In Compassion and Sympathy: A Christian Response to Religious Violence
by Jacob D. Myers
"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." Phil. 2:1-2
I write this essay on the eve of a US led air campaign that marks "the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago." There is no denying that ISIS/ISIL has captured the attention of the world through its religiously inspired acts of violence. The atrocities committed in recent months by ISIS/ISIL have left countless people of faith-including many devout Muslim leaders across the world-speechless.
Yet, one of the central aspects of religiously inspired violence is that it rails against silence. Whether it is Christian violence in Nigeria and Uganda, Hindu violence in Western India, Jewish violence in Gaza, or Islamic violence in Indonesia and Syria, acts of terror demand denunciation. The ubiquity of religiously inspired violence across cultures and religious traditions lends credibility to the belief of some that religion itself is the problem. My own Christian tradition treats our inclination to harm and even kill one another as symptomatic of our fallen natures; it is a mark of our propensity to evil. This is what makes religious violence so pernicious: it twists our one remedy so that it exacerbates the disease.
Violence-whether it arises out of a Quentin Tarantino film or a YouTube video of decapitation-captures our attention. Even as we are repulsed by the scope of human depravity, such acts of violence consume our attention. Scenes of violence are like a mirror into the darkest parts of our soul: we cannot bear the images we see, but neither can we turn away.
Christ-followers are given another angle of vision, another mirror into our souls, in the person of Jesus Christ. No passage of Scripture points more acutely to this image than one of this week's lectionary texts: Philippians 2:1-13. The Apostle Paul invokes the Christ hymn as a means of reminding us who we are called to be. He urges his readers to "be of the same mind" and to "have the same love" as the one who's image they bear. Put simply, Jesus-followers are called to participate in a selfless, humbling, even self-emptying mode of being in the world.
How then ought Christ-followers respond to the religiously inspired violence perpetrated by groups like ISIS/ISIL? I believe that Christ-followers, while denouncing all forms of violence-especially religious violence-ought to respond with compassion and sympathy.
We are able to move toward compassion and sympathy when we are able to articulate religious violence according to broader historical, geopolitical, and theological modes of analysis. What we require is something beyond bland appeals to ethical imperatives or capitulation to the rhetoric and presuppositions of religious extremists. We need a way to traverse the gulf that separates demonization from compassion, hatred from love.
My thinking about religious violence is sharpened by the work of my friend and mentor Ted A. Smith. In his forthcoming book, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford University Press), Smith articulates a moral vision fueled by practical reason beyond that which is captured within an "immanent frame of causes and effects." Smith writes explicitly to the concept of divine violence, which is a type of violence that claims some kind of immediate relation to that which is counted as holy, sacred, or ultimate. In light of Smith's astute analyses, and following the model established by Christ Jesus, we may call Christians to a particular kind of understanding in the face of religious violence.
Addressing the rise of religious violence and the role that faith leaders have in working to a solution.
A Call to Diachronic Understanding
A Christian response to religious violence requires humility, and such humility is fostered by a "thick" understanding of history. Smith teaches us that in any question of ethical importance, we cannot rely solely upon moral philosophy or empirical data; instead, "we need to ask questions that get at concrete historical realities." This movement does not mean that we condone violence, but that we resist modes of denunciation that ignore the historical circumstances harbored in the hearts and minds of perpetrators of religious violence.
Emulating Jesus' example requires that we not consider ourselves better than others (think on the Crusades, think on the Protestant-Catholic violence of the 16th Century, think on Nazi Germany, think on Rwanda). We are all capable of unspeakable horrors in the name of God/religion. We must remember that we are all working out our salvation with "fear and trembling" and it is God who works in and through us. Lest we forget, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a paragon of Christian devotion, was prepared to don the mantle of violence against Hitler in the name of religious devotion. John Brown's attack at Harper's Ferry was understood as an act of divine violence against the insidious institution of slavery.
Therefore, whether we are responding to the atrocities committed by the "Lord's Army" in Nigeria or Islamic militants in ISIS/ISIL, devotion to Christ calls for careful attention to how we arrived at the present levels of vitriol and hatred.
A Call to Synchronic Understanding
A response to religious violence that is at once compassionate and sympathetic will not only attend to the thick, historical narratives that give rise to violence, but it will also attend to the concrete economic, social, and political circumstances that allow religious violence to continue. Smith argues that the scope of our contemporary vision is limited by the immanent frame of our ethical and theological vision. He does not argue that we ignore the "ethical evaluation of this-worldly realities," but that we develop a broader vocabulary for deliberation about divine violence.
A synchronic understanding of the situation is not content to label religious adherents "terrorists" and thus be done with them. Rather, such an understanding recognizes that when a government can no longer provide for its citizens, or ensure their safety, fundamentalist organizations will rise to fill the void. Furthermore, when states forge political alliances that negatively impact the economic and social well being of its citizenry, people feel disempowered, even betrayed, by their own governments. Devout Muslims fear the erosion of religious faith and practice no less than conservative Christians lament the rise of secularization and religious apathy.
A Call to Love the Other
A Christian response to religious violence, one that is fueled by sympathy and compassion, leads us to the most radical reply to pain, suffering, and death: love. Love is made manifest when people enter into solidarity with those whom our country declares "enemies." Love is found when Christian theologians declare that the actions of their government are sinful and must cease, even when those actions are undertaken against supposed terrorists. Love is found whenever we expose our positions of privilege and allow the concerns of the other to transform our concerns, to allow their suffering to become our suffering-even death on a cross!
What the world needs in times of terror, where people are willing to kill and be killed in the name of a transcendent power, are not moral imperatives or fearful rhetoric, but deep philosophical, theological, and historical analyses of what went wrong to allow such evil to transpire in the first place. Furthermore, in light of Paul's charge to the Christ-followers in Philippi, what we need are compassion and sympathy that participate in the way of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which, at day's end, is love.
Bible Study Questions
What acts of religiously inspired violence have most affected you in the past year?
How might compassion and empathy alter your perception of so-called terrorists?
Are there any aspects of your faith for which you might fight, die, or even kill?
For Further Reading
Claiborne, Shane and Tony Campolo. Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.
Gushee, David P. In the Fray: Contesting Public Ethics, 1994-2013. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014.
Smith, Ted A. Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014 (November release).
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