By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
The brutality theatre that the terrorist group known as Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) is applying to the powerless victims in its grasp has been truly breathtaking to behold.
Some fine reporting, notably by Graeme Wood in his “What ISIS Really Wants” piece in the Atlantic, has clarified the nature and aims of this particularly horrendous new movement. Wood shows decisively that ISIS is part of a “jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism.” It follows what it calls a “prophetic methodology” involving the establishment of what its adherents believe to be the legitimate caliphate where Islamic law (as adherents understand it) finally can be enforced to the letter, including slavery, crucifixion and beheadings of all kinds of people, beginning with those believed to be Muslim apostates.
ISIS leaders appear to believe that they are playing a key part in an end-of-days scenario that will soon lead to a decisive battle between “the armies of Rome” (perhaps the West) and “the armies of Islam” at Dabiq in Syria. Wood argues that there is no evidence that ISIS leaders entertain anything like normal, this-worldly foreign policy aims or have any use for state-to-state negotiations based on realism, limited aims, international law or moral norms.
So what we have here is a state, or a state-like entity, with an apocalyptic end-of-days ideology, which justifies every kind of cold and horrifying brutality, believes itself to be in a fight to the finish against mortal enemies of God, and refuses to accept any kind of moral restraints or legal norms. This is a kind of religious totalitarianism that one might have thought was gone from the world. It appears to be more evil, more extreme, and more out-of-touch with the wider world and its norms even than al Qaeda, and that’s saying something.
Only in one way does this movement make contact with the world of 2015 — through its scripted televised murders. These burning-alive and beheading videos intend to terrorize, and they do terrorize. But somehow they also attract an ever-growing flow of people wanting to find their way into one of these videos. The more visible and grotesque the brutality, the more some are attracted to join in, and the more potential victims are terrorized. Each “successful” video seems to raise the stakes. Each seems to encourage a can-we-top-this mentality among the murderers. We are witnessing a vicious cycle that defines all vicious cycles.
The same thing has occurred in many prior seasons of moral degradation.
Dissenting Spanish cleric Bartolome de las Casas noticed it among the conquerors of the indigenous population of Latin America. He reported not just mass murder, but also mass slavery, systematic rape and sexual slavery, torture, bartering of people as hostages, and escalating patterns of cruelty and sadism.
Las Casas employed the categories of Romans 1 to analyze what was happening: “Having abandoned all Christian sense of right and wrong [they have] been totally given over to a reprobate mind. The longer they spent in the region the more ingenious were the torments, each crueler than the last, that they inflicted on their victims, as God finally abandoned them and left them to plummet headlong into a life of full-time crime and wickedness.”
I propose the following truism about this particular aspect of human depravity: whatever their ideology, those who have both the motivation and the freedom to destroy subjugated populations will descend into ever deeper spirals of sadism and brutality toward their powerless victims that continues until the movement burns itself out or is defeated by a greater power.
That is what I believe we are witnessing with ISIS right now, in this case in the name of a particular kind of Islamist apocalyptic fundamentalism. There is no sign, as far as I can see, that the movement is burning itself out. Given the carnage, humanity needs to organize itself to destroy this movement before it has opportunity to terrorize and devour even more human beings. But “humanity” as such doesn’t “do” anything. Specific groups of human beings must act, beginning with those in the immediate neighborhood.
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This, of course, raises the Christian ethical question of the legitimacy of violence and war. Most readers know the drill at this point. Pacifist Christians can never support killing. Just peacemaking, especially pioneered by Glen Stassen, looks for opportunities to practice tested peacemaking strategies. Just war tradition evaluates circumstances in an effort to discern whether violent warfare meets just war criteria, and then sets moral limits on the use of violence once war has been joined.
I will not attempt to rehearse the entire Christian ethical tradition on war, peace and peacemaking here. I know that Christians in this case, as in many others, have attempted or are considering the entire gamut of responses. Already peaceful Christians have been murdered. They have died with dignity and can be viewed as martyrs. Some Christians have sought to build bridges, or walk across bridges already built, to attempt interfaith peacemaking dialogue with and through Muslim leaders in the region, and, I understand, with ISIS leaders themselves. If so, nothing so far has held back the bloodshed. And of course the United States and other countries are attempting a military response that appears to be containing ISIS but not destroying it, though more fighting is imminent.
It is certainly true that pacifism was the first Christian response to war and continues to offer an admirable moral purity for followers of Jesus. Sadly, undoubtedly, there will be more unarmed Christians who will die as martyrs before this particular evil is defeated. But it is one thing to be in a war zone and die (voluntarily) unarmed, and quite another to look on from a distance and urge the most powerful nation in the world (and, in principle, all nations) to stay its hand in the name of Christ.
I could wish that just peacemaking would work in this situation. The most relevant just peacemaking practices in this case strike me as related to the monumental long-term task of encouraging just, effective, nonsectarian governance throughout nations ranging from Egypt to Libya to Syria to Iraq. Certainly the United States should acknowledge our own responsibility for creating the conditions, especially in Iraq, for the rise of ISIS. Perhaps there will be breakthroughs in negotiations or conflict resolution strategies that we cannot now anticipate. But for now, the theater of brutality accelerates, feeding on both historic grievances and a particularly grotesque religious imagination.
I believe that this is just one of those cases in which superior force must be interposed — at least to contain the advances of ISIS and to separate these ruthless murderers from their intended victims. As to who should do it: better the United Nations than a broad coalition; better a broad coalition than a narrow one; better a narrow one than (once again) the United States going it alone in the Middle East. But whoever and however, ISIS must be stopped.
There will be plenty of analysis to do later as to how and why exactly these terrorist movements continue to proliferate. But today, right now, the challenge is to contain, stop and finally destroy this innovatively vicious movement before it spirals even further downward into the abyss.