This morning we woke up to headlines about “psychopathic murderers”, “medieval” acts and “barbarians” that threaten our way of life. Last week we were told that “we must destroy…ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”. The Prime Minister told us that these people are “the embodiment of evil” and “monsters”.
We’re being consistently told that those people who fight for IS are no longer human.
That is a lie and one that we must not accept.
I am not condoning in any way the acts of IS or those who make up that group. Beheading, rape, mass murder and destruction of whole communities – these truly are monstrous, evil and barbaric acts. Any time we hear of such things, we must be sure that we engage with the extremity of the suffering involved, of the loss of life and dignity, of the trauma caused to those who experience and witness these things. Our hearts break and our spirits mourn as we lament such awful loss.
The distinction that we must make is between the act and the people involved. The things that these people have done are indeed evil. But that does not inherently equate to these people being evil. We seem to have decided that people’s behaviour is determined solely by their character, ignoring the impact of their situation.
Think about what your life would look like if you had lived in Iraq since 2003. If all you had seen for the last 11 years was death, destruction, bombing, murder, hunger and strife. Imagine that your family had been killed by an airstrike, your brothers had been shot in battle, your childhood had been spent in a refugee camp, or if your relatives had been kidnapped and never heard of again.
Violence breeds violence. It is an ongoing cycle being played out before our very eyes, but we seem blind to its truth. But just look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and so many other places where we in the West have “bombed for peace”.
If we are to have hope in the redemption of this world, in the ongoing process of new creation and the reconciliation of all things, then fundamental to that is our belief that all people are made in the image of God. We must take that truth and hold tightly to it, even when the images on our screens and the words from our leaders shout against it. God is at work, even as we weep and lament.
When we are told that someone is a monster or pure evil, we have to question what that means. Think of those many young men who have left the UK to fight for IS. Some of their parents have spoken out, pleading for them to come home, unable to comprehend that their sons have gone to do something so awful. If they were pure evil monsters, would they really want them back? Surely they remember their love, the joy they have brought, their kindness and goodness. It might be hard for us to take, but these young men were playful children, just like us once. Maybe the communities around them rejected them for their faith, rejected them for being immigrants, maybe even the local Christians and churches were complicit in failing to welcome, failing to reach out and to show love to these people who were so vulnerable to radicalisation.
Redemption is one of the most difficult things to deal with. It goes against all our social norms, however inclusive and tolerant we think our society is. But the radical redemption we see in the Bible is the outworking of a God who knows that his Kingdom can break through and transform even those who have done the most depraved acts.
Think of that pillar of early Christianity, the one who wrote so much of our Bible, Saint Paul. We first meet him as he oversees those dragging Stephen out of the city and stoning him to death. Yet soon after, he is radically transformed into the bringer of the good news to cities across the region.
Have we lost our hope in the transforming power of God? Have we lost our trust in His judgement, such that we must take it on ourselves to dish this out, to decide that these people have forfeited any possibility of redemption?
Our call to love one another, our neighbour and our enemies, does not have boundaries. It includes militants who have beheaded, raped, and murdered. It includes those who have organised such acts and those who have committed them. It is shocking and painful and breaks all of our cultural norms. It might even require us to repent of our own prejudice and hatred. But that is the radical call of God’s love.
So as we sit in our homes, safe and far from any potential war, we must not be stunned or persuaded into complicit silence. We must make our lament heard in the earth and in the heavens. We must be praying like mad. We must speak out. People are dying and many more will die as we career towards a “long, bloody and expensive war”.
Imagine if every church across the country organised a prayer vigil, or every Christian got down on their knees to cry out to God. Imagine if every Christian wrote to their MP about the vote today, gave some more of their money to help those seeking peace and supporting the refugees of war, and sought out their local Muslim neighbours to tell them that they loved them and were sorry for all of the suffering they and their people have experienced.
We don’t have to imagine. We can make that happen. God is just waiting for us, eager to see us filled with the spirit and letting his radical kingdom of peace break through into this world.