Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Engaging Enemies with Severe Humility

I read this essay about What ISIS Really Wants. It is a revealing and quite disturbing explanation of the mad logic of the religious ideology that informs the so-called Islamic State. It is an apocalyptic version of Islam obsessed with purity of theology and behavior. Its followers appear to be caught up in a frenzied dance with Death. Like many, I am offended, repulsed, and outraged by the beheadings, crucifixions, forced marriages, slavery, etc. I would like something to be done to stop it, though I am not exactly sure what.

But, I am also wary of my righteous anger. I am not convinced that all the passions stirred up in me by the actions of ISIS are godly. Or good for me, which is the same thing. I am reminded of this letter of C. S Lewis' written to his brother on September 10, 1939 at the beginning of World War 2:

In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was, ‘Prosper, oh Lord, our righteous cause’. Assuming that it was the work of the bishop or someone higher up, when I met Bleiben [the vicar] in the porch, I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous – a point on which he has his own views . . . I hope it is quite like ours, of course, but one never knows with him.

And of this by Lewis’ friend, Charles Williams, written in the middle of WW2 (1942) when the outcome was still unclear:

The conversion, where it is demanded, of the wild justice of revenge to the civil justice of the Divine City is the precise operation of the Holy Spirit towards Christ. All we need to do is attend to the goodwill, to the civility; the justice (in the personal relation) can be left to Christ. ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, sayeth the Lord.’ It is perhaps desirable to notice that the repayment is not limited to our enemy. We shall be unfortunate if we forget the trespasses, the debts, which our enemies desire to repay with their wild justice and are content to leave to his promise. It is important that we should be ready to forgive the Germans; it is not unimportant to recognize that many Germans (including Herr Hitler? Possibly; we do not very well know) may feel that they have much to forgive us. Many reconciliations have unfortunately broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive but unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumination all its own.

It is hard to imagine saying such things about ISIS. I don’t want to. But, then, it was hard to say them about Germany or Japan during WW2. It was hard to say it about the Romans in Jesus' day. Do we dare to contemplate that people in the Middle East might have much to forgive us in the West? That the actions of ISIS, however horrific, evil, and inexcusable, might be understood in some sense as an act of “the wild justice of revenge”? That things have been done on my behalf in the Middle East over the last 100 years that have contributed to the chaotic rage that seems epidemic there? I don’t like the idea. It is hard. It is a sort of severe humility. But, I believe it is a faithful Christian approach to contemplate such things in our day just as Lewis and Williams did in theirs.

A couple of things strike me in the above quotes. Both Lewis and Williams refuse to get caught up in nationalistic rhetoric that assumes that "God is with us" or that their country is particularly blessed by God. Even in the midst of war, they were compelled by their Christian convictions to accept the possibility that their nation was (at least partly) wrong and that their enemies might well have grievances of their own.

I am also struck that this severe humility leads both Lewis and Williams to demonstrate an admirable reticence to claim to know overmuch about God's mind or to assume their side is necessarily God's. Both recognize that all humans are fundamentally bound to one another in a relational web and all humans are caught in the sin that infects that web. We should thus be wary of presuming our own innocence or consigning  total blame to others – both are awe-full things to contemplate if we recognize that we all live under the awesome gaze of God's love and judgment.

I know enough of both Lewis and Williams to know that neither would advocate anything like a posture of moral equivalency. And that is not what I am suggesting. And neither was a pacifist. But, what both do seem to advocate is a deep humility and reticence to blame. And I find both refreshing. I am convinced it is a fundamentally Christian posture, however difficult.

Pray for the victims of ISIS. Pray for protection for those within their reach. Pray that they are stopped. Pray that their hearts and minds are turned – converted. But, pray for them.

"For our enemies and those who wish us harm,
and for all whom we have injured or offended,
we pray to you, O Lord."
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 391)

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