Do you feel safe?
President Obama made his case for war against ISIS during his address to the nation last night. He juxtaposed two statements that sum up the contradictory message that American presidents have been telling us with a straight face since at least the Vietnam War:
America is safer. Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat.
I don’t feel safe. We’ve been fighting the “War on Terror” for 13 years – and what have we earned for that effort? More terrorists!
At the beginning of his speech, the President predictably listed his litany of accomplishments, including killing Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
But throughout his speech, he was clear that we are not safe, that “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including the United States.”
There is one emotion that both President Obama and President Bush have consistently tried to induce – fear. Last night’s message was about fear. We were told that ISIS is a threat to the world and that our objective in going to war is based on the same failed objective we’ve had since Vietnam – “we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”
That counter-terrorism strategy is the same strategy that has failed and will continue to fail us – the use of violence to defeat violence.
Why does violence fail? Because it is mimetic. Violence leads to imitation and escalation of violence. René Girard states in his book Battling to the End that “violent imitation is the rule today, not the imitation that slows and suspends the flow, but the one that accelerates it.”
Fear and violence are both contagious. They spread throughout communities like a disease. “We” fear “them” and “they” fear “us.” And the only way that either side knows how to deal with the other is through violence that only ensures more violence.
America’s violent fight for freedom has only enslaved us to a future of fear.
So, how can we be safe? Here’s the difficult answer that we learn from the wisdom of Christianity – we can’t.
We can’t be safe because we are vulnerable and finite. Christianity makes the radical claim that God is not the one who comes in and makes us safe through violently defeating our enemies. Christianity doesn’t promise safety, and any politician who promises safety through violence is either naïve or lying.
But this is no naïve pacifism. Non-violent strategies don’t promise safety. Yet, for Christians who take seriously the call to follow Christ, we must reckon with the fact that at every point Jesus was tempted to use violence to protect himself or his friends, he refused. Whenever his disciples tempted him to be the violent Messiah and kill the Romans who were terrorizing them, he refused. When his disciples tempted Jesus to call down fire and brimstone on those who rejected them, Jesus refused. When Peter decided to protect Jesus with his sword, Jesus rebuked him and told Peter to put his sword back in his place, for those who live by the sword die by the sword.
The same words that Jesus spoke to Peter, he speaks now to us. Yet Christians continue to put our fingers in our ears and yell “LALALALA” to the words of Jesus. We don’t have faith in Jesus. We have faith in violence.
Love isn’t the answer to safety and security. After all, even Jesus was crucified. But love is the answer to fear. Nonviolent love is our hope.
On the morning of 9/11/2014, the morning after President Obama made his case for war, he spoke to the victims’ families of 9/11/2001. He claimed that “Your love is the ultimate rebuke to the hatred of those who attacked us.” That sounds like a nice answer to hatred, doesn’t it? But Obama was wrong. Love is not a rebuke. There is no violence in love.
People always want answers. The best answer I’ve read comes from economist Jeffrey Sachs, who says that we might live in a more safe and secure world if we did something very Jesus-like, if instead of bombings we committed acts of love. Sachs claims we would do better if we,
Mobilized to solve the real problems facing the region: poverty, hunger, drought, and unemployment. Those are the crises that at the end of the day cause men and boys to fling their lives into useless and suicidal slaughter. If just once in our times US politicians had the bravery to build coalitions to improve the lives of the people through development rather than through bombs, the US public would be amazed to see how much agreement and goodwill could quickly generate. Instead, we head to war.
Those acts of nonviolent love might not lead to greater safety, but the alternative has only created an imitative contagion of escalating violence. And so it’s time for Christians to choose another way. It’s time for Christians to pray, exhort, plead, and lobby for our political leaders to choose the nonviolent and loving way of Jesus.