War, The Christian and ISIL

Friday 26 September 2014

On the last Friday in September (26 Sept) the House of Commons agreed to the motion proposed by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, permitting air-strikes in the following terms: "That this House condemns the barbaric acts of ISIL against the peoples of Iraq including the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidi and the humanitarian crisis this is causing; recognises the clear threat ISIL poses to the territorial integrity of Iraq and the request from the Government of Iraq for military support from the international community and the specific request to the UK Government for such support; further recognises the threat ISIL poses to wider international security and the UK directly through its sponsorship of terrorist attacks and its murder of a British hostage; acknowledges the broad coalition contributing to military support of the Government of Iraq including countries throughout the Middle East; further acknowledges the request of the Government of Iraq for international support to defend itself against the threat ISIL poses to Iraq and its citizens and the clear legal basis that this provides for action in Iraq; notes that this motion does not endorse UK air strikes in Syria as part of this campaign and any proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote in Parliament; accordingly supports Her Majesty's Government, working with allies, in supporting the Government of Iraq in protecting civilians and restoring its territorial integrity, including the use of UK air strikes to support Iraqi, including Kurdish, security forces' efforts against ISIL in Iraq; notes that Her Majesty's Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; and offers its wholehearted support to the men and women of Her Majesty's armed forces."

What does a Christian say? What does the Bible teach? Is there a "Just War"? The Church of England's formal answer is in its Article XXXVII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. This says:

"it is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in wars."

The Christian and War

There is a clear New Testament duty to be non-resisting (Mat 5.39). But at the same time there is a duty laid on the State to be (Rom 13.4) "the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."

In the first few centuries of the Church's life the early Christians saw the importance of both duties. They believed that as individuals they must never harm or inflict suffering on others. But at the same time they believed the [pagan] State was divinely ordained to repress crime and violence with force.

In the time of the Emperor Constantine, when the Roman Empire officially became "Christian", there was a dilemma. It was the dilemma of reconciling the love of Christ that leads to non-aggression with the need of the State to enforce justice. Suddenly some Christians found themselves in positions of political authority. They then read Paul and found him saying in one and the same breath that individuals should not themselves "take revenge", while legitimate rulers who "bear the sword" should avenge others and enforce God's judgment on evil. And they concluded that when evil was being perpetrated by a neighbouring state, "bearing the sword" meant war. Of course, this was a dilemma, a terrible dilemma. But many Christians, entrusted by God with political authority, felt that in good conscience they could not opt out. And many still believe that. They realise that they have to exercise power or force in the interests of justice whether in peace-time (through sentencing criminals for punishment), or in time of war.


"Just War Theory" was designed to help with this dilemma. It justified war not as self-defence, but as a means of ensuring justice. The personal "turning of the other cheek" is not denied. It is rather that the political power of those seeking public justice needs to be regulated. But in such matters the difficulty is that things are not black and white. "Calculation" is needed. Jesus claimed that cool calculation in human existence is essential in a number of situations. Indeed he argues that cool calculation should lead to a willingness to sacrifice everything for the privilege of being a Christian disciple. But right calculation is also needed in war, together with property development. This was the subject of one of Jesus' parables (Luke 14.28-33):

" For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.'  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."

The contrast in the parable shows different sorts of calculation. One is for tower-building, the other for using force in war. In tower-building it is easy. There are simple costs to be added up. If the builder can find the precise sum of money, he will be successful. But success in war is so different. There are no simple mathematics. The king does not just sit down and do his sums and "count the cost". Rather, we are told by Jesus, he has to "sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand." Deciding about war is far less precise. It is a matter of judgment and prudence. As many facts as can be known have to be assembled. Then a decision has to be taken in the light of these facts. So in the nature of things there will be far less certainty when going to war that when building a tower.

Just War Theory

This was the difficulty for President Obama and David Cameron regarding intervention in Syria last year and ISIL this year. When nothing is crystal clear, from a Christian perspective there must be the restraints of Just War Theory.

What is Just War Theory? It was a theory that evolved in the Church during the middle ages and the Renaissance. But it was Augustine who had provided the ground work. All else followed from his discussion on the subject. Professor Oliver O'Donovan describes the theory as "a systematic attempt to interpret acts of war by analogy with acts of civil government, not, be it noted, to afford some justification for war-making, but to bring it under the restraint of those moral standards which apply to other acts of government."

The doctrine is limiting. It means that not all is fair in love and war. There have to be guidelines. If a war is to be fought, it has to be fought justly.

There were five basic principles in the theory. Three dealt with engaging in war and two dealt with the conduct of war. The three that deal with the right engagement in war are these. First, the responsibility for waging war is not just anybody's; rather it belongs to the legitimate authority. Secondly, the "cause" has to be just. And, thirdly, there has to be a right motive. But the two that deal with the right conduct of war are perhaps most easily forgotten. These relate first to the principle of "discrimination" and secondly to the principle of "proportion".

Discrimination and Proportion

"Discrimination" means that force must only be applied to combatants and with the intention of depriving them of their ability to wage war. There must be no intention to attack non-combatants. An enemy prisoner of war, unable to be violent, must therefore be treated as a non-combatant. "Total" (indiscriminate) war is obviously ruled out. Of course, there must be a distinction drawn between the result of violent action and the intention behind it. If there is an intention to destroy a military command post or an armoured column, but the result is unforeseen civilian casualties, that is utterly tragic. But it is not wicked in the way aiming a missile indiscriminately at a centre of population is, with the intention of destroying civilian morale.

"Proportion" means that no more force or violence should be used than is necessary. But what is enough force is a matter for calculation and consultation. That is where Jesus' parable of "a king about to go to war" is so true to life. It is not a matter of mathematical certainty but of prudent judgment. And the parable is an important reminder that some calculations mean there are occasions when you cannot conduct war, however, much you may want to. If the calculations show that you cannot win, you have to "ask for terms of peace" – that is to say, negotiate the best terms of peace possible. All this obviously relates to the vote on the last Friday of September 2014.

But none of the calculating must ever be "cold". There is an instinct in Christian understanding that war may be right. Yet to execute someone in war (or peace) is not only horrific but defiling. It is worth remembering that just before he invaded Britain, William the Conqueror had a banner blessed by the Pope. After the battle of Hastings, however, he was required to do penance for the bloodshed. Whatever may be thought about "blessing banners" (or battleships or bombers) and "penance", something was properly understood all those years ago, back in the 11th century. With all this in mind, how do we evaluate the debates and decisions of the House of Commons and House of Lords in the 21st century? In making it clear that some action to restrain ISIL is required, must be right, as the situation is very serious. But precisely what action is required?

The Seriousness of the Situation

Here is the report of an Iraqi Christian woman, who recently defied ISIS terrorists. She knows how serious the situation is for individuals: "Weeping as she recounted her ordeal, Khiria said she and husband, Mufeed Wadee' Tobiya, awoke on the morning of 7 August to find that Qaraqosh had been over-run by ISIS fighters. She was told repeatedly by the militants, 'who spoke different languages', from the first day that if she did not convert to Islam she would be decapitated. When she refused, she and 46 women, who had also rejected such demands, were separated from their families and whipped and beaten over a 10 day period in an attempt to make them abandon their faith. Khiria said: 'I answered [the terrorists] immediately, "I was born Christian and if that leads me to death, I prefer to die a Christian."' Quoting from the Gospel of St Matthew (10.33) she said: 'Jesus said: "Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven"' … She said that none of the women capitulated under the scourging and other cruelties inflicted upon them. 'All of us were crying but refused to covert' … On the 10th day all of the women were assembled together again and a terrorist 'put a sword on my neck in front of all the ladies and said to me: "convert or you will be killed."' Khiria answered: 'I am happy to be a martyr.' At that point the terrorists relented, and robbed her of all her possessions, including money she had saved for a kidney operation, and drove close to Kurdish territory where she was released on 4 September along with her husband and two other women" (Catholic Herald 12 September 2014).

But the situation is also very serious globally and not just in Iraq and Syria as Lord Alderdice explained in the House of Lords' debate on ISIL: "We are in a dangerous place. The whole of that region – and countries much more widely – are dissolving into chaos, this is not simply a war like in the past. It comes close to home because it affects many people here. It is inevitable that there will be those who will want to conduct atrocities in this country to prosecute the aims of ISIS and others. There is also the possibility – indeed, almost the inevitability – of a whole new generation of young people being drawn into the jihadist orbit, just like the Arab Afghans going to Afghanistan in the 1980s. This will preoccupy us for a long time. Pope Francis indicated a fear on his part that we were falling piecemeal into a World War III. He is not a man who speaks lightly about these things. While there is a grave decision to be taken by the Commons¸ it is made all the graver because we are slipping, at least in some parts of our world, into something of a dark age. We must pray that it does not last as long as the religious wars in our own continent."

ISIL's relationship with Islam

Clearly we are facing great evil. The Prime Minister said in the House of Commons debate: "We are dealing with a generational struggle caused by the perversion of one of the world's great religions, Islam, but I have no doubt that this struggle is one that this House and this country are more than equal to." Ed Milliband, the leader of the opposition, said: "Let us be clear about what this is: ISIL is murdering Muslims … Leading British Muslim scholars and imams recently wrote of ISIL: 'They are perpetrating the worst crimes against humanity … it is a war against all humanity.' ISIL's ideology has nothing to do with the peaceful religion practised by billions of people across the world and by millions of our fellow citizens, who are appalled by their actions." But is ISIL a "perversion" and "nothing to do with the peaceful religion practised by millions"? Certainly huge percentages of Muslims around the world are peaceful (see the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project – The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society 2013). But has ISIL nothing to do with Islam?

In a House of Lords' debate last 19 November on this very question - of Islam not justifying terror - Lord Sheikh said: "It is written in the Holy Koran, 'whoever kills a human being – it is as though he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he has saved all mankind.' That is why I have consistently spoken about Islam as a religion of peace and continue to do so." Lord Sheikh was quoting from Sura 5.32. But he omitted to explain what immediately follows in 5.33. That says: "the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and his Messenger and strive upon earth to cause corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land." One Muslim scholar says that "beheading", historically, took the place of crucifixion (presumably as being more humane). I am sure today people still modify those punishments, as crucifixion was changed to beheading. But it seems ISIL wants to go back to the primitive traditions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in the debate in the 28 September debate in the House of Lords, he was, of course, speaking from a Christian perspective. He said: "the danger of this debate is that we speak only of Iraq and Syria, ISIL and armed force. ISIL and its dreadful barbarity are only one example of a global phenomenon [another Peer had already referred to Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in Yemen] … We are dealing with a generational struggle caused by the perversion of one of the world's great religions. … We will not thus be able to deal with a global holistic danger if the only weapons we are capable of using are military and administrative, and if we focus only on one place. It is clear … that we need to take this action now [agreeing with David Cameron's proposal]. However, it is also necessary over time that any response to ISIL and to this global danger be undertaken on an ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge, and a more remarkable hope than that offered by ISIL. We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society. As Lord Alderdice implied, 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 … It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers."

The Archbishop was drawing attention to the fact that while the evil and violence of this jihadism has, rightly, to be resisted and stopped, the reason for the evil and violence also has to be considered and dealt with. And one reason is a disenchantment with Western materialism. We can add to that a further consideration and say, as we face radical Islam, we have to face two extremisms. One is this Islamic extremism; but the other is an insidious and progressively totalitarian and intolerant Western extremism that seems more benign in its political correctness and secularity; yet it is destroying human life (through abortion on demand) and destroying family life (through both the promotion of sexual decadence and the devaluation of marriage by introducing same-sex marriages) and seeking to enforce Christian agreement.

Sayyid Qutb

But what do the Islamic radicalizers really believe apart from Western materialism being wrong? I understand that there are currently no Western journalists "embedded" among the ISIL fighters – and for good reason. So what we know is limited. However, we can know what Sayyid Qutb believed from his book Milestones. This is a short revolutionary book Qutb wrote while in prison in Egypt (1956-64) before his execution in 1966. He has been described as "the godfather of radical Islam". Some say what Marx was to Communism, Qutb has been to radical Islam. At least he has been, as one scholar claims, "the major influence on the worldview of radical movements across the Muslim world." Qutb wrote to encourage Muslims to go back to the Koran and the teaching of Mohammed. It is a call to avoid the decadent values of the West. It is a call that in "modernizing" (he is not opposed to scientific activity) Islam should not lose its roots.

Of course, there will be all sorts, including psychopathic hangers on, in these radical Islamic groups. But ISIL and others will have their own mainstream and if "Qutbian", will teach a total commitment to Islam with, as they see it every aspect of life under God's sovereignty as interpreted and taught by Mohammed. But those who reject what they see as divine teaching should be opposed including other Muslims. Furthermore, all human forms of sovereignty (including the secular state) must be opposed. And the method of opposition is to be preaching and persuading individuals but "physical power and Jihaad for abolishing the organizations and authorities of the Jahili system [the ignoring of divine guidance] which prevents people from reforming their ideas and beliefs but forces them to obey their erroneous ways and make them serve human lords instead of the Almighty Lord." And what in practice seems to happen when persuasion does not persuade, is that individuals become Jahili enemies, and physical force is applied. And tragically Qutb's right opposition to Western sexual decadence, has meant more violence - witness the wicked killings of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa for being (wrongly) identified with the Western homosexual agenda.


What is the way forward? As Christians you must "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mat 5.44), and evangelise. Muslims need to hear the truth as it is in Jesus Christ and turn to him. Forgiveness of sins and new birth through the Holy Spirit are the only ultimate solutions. So in the light of that and this present danger Paul's words to Timothy are still as relevant as ever (1 Tim 2.1-4):

"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour,  who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."

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