What Does a Christian Holy War Look Like?

Jason Micheli —  September 15, 2014 — 6 Comments

christianIn response to my post on Obama, Pope Francis and the ‘War’ Against ISIS last week, a smart annoyingly faithful friend asked me to ante up and articulate what a Christian holy war would like against ISIS.

My go-to, gut reaction was to point to Christian de Cherge, a French Trappist monk who ministered in Algeria up until the mid-1990’s. The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells the story of de Cherge’s abbey.

Despite growing danger posed by radical Islamists in Algeria, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to abandon their ‘parish’ and return to France. Having committed themselves to their neighbors (mostly Muslim), they insisted that their fate would be joined with their neighbors’ fate.

In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. Several weeks passed, and still the French government refused. In the end, the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.


Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France.

Opened only after his murder, it read: 

If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.

I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.

I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this:

How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God.

In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…

I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.

And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

As de Cherge makes uncomfortably clear, our tendency to dismiss the commandment to love our enemies as ‘unrealistic’ can sometimes serve to mask our discomfort that Jesus’ command in fact entails a willingness to lose our life for love’s sake.

The belief, then, that the love of one’s enemy, which can only and necessarily be self-giving, is the only war for which there can be something rightly called ‘victory’ is, it turns out, more realistic than the fantasy that violence will not this time beget more violence.

Jason Micheli


6 responses to What Does a Christian Holy War Look Like?

  1. Right on Jason. Your best post of late.

    The Book of Order says somewhere that The Church must be the Church even at the risk of its very life. That is the Christian response to violence and killing.


  2. I was once told that christianity is not a suicide pact, and reminded of Aquinas’ just war theory. Are christians not allowed to defend themselves?

    • What would you be defending, exactly? The best counter example is Bonhoeffer, who admitted that the killing of Hitler might be condemnable yet he was willing to be condemned to hell for the sake of others. “Just War” does have a long history, though I struggle to find direct support for such an idea in the words of Christ or in the tenor of the New Testament except by a certain, extrapolated, gymnastic hermeneutics.

    • T, in the earlier post I tried to accept the just war perspective and point out that a ‘war’ against ISIS does not meet the traditional criteria. Of course, I think Christians can defend themselves (this is why I think the limiting nature of police-action language is more helpful when thinking of just war tradition). On JW criteria ‘defense’ is only intended to do the minimal necessary to stop the aggression/violence etc. I think to immediately equate defending yourself with the taking of life clouds the issue- especially as it relates to ISIS for none of us is in any immediate danger. I don’t think Christian non-violence is the same thing as a suicide pact for a number of reasons. For one, suicide is an act of despair suggesting that history and one’s life in it is not within God’s providential care. Christian non-violence is premised on the exact opposite; that is, we can be non-violent only because we believe the Resurrected Christ has already won and rules the Earth even now. Suicide suggests life isn’t worth living while Christian non-violence is premised on the conviction that only is life worth living- it’s worth living well, i.e. dying rather than killing. Rather than a suicide pact, I prefer to think of Christian non-violence more in line with Dr. King’s career arc. He did not seek out or desire death, but realized and accepted that death could be the inevitable outcome of the shape of his life- just like Jesus appropriately enough.

  3. Whether you’re a Christian just warrior or a Christian pacifist (whether Augustinian or Yoderian) the implied solution to the world’s violence is ecclesial (meaning a matter of church). Thus, like the holy wars of Scripture, you rely on God to act on your behalf rather than depend upon one’s own abstract political prowess and coercion to wage war in an abstract way that is not inherently part of the missionary calling of the church.

    Thus, God acting on the behalf of tyrants is a matter of the declaration of the Law (personalism) and preaching the Gospel; if not in public then as a seed planter as the Trappist did through befriending Muslims.

    This does however raise questions about being missionary is a non-colonial way; which would seem to give a fresh think about things as far as the Muslim-Christian relationship goes.

  4. It takes more faith to believe in Christian non-violence than JW. Lord help my unbelief!

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