To answer my title right off the bat, I don’t really know. This piece won’t solve anything, but I think I’m in good company in this regard. The following might, however, help us change the way we think to avoid making the situation worse and perhaps move in a more positive direction.
I was originally going to write a piece on why I don’t post stories about persecuted Christians on social media, but I’ve decided that it would be inappropriate to do so given the real-life horrors in northern Iraq. If I couldn’t read my piece to the parents of a raped and beheaded child, I shouldn’t be writing it. “Holier-than-thou” pieces are stupid anyway.
Christians are asking what we should do in the face of such barbaric violence as that which ISIS has meted out against the Yazidis, Shi’a Muslims, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and those Sunni Muslims whom they regard as kuffār (unbelievers) because they have entered a state of jahiliyya (the reemergence of the ignorance that preceded Islam, this time due to Western influence).
Now, I realize that I’m 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. I get that. If you believe that I shouldn’t be writing about this situation because my relative comfort will inevitably render the following unrealistic and trite, I’ll understand. It’s not easy to keep emotions in check, to think straight while helplessly viewing images of unspeakable brutality through brimming eyes. I don’t think that anything I write below is easy to do. It certainly isn’t easy for me.
So, what are we supposed do?
So, there seems to be two different tones and trajectories imbedded in the question, What are we supposed to do? This question is either a thinly veiled attempt to repudiate and mock proposed nonviolent alternatives to a militaristic response, or it can be a sincere appeal for ideas of practical actions that we can take in the midst of such helplessness. So the first thing we need to do is learn how to be sincere when we ask this question and genuinely acknowledge that there may actually be effective nonviolent alternatives to a military intervention.
But in many ways, asking someone who advocates for nonviolence, What should we do? or rather, What would you do? is the wrong question. And not because it’s difficult to answer but because it places too much confidence in the prescription (and our ability—individually and collectively—to follow through and guarantee its success) without first considering the description. On a descriptive level, if there’s ever a violent faction wreaking havoc against the inhabitants of a particular region, there will inevitably be a violent faction that will fight against them. This is the world we live in.
So, descriptively speaking, this reciprocal violence will happen eventually regardless of whether we ask this question and what our response is—the question and our response is inconsequential. If you answer that we should use violence against ISIS and I answer that we shouldn’t, some group will inevitably use violence against ISIS regardless.
In this immediate case, first it was the Shi’a dominated Iraqi army that fought against ISIS, then the local Kurdish fighters—or the Peshmerga—whose rout by ISIS weakened their confidence, the US airstrikes that began three days ago, and now Shi’a militias loyal to Maliki as of today. So, what is a Christian who believes in nonviolence supposed to do? Well, if this question is really an insincere pre-answered attempt to discredit nonviolence, then who cares? The question is not only a weak attempt at entrapment, it’s moot. If one side favours violence, this is a clear indication that we live in a world where violence is still viewed as acceptable and that another side will eventually rise up and use violence against them. There is no such thing as “one side” in our world.
So, if you favour a violent response, don’t worry—it’ll happen eventually. But you’ll still be a part of a 6,500-year old failed experiment.
That said, the question still stands; it’s not going anywhere. To answer it, then, I want to consider three levels of action: what we should do in terms of how we think and attentiveness to the inner life, what should be done on a macro level but won’t because we lack the collective will, and what we can and should do within our own individual power and means.
How should we think and what should we become?
We can’t seriously and effectively try to make a positive difference in the midst of such hopelessness if we don’t first take stock of how we think.
First, it’s important to acknowledge—not just in our minds but in our actions too—that we are all created in the image of God. Jeremy Courtney, the founder and Executive Director of the Preemptive Love Coalition in Iraq and initiator of the #WeAreN campaign on Twitter, sums this up:
“A lot of us fear looking to the Torah when discussing violence, but this beautiful verse from the Creation poem deeply challenges me as I think about violence and our violent responses to it: Gen: 1:27 ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ If we are all created in God's image, then the violence ISIS commits against religious minorities, Sunnis, and Shia is not just a crime against humanity, it is actually an attack on the Creator of the Universe. But then the converse is also true—if the men who have aligned themselves with ISIS are created in the image of God, then violence done against them is somehow violence done against God. We fixate on their evil and depravity, for good reason. But somehow God's image in them is something we are willing to completely discount as we seek solutions. It's complicated, but this is what theology is for, otherwise it's completely useless.”
And this isn’t coming from some elitist armchair analyst; he’s come face-to-face with the brutality in Iraq and has a direct understanding of its extent, the obstacles we all can sense, the intractability.
Indeed, as much as this is an inconvenient truth for those who still believe in redemptive violence, we are all made in the image of God. Killing is not only iconoclasm, it’s a re-crucifixion of the Incarnate Christ. It’s participation in the same sacred violence and mimetic impulses that killed God. It’s succumbing to the same impulses and twisted outlook that drive the militant behaviour that we abhor—dehumanization, designating ISIS militants as “monsters” or “sub-human.” This is exactly how ISIS has justified their use of violence against their version of the ‘Other.’ Their ‘Other’ is us and our ‘Other’ is them. When we treat human beings as inanimate objects or ideological placeholders to be eradicated, violence doesn’t seem so bad anymore—to them and to us.
This attentiveness to the way we think is the first step, but cultivating an inner life—as imprecise and ambiguous as this may seem—is just as important. This is where the rubber meets the road in my view. And it’s becoming a more commonplace consideration in peacebuilding circles—from Rabbi Marc Gopin’s emphasis on “interiority” to John Paul Lederach and Cynthia Sampson’s observation of the “connection between spirituality and pragmatic international peacebuilding.”
The key here, therefore, isn’t to will ourselves to recognize the image of God in the ‘Other,’ love our enemies, and act nonviolently in a forced or contrived manner. This is a false pacifism. It’s not just an imitation of what we want to become, but an empty impersonation of something or someone that we simply aren’t—yet. Instead, it’s important to focus on the inner transformation that capacitates us to love our enemies intuitively, to know how to creatively diffuse violence without the use of more violence more instinctively based on what we are ontologically rather than desperately forcing ourselves to align with what we think only rationally.
As brutal and horrific as the violence against minorities in northern Iraq is, as Christians, we believe that there is nothing happening in the world today that's more abhorrent than killing God ... and it's only God who has the ontological capacity to withhold his retribution and instead forgive, restore, and love when this happened against him. This is why we are all called to "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt. 1:4), the same “stuff” of which the Prince of Peace is composed, the divine essence that gave Christ the intuitive ability to refuse celestial military intervention in the face of Pilate’s threat of execution and to forgive his enemies on the cross (Jn. 18:36; Lk. 23:34).
We all feel helpless. I understand this. But trusting our gut before we’ve been transfigured—before we’ve “become partakers of the divine nature” that allowed the Prince of Peace to love his enemies—is like trusting a caterpillar to fly or a deepfreeze to melt ice. We need to therefore let this helplessness be our teacher. Listen to it. If we really pay attention, it tells us that we—you and I—can’t fix it in our current state and that trying to fix it with more violence is more about satisfying our need to do something than it is to actually make this situation better.
After the violence intensifies and wanes, after the bombs drop and the smoldering craters cool off, we can observe the aftermath, the many dead including more civilians. And regardless of whether it stopped the advance of ISIS, such violence didn’t transform the underlying reasons for their violence. It didn’t eradicate their ideas but likely only reinforced them. And as long as there are human beings on earth and ideas like theirs still floating around, the two will find each other again sooner or later and we’ll have a whole new ISIS on our hands. We’ll have a whole new enemy against whom to act violently. Violence will continue because the violence didn’t fix anything. But we’ll forget.
What should we do on a macro level (but won’t)?
The following is unrealistic, but it shows us that the problem is systemic and the question, What should we do? is held captive to this system.
Nonviolence is underfunded; it’s never actually been tried. So, what should we do? Reallocate the $1.75 trillion that the world spends annually on the military—nearly half of which represents US military expenditures—into nonviolent conflict transformation, into decision-making structures that include the voices of the marginalized, into more robust educational institutions that are available to all equally, into organizing and offsetting losses from nonviolent acts of civil disobedience, into mediators and conflict analysts, into research on the causes of both violent conflict and peaceful coexistence, into the basic needs of every human being on earth to avoid desperation, into economic and infrastructural development that alleviates poverty and the resulting despair, into the conditions that make for peace.
Peace scholar and practitioner, John Paul Lederach, has said that if he were to change the term “peacebuilding” to something else that adequately captures what peace workers and researchers do, it would be “hope-building.” And $1.75 trillion annually can build a lot of hope. That’s $4.8 billion every day, $200 million every hour, $3.33 million every minute, $55,000 every second. And then it’s repeated every year. Think about it. What should we do? This.
So don’t blame “pacifists” for doing nothing. Assign fault to the military-industrial complex. Implicate policy-makers for lacking the political will. Blame ourselves for being too lazy and uncreative to reflectively think our way out of the cycles of violence that have engulfed humanity since the dawn of time. But whatever you do, don’t blame the nonviolent peaceworkers—the underfunded and unsupported thousands of them living in relative obscurity—who are neck deep in the unpredictable violence that breeds unimaginable fear in various pockets of instability all around the world, all to do something without a weapon in their hands.
The ironic thing is, of course, that the reasons why militant organizations such as ISIS use violence is because they believe that this is their only option, which—in our ignorance, laziness, and lack of creativity—is also the reason why we are also so quick to support violence. We think it’s our only option. But the problem is us. It’s not that there aren’t other options, it’s that we haven’t taken the time or made the extra effort to find and study them in-depth. There are reasons why peace professionals have devoted their lives to nonviolent conflict resolution; maybe we should do the hard work of figuring out what these are.
What should we do on an individual level (and can)?
But the question, How should we stop ISIS? is much different than, What should we do? There are no easy answers—not even for the seasoned peace worker, let alone the expert analysts who view military intervention as an acceptable recourse.
One thing is certain though. We put too much confidence in violence. We assume it will work and when it doesn’t, we don’t care because at least we tried something. But if that something keeps failing or makes things worse, perhaps there’s something else we could try that doesn’t violate Christ’s commandments to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to act nonviolently in the face of injustice and murder—and is even more effective.
The irony is thick in the case at hand: all we can muster is a clarion call for more violence—retaliatory or defensive. But we forget. We forget the fact that it was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that created the conditions for the ongoing instability and sectarian violence. ISIS didn’t just emerge out of the blue; they’ve been active in Iraq for more than a decade. Violence made things much, much worse in Iraq—easily the most notorious failed military expedition of this generation—and yet we still think violence will work, won’t make things worse, will make things better … in the very region where ‘exhibit A’ for failed militarism stares us in the face. But it never matters as long as we tried something; this something trumps any rational analysis among the unreflective—every time.
So, what should we do? Be more creative. If your own loved one—say a son—used violence against you, your family, or others, you’d no doubt all of a sudden become a lot more creative and try to diffuse the situation without harming him, or at least without killing him. We’d also try to avoid killing him to create the space and opportunity to change him in the future, to restore and make him a better person. Whether your own son or any human being stamped with the image of God, all scenarios beg us to be more creative.
This is Jeremy Courtney’s outlook:
“We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn't only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains.”
Jeremy is thinking like a peacebuilder—and a Christian.
Despite our fuzzy perception of these militants as distant uncompromising monsters, they are human beings, living lives with similar joys and travails as ours. They have mothers, family, friends, and interests. They wake up in the morning, go to bed at night, have favourite books, sports, and hobbies. They even love. Nearly every violent actor was once in a position of weakness, and they use violence to ensure that they never go back to that state. Even the most fundamentalist among us—despite his rhetoric and chest-thumping—generally doesn’t want to resort to violence if there’s no reason to do so. Violence is rarely our first choice. The reality is, peace workers, mediators, and negotiators meet with fundamentalist militants to find and shape resolutions in problem-solving workshops on a regular basis. It happens all the time; we’re just not informed about it.
Granted, these are difficult, unpredictable meetings that can take days or longer, but they can and have worked. After pastor James Wuye and imam Muhammad Ashafa fought against each other in the sectarian violence that engulfed Nigeria in the 1990s—in which Wuye lost his arm and Ashafa lost his cousin—they eventually embraced nonviolence. And after countless hours and days hammering out a negotiated peace between the two fundamentalist factions, the capital city of Kaduna witnessed authentic peace once again, and the two religious leaders co-founded the Interfaith Mediation Center of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue. It can work, even when supporting resources are scarce.
There are 400+ peace and conflict studies programs in universities around the world. Founded in 1984 by the US government, the United States Institute of Peace is devoted to conflict analysis and transformation and includes some of the world’s best scholars and practitioners. The problem is, USIP has a paltry annual budget of $39 million. That’s how much the US military receives in 30 minutes, equal to 0.000057% of US military expenditures.
Beginning with the founding of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in 1959, other such centres and institutes have sprung up around the world, including the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame and the Center for Peacebuilding and Justice at Eastern Mennonite University. There are hundreds of them, you just have to look for them and make the effort to learn about what they do. The problem is, we are force-fed stories about major acts of violence and the militaristic responses that they elicit. The media gives us these stories on a silver platter. We don’t have to search them out. The stories of nonviolent conflict prevention, management, and resolution are less sexy but far, far more numerous. But we need to make the effort to find them and read about them and learn from them. The onus is on us. This doesn’t bode well for public opinion, however, one informed more by what we passively absorb than what we need to search out for ourselves. Effortless will always beat out effort.
So, what should we do—right now?
Fund and support conflict analysis of the violence in northern Iraq and other regions, so that we can learn more about the militants, their needs and interests, the supporting narrative, the myths and memories that animate this violence, and take action based on these analyses.
And if you respond unreflectively that ISIS just wants to establish an Islamic state and slaughter anyone in their way, you’re being lazy. Although this is the Cliff Notes version with a grain of truth in it, it's too simplistic and based on little to no information and expertise and is therefore not helpful. Violence never erupts in a vacuum. It takes hard work to identify the sources of violence and navigate a resolution around them—we just have to decide whether or not we’re up to the challenge.
You may also ask, “But what about the religious dimensions to the violence of ISIS?” This is a good question, one that I pour over in my own research on sectarian violence and interreligious peacebuilding in Egypt. I could break out all the statistics that strongly suggest religion is only a surrogate for political and economic grievances, especially occupation. They are convincing—and these aren’t used merely to win an argument on social media or in coffee shops; peace workers and analysts depend on this research in the real world often with their lives at stake. I could also provide a long and meandering analysis of the many economic, social, and political gripes that ISIS (and other similar militant organizations in recent history) had before considering the establishment of an Islamic state—contemplated only once freed from an earlier position of weakness and eventually thrust into a position of power. Many have already written thick tomes on this type of stuff, you just need to search it out yourself (there’s that effort thing again).
The short of it is, however, that religion doesn’t distort politics; politics distorts religion. We have to remember that it’s the vast majority of co-religionists who have denounced the actions of these fringe groups as unfaithful to authentic, historic Islam. The same can be said of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish militants. So, is it religion that’s a factor in violence, or is it the distortion of religion that drives rivalry and fuels socio-political dominance? If it’s a distortion—and the fact that these are nearly always fringe groups suggests that it is—then it’s actually a deficiency or lack of religion that has encouraged this unchecked violent behaviour.
What else can we do? Write your government representatives and tell them to reallocate funds into nonviolent conflict resolution initiatives and mediation programs, NGOs, peace and development agencies, and research institutes. Donate to reputable peace and development organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, Assyrian Aid Society, and Preemptive Love Coalition. Or, if you’re really serious, you can volunteer for organizations in Iraq such as Christian Peacemaker Teams or Muslim Peacemaker Teams.
In the very least, read up on what peacebuilders are doing around the world and engage the scholarship on conflict transformation and restorative justice to become more informed about where you should allocate your support.
Peacebuilding theory, in fact, aligns well with Christian anthropology and enhances a just-peace theology—building the conditions that naturally encourage peaceful coexistence, understanding how the human will operates and what we can do to satisfy it and envelop it in a healthy environment where violence isn’t even contemplated. Theology and peacebuilding theory go hand-in-hand in this regard. If you study peace theology, you need to study practical peacebuilding too. If nothing else, it’ll make you saner if you do.
We can also pray against the principalities and powers that have infused the violence and pray for those who persecute us, while at the same time praying for the strength to do this. It’s amazing to me that 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. If we can’t trust prayer in these situations, we can forget about praying for anything at all.
These are examples of what we can do right now in the face of the current violence, but the reality is that we should have been asking this question in the days, years, decades, and centuries leading up to these acts of violence. We asked the question too late, as we always do.
The ball is now in your court.
- Read up on practical peacebuilding and conflict transformation. Really learn about it.
- Donate to peacebuilding, development, and relief agencies.
- Volunteer for CPT.
- Write your government representatives and ask them to reallocate funds into nonviolent conflict resolution initiatives and mediation programs.
- Study peace theology.
- Attend to your inner life: fast, light candles, meditate on beauty, light incense, pray, read monastic literature, recite the psalter, enter a liturgical rhythm, prostrate, become a peacemaker—ontologically. Do this your entire life.
- Recognize your own violent impulses and cultivate a life of repentance.
- Raise awareness with the condition that we meet violence and human rights abuses with authentic transformation.
- Read stories of successful conflict mediation from around the world.
- Be attentive.