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Neither Severity nor Sentimentality: Responding Well to Terror

The following is another contribution to my weblog, called “On Second Thought,” originally published via Context with Lorna Dueck.


I understand why Donald Trump wants to stop allowing Muslims into America, and why Jerry Falwell, Jr., wants to meet violence with violence. Don’t you?

Fear is a terrible thing to feel. And if we’re afraid enough, we’ll do anything to make the fear stop.

We can fight fire with fire, and burn the world down.

We can try to hug the enemy, only to be violated in return.

We can make ourselves feel better by screaming at someone else—governments, “rich people,” other nations—to solve the problem.

Or we can distract and dull our anxiety with tranquilizing entertainments.

To make a particular fear truly stop, however, we need to engage in two fundamental and demanding activities: analysis and response. We need to diagnose accurately what is wrong, and then undertake action properly suited to the problem.

When faced with the terrorism of ISIS, the first step we should take is a simple one: Refuse to be terrorized.

Christians, and anyone else who believes in an all-powerful and benevolent Deity, have no excuse to be terrified. If all our talk about “faith” does not in fact mean that we trust God to supervise the world so that God’s good purposes ultimately prevail, then let’s call the whole thing off.

At the same time, the Christian holy book is full of stories of truly awful things happening in the world, including sometimes to the people of God. No realistic appraisal of the world should suggest that bad things won’t happen to good people. Clearly they do, and will.

Our analysis of what is wrong therefore must be undertaken neither frantically nor optimistically, but both hopefully and realistically. Informed by the Bible’s clear-eyed view of human potential for both good and evil, Christians should work with their neighbours of other outlooks to probe widely and deeply into the origins of this or that particular form of terrorism. We should listen to our historians, social scientists, politicians, NGO staff, missionaries, and other experts who can help us construct an accurate picture of just what we’re dealing with in this particular case.

Without such painstaking and patient investigation, alas, we can only resort to stereotypes grown in the dark regions of our frightened imaginations, and end up with monsters.

And we all know what to do about monsters.

If instead we carefully end up with actual men and women with particular histories, objectives, strategies, and tactics, we then work with appropriate experts to compose an appropriate response. Again, we must avoid oversimplification that helps us tamp down our fear but doesn’t otherwise make the world truly better.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, amid the extreme politics of World War II, warned his fellow Christians against choosing between responses that were violently self-serving and harmfully sentimental. The key concern, Bonhoeffer said, has to be to make the world actually better, not to make ourselves feel better.

We must not reflexively fear the stranger. But we also must not foolishly ignore the danger. Neither mere exclusion nor mere embrace can be the posture of the Christian who wants to be both wise and compassionate, warns Miroslav Volf, a person well acquainted with terror in the Balkans.

No, we must think well and hard. We must not settle for the easiest answer, but strive for the most effective one. “Keep ‘em out” and “Let ‘em in” are equally naïve.

What will make things truly better for everyone involved? What will result in the most peace, the strongest security, and the brightest future?

Terror is a thuggish way to further a cause. Let’s not be equally stupid as we further our own.


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