(Sunday Homily) Listen to ISIS and Stop Committing Suicide!

steven sotloff

Readings for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: EZ 33: 7-9; PS 95: 1-2, 6-9; ROM 13: 8-10; MT 18: 15-20 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090714.cfm.

We’ve met the enemy and it is us!

Indeed! Over the past number of weeks, we’ve been introduced to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Its militants seem to have somehow appeared from nowhere.

However, as Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, they actually represent the largely Sunni blowback from U.S. policies over the last 13 years. In fact, ISIS would not exist were it not for the United States.

Think about it. ISIS is the direct result of:

• The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its over-the-top, loosely-target response to 9/11.
• The 2003 criminal occupation and destruction of Iraq.
• The thoughtless dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army with its largely Sunni command structure (which is now directing ISIS).
• The crimes of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and other massacres perpetrated by barbaric elements in the U.S. military.
• The more than one million Iraqis who have lost their lost their lives as their country has been systematically pulverized by bombings, white phosphorous, and the nuclear waste called “depleted uranium.”
• Former President Bush and Vice President Cheney bragging about ordering the war crimes of water boarding and other forms of torture.
• U.S. soldiers urinating on the bodies of Iraqi insurgents and on copies of the Holy Koran.
• The horrors of the film clip, “Collateral Murder” released by Chelsey Manning.
• Drone strikes across the world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere routinely killing women and children, revelers at weddings and mourners at funerals.
• Blind U.S. support of Israel’s pogrom aimed at “the Jews’ Jews” concentrated in the world’s largest open-air prison camp called Gaza.

Such horrendous provocations make it entirely possible for ISIS leaders to echo the words solemnly intoned by President Obama last week in response to their movement’s brutal beheading of journalist Steven Sotloff. ISIS leaders might well have said:

“We will not be intimidated. Those who make the mistake of harming Muslims will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served . . . such horrific acts only unite us as movement. . . ISIS will continue to lead the battle against the kind of barbaric and empty vision that the United States represents. We will degrade their forces and destroy them completely.”

In fact, the whole ISIS phenomenon and the response it has evoked only illustrate the senselessness of any strategy of revenge and fatuous, doomed attempts to solve conflict by the unapologetic use of military first response to violence perpetrated against “Americans” or Muslims.

A different way of responding is outlined for followers of Jesus’ Way in today’s liturgy of the word. It might seem idealistic and perhaps even unrealistic in the face of ISIS. But give it a chance.

In today’s gospel reading, Matthew the Evangelist addresses the problem of conflict resolution. He emphasizes dialog not revenge and violence. In fact, he outlines four alternatives towards resolving disputes. He has Jesus say that if step one doesn’t work, move on to the subsequent strategies. The four alternatives include (1) healing conversation with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) shunning the offending party.

More specifically, Matthew has Jesus say, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Obviously, these words did not come from Jesus himself. To begin with, there was no “church” at Jesus’ time. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and a reformer of Judaism rather than the founder of some new religion or “church.”

It was different for Matthew who was writing for a community of specifically Jewish Christians some fifty years after Jesus’ death. By then, questions of community order within the emerging church had become prominent. So Matthew invents this saying of Jesus to deal with them.

Another reason for reaching this conclusion is the reference to treating a recalcitrant individual “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” This phrase reflects traditional Jewish avoidance of Gentiles and hatred of Roman collaborators. It runs counter to the practice of Jesus who time and again in the Gospels causes scandal by practicing table fellowship and community with the very people Matthew’s instruction indicates are outsiders to be shunned by believers.

Were Matthew following the Spirit of Jesus, the evangelist’s instructions for addressing conflict resolution might involve the following process: (1) private dialog with one’s adversary, (2) arbitration with a mediator or two, (3) consultation with the entire community, and (4) moving in with the offending party – or at least taking them out for dinner regularly.

In any case, the emphasis in Jesus’ own approach is communion, not shunning or refusal to talk. Nowhere does Jesus’ approach say that one should refuse meeting until the offending party stops offending. Much less does the process outlined include “if he refuses to listen, shoot him, cut his head off, or kill his family.”

“But,” you object, “The words attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel selection are about church order, not about international politics, much less the barbarity of a movement like ISIS. Jesus’ instruction, you might say, is about private disputes among Christians and are laughably impractical in the political sphere.

And that’s just my point. To repeat: Matthew’s account does not reflect the teaching or practice of Jesus. Jesus’ actual teaching was not confined to the private realm. His practice was highly political.

Eating with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, Gentiles (including members of the Roman army) represented doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. . . . It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates.

This is what the example of Jesus calls us to do even in the case of ISIS. Its emergence calls for departure from business as usual. It requires admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of the United States. It demands a complete reversal of “American” policy.

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Rome puts a finer point on the reasons for such response on the part of those pretending to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Paul reminds us of Jesus’ summary of God’s law. He writes:

“Brothers and sisters: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Emmanuel Levinas helps us understand that Jesus’ teaching on neighbor love is much more radical than commonly accepted. Loving your neighbor as yourself, Levinas says, does not mean “Love your neighbor because s/he is like you.” No, according to Levinas, it means, “Love your neighbor as yourself, because s/he is you.”

In other words, there is no meaningful distinction between you and any other human being you care to name – even if we call them “terrorists.” Moreover, if you shared the same history as your “enemy,” you would be doing exactly the same thing that currently enrages you. As a result, no killing can be justified. It is suicide. That’s the thrust of Jesus’ words: to kill the other is to kill yourself. Killing of any kind is suicide.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus’ way as we try to respond to the ISIS phenomenon? At least the following, I think:

• Facing the fact that the ONLY REASON for our Middle Eastern policy and wars is oil, and doing everything necessary to wean our lives away from dependence on fossil fuels.
• Realizing that we cannot expect politicians like President Obama to initiate any other policy than revenge as if the U.S. were principled, civilized, innocent, and pure before an enemy that is completely unlike us.
• Nonetheless demanding that our officials absolutely reverse course, recognize responsibility for the emergence of ISIS, and establish dialog with their leaders.
• Refusing to allow our children to serve in an armed force that commits ISIS-like crimes on a wholesale scale.
• Imagining what would happen if even a quarter of our country’s 160 million people who claim to be Christian refused the self-destruction the words of Jesus and Paul imply.

For Christ’s sake, do the unthinkable. Hard as it might be: listen to ISIS. Reverse course. Put a stop to our collective suicide!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Listen to ISIS and Stop Committing Suicide!”

  1. Hi Mike,

    Thank you for reminding us of all the Western provocations and precursors to the existence of ISIS – and for taking Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel reading seriously!

    The way of Jesus did not result in the Empire of Rome dialoguing with its mortal enemies – and I don’t expect it will result in contemporary Western powers dialoguing with its mortal enemies either…. at least not for generations. What the way of Jesus did result in was the death for Jesus on a Roman cross and thence to bodily resurrection by the power of a Being who created the universe out of nothing. This Jesus shows us how to live in the knowledge and presence of Him Who is love.

    And given His plan – and the deafness of our hearts to Him – how do we know Jesus and His way? Yes through the Church and the history of the martyrs and saints through the millennia – but ultimately the martyrs and saints of the Church, have depended, as we still do, on the revelation of God called The Bible, including the testimony of Matthew – the same Matthew whose testimony you doubt in today’s post! Well, we can agree to disagree about that, but I would like to offer you and your readers another viewpoint about what Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel might have meant by “let them be to you as the Gentile and the tax-collectors.”

    I think it beggars belief that Matthew could make up this fourth step of Jesus’ dispute resolution process or that, after the Easter Event (that transformed a scared, disorganised and marginalised minority into thousands of visionary, joyful, peace-making ‘zealots’ – people who were willing to be martyred for the surpassing worth of Jesus’ way) it was possible for Matthew to forget that Jesus preached love for all. Instead I interpret Jesus’ forth step to mean that we are to LOVE those who stubbornly live outside the wisdom of the Church as we would LOVE the heathen and the tax-collector. The imperative is still to love! But…. we must love those who don’t share our knowledge and belief in the God of grace DIFFERENTLY from how we love those who do share it. Those who don’t know God’s grace are on the other team – their worldly perspectives and priorities mean they might see us the enemy, as some saw Jesus – yet we are still to love them! This applies equally to those who have never heard of the God of grace (“the heathen”) and to those who once companied, but no longer do, with those who trust and obey the God of grace (“the tax-gather”).

    Finally, thank you again, Mike, for your perceptive analysis of the inability of our political leaders to usher in the Kingdom of God. I think it acts as a sort of pre-evangelism, pointing your readers toward the Prince of Peace; without Whose deeper peace there can be no real lasting peace on Earth!

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    1. John, I really appreciate this interpretation of the words Matthew attributes to Jesus. I can see that the text bears the meaning you find in it. It locates in Jesus’ words the radical character that was part of everything he said and did. Thank you.

      Like

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