ISIS: An Audacious Prayer for Our Enemies
This may not be a well-liked post.
In 2001 I was a gangly college student working at a coffee shop in Dearborn, MI – the city I was born and raised in, the city of my youth. What you may not know is that, at the time, Dearborn was home to the largest Middle-Eastern population (per capita) in the entire world, outside of the Middle-East.
In a setting such as ours – you can imagine the unrest we experienced in the hours, days, and months that followed 9/11. On multiple occasions I personally witnessed men refused service at restaurants simply for wearing a turban. I heard bulletins on TV warning us not to enter any large public spaces for fear of impending riots. The social turbulence seemed to last well into the New Year and, as a young evangelical, I was forced to address some incredibly difficult questions regarding race, religion, and the role of the church amidst global discord.
Today, I find my newsfeed filling up with similar types of questions.
With all of the malevolent acts we see inflicted at the hands of ISIS and ISIL – I’ve found myself in the middle of a number of conversations that all seem to circle around one basic inquiry: “How should a Christian respond in the face of such evil?”
While I would never claim to possess the full scope of even the smallest corner of Christian doctrine or theology, there are two simple but arduous conclusions that I keep coming back to and simply cannot shake. Even if you violently disagree with them, I hope that they encourage you in some small way to explore more deeply your own heart and convictions.
So – as followers of the disruptive Rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus – what might a possible response be? Hopefully it comes as no surprise that I believe our first act, in the face of either tragedy or joy – must be to pray.
We must pray that the evil being done is stopped.
It is critical to remember that God does not turn a blind eye to injustice. In fact, we’re told in Scripture that few things bring him to anger more intensely then when the weak and powerless are exploited and subjugated. God hates injustice.
We should find no dichotomy in loving others like Jesus while also praying that the evil they do be stopped. And make no mistake – this is indeed unfathomable, incogitable evil. It seems clear to me that it would be to the benefit of both victim and victimizer that the evil acts be stopped – and so we pray.
Now – I’m not going to launch into a missive about my personal positions regarding armed combat or military involvement – but I do know that whenever I pray for God’s justice to be enacted, I need to also check my motives behind such a prayer. If I’m not careful, I know that a prayer for evil to be restrained can sometimes be a cleverly cloaked way for me to sidestep my duty to love my enemy.
I also know that such prayers must be couple with an appeal for my own heart and head – that I would courageously interrupt and intervene when I see evil enacted in my own environments. I cannot simply wave a fist demanding that God do something without the willingness to be a conduit for that type of restoration and justice myself.
Which brings me to number two:
We must pray that those enacting evil would trust in Jesus
This, I realize, is an extremely tall order. Inconceivable, in fact.
During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry – the Jews had a long history of serious enemies. They were no strangers to very real, very severe, and often fatal persecution. And yet, even with that kind of backstory, Jesus chose to say these words:
“You have been taught to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you this: love your enemies. Pray for those who torment you and persecute you — in so doing, you become children of your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:43-45
I think that it is precisely because of statements like this that many people outright refused to follow Jesus. Honestly – can you blame them? With slavery and state occupation still a very intimate part of their story – I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been to hear a message like this.
The startling fact is that, when Jesus said these words, he wasn’t simply thinking of the evils of that day. He knew full well that other evil men and woman would come to power in future centuries. Religious extremist who would work tirelessly to destroy his Bride would rise up time and time again.
Hitler. Al-Qaeda. ISIS. Jesus knew these and other evils would one day exist.
And yet he calls us to love them – even them.
Now – I don’t know a whole lot about love, but I know for certain that it’s impossible to both love someone and to wish them an eternity in hell.
If I’m completely honest – I don’t often pray that my enemies come to faith because, a) deep down it seems more than a bit unlikely that they would actually come to faith, and b) I’m a little afraid that it might actually happen. If these great “doers of evil” were to truly repent – my “justice” muscle would kick right in, declaring confidently just how unfair it was that such evil men and women be forgiven.
But isn’t that precisely the pounding, bleeding heart of the Gospel?
Isn’t it expressly because of God’s grace and mercy to us that we are where we are – wherever that may be? Isn’t it that unmerited favor that should drive us to radical forgiveness to those who would wrong us, even execute us?
I’ve found that – when I’m not doing this, when I’m not on my hands and knees praying for those who wrong me and my loved ones – there is a carapace that quickly grows, hardening my heart to the very things that break God’s, and that’s never a place I want to be.
One thing that I’ve found both startling and challenging to remember is that Christians are not the only ones suffering at the hands of ISIS. Muslims are enduring unthinkable persecution alongside many others, often for being deemed “not Muslim enough.” This, I believe should fundamentally change how we interact with our Muslim neighbors and communities. It should change the way the church reaches outside it’s walls.
In Dearborn 2001 – I intensely remember just how afraid many of my Muslim friends were in the days that followed 9/11 – and those memories have never left me. I recall watching my beautiful little church community take audacious steps to boldly reach out and love our Muslim neighbors – because, I think Jesus said something about neighbors too.
So I challenge you to do what I’ve been challenged by others to do. Pray. Set aside the time. Light a candle. Get on your knees before a sovereign God and pray. We are never so secure or broken that we do not need to fling ourselves upon the throne of grace for strength to usher in a Kingdom that both baffles and defies that which is comfortable and familiar.
As much as every fiber and sinew within me wants to act – wants to board a plane and do something, I’m finding often that the initial phase of a prayer cried out to God is the recognition that God may want to change something in my heart first. Through sleepless nights and countless tears, I cannot help but hear the whisper of the Gospel stirring something both extrinsic and yet deeply familiar within me. My heart shatters and my bones chills with every report I encounter, and I wonder what these acts must do to the heart of God. If even my most righteous acts are like filthy rags before him, what must he feel in the face of such vicious actions?
The Gospel is good news – but news isn’t really good unless it invades bad spaces. Even if those bad spaces are sometimes our own hearts.
As I sit here now in tears looking at some of the most heartrending images I’ve ever seen – I’m reminded all over again that this type of love, the love Jesus spoke of, simply cannot be mustered from within. It’s only by him that we can begin to love like him.
Lord – my heart trembles and aches with sorrow and anger. The heinous destruction I see reminds me again just how much I need your grace to wash over me and strip away whatever is not of you.
Lord hear our prayer.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” – Ephesians 6:12