Terrorism has become an unfortunate fact of life in first world countries over the past decade or two. The Twin Towers in the US in 2001, the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings which affected many western tourists, Spain’s train bombings in 2004, the 2005 London transport bombings and now the several recent terrorist actions in France (and more besides) have all understandably generated outrage.
I have been pondering these matters for a while. Here’s a few of my thoughts, ending with 4 lessons I think first world christians can learn.
Evil deeds, innocent victims
In most of these cases, we instinctively feel that the victims had done little to merit the attacks and didn’t deserve to die. Their basic human rights were taken from them. We feel the actions were evil, and many label the perpetrators as evil.
The closer we are to the situation, the more we may feel for the victims. It could have been us. We can identify with a child who lost a parent, a mother whose child has been taken from her or a young man in the prime of life taken before his time.
Christians can readily agree that such killing is evil and cannot be condoned.
Out of sight, out of mind?
But of course, these well-reported incidents are not the only ones. Nigeria and adjacent countries have become a nightmare of abducted schoolgirls, fire-ravaged churches and wanton killing. The IS militants have behaved similarly in the Middle East. Sudan has seen human rights atrocities for decades. Parts of Pakistan seem as dangerous as a war zone, the civil war may have ended in Sri Lanka but atrocities and persecution allegedly continue, and fundamentalist Hindus have committed many terrorist actions in India. Again, to name just a few examples.
The sheer numbers of these atrocities probably exceed what the western world has experienced, but somehow these deaths are too far away and less seen on TV, so somehow they don’t seem to matter to us so much.
Who is the terrorist?
But as an Australian, I need to remember and acknowledge that “my side” (the US and its allies, mainly Britain and Australia) has been responsible for many deaths too.
- The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified by claims of the terrorism threat of alleged “weapons of mass destruction” (which turned out to be illusory) and was largely catalysed by the World Trade Centre attacks. Almost 3000 people died in those attacks, but something like a hundred times this number, many of them civilians, died in the war (estimates vary from about 150,000 to 1 million).
- US drone strikes and covert actions have killed something like three thousand people in Pakistan, a thousand in Yemen and a hundred in Somalia. Most of these were probably terrorists, but many were civilians, including women and children.
Were these lives less valuable than any of those killed in the first world terrorist attacks?
A colonial legacy?
In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, Western European countries colonised and exploited much of Africa, Asia and the Americas. In most cases they controlled the indigenous populations, sometimes virtually enslaving them, and took out vast resources to enrich their own wealth (and thereby impoverish the indigenous people).
In some cases (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some parts of South America) the European settlers became the dominant ethnic group and the indigenous people became marginalised and often reduced in population due to disease and fighting.
It happened in the Middle East too
Middle Eastern history over the past few centuries is very complex, but after World War 1 the old Ottoman Empire was broken up, new countries with illogical borders were set up, and the various European powers controlled them as “protectorates”. And, of course, they extracted resources where they could.
But after WW2, the same European powers could no longer afford to control their Middle Eastern protectorates, and so they left, leaving authoritarian regimes in place and much of the instability we see today.
Revenge works both ways, and it’s always ugly
The Iraq and Afghanistan invasions were ostensibly about reducing terror threats against the west, but it is hard not to think that revenge was a factor. But have we thought whether our “opponents” might feel the same way?
I’m not saying that we can equate western aggression, war and killing with Muslim war and terrorism. I’m not making any judgment on that. But if western countries can feel affronted and want revenge when we are attacked, surely we can expect that Muslim people might feel the same about being colonised, exploited or attacked?
Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and Paul warns us against taking revenge. It seems christian people, including christian Presidents and Governments containing christians, are willing to go against their Saviour and their Bible when it comes to revenge. So can we expect Muslims or others affected by murderous first world forays into their countries to feel any different?
Jesus and peacefulness
So what should we christians make of Jesus’ commands to non-violence?
Some christians take his teachings to heart and become complete pacifists. While sympathetic to this view, I can’t be quite so absolute. I think there are some situations where violence may be the loving thing – for example, police or international peace-keepers may find themselves in situations when keeping the peace and protecting innocent life may necessitate the use of force.
Other christians justify war and self defence, using the hallowed christian just war theory (see note below). I think this pays too little heed to the teachings of Jesus, but I understand there are good christians who take this view.
But few of our recent wars, drone strikes or covert operations meet the requirements of “just war”. So-called christian countries and christian leaders are bringing shame on the name of Jesus and harming the cause of his kingdom. I don’t see how we can support them.
The value of a human life?
Muslim and other terrorists have shown callous disregard for human life, bringing discredit to the God they say they worship. But western countries have equally shown callous disregard for human life when it isn’t from the first world. Collateral damage is a terrible euphemism for fathers, daughters and grandmothers who no more deserve a violent death than do workers in the World Trade Centre, tourists in a Bali nightclub or journalists in a Paris office.
Once we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image and precious in his sight, we will find we cannot support actions by our countries that don’t reflect this.
In the Old Testament, “an eye for an eye” was designed to limit revenge killing to one for one. Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies is designed to stop that killing altogether. But the Iraq war showed the western allies extracting 50 or 100 times in return for the Twin Towers attacks. We seem to have gone back to pre Old Testament “ethics”!
Smarter foreign policy
I know nothing about foreign policy, but it seems like western rhetoric is aimed at breaking down opposition by threat backed up by use of force.
But Islamic culture is built around honour and shame, and many Muslims would rather lose their life than their honour. Subduing them by force (if that was possible) is likely to leave the problem to break out at a more opportune time, and revenge killing will almost certainly lead to revenge killing in return.
I don’t pretend that we can be idealistic in our foreign policy, but there has to be a better way than what we are doing now.
Four lessons I learn from all this
- Terrorism and indiscriminate killing is an offence against God and humanity.
- Western nations, Middle Eastern people and third world nations have all been guilty of indiscriminate killing.
- As long as we flout other nations’ sovereignty and over-use force to defeat alleged terrorists, we can expect revenge attacks.
- Jesus offers those of us who believe in him a better way.
Note: Just war principles:
The BBC lists nine factors that make a war just (Wikipedia and others list these principles, but not so succinctly):
- The war must be for a just cause.
- The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.
- The intention behind the war must be good.
- All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.
- There must be a reasonable chance of success.
- The means used must be in proportion to the end that the war seeks to achieve.
- Innocent people and non-combatants should not be harmed.
- Only appropriate force should be used.
- Internationally agreed conventions regulating war must be obeyed.