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Tuesday, December 1, 2015


ISIS is the cover story and a good part of the content of the latest Time magazine. What should we do? What should I do?

There seems to be something of a consensus that military responses will not defeat a movement like ISIS. I think of Tertullian's saying: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." The blood of people killed because they are members of ISIS just recruits more people to the cause, especially young people.

Young people are especially vulnerable. I recall the days when I was ready to sacrifice my own life to defeat Communism. I liked the saying "If you are not willing to die for something, your life is not worth living." I don't hear people around me talking like that any more.

That kind of mentality was fostered in young people of my generation by the experience of growing up in World War II. I liked a book titled They Were Expendable. When you are at war, you risk everything.

The young people of ISIS are living their equivalent of World War II. It is hard for us, living in the West, to see that. We have stable political institutions and most of us have a good enough life economically. Their world is politically chaotic and an economic disaster. They cannot hope for a "normal" family life. What have they got to lose?

Their protest is phrased in religious language, but it has a powerful grounding in politics and economics. We need to look at the situation from all three angles: religion, politics, economics.

The term Shariah law keeps coming up. That term is a political and economic term. It implies a utopian political and economic society, governed by a set of religious values. It is a protest against a Western world where religious values do not seem to exist, and where existing political and economic structures result in oppression of much of the world, especially the Islamic world.

Some people argue that U.S. capitalist society has a grounding in Christian values. Popular journalism long ago abandoned that line of thought. Evangelical writers try to baptize capitalism, but the popular culture could care less.

Pope Francis is challenging the Western world to wake up to the deficiencies of our ways of living. We are doing two things wrong. We are destroying our environment, and we are making people poorer than they were. The Pope has laid a foundation for a religious, Christian, response to the situation.

I go back to Francis of Assisi. Francis, raised in middle-class comfort, gave it up. His main motive seems to have been that he believed that Jesus Christ, God made human, chose to take on the poverty of human nature, and even to take on the poverty of the culture into which he was born.

The logic is simple. God chose to be poor. We should choose to be poor too. Being poor means, among other things, that we do not control the world. We do not control the world enough to cause permanent damage to creation as God made it. We do not control the world enough to take away from other people the means they have been using to live their lives decently. In fact, we do what we can to help every one of the rest of the human race to live lives a little more fully than they now live them.

Francis took up a conversation with a Muslim Sultan in Egypt named Malik al Kamil. Pope Francis recently went to a mosque in the Central African Republic and prayed there. That's how our response to ISIS should begin. We should be going to the young people of ISIS and asking them to join us in prayer. Perhaps God may inspire each of us to put aside violence and work to understand each other's experience of God.

After that we can begin a conversation about politics and economics. There are many ways to do those two parts of life. We in the West do not have the perfect political institutions, and the economic theory we follow is seriously deficient. We can learn from others, both about how to do politics, and about how to create an economy that respects human life.