November 2015 will be remembered as the month in which the world woke up. The year began with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris on January 7 and 8, an atrocity which drew millions to the streets of the French capital to stand in solidarity on behalf of civil liberty and freedom of speech. Militant Islamic terrorists returned to Paris on November 13, this time leaving 130 dead and hundreds more wounded, some paralyzed for life. The Islamic State took credit for the Paris attacks just as it had for blowing a Russian airliner out of the sky over Egypt on October 31. ISIS also inspired, if it did not carry out directly, a murderous assault on a Radisson Hotel in Mali and numerous other “me-too” acts of carnage from Pakistan and Indonesia to Libya and Nigeria.
On June 10, 2014, ISIS seized the city of Mosul in Iraq and announced to the world the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. The first Caliphate was established in the year 632 in the Arabian peninsula and was led by a series of “rightly guided” caliphs following the death of the prophet Muhammad. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has named himself the new caliph. He has called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to him and to support his building of a transnational Islamic empire, the success of which will usher in the end of the world.
Elected to bring to an end America’s military involvement in the Middle East, President Obama has found himself reluctantly drawn deeper and deeper into a shooting war with an enemy more virulent than anything faced by his predecessor. Only 23 percent of the American people think the president has anything like a clear plan to deal with ISIS—the putative “JV team”—and 83 percent fear imminent attacks on American soil. Lacking coherence and still seeking a viable strategy, the president has become petulant, blaming growing concerns about ISIS on the press, his political opponents, and mistakes made by his predecessor. Add to this the recent news that intelligence analysts were pressured by the Obama administration to play down the success of ISIS in order to support a more benign narrative. One thing is certain: If George W. Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the non-existent WMD, Barack Obama has greatly underestimated and misunderstood the dangers posed by ISIS. Obama has called it a “terrorist organization, pure and simple,” which “we will degrade and ultimately destroy.” But such a threat seems vacuous in the face of a sputtering incoherence that pleases no one.
Perhaps the president should listen to the Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White, who for many years was the Anglican Chaplain in Iraq and Vicar of St. George’s Church. The “Vicar of Baghdad,” as he is called, is a remarkable pastor who built up his church to a congregation of more than 6,000 with an outreach that included a school, a clinic, and a food bank. But in recent years he has seen his church decimated by violence and mayhem. Some 1,200 men, women, and children who once worshipped in his church have been killed as the Christian population in Iraq has declined in recent years from 1.5 million to only 260,000. Among those who have been killed were four boys White knew. They were decapitated by ISIS for refusing to embrace the faith of Islam.
Andrew White is no stranger to terrorists. For more than two decades he has served as a hostage negotiator and an apostle of reconciliation in one of the most volatile regions in the world. He has been kidnapped, shot at, and held captive. He was once the director of the Center for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral and still wears around his neck a cross made out of nails taken from the cathedral after it was bombed by the Germans during World War II.
So, when his friends and parishioners were being killed or fleeing for their lives, Canon White did what he had often done before when confronting an enemy. “I invited the leaders of ISIS for dinner. I am a great believer in that. I have asked some of the worst people ever to eat with me.” He did receive a reply to this surprising initiative. The ISIS leader said, “You can invite us to dinner, but we’ll chop your head off.” Something like that happened to John the Baptist when he dared to speak truth to power in the time of Christ. The head of Canon White is worth a lot to ISIS, which have placed on it a bounty of 157 million dollars.
Archbishop Justin Welby, whose friendship with Andrew White goes back to their days together in Coventry, ordered his friend to leave Baghdad last Christmas. “Andrew, look,” Welby said, “what you are doing is so important and the reality is you are more use alive than dead. Come out of there. Don’t die.” Thanks to the Archbishop’s intervention, Canon White still has an unsevered head.
These experiences have led Canon White, like Pope Francis, to admit that military force may be necessary to stop the kind of terror and atrocities perpetrated by ISIS. Canon White does not regret seeking dialogue with the Islamic State. Time and again he has risked his own life in order to serve and help others. But as painful as it is for him to admit, he acknowledges that there is an evil so palpable, so demonic in theological terms, that it can only be dealt with through the use of force. “Can I be honest?” White asked. “You can’t negotiate with them [ISIS]. I’ve never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil.” White made clear that he was not talking about all Muslims. There are “many good Sunni leaders,” he said. But the ISIS radicals who perpetrate terror in the name of God need to be dealt with “radically.”
One year before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke in France on the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings. His words then have a bearing not only on what happened in 1944, but also on the situation we face in the world today.
If there ever was in history a bellum justum, it was certainly this one, the engagement of the Allies, because the engagement also served the good of those against whose country war was waged. Such a finding seems important to me, because it shows, based on a historical event, the unsustainable character of an absolute pacifism. This takes nothing away, naturally, from the obligation of considering very strictly the question of whether and under which conditions it is possible still today to have something such as a just war, that is, a military intervention at the service of peace and obeying moral criteria, against established unjust regimes. Above all, that which has been said allows for a better understanding, let us hope, that peace and the law, that peace and justice, are inseparably linked one with the other. When the law is destroyed, when injustice takes over, it is always peace that is threatened and already, partly, weakened. Concern for peace is, in this sense, above all a concern for a form of law that ensures justice to the individual and to the community as a whole.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.