The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror”

Ted Grimsrud—December 14, 2015

At the beginning of one of my classes the other day, a student asked me what I thought we should do about ISIS? He said he was writing a paper on the topic. My main response was to say that I didn’t have a quick answer ready that I could give in 30 seconds. I said I would get back to him.

Later that day I sent him a link to Juan Cole’s recent short essay that gives some sensible pointers—(1) Don’t accept that the best response to the actions of ISIS is to “declare war.” Actual states should not grant such legitimacy to small bands of violent criminals. (2) Welcome refugees. To characterize all Syrian refugees as potential combatants and to refuse to help them is to play into the hands of ISIS recruiters. (3) Take a public health response to the radicalization of youth in Europe’s bidenvilles—focus on community policing and proactive governmental intervention to improve the dignity of the people.

However, as I thought of about the question, I was troubled with the implications of how this kind of question is usually phrased. What should we do about ISIS? What should we do about Saddam Hussein? What should we do about the Communist threat? What should we do about Hitler?

Who is the “we”?

What troubles me is that this comfortable use of “we” raises what is often seen to be an irresolvable dilemma for pacifists and other people who prioritize peace. The implied answer to this kind of question is almost always that “we” must resort to military force.

We should pause to think about what “we” means here. Who are the possible “we’s” in such a question? (1) Certainly one “we” could refer to the leaders of the United States—after all, we live in a representative democracy and as citizens of this nation what our leaders choose to do does reflect on us. This is what “we” in this context usually seems to refer to.

But the “we” could also mean something such as: (2) we who as citizens of this country have a patriotic duty to advocate for what best serves the nation as a whole (with the recognition that most of the time the policies pursued by national leaders are not in the best interests of the nation as a whole, but more in the best interests of the power elite—the people who profit from war, such as the recent war on Iraq).

There are other possible “we’s” as well. I’m a Mennonite Christian. (3) Shouldn’t my “we” be centered more on my community of faith (which transcends national borders) and my sense of God’s will, not my nation-state? As well, I identify as an international citizen, a person who especially makes common cause with other people who share many of my convictions about pacifism, anarchism, egalitarianism, economic justice, and similar ideals. (4) Isn’t the sense of “we” I share with such other (let me suggest the term) “humane people” more important than particular national identities?

The “we” of options two through four would think of very different responses to ISIS, or let’s say more generally what is labeled “terrorism,” than the “we” of option one. And, I believe, those three options are the kinds of things that any “we” that I want to relate to should pursue—not the options of our national leaders. Power elites do what power elites do—my moral discernment as an American patriot (that is, a believer in the ideals of the American democracy story) or as a Mennonite Christian or as a “humane person” has a lot to do with active opposition to the moral stances taken by the power elite—not echoing their stated (and enacted) options.

The American Empire as terrorist

So many of the conversations I participate in seem to reflect what seems to me to be a naive and unrealistic sense of the United States national security apparatus as a possible agent of peace in the world. The question, “what should we do about ISIS?”, even when asked by a pacifist, seems to take for granted that the possible answer should be focused on what should U.S. forces do—as if U.S. forces have the potential to be a force for peace in the world.

However, the American Empire is by far the worst terrorist in the world if we use a careful, stable definition of terrorism. American forces themselves terrorize people all over the world with overt violence and, even more, the threat of violence. As well, the powers that be in the empire actually benefit from the “extremist terror” of non-governmental actors such as ISIS. Just consider who benefited the most in the U.S. (at least in the short run) from the violent acts of September 11, 2001. Fear, militarism, insecurity, among other similar dynamics, all lead to a tremendous about of money and power going war profiteers, gun manufacturers, right wing media moguls, and fear-exploiting politicians.

We can agree that terrorism is a bad thing and should be opposed and overcome, regardless of its source. We will want to start, then, with a reasonably stable definition of terrorism so we know what we are opposing. The U.S. Army in the Ronald Reagan administration, facing the emergence of terrorism as a central national security theme, presented this definition: “The calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.” This definition may not be the best we could imagine, but it would surely strike most people of good will as reasonable and a good start. The key moral issue, then, is to seek a consistent and objective application of this definition. If terrorism itself is our problem and our responsibility is to resist it, we would oppose any and all incidents of “the calculated use of violence” to attain “political, religious, or ideological” goals.

When we follow a stable definition of terrorism and apply it consistently, we will see terrorism itself as our key problem—not any particular group of alleged terrorists. That is, if we truly oppose terrorism, we will not allow the rubric of terrorism to lead us to label only certain people as “terrorists” in a way that serves political agendas. We will be especially sensitive to the proclivity to use the label both to stigmatize political opponents in ways justifying violent responses to them and to justify acts that according to a stable definition of terrorism are terrorist acts themselves.

For example, in his history of the use of car bombs (Buda’s Wagon), Mike Davis shows that the driving force in using such bombs has been covert American operatives and allies such as Israel. This illustrates how tactics that clearly fit the US Army’s definition of “terrorism” are not generally defined as terrorism when used by status quo powers. The use of terrorist methods (which by definition surely include aerial bombardments, the use of drone warfare, and “targeted assassinations”) is immoral, regardless of who uses them. Pacifists could agree that terrorists must be brought to account for their actions; terrorist acts are indeed crimes of the most heinous variety. However, such accountability must be applied consistently. [The three previous paragraphs are drawn from my essay, “Core Convictions for Engaged Pacifism.”]

It is a waste of time to try to imagine what the American Empire should do as if it is capable of creating genuine peace. It simply cannot be an honest player in this process. To play this game is to give consent to empire. This consent, based on thinking our “we” in responding to international violence is the “we” of the American power elite, places us within the assumptions that U.S. militarism is necessary and unassailable. This consent is what the power elite wants when they unleash the propaganda dynamics that try to persuade us that we have no option but the process of domination, the myth of redemptive violence.

What to do?

Part of what humane people must do in response to these “we” questions is simply accept our limitations. In face of the propaganda dynamics that ensure the consent of American people in relation to the U.S. national security apparatus we best recognize that we simply don’t have the capability directly to intervene and fix the terrible injustices occurring around the world. We must accept our relative impotence in order actually to have any power that might be expressed in healing ways.

Let me suggest four general elements of a healing response:

(1) The first, essential element is simply to disbelieve in Empire. Reject the first of the four “we’s” above and cultivate a sense of “we’s” two through four. Refuse the consent the Empire’s propaganda machine pressures us toward. Resist the myths of a morally good American Empire.

(2) Then, we also voice critiques of our national security apparatus, what we could call “American warism.” To the extend we become educated in the issues of the day related to international violence, it is not so we may speculate about how the American Empire can do the most “good” possible—more so, it is so we may critique what the American Empire does, pretty much all that the American Empire does. The goal of this critique, at least in the short run, is not to try to reform the empire nearly so much as it is to call people out of it, to try to increase the refusal of consent.

(3) Embrace with renewed commitment the effort to live as if all life is precious. Find ways to humanize those labeled as “other,” welcome refugees, bring relief to war victims, work at restorative justice and peaceable ways to resolve conflicts, love our grandchildren. Reflect on the spiritual roots of our shared humanity and commitment to nonviolence.

(4) Self-organize. Take whatever power we can find to cultivate self-determination. Participate in alternative economic structures. Find alternatives to violence-based security.

The main calling of humane people in the face of terrorism (in all its forms) is to find alternatives to adding to the spiral of violence. We are called to resist evil without adding to it.

Our ultimate enemy is the spirit of domination, not human beings. The book of Revelation powerfully presents this perception. The enemies of God that are judged and destroyed in Revelation are the spiritual forces of evil (personified as the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet). The city of Babylon is judged and transformed into the New Jerusalem—and the “kings of the earth” (human leaders aligned with the Dragon) find healing in the New Jerusalem once the Powers are cast into the Lake of Fire.

The main strategy Revelation gives for the human work of resisting evil is to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” It is the Lamb’s persevering love that is the key to the outcome of the human project. So, we could say, that any ways we resist domination and practice love are acts of resistance against terrorism (be it the “terrorism” of the desperate thugs who make up entities such as ISIS or the “terrorism” of the American national security apparatus).

[For more reflections on these matters, see my 2014 book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War III have posted early drafts of the book’s chapters on my PeaceTheology website (see especially chapters 8–10 on alternatives to warism) along with links to various blog posts that discuss these issues.]

12 thoughts on “The humane person’s dilemma regarding the “war on terror”

  1. Ted, I appreciate your alternative and nuanced way of framing the issues. I, too, favor those critiques of current geopolitical conflicts in terms that note historical injustices antecedent to the current violence and the clear challenge to the imperialism that drives much U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, I find in all this a dodge of the thorny issue, the moral dilemma posed by our actual human situation and the Pauline answer of Romans 13.

    Glenn Stassen wrestled with this and JHY also faced it squarely, i.e., what is the Christian response to the conundrum of the necessity to use the sword in the case of evel. JHY conceded that in the instance of Charles Witman, the Texas clock tower shooter that he as a Christian would see it right to shoot with intent to maim and disable but with the possibility of killing. Our brothers and sisters in Nigeria face the serious issue with regard to Boko Haram. Peter Dyck in *Up from the Rubble* tells of the Russian Mennonite who had to decide whether to kill an assassin or let the assassin kill other innocents. You have promised to deal with this issue, but I find this essay skirts it with many fine, well-reasoned arguments for alternative emphases. I hear hints of two-kingdom theology, i.e., let others tend to the evil while we as followers of Jesus maintain our moral purity. I await a clear answer to this moral dilemma.

    1. I’m not quite sure what “this issue” you have in mind, John, that I am dodging. Perhaps I don’t see the dilemma that you are exercised about.

      I’m also not quite sure what I say that contains “hints of two-kingdom theology.” Perhaps you are projecting onto me from your own past thinking—or the kind of thinking you have been exposed to. I do have one published rather thorough deconstruction of latter-day more sophisticated versions of two-kingdom thought (e.g., Ted Koontz) in my essay “Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy.”

      I don’t find extreme hypotheticals that helpful for discernment concerning ethical convictions. One problem with the Charles Witman scenario is that we can’t just plop ourselves down in the middle of the situation and then imagine “shooting with the intent to maim.” To be a policeman in the US today (or a soldier) is to be intensively trained in how to kill people and also to be trained to overcome the reluctance to do so.

      I think the calling for followers of Jesus as I understand it is to do all we can to resist evil without adding to the evil (that is, to do all we can to overcome evil with good). It’s not a quest for “moral purity” but a quest to overcome evil with good that would lead such followers to reject empire as an agent for healing in the world (or, perhaps in many circumstances today in the US, to reject our militarized policing dynamics as agents for healing).

      The thing is, there are plenty of people willing to take up the sword (including, sadly, plenty of Christians). I’m willing to let them struggle with “dilemmas.” I would rather look for ways to resist evil that directly foster the good.

      1. I appreciate your response, Ted, as well as Jub’s efforts to provide a response to my concern. I have two difficulties with these responses. First, Ted, have difficulty designating concrete situations as “extreme hypotheticals” unhelpful “for discernment concerning ethical convictions.” I don’t think that the experiences of the Texas clock tower shooter and the Russian Mennonite are so rare as to be irrelevant, and they illustrate an ethical issue that is involved in the question of the use of the sword to restrain evil, a matter that I believe, exegetical objections notwithstanding, to be upheld by both Paul and Peter as a God-given function of government. In the light of your essay, I would say of “democratic” government, not solely “empire-building” government.

        Nor do I find Jub’s proposal that with the NT’s perspective on the value of the martyr witness and the ultimate value of life beyond death we can readily accept the killing illustrated, say, in ISIL or Boko Haram. It seems to me that God’s interest in justice (even though an abstract needing content) and love for neighbor does not allow us to so easily cast aside the need for a biblically grounded ethical theory of how force (I intentionally reject this being a false theory of “redemptive violence”) shall be used to restrain evil.

        I recognize that my original grappling with this issue is dependent on literature a lifetime ago and I have not kept up with all the current discussion. Nevertheless, I still find Cuthbert Rutenber’s *The Dagger and the Cross: An Examination of Christian Pacifism* to be relevant and from what little I know I believe that Glen Stassen grappled with this issue as well. I have yet to read comparable positions that grapple with the necessity of “just peacemaking” and “just policing” in contemporary Anabaptist discussions. It seems to me, that rather we assume that the Christian community, even we Jesus followers of the Anabaptist persuasion, can allow others to do this work while we live by the ethic of a kingdom that allows us to not take responsibility.

    2. To the Old Disciple,
      There have been many international “Anabaptists” (Mennonites & Brethren) involved in Just Peace and just policing conversations addressing the dilemmas you identify in your posts. These consultations and writings, however, have been ecumenical in tone, not explicitly Anabaptist. After all, Ted correctly critiques the “we” language in much moral discourse. These are “human person” questions and problems, thus responses that are ecumenical and interfaith have moved beyond preserving and protecting “the purity” (your concern) of one collective’s moral codes to seek cultures of peace for a greater good. If you are interested in these ecumenical Anabaptist engagements, feel free to contact me at and I can direct you to sources.

  2. Thanks Ted for another clear article that I can share with interested friends on a Christian pacifist approach to contemporary dilemmas around violence.

    Perhaps a fifth ‘general healing element’ – and one that might go some way to address Arnolddisciple’s concerns (above) – is a deconstruction of the impulse toward violent retaliation:

    – seeing that human criminal/international “justice” is really just moderated revenge
    – seeing revenge as a second-rate psychological healing mechanism for traumatised victims
    – seeing that death is only the ultimate enemy where a person has insufficient faith in God and His grace in the Hereafter
    – understanding that fear of death (which Christ delivers us from – Heb 2:15 – by His own peaceful submission to death) is what BINDS humanity in sin – in violence, materialism, individualism, etc.
    – understanding how sin is the “sting of death” – it is because of death – particularly our fear of it – that we engage in violence rather than martyrdom or bereavement.
    – seeing that no human “justice” for the dead is possible – but neither is it necessary because death, in the NT, is that which ushers us into what no eyes has seen or ear heard nor heart of human conceived… that which God has prepared for (us).
    – knowing that seeking “justice for (the dead)” is a fiction designed to justify the vengeance for the surviving bereaved. The bereaved acutely feel the impact of murder/maiming/trauma on themselves – and the way humanity knows best to lessen such impact is to further shed blood, something Roman 3:15 tells us we are all quick to do. Restricted vengeance was allowed from Noah to Jesus. But Jesus gives us His peace (not as the world gives peace). Victim-offender conferencing (which legal systems forbid in the months/years prior to sentencing) and a God-inspired decision to forgive is much more healing that revenge.

    We know martyrdom has the power to bring real (social) justice e.g. Martin Luther King, Early Christian martyrs & of course Jesus Himself. We know leaders don’t like to turn popular leaders into martyrs because it will strengthen the movement. Not only so but (non-violence and) martyrdom eventually affect even the killers/oppressors themselves. Hence the power of peaceful protest eg. in India, Poland, the Philippines in c20th, CRM in USA. (What effect did Stephen’s death on the Apostle Paul?)

    How does this apply to shooter/assassin situations? The Christian pacifist could shoot in the air & show oneself briefly to attract shooter’s attention and engage him in a dialogue (allowing others more time to run for cover). The dialogue could focus on the shooters griefs, resentments and other reasons for anger and hatred with testimony by the Christian to their own healing in God’s love, etc. This, with the ultimate proof/non-verbal statement being to open himself to be shot – hopefully only wounded but with the possibility of being killed, despite the weapon in one’s hand. (I suppose having a firearm in one’s hand in the first place belies the claim that the scenario contains either a would-be pacifist or, consequently, a pacifist dilemma.) I think a big part of the power of such a scenario is not in preventing the immediate violence but as part of a larger program of pacifism and forgiveness of those who sin against us. Terri Roberts’ book on Amish forgiveness following the Nickel Mines school shooting illustrates this powerfully, including the mystified wonder around the world at the Amish response. What if the whole Church acted that way?

    Regarding the Russian Mennonite who had to decide whether to kill an assassin or let the assassin kill other innocents, I like to paraphrase Jesus prayer “Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil” as “When faced with terribly hard decisions deliver us from doing evil.” Who knows what one would choose in that situation? So we should watch and pray (as earnest would-be pacifists), rather than sleep (along with our nation’s violent pre-suppositions).

    Arnold, I confess I haven’t (had time to) read about these two scenarios in detail – so I hope I haven’t got the wrong end of the stick too much but please point it out where I have.

      1. Hi Ted,
        Thanks for your kind acknowledgement of one such as me.
        Shalom at Christmas to you and yours,

  3. Thanks Ted, for theological wrestling with thorny matters. Since being in Iraqi Kurdistan with CPT 15 months ago working with IDPs in the immediate aftermath of the ISIS crisis, I have been intensely exploring everything possible about ISIS. I find most public political response to ISIS misguided and harmful. You tackle key concerns with your “we” question and American terrorism. I am trying to write something about what I see missing from public discourse but am in the midst of another writing project. I challenge the overwhelming response in the U.S. that identifies ISIS as “terrorists” therefore “evil.” Whatever we identify as “evil” generates visceral emotion (fear, hate, revenge, vengeance, etc.) justifying whatever violent action deemed necessary to “defeat” it. Yes, I believe in “evil!” I not only believe there’s “evil” I have seen it. But most uses of “evil” is steeped in at least four false premises: 1) “they” are evil and “we” are good, 2) demanding and justifying any violent response “we” take to defeat “them” (e.g., “degrade and destroy ISIS”), 3) only “our” greater violence will kill “them” 4) thus “we” have destroyed evil and all will be safe and secure again. It is a longstanding practice of “becoming what we hate.” It is also classic sacrificial violence as Rene Girard and others have helped us understand. Except we don’t want to understand evil or sacrificial violence because it brings us face-to-face with ourselves and God. And, of course, this brings us to the problem of atonement which you have addressed at length in one of your many good books.

  4. The pattern of two-kingdom theology is to accept the factual assertions, narrative arc and framing provided by the ruling power, but then reject its policy choices because of our religious commitment to Jesus and his way.

    I perceive most Mennonites still to be operating within the two-kingdom approach, even though they know it has gone out of fashion among Mennonite academics and thus would deny it. My conversation circle is small and so I may be wrong, but I rarely encounter Mennonite conversation partners who say (1) I don’t believe the US government/media are providing accurate information about Daesh, (2) I think the US government has actively supported the development of Daesh and regards it as a strategic asset/proxy army, or (3) Syrian President Assad has in many ways been a positive/protective leader of the Syrian people.

    This blind spot creates a huge problem for us as Mennonites at this point in history. More often than not, we end up sounding like dovish Democrats when speaking of global events. We find it hard to even imagine a prophetic role vis-à-vis the empire (much less embodying that role).

    But Ted is not two-kingdom in his approach. He is contesting the popular packaging of the “problem” and refusing to engage it according to the terms and conditions the empire offers. But I understand why Mennonites who take the US government/media at its word would find that to be a dodge. (John, I don’t mean to infer that is your position.)

    I ‘ve written often about Daesh/ISIS at, speaking on behalf of a “we” that is a combination of Ted’s third and fourth possibilities. I also contest the framing the US government/media is giving us.

  5. As someone who witnessed the rise of ISIS (before it was “cool”) — firsthand as a US occupier — I have to say that there really is no answer to ISIS now. I wish I had known you, Ted et al, before I helped to create the mess that is Iraq with my participation in an immoral and unjust war. Perhaps if I and other youth like me had been aware of your arguments and moral reasoning, things in Iraq would have turned out differently.

  6. Also, I just was reading that in 1527, the same time as Schleitheim, there was an army of Imperial (German-Austrian) troops attacking Roman (papal) territories near Rome itself. This surprised me. The reason that Sattler and the Anabaptists were ultimately convicted, as Myron (and I) see it was mostly to do with their refusal to participate in the war machine. Imperial propaganda from the late 1520’s would have had us believe that it was every Christian’s duty to fight the Turks, when in fact, the Empire was invading Christian lands — not defending against infidels — and murdering fellow Christians and not Turks at all.

    I suspect that all talk of ISIS is informed by a similar propagandist lie: that we have to DO SOMETHING about ISIS at all, when the actual enemies and problems are much closer to home, much uglier, and much more inconvenient.

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