Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"I absolutely agreed with him" - a Christian and a Jihadist

There are several semi-funny but mostly sad passages in the Bible where God's people's opponents seem to know more about their story than Israel or the Christians themselves.

One of the best is in 1 Samuel when Israel brings the Ark of the Covenant into battle. This is a twofer of stupidity, with Israel treating the ark like an idol while thinking that putting the ark under threat will compel the Lord to fight harder for them.

The scheme goes horribly wrong when the presence of the ark in Israel's camp reminds the Philistines of several important points of Israel's story. They say "Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness". (1 Sam 4:8)

This is what Israel should be saying. God's people should have been saying to themselves something like, "Our God is the Lord, the one who saved us from the Egyptians with a strong hand and a mighty arm - surely he can deliver us from the Philistines".

But they don't. Instead, it's the Philistines who seem to understand Israel's faith better than God's people themselves. They also understand their own situation, and it leads them fight even harder and they defeat the Israelites and capture the ark.

I was reminded of this as I was reading this amazing article about Joshua Casteel, an military linguist and a Christian who was assigned as an interrogator in Iraq.

The article describes Casteel's encounter with an ardent jihadist. Rather than the brutal interrogations we've heard so much about, this one was a genuine dialog. Casteel says:
He tried to convert me to Islam from start to finish, and coming from an Evangelical Christian background, I felt in familiar territory, as if I were speaking simply to my Muslim counterpart. Then, we began to discuss war and violence. I asked him why he came to kill, he asked me why did I. At that point I knew I could go no further, unless I wanted to get into a debate about which one of us had the “more just” cause.

He then told me that I was not following the actual teaching of Christ, who said to “turn the other cheek” and to “not resist an evil person.” Coming from a jihadist who flat out told me he would kill me if he had the chance, I did not take the personal challenge all that seriously, but I came to a clear recognition of the fact that I absolutely agreed with him. I was in complete and total agreement with him, and I told him so. I did believe that my participation in systems of violence debilitates my Christian witness. I wanted to tell him that there was a different answer to injustice than the cycle of vengeance and violence condoned by Islam and by most systems of secular law: “killing in the name of justice or civil order.” I wanted to tell the jihadist that Jesus Christ (in Islam, the prophet “Isa”) had taught another way, and that I was living that way as a flesh-and-blood example for him — but I could not. For a moment, my job and duties completely faded to the periphery and all I cared about was confessing to this enemy my own sins in the hopes that he would recognize his. But, I could only take him so far. I could not actually lead him down a different path by my own example.

What I realized that day is that I whole heartedly believed, even when challenged by an enemy lacking legitimacy, that my participation in systems of violence completely debilitates the living example I believe is my bounded duty as a Christian to offer. And I believe this lack of coherence made my Christian witness totally impotent to a man who believed he was fighting a “just cause.”

When the self-avowed enemies of God's people can speak with greater clarity about the nature of Christian faith than we can, something has clearly gone wrong. When Christian leaders spout phrases like "securing our borders" and "reforming the judiciary" as if they come from Scripture while ignoring phrases like "turn the other cheek" and "not resist an evil person" which, you know, do come from Scripture, something has clearly gone wrong.

Israel eventually got the ark back. Where can we go to get our souls back?

(Via Zalm at From the Salmon)


Captain GoBart said...

Interesting post, and an interesting confession by Casteel. But having spent time in the Friends movement in the 80's, I think I know where you are coming from.

Several questions/comments from me. First, for Israel, is relying on the Lord diametricly opposed to having an army? This seems to me is clearly not the case, as the Lord has God's people fight on several ocassions. (Judges 1:1 is an example) There are many, many times in the Pentateuch where the LORD says, "I will fight for you." However, there is still an Israeli army through the period of the Judges and through the Monarchy.

Second, there is simply no record in the NT of Jesus or any of the apostles telling a soldier (Roman soldiers at that!) to lay down their arms, and to take up some other vocation. If armed conflict is forbidden, or frowned upon by the Lord, certainly this would have been more evident in the dealings with soldiers. (The centurion in Luke 7, the centurions at the cross and in Mark 15, Cornelius in Acts 10 are off the top of my head.)

Third, I have always been puzzled by the "turn the other cheek" applied at the macro/societal level. I tend to see these commands in the Sermons on the Mount/Plain as personal ethics for the followers of Jesus, rather than societal norms. Certainly there is a difference between a soldier or policeman doing their duty and the same soldier or policeman acting as an individual. If someone slaps an off-duty policeman, the policeman may or may not "turn the other cheek". However, if someone slaps an on-duty policeman, isn't there some sort of duty to arrest the slapper? The first is a personal act, the second can be seen as a symbolic act of defiance towards law and order.

I am not wise enough to know how far to push the personal/societal distinction, but it seems an error to me to conflate them.

I understand that you are most likely against the war in Iraq, or the GWOT, as a matter of principle, as you would most likely be opposed to ALL war, as befits the Friends peace testimony. You are probably against this particular war for other particular reasons as well.

Fourth, while I respect Casteel's change of heart, I would disagree with it. To know that someone is intentionally committed to killing innocent people, and to turn the other cheek when you could stop them, seems to bme to be evil. There remains a distinction between the jihadi and the soldier. The jihadi is out to kill people: men, women, children, innocent non-combatants. The soldier is out to kill eemy soldiers. Do innocent bystanders sometimes get killed? (The regretable term, "collateral damage".) Yes. But this is not the intent. And while the outcome may appear the same, doesn't the intent matter if we are judging this ethically or morally? (You may respond, "Well, the intent didn't seem to matter to those who died! And you would, of course, be right.) Maybe this is too fine a distinction, but I think it needs to be made.

If I knew of the 9/11 hijackers, and I could have stopped one of them only by doing some violence to them, I feel that I would have been morally obligated to do so. Would I take pleasure in doing violence to someone? No. But if violence to one person saves thousands of others, that's a trade I am willing to make. And let's not treat jihadi's as people just like us. They are not. The hard core jihadi's are out to kill others, no matter what. I believe they are evil people. Not because they practice the "wrong religion", but because they kill indiscriminantly.

Your posts are always thought-provoking, and I always appreciate the dialogue, the civility, and the enduring friendship. As iron sharpens iron and all that.

forrest said...

Lots of confusions in the last comment.

"Don't resist evil men" implies that there are evil men, rather than men who do evil. A better translation by my understanding is "Do not set yourself against a man who would wrong you."

Anyway. The prophets recurrently speak out against putting trust in military power above trust in God--& then there's Gideon teaching by example, sending the bulk of his men home so that Israel will know that God, not their prowess, has saved them, Samuel describing the people's demand to have a king like other nations as distrust in God.

I imagine that Jesus' teachings would allow a warrior to kill another warrior, so far as each sees his own death as an acceptable possible outcome of their struggle over something they both consider more important. Since the bulk of those killed in modern warfare are bystanders, who presumably have not consented to the game in any meaningful sense, different circumstances apply.

"Collateral damage" is the US euphemism for those we sacrifice in maintaining our campaigns of terrorism against weaker enemies. Our definition of "terrorism" as "bombing innocents for the purpose of political blackmail WITHOUT USING AN AIR FORCE" is a contemptible attempt to pretend a nonexistent moral superiority.

When a gang of people commit evil for their collective benefit, they are no more innocent than a wicked individual. The size of the gang, and whether or not they carry a red, white, and blue cloth idol, is immaterial, though it should entitle them to plead collective insanity as a mitigating circumstance.

"The hard core jihadi's are out to kill others, no matter what. I believe they are evil people. Not because they practice the "wrong religion", but because they kill indiscriminantly." Unlike those who imagine their moral position somehow superior...

We do not know, can not know, whether any act of ours either can prevent an evil act, or is needed to prevent one. With God's help, if we pray for clarity, we should be able to avoid committing one.

zach said...

Interesting post and article, Bob.

Something IS wrong, but I don't think it's a very recent phenomenon. The Christian right neglecting the actual teachings of Jesus and instead harping about the judiciary, etc. are just the most recent . The problem goes at least as far back as the "Constantinian Shift," and I would even argue that the tendency to idolize Jesus as God leads to this very thing. It's OK if I'm not doing every little thing Jesus says, just as long as I'm worshiping Christ, right?

Which is why I like to distinguish, even if it's a little artificial, between "Christian" and "Yeshuan."

One word comes from Greek, the language of the hierarchical church that has tended towards worshiping and philosophizing about Jesus as God rather than obeying his teachings; the other word comes from Hebrew, and suggests staying a little closer to the man himself.

This is a lot of why I don't call myself a Christian anymore.