

I underscore the verb ‘to stop. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.

Stopping the aggressor is the legitimate [goal].”


Jason Micheli


6 responses to Speaking Christian: Obama, Francis and ‘War’ Against ISIS

  1. To be fair to that Sojourners piece, which I found to be wise and measured, it was not a case for war over police action. It meant to address the limits of violence at all as an “answer” to the problem of terrorism. http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/09/11/war-not-answer I suspect the title of the piece was self-consciously a cliché — the sort of cleverness we see in sermon titles and headlines all the time.

    I think you are correct in these definitions, but don’t we have several issues? When Christians take an absolute position against violence or the threat of violence,– which is what I think people mean when they appeal to Jesus’ example, that is one thing. If we support “police action,” armed prison guards, –any threat of coercive violence, are we in or outside the model of Christ?

  2. When we worry over the language of just war versus police action as though when faced and dealing with a threat like ISIS (I will not call them ISIL) there is a difference, we paralyze ourselves. Armed thugs in large enough numbers constitute armies in their own right and sometimes it is neccessary to make war on armies. While ISIS may not represent any particular government they do represent a particular mindset all to pervasive in the middle east and that mindset leads to these armies making them dangerous to anyone they think is an enemy. That would be every Christian who has the misfortune of being in their line of sight, every Muslim who disagrees with their take on Islam or with the ISIS desire for slaughter, in short anyone who isn’t ISIS.
    The concept of just war is both obvious and sadly neccessary.
    So what do we do, arrest them and put them on trial, fight a holding action that confines them to a limited region. What makes a police action a police action.

  3. You have to divide the motivations of the libido domini (the politics of the world) from the totus Christus.

    Thus, it really depends on how you think about justice; whether a generic ideology of common good or the particularities of the gospel. But you can’t have justice in the sense of the gospel if the motivations of pluralism are ultimately the guide for what constitutes justice. Because of their pantheism, the wars of nations can, therefore, never be just;because they lack historically concrete dogma necessary to be just.

    Just wars can only be holy wars. It’s the only war the Bible ever gives any credibility.

    • I agree personally with your initial point, Bobby Ray. I was really just trying to point out that even from a just war perspective- a perspective many if not most Christians pillage to justify the war they were going to support already- going to ‘war’ against an ideology is nonsensical. And, that there’s a large moral stake in Christians insisting that we speak truthfully about what the nation does or does not do. In this case, Francis’ language of policing (i.e., arresting- as in stopping- the violence but going no further) is how Christians should speak- if they assume a just war stance. It’s not about actual arrests or courts and prisons, as Tanya asked, but doing only what is necessary to stop the injustice- and being willing to suffer rather than exceed those parameters.
      To answer your other point though, Bobby, I’d say a ‘holy’ war against ISIS would look exactly like this: http://www.plough.com/en/articles/2011/february/christian-de-chergé-a-story-of-forgiveness

  4. So the question is, Jason, how do Christians engage in holy war? But first, how do we understand holy war? Spiritual warfare is the Sunday school answer. But what would a holy war on ISIS look like for Christians in submission to the Gospel?

  5. Thats kind of what I was digging for, Jason (I assume you picked up on that). The reason being I really hate the oftentimes sentimental theological language about Christian non-violence. I like to make it abundantly clear before I show my cards too much– that is that I am a pacifist– that they deserve death; but that’s hardly the issue anyway of what they “deserve” because if that were the case the same line of pagan divine judgement falls on us all. Murder can murder a murderer but it can’t murder murder and you don’t go to war with murderers if by “war” you imply a sort of Pax Romana. It makes zero theological sense even from the position of a strictly forensic view of the atonement.

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