Yesterday, we watched a terror strike on yet another world stage, this time in Brussels, Belgium, which is the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Just four months after a similar attack on Paris, France, three men detonated bombs packed with nails on a rush-hour metro train, at the Belgium capitol and, most visibly, the curbside of Brussels Airport. At least 30 people died from the two blasts at the airport and one in the train station.
The attacks paralyzed Brussels and caused other major cities, like New York, to raise their terror threat levels.
And, no surprise, the Islamic State is taking credit for the attack, just like they did for the Paris attacks. And again, this tragedy is evoking all too familiar reactions from people around the world. Reactions, as natural as they are, that seem to be exactly what ISIS planned.
We Tend to React in Anger, Then Fear
When these kinds of events happen, often our first reaction is collective outrage. That’s right and good. The people of Belgium are hurting, and we Christians should hurt with them. We encounter a problem, however, when righteous anger finds unrighteous outlets.
Back in November, the Paris attackers—one of whom was arrested over the weekend, and appears to have some kind of connection to this new attack, too—allegedly snuck into Paris posing as refugees. Now famously, these attacks caused an uprising against refugees and immigrants, even in the United States. Several states began shutting their doors to refugees in an effort to deter a similar attack on their own soil.
Already, Brussels sat at the center of discussions about Europe’s overwhelming population of immigrants, whom even the country’s own officials say they cannot track. So yesterday’s attack is fueling even more debate about what Europe can do with its influx of migrants and refugees.
In the States, much of the response is what you’d expect. Yesterday, presidential candidate Ted Cruz called for stronger (southern) border control and even suggested that the U.S. should start monitoring and policing Muslim-heavy neighborhoods.
“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized,” he wrote in a statement.
When we hear these kinds of statements—and similar ones—it’s easy only to see politicians using whatever sentiments they can in order to jockey for position. But you just have to look at Twitter to see that these same sentiments pervade Western culture.
This Is What ISIS Wants
In a RELEVANT article last year, humanitarian and Middle East expert Johnnie Moore wrote that ISIS “represents unrelenting hatred for Christians and seeks their total elimination, whether they are in Iraq or Syria, or Lincoln, Nebraska.” This is the threat we face, and the threat we feel.
But, contrary to popular perception, Graeme Wood suggests—in his groundbreaking, and Internet breaking, essay “What ISIS Really Wants”—that ISIS is not merely a thuggish group of anarchists. Rather, the group is a theologically principled organization acting strategically from an eschatological vision.
“We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world,” Wood writes.
And if he’s right, ISIS wants essentially to cripple the Western world—with a particular interest in erasing Christianity—as a way of ushering in the apocalypse. This means, at least in part, that when we in the West react to ISIS aggression with a feverish desire for violence, we’re helping ISIS far more than we’re hurting them. Because, quite simply, our fear-fueled boundary building and neighbor separating plays into their hands.
Practically, if we reduce ourselves to enemy-haters who are suspicious of our neighbors, we’ll fit in great with the Twitter mob. And if we single out peacekeeping Muslim neighborhoods in our own cities, we end up alienating others based only on religion. And, frankly, that’s what ISIS does.
Let’s Not Give ISIS What It Wants
Still, we need to be honest. Most of our fears are entirely rational and understandable. In Brussels, like Paris and San Bernadino before it, we all witnessed great tragedy and great injustice.
We need to mourn along with the people of Belgium, who at prime minister Charles Michel’s call, will observe three days of mourning. The problem of ISIS is a serious one that represents a real threat. It’s imperative that countries take appropriate and necessary actions both to protect their citizens and fight these injustices.
For us Christians, all of whom are part of various countries and represent thousands of nationalities, our response to these kinds of attacks are neither simple nor easy. But it is clear that Christians are called to be Christlike, even (and especially) when societal conditions seem least conducive to it.
It’s natural to want revenge—often out of a sense of justice. But, as the apostle Paul make clear, vengence isn’t justice (and, thankfully, God already has a plan to repay evil). Hot-heads and geo-religious division is the teaching of ISIS. But in His teaching, Jesus Christ consistently warns His followers not to fear physical suffering (He actually said to expect it), and He puts the priority on the spiritual realm.
In this vision, care for outsiders—including both refugees from Syria and our own Muslim neighbors—is central to the Christian identity. After all, we follow a savior who was Himself a refugee. And this identity plays out exactly the opposite of ISIS ideology. The way of Jesus completely turns upside down ISIS’s enemy hating and mistreatment of neighbors. Christ invites us into a reality deeper than cultures and nationalities and geography, where we love our enemies and where loving God means loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
This isn’t easy. And in an increasingly hostile and complex world, we can’t expect it to become any easier. But as we watch the ISIS-planted fear and nationalism grow around the world and as revenge-mindedness plays out just about everywhere we see people, we must respond as an equally theologically principled group, the body of Christ.
If we don’t, ISIS really does win, if only for a while longer.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury