The most recent terrorist attacks in France have once again forced Christians to face head-on the question, what can we say in the face of violence? What can we do? What are we supposed to feel? Sadness, lament, outrage, anger, grief, loss. Certainly. Those are, I think, genuine human responses that people of any culture, background, or ethnicity would feel when confronted with the horror of random killings meant to inspire fear and terror.
So our common humanity provides a rallying point as a response. But what might be a specifically Christian response to this terror?
Although the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the current form of terrorism, it certainly speaks to fear, and it does so in an interesting way. We typically consider courage to be the antithesis of fear and hate as the opposite of love, right? Not according to 1 John 4:16–21. Those verses tell us that fear—terror—is the opposite of love.
What might this mean for our view of terrorism?
Well, what’s the goal of terrorism? I’d suggest it’s to provoke fear. Usually, then, we’d go on to say the way to “not let the terrorists win” is to be courageous, to be brave. But 1 John changes our perspective a bit. Terrorism doesn’t so much threaten our ability to have courage as it threatens our ability to love.
Terrorism doesn’t so much threaten our ability to have courage as it threatens our ability to love.
When I consider the threat of violence and terror, wherever it may be—Paris, Beirut, Charleston, Syria—I have to recognize that its greatest power and threat is that fear would cast out love that I ought to have, not only for my neighbor, not only for the refugee fleeing terrorism, but even for my enemy, the terrorists themselves.
Does this mean I throw caution to the wind? Does this mean I abandon any attempt to prudently discern between possible terrorist and genuine refugee? Does this mean I have a kind of blind compassion that doesn’t calculate risks and benefits? No.
But it does mean that if I have truly experienced the overflowing, self-giving, risk-taking, even-to-the-point-of-death love of God, I will value something over and above my own life, my own security, and the security of my loved ones. If I understand, deep down, not just in my mind, but in my gut, the enduring, explosive, victorious, never-to-be-conquered, world-without-end resurrection love of Jesus, the love that is as strong as death, then and only then will the world see and understand the words of John: “Perfect love drives out fear”.
John tells us, “In this world we are like Jesus”. If Jesus expected that his followers would suffer, if Paul and John and James and the rest of the New Testament writers expected Christians would suffer, should we be skittish, on edge, flitting about trying to secure our own lives? As I once heard Wheaton College professor George Kalantzis put it, “For Christians, death is just a Tuesday.” In other words, no big deal—our faithful Savior holds us in life and in death.
If death is just a Tuesday, then the weapon of fear, the weapon of terror, can hold no sway over us.
This is why, before modern medicine, it was Christians who cared for the sick. In times of great disease, Christian nurses and other caregivers ran toward those who were contagious and infectious—because perfect love casts out fear.
This is why Christian civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. could move nonviolently toward those who opposed civil rights with violence—because perfect love casts out fear.
This is why, during World War II, Christians in the Netherlands could move toward harboring Jews in hiding from the Gestapo—because perfect love casts out fear.
And it’s why western Christians today need to move toward those refugees who are on the run from ISIS and other terror groups—because perfect love casts out fear. Because the worst thing is not dying or bad things happening to America. The worst thing is claiming to rely on the love of God but failing to embody it in our lives. The worst thing is to allow terror to cast out love, so much so that we aim to hold on to our lives, to gain the world, and yet lose our souls.
So the question is not how to avoid trouble in the world, because Jesus told us we’d have that. The question is whether we understand the depths of the love of God so that we can also follow Jesus’s call to rejoice and take heart in the midst of trouble because He has overcome the world. Insofar as we live in love and from love, we share in that overcoming.