Learning to Love Our Enemies: Boko Haram and Nonviolent Faith in Crisis
As I sit here beginning to write, the final hour of Mother’s Day is dwindling to a close. My daughters are sleeping peacefully, and I feel blessed by these beautiful little people that Alex and I are nurturing, teaching and loving together.
I watch them, safe and comfortable, and know that I would do anything for them. And as I consider all I do to ensure their safety and help them know that they are precious, invaluable and loved, my heart aches for the mothers who are missing their own children, especially the mothers of the 274 Nigerian girls stolen away. I have long taken pride in the pacifist origins of Mother’s Day, but this year it is precisely as a mother that my own pacifism is put to test. By no means am I saying that it takes motherhood to be empathetic to the terrible plight of these girls. But for me, what makes this tragedy stand out among the billions of others that I know are happening around the world, what makes this tragedy the one to make me consider making an exception to the rule of total nonviolence by which I try to order my life as a follower of Jesus and a member of the human race, is wondering what I would do if my own daughters were taken and abused, living in fear with a dim hope that one day they might be returned safely to me and Alex… and the thought that maybe in this case, violence could work.
Now our (U.S.) military has joined Nigerian and French troops to help #BringBackOurGirls. And I have immense hope that the girls will be found and returned to their families. I even have hope that this mission can be carried out with a minimum of bloodshed (though that is harder to believe, it is at least a hope and a prayer). But I have no hope that our foreign military presence will help to bring peace and stability to Nigeria or prevent further tragedies. None. Whatsoever. Violence just doesn’t work that way.
It doesn’t really take an education in mimetic theory to know that violence like this always arises from a context, or that any violence involved in bringing these girls back home will inevitably have violent repercussions. But this time, I wish I could forget about that. I wish I could believe that if there were any job for which the most powerful military in the world is completely prepared and called, it’s this one. If it were my own girls, I’d be too overcome with grief to consider the context or consequences. But ignoring them means ignoring past and future victims, so I did some research.
I won’t go into too much detail repeating what others have written. Please see the links to read about how Boko Haram started out in 2000 (and remained for nearly a decade) as a nonviolent ideological movement to create [their interpretation of] an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria in response to immense poverty and corruption. A mandatory motorcycle helmet law led to the arrest of Boko Haram members who argued with and eventually fired at police, after which came the arrest of several hundred members of the group, including their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, who was ultimately killed in police custody without a trial. The indiscriminate violence that began in earnest in 2009 under Abubakar Shekau can be seen as vengeful and strategic; the kidnappings themselves being a response to relatives of Boko Haram being detained by police while other acts of violence — attacks and bombings of Muslims and Christians, women and men — appear to serve no purpose other than creating chaos and fear to work to their advantage. In this tactic, using violence to coerce and manipulate, Boko Haram is neither innocent nor alone.
Further research has also shown me why many are reluctant to rejoice in the partnership between Nigeria and the United States even though everyone wants to see these girls returned home safely. From distrust for the United States’ agenda for the entire continent of Africa through AFRICOM to an unwillingness to strengthen the corrupt and also indiscriminately violent Nigerian military, skepticism and dire concern abound. Please, please read the links that I have provided; we can’t do anything to help the kidnapped girls or future victims if we remain uninformed.
All my research has both enlightened me to some particular factors surrounding this violence (though I have much, much more to learn) and reminded me of the truths I already know. Violence is often a response to poverty and corruption, spurred by the logic of this world that nothing is more efficient and effective. It will always create a climate of fear, chaos, and righteous vengeance that will continue to consume all sides (figuratively and literally) until enough people do the unthinkable — ask and offer forgiveness. I was surprised to learn how long Boko Haram refrained from violence and yet how quickly violence became their defining feature. That makes me wonder if many who joined the group probably did not intend violence (or much violence), but like many of us who go to war, once the violence starts, fear, a sense of justice, and a reluctance to engage in critical self-examination make it so hard to stop. I was heartbroken, humbled and chastised to be reminded of the United States’ horrible track record in relation to Africa, from slavery through modern exploitation, which inevitably undermines even the best of our intentions. And through my struggle and confusion and heartache, I am ever aware of how very hard reconciliation is on all sides, and how many will suffer and die before it could even possibly be achieved. Even with all I know about the horrible self-perpetuation of violence, I am still tempted by the world’s logic that says that in this one case (my mind and heart still desperately trying to disconnect it from context and inevitable blowback), a military operation is the only hope for those poor girls.
I know this is the same temptation that Jesus faced in the desert when satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world in all of their splendor (MT 4:8, LK 4:5). The logic of this world, the satan, tempts us with all the good we can do if we will just use the instruments of violence and coercion. It is especially tempting when we see all the corruption and violence already going on and assume that the only way to fight fire is with fire, knowing ourselves to be good and our intentions noble. Imagine what Jesus could have done had he commanded armies to free captives and squash Roman oppression. How many lives could have been saved?
But had he done so, we would never know that God is Unconditional Love for everyone — Jew and Gentile, Muslim and Christian, Boko Haram member and American soldier. My lifelong commitment to pacifism has always been based on something I know in the core of my being no matter how strongly the logic of this world rages against it, that God loves us all and does not desire that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). The all-consuming nature of violence would gobble us all if not for the mercy of those who dare to absorb it and offer forgiveness in return. For Christians, Jesus is our model for that; for Muslims, the name of God “Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” is invoked at least 5 times a day. (To see how the actions of Boko Haram do not reflect the true nature God as worshipped by Muslims, read this).
Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies (MT 5:44) feels wrong, even blasphemous, in this instance. Can we offer forgiveness, even love, to members of Boko Haram when they still have innocent girls in their custody, except for those whom they have sold into sexual slavery? As a mother, I rage against the thought. Yet I have often used this verse to speak of showing mercy to others guilty of equally horrible crimes, so long as those crimes were in the past. And I have spoken of this verse in gratitude for the mercy I have received as a member of the human race that crucified Christ and builds itself on the backs of victims. And I know that at any given instant, someone suffering has a choice between mercy and violence. Mercy may be seen by the rest of the world as complicity or permission for violence, but ultimately it is the only thing that has any hope at all of stopping violence in its tracks. The word “crisis” is defined not only as a negative situation that pivots on disaster, but also as “testing time,” a time that pushes one’s faith, trust and values to the brink. This situation with the kidnapped girls is a crisis, a moment that challenges me to pour my whole self, body and soul, into Jesus’ nonviolent love. For now my heart is struggling and sometimes failing to follow Jesus. Yet I will continue to train it in his example of nonviolence, not for pity for the members of Boko Haram, but because I know deep, deep down that only forgiveness has any hope of stopping the violence.
The members of Boko Haram have offered release of the girls in exchange for release of prisoners suspected to be affiliated with them. Those prisoners await execution, according to Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford. I know that it goes against everything we know to be good, descent, and wise to negotiate with terrorists, but I advise that we encourage negotiation of an exchange of prisoners and a period of disarmament for all before we start firing shots. I know this sounds woefully naive, and frankly, I have no experience in diplomacy, but I know conclusively that violence will not save all the girls, might not save any of the girls, and will inevitably lead to further destabilization, chaos and more violence. I encourage us to remember that despite the horrific actions of Boko Haram and despite their distortion beyond recognition of Islam, they are human beings beloved of God, and despite our own horrific violence (Shock and Awe, droning of innocents, exploitation, etc.), so are we. Negotiations just might help bring about creative ideas that can help to ameliorate the desperate poverty in the region and bring people hope in something beyond violence. If this measure is tried and fails, I will not blame anyone who calls upon the military to do something about it. I might even be among them (provided our military limits itself to rescuing these girls). But I know that any such action cannot bring about lasting peace. So I continually pray in the name of the Forgiving Victim, in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, “Lord have mercy, and bring back our girls.”
Postscript: Knowing that even negotiating a release of prisoners will not in itself bring peace, knowing that there are no short term solutions, knowing that the way of nonviolence is a slow leavening that can bring peace only through endurance of suffering, in this coming week look for a sequel of sorts as I explore things that we can do to create a culture of peace that just might have effects far and wide. It may seem like there is nothing we can do, but I refuse to believe that. I do believe God can use us to create peace in ways we cannot imagine and probably will not see. As (I think) Mother Teresa once said, “Our business is fidelity; God’s business is success.”
(Lindsey Paris-Lopez is a stay-at-home mother of two beautiful daughters and is learning as much about mimetic desire from her 5-year-old as she is from Girardian theologians. Her husband, Alex, is her best friend, her strongest support, and her model in faith. As she discerns a call to ministry in Christian Education, she has volunteered as a lay preacher and Sunday School teacher and is thrilled now to be writing for the Raven Foundation. Lindsey received her MA in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations from Hartford Seminary in 2008 and would like to apply mimetic theory to interfaith relations as well as use it to teach peaceful hermeneutics. You can message her on Facebook.)