After the murder of a priest in France by jihadist killers, the Pope said that 'the world is at war' (28th July 2016). He linked the escalating terrorism attacks in Europe with the first and second world wars. He was basically saying that Europe has entered the third world war.
In our times horrific killings in the name of ‘so called Islamic State’ (IS)are appearing in the news with incredible regularity. If not directly linked to this particular terrorist group they are often perpetrated by vulnerable, mentally unstable individuals who have certainly been influenced by IS. Ideologically they crave a totalitarian Islamic State, their method is to destroy and terrorise all that oppose them. These acts of murder are all the more heinous because they are randomly targeted at defenceless civilians; families on the beach, or watching a fireworks display. But that’s the point, they want secular European society and government to know that we are all the enemy.
The nations of Europe have tried to be defiant. Political leaders respond by making statements of ‘zero tolerance towards terrorism’ but despite efforts to step up security there seems to be little they can do. I read an article by a BBC reporter who has the unenviable job of reporting on terrorist attacks in the UK. He wrote that the country has been relatively free of these atrocities over the last 10 years because of the effectiveness of our security intelligence. They have successfully intercepted scores of plots. So we’ve reason to be thankful but with increasing vigilance.
It’s been dubbed ‘the war against terrorism’ but many political writers say this is an expression of nonsense. Namely because there can never be a point at which we can shout, ‘Victory! The war against terrorism is over!’ Another view is that this is simply the price we pay for living in a liberal democracy. Just as society tolerates traffic accident deaths for the benefits of having a transportation system, though we will always legislate for road safety, we will never outlaw cars; the deaths they cause are ‘a necessary evil’.
A Christian Response
So what’s a Christian response to all this? It puzzled me that at the very time that a priest was murdered by IS the Pope declared that this was proof that this war is not about religion. I’d say the opposite is true. But it’s not primarily about the Christian faith, it’s primarily about the battle of Islam against humanistic, liberal democracy. The battle is an age old one – one that the Christian faith was birthed in – in it’s essence it’s the fight of extreme religious legalism versus secular amoral licence.
Let me offer some definitions here. What I mean by extreme religious legalism is this: forms of external control over a regime’s citizens such as we see in Iran. These controls include the way people should dress in public and adherence to certain religious rituals and so on. The punishments are severe - maiming and death sentences are commonplace. On the other hand, what I term ‘amoral licence’ is the kind of liberal legislation we see in Europe that has individual human rights at its heart. This means that morality is often relative; or ‘whatever makes you happy’. The one restraint is, ‘as long as you don’t infringe on someone else’s rights’. This is straight forward when it comes to things like stealing – but far more complex when to comes to say, children’s rights, gender identification or marriage.
Historically many Islamic people have settled in European countries for a better quality of life. It’s the children and children’s children of these immigrants who are really now struggling with their identity – neither belonging to their parent’s country or really integrated into their new European culture. So they inevitably become ripe pickings for Islamic extremists such as IS, who give them a cause and purpose.
Whose side are we on?
Legalism controls moral behaviour from the outside through punishment and reward. Licence gives people permission to indulge their own pleasures without restraint. The outrageous (some would even say dangerous) message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that he came to do away with both of these systems. The Bible teaches that Christians have died with Christ – they are, through spiritual regeneration, neither subject to religious law nor to the desires of the flesh (Romans 8). Instead we are free to live by another master, the Holy Spirit who brings us life and freedom.
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:25
Paul explains in Romans that we are all born as slaves to our greed and selfish appetites but religious law doesn’t do away with them – it actually makes them worse. That’s why when the legalism of Islam meets the humanistic amorality of Europe it culminates in such explosive pain and grief. You could use the old metaphor - it’s like an unstoppable object hitting an immovable one. Thank God that we’ve been delivered from both the rock and the hard place. No wonder then that Paul writes: ‘Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!’.
In many ways Christianity at its heart is not a ‘religion’ – not in the conventional sense of external ritual (though sadly Christianity has been in danger of this since it became ‘the official state religion’ under the Roman Constantine in the 4th Century). But true Christianity is supposed to be unique in world religions because it has a saviour who does away with the need for special days and diets (Colossians 2:20). It’s the antithesis of religion – the removal of the need for religion by saving grace. That’s why in the early days of the church the Christians were victims of both the religious zealots and the Roman authorities. That’s why even today we see Christians being targeted by legalistic religions but also arrested by secular societies (particularly in regard to ‘Gay rights’).
So what conclusions can we draw from all this? The number one thing I’d say is that when we hear of these (terrorist) wars and rumours of wars that we should not identify ourselves with either side. The Bible teaches us that we’ve come out of both systems, we belong to a different kingdom and we walk to another drum, the way of the Holy Spirit.
This doesn’t mean that we abdicate our responsibility to fight – but we must remember that:
God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Tim 1:7) and so we can follow the way of love and walk in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor 14:1)
Secondly – as ever, if we are serious about our faith in Jesus, we should live lives that are ’worthy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1). As St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words”. Yes, and if we do that one thing, we should also get involved in government, lobby our MP’s, reach out to Muslim neighbours, minister healing to the hurting and bereaved, reach out to the dispossessed and the unaccepted, stand up for truth and justice and do it all in love and in the power of the Spirit.
And thirdly? Our unique position (of not serving either side) should give us an advantage because we serve a gloriously loving Saviour instead of the tyrants of this battle; neither the law nor the flesh. Now we can serve in the new way of the Spirit and rejoice whatever the circumstances and we can forgive our enemies and pray for them. Not in our strength but all by the grace of God.
Most of all we should never respond with fear. Yes, we should do all we can to protect and keep safe the ones we know and love but our confidence should always be in the Lord. I predict ‘the war against terrorism’ will continue to rage on, but the Holy Spirit will empower us to bring down the strongholds of the enemy, and of course our ultimate hope is that Jesus will return to ‘make all things new’ (Revelation 21).
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:4)
About the author:
Rob Cresswell has been in active church and ministry leadership for over 15 years and is a gifted communicator. Along with his wife Aliss he partners in pioneering ministries which seek to engage with the unchurched and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. He has a heart to help train and equip believers into their callings. He is the author of 'What Next Jesus?' - a survival guide for new Christians'