In the wake of yet more horrifying acts of terrorism, the West is once again grappling with how to respond. In the past few months alone, Paris, Istanbul, and now Brussels and Lahore have been devastated by bombers seeking to instill terror in people going about their everyday lives. Even more worrisome for many in the U.S. is the incident in San Bernardino, where attackers killed 14 and injured 22, reminding us that violent extremism is closer to home than we would like to think.In the wake of such tragedies, Christians in particular have an opportunity to choose love even as we are confronted with a climate of fear.
As the so-called “Islamic State” continues its barbaric violence in Syria, millions are fleeing their homes. Some are Christian, some are Yezidi, and some are Muslim, but they are all afraid and seeking refuge. Yet the day after the attacks in Brussels, Poland’s Prime Minister announced that as a security measure, the country would not accept refugees from Syria—no doubt voicing what many others are already thinking. Here in the United States, meanwhile, presidential candidates have suggested everything from torture and closed borders to patrolling “Muslim neighborhoods.” Refugees are paying the price for violent extremism even though they are among terrorism’s most affected victims.
Related and no less disconcerting is the uptick in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence that has followed terrorist attacks in the West. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have all observed an increase in incidents targeting Muslims in recent months. These outbursts represent not only the growing tensions in Western countries, but also how quickly we jump to judging those we do not understand. As my pastor recently said, “What we don’t understand, we fear, and what we fear, we judge.” Could it be that we simply have not taken the time to get to know Muslims, so we assume that anyone who wears a hijab or prays to Allah must be a terrorist, or at least a sympathizer?
Yet the fear that such violent extremism evokes does not have to dictate our actions toward Muslims in our communities or those who seek refuge within our borders. In the wake of such tragedies, Christians in particular have an opportunity to choose love even as we are confronted with a climate of fear.
This past Easter weekend, I was reminded of Jesus’ profound display of love during his time on earth. In one particularly interesting exchange Jesus had with the Pharisees in John 5, for example, he attempts to reveal to them who he is; he even explains his motivation to the Pharisees: “I say this so that you might be saved.” By this point in Jesus’ ministry, it has become clear that the Pharisees do not buy into Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. They are out to bring him down, plotting his death even as he tries to enlighten them to the Truth.
But the Pharisees’ hard hearts don’t stop Jesus from wanting them to experience abundant life. This same Jesus has taken on a disciple named Judas, who will later betray him for a mere purse full of money. And in another example of resolute love, Jesus welcomes Peter into his innermost circle, fully aware that Peter will deny him while he hangs on a cross.
Jesus not only welcomes his would-be enemies into intimate friendship, but also willingly gives his life for them. He does it for the scoffers in the crowd, for the thieves on his left and his right, and for the whole world. He does it knowing that most will reject him, and that even we who accept him will fail more often than we will succeed at following his example. Jesus is not merely a Pollyanna who glosses over the suffering and sin of the world. He understands the full human experience, living as we live and suffering as we suffer.
Yet Jesus chooses hope, even in the face of a harsh reality. And more importantly, he knows that the only way to impact a world full of hate and fear is to choose love.
It’s been said that love and fear are the two fundamental motivating forces behind our actions. In 1 John, we are told that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” suggesting that these two concepts are indeed mutually exclusive. So, the question Christians must ask ourselves when we are faced with acts of terrorism is, will we respond out of love or fear? If we respond out of love, we recognize the God-given humanity of all people. We seek healing, unity, and a peaceful path forward. If we respond out of fear, we close “others” out, erect walls of isolation, and point the finger of blame at anyone we do not know. (It’s also worth noting that we reap what we sow: fear begets more fear, and love begets love.)
In a time of increased terrorism in the West, Christians have a choice. We can reject those who are different from ourselves out of our own fear and lack of understanding. We can lock them up or keep them out in the name of security. Or, we can strive to be like Jesus, to empathize with their suffering, because we have experienced it too—in San Bernardino, in Paris, in Brussels, even in Lahore. We can stand with all of those who have been impacted by the brutality of terrorism, including refugees. We can take time to get to know those among us who practice a different faith, speak a different language, or come from a different country of origin. We can focus on what we have in common with Muslims in our communities, breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them” so that the gospel light can shine through. Our shared humanity enables us to love each other—not despite our differences, but because of our similarities.
These actions might not prove to be a be-all-end-all solution to the problem of terrorism, to be sure; a comprehensive strategy to address violent extremism requires a range of thoughtful approaches, as well as a specific focus on the drivers of terrorism, such as inequality, poor governance, and disenfranchisement. But recognizing the power of God’s love is an important first step in a revolutionary new way of responding to acts of mass violence. As Christians, we are called to model the life of Jesus (who himself was a refugee as a young child fleeing the deathly grip of King Herod).
Jesus chose love time and time again, past the point of discomfort. We can do the same. And if you are not convinced of the power of choosing to respond out of love instead of fear, just ask yourself: Where would we all be without the love Jesus showed to those who despised him?