Christians have rightly responded to the Paris terror attacks with prayer and empathy. But there have not been enough voices responding with thoughtful reflection rooted in historic Christian thought about God’s purposes for government and war, and perpetuating a just society.
Some Christians have urged a quick attack on ISIS, which the French air force has now conducted. The French were correct to do so, but the few score bombs dropped over Syria will of course not destroy ISIS. The U.S. has already dropped many hundreds of bombs, with limited success. Defeating ISIS requires a long-term military, intelligence, political, and diplomatic campaign likely requiring years. There is no visceral quick fix. Reportedly some French bombs fell on civilian targets. Every war, even with the most careful intent, involves such tragedy.
Other Christians have reacted to the Paris attack by insisting that the way of Jesus is the way of non-violence. They implore that Christians are called to love enemies, not kill them. Such thoughts carry some truths but ignore important others. Every major branch of historic Christianity teaches that God has ordained government, in every society. Its first duty is to wield the sword, through the police and military, in order to uphold order. This is the calling for every rightful government, not just states with a Christian majority.
According to traditional Christian understanding, the French government has a divinely ordained duty to protect its people through lawful police, intelligence, and military action, which includes arrests, detentions, and lethal force. We also remember that governments, like all people, are flawed human instruments that, even at their best, will sin or make mistakes regardless of good intent. This does not negate their duty, but it should limit our expectations.
The French government has a divinely ordained duty to protect its people through lawful police, intelligence, and military action, which includes arrests, detentions, and lethal force.
As to forgiving murderers such as ISIS, the Gospel commands that the message of grace and life be offered to all. Christians should pray for ISIS militants, that God would reclaim their hearts from evil and turn them toward love. But love and forgiveness do not preclude justice and restraint. Indeed they command them. Love for humankind — for ISIS’s members as well as its victims — requires decisive action to defeat ISIS, including killing ISIS fighters before they kill again. There is no love, from a Christian stance, in permitting anyone to continue to destroy innocents.
Some Christians have reacted to the Paris attacks by calling for an end to accepting Mideast migrants. Others argue that the migrants are themselves fleeing religious extremism and should not be punished for ISIS’s terrorism. Some nuance is needed here. Hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them originally refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, are quitting camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan for more appealing locations in Europe. Some aspire to come to America.
These migrants come from many religious and political perspectives. Some do support ISIS. Others support other radical Islamist groups opposing the Assad dictatorship. Still others support Assad, a vicious tyrant aligned with Iran and Hezbollah. Few migrants have experience with Western democracy. Many support various forms of political Islam starkly at odds with Western social norms, including ideologies that offer few rights for women, no protection for free speech, and laws privileging Islam and Muslims against religious minorities.
All migrants are fellow creatures of God whose suffering merits Christian concern. Relief groups rightfully help with food, clothing, and shelter, among other essentials. Christians should be active in the camps. Western Christians, especially Americans, might be called to urge their governments to implement safe zones in Syria protected by Western air power.
Yet there’s no specific Gospel command that Christians should politically lobby their governments to accept all immigrants. Much of Europe already contends with large Muslim ghettoized communities whose young men succumb to radicalism. Some of these communities reject Western legal norms in favor of Islamic law. No nation is morally obliged to resettle large numbers of immigrants who might unsettle that nation’s political and cultural life.
However, Christians in the West should give special concern to fleeing Mideast Christians, uniquely targeted by ISIS, who have no advocates, who aren’t welcome in the main refugee camps, and who are often tormented by other migrants, even in Europe. If Western Christians don’t speak for them, then who will?
Finally, Christians should not react to the Paris attacks apocalyptically. Western civilization has endured far worse than ISIS, which is dangerous, but whose shelf life is limited. Christians should be resolute and confident about the future, not panicked.
At the special mass for terror victims at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, worshippers stood for “La Marseillaise,” and the French tricolor was flashed onto the altar. Some American Christians are dismissive of patriotism. But God has a purpose for nations, and we all should pray that His hand remains on France.
– Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.