Those who spread terror in the name of religion are known as extremists, but the term is far too mild. To proudly commit brutal murders on video, as the terrorist group Islamic State has done, is not taking the Muslim religion to an extreme. It is heretical to Islamic faith.
The criminals of Islamic State are un-Islamic, and Muslims around the world are saying so.
But the religious extremist label has become commonplace. Christians who follow Jesus’ way of peace might find a positive way to use it.
We could declare that we will answer extremism with extremism. Not fight fire with fire but respond to extreme brutality with actions so far on the opposite side that many will call them extreme.
We can be extremists by putting the Apostle Paul’s words into practice: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . Overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:14, 17, 21).
Love your enemy. Love a terrorist. Return good for evil. It is incredibly hard. Anyone who does it must be some kind of extremist.
But Christians on this radical fringe might have more company than they expect. Just as Muslims denounce Islamic State’s barbaric acts as bearing no resemblance to the true teachings of their faith, some Christians are saying U.S. airstrikes don’t reflect theirs either.
In an Aug. 27 letter, more than 50 U.S. Protestant and Catholic leaders urged President Obama to halt the airstrikes and pursue solely peaceful means to resolve the conflict: “While the dire plight of Iraqi civilians should compel the international community to respond in some way, U.S. military action is not the answer. . . . More bombing will ultimately mean more division, bloodshed, recruitment for extremist organizations and a continual cycle of violent intervention.”
Another statement with a peacefully extreme message comes from the Christian/Muslim Relations Team of Eastern Mennonite Missions. It acknowledges an important fact: Both Christians and Muslims struggle with tension in their scriptures between a God of vengeance and a God of forgiveness. People of both faiths face a choice. Creatively describing this decision, the team cites three historic journeys: “Jesus to the cross in Jerusalem, Muhammad to power in Medina, Constantine to empire in Rome.” These journeys go in different directions, the writers observe, and then ask: “Which journey do we choose?”
It is a vital question for American Christians, who bear special responsibility to speak and act for peace in Iraq because past U.S. military campaigns have contributed to the volatile situation there. Islamic State’s existence, and the fact that Iraq has become a failed state, are consequences of the U.S.-led war there. U.S. bombs ratchet up the cycle of hate, creating more violent extremists. With our prayers and our words, we can create more peaceful extremists, starting with ourselves.