Flesh and blood
You, brother mine, that entertain’d ambition,
Expelled remorse and nature…
I do forgive thee,
Unnatural though thou art.

—Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Last fall as I was organizing my thoughts for a talk on nonviolence and the Christian call to love our enemies, I accidentally stumbled on a screen full of news photos of ISIS beheadings. A few seconds were enough to sear my imagination: blank eyes in lifeless faces, bright flesh open to the air, the white of tendon and bone and cartilage, blood spilled down the victims’ clothes and on the ground. And above the gore, the triumphant, stern faces of the men responsible for the gruesome work. These awful pictures raised serious questions about the core of my lecture: an uncompromising Christian call to love our enemies rather than bomb them into oblivion.

I gave my talk as planned, trying to put aside the fresh, bloody images lingering in my imagination. Standing at a podium in a warm, comfortable room, surrounded by a gracious gathering of men and women open to discussion and debate, ten thousand miles from the deserts of Syria and Iraq, I felt the familiar ache of doubt I so often feel in church. How can talk of love be anything but naïve, sentimental, and ultimately fatal when the enemy has made a name for itself by standing before a camera and cutting off people’s heads? What are we supposed to do when our enemy waves the ominous black flag of the Islamic State with one hand and fires a machine gun with the other? How are we to feel anything but fear, and respond with anything but violence? “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” but surely not these, surely not now. Evil like this shakes me to the core of my being.

Spectacular violence posted online for the world to see serves both sides in the battle: fear makes the enemy seem large and threatening, and our pundits and politicians use the fear to justify extreme violence in response, which further incites the ambitions of the enemy. Fear begets fear; violence begets violence. If “perfect love casts out all fear,” we first need to get beyond the simple binary of us versus them.

ISIS terror is not random but politically and militarily strategic.

Loretta Napoleoni’s The Islamist Phoenix is one of a handful of books on ISIS that offer some necessary social and political context. Napoleoni doesn’t soft-pedal the brutality of ISIS – I don’t think anyone honestly could – but she does balance some of its frightening propaganda with facts and clear-headed analysis. The first thing to consider, she says, is that we are dealing with an authentic Islamic state. Western media coverage makes ISIS sound like a gang of well-armed terrorists with murderous nostalgia for a bygone era of fundamentalist religious tyranny, the incarnate Islamist boogeymen of our nightmares. The movement is religious, yes, but Napoleoni says that “beneath the religious veneer and terrorist tactics … lies a political and military machine engaged in nation-building.” The Islamic State is a genuine political entity, controlling significant territory in Syria and Iraq. And though it has sprung up suddenly and with explosive power, its ambitions are grand and explicitly modern. ISIS is building roads and schools, securing and developing infrastructure, issuing driver’s licenses, and running soup kitchens.

The Islamic State’s reputation for terror is a carefully honed facet of its greater political strategy. ISIS skillfully employs social media technology to simultaneously recruit young fighters and supporters and propagate its image as a movement that will stop at nothing to achieve its ends. Its horrific, symbolic acts of spectacular violence are effective only when someone is watching, and the calculating “marketers” for ISIS have found an audience by using the same online tools as the Kardashians. (Unlike Western pop-culture celebrities, the explicit message is gore and terror, not glamour and avarice.) This deliberate marketing has proven effective in recruiting fighters from around the globe and inspiring a steady, rumbling sense of anxiety and fear in the West. The terror, in other words, is not random but politically and militarily strategic.

Historical context shows that ISIS has not emerged from a vacuum. Western intervention in Iraq has contributed to the rise of ISIS in much the same way that Russian and American meddling in Afghanistan helped to nurture the rise of the Taliban. We’re not up against irrational monsters: these are men with serious ambition and power, authentic hopes and nationalist dreams.

I also find a strange sort of comfort in Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, an extended, sometimes self-indulgent essay on Joseph Stalin, which I read alongside Napoleoni’s book. Around the turn of the millennium Amis was on a Russian history kick, reading, as he describes it, “several yards of books about the Soviet Experiment,” and in his own book he tries to take stock of what he calls “our worst century yet.”

The state-organized spectacle of gruesome murder the Islamic State specializes in is a well-worn political tactic.

Amis’s book is reassuring for me not because it shows that things could be so much worse than they are – a kind of one-upmanship of suffering – but because it shows how things have always been really, really bad; that the state-organized spectacle of gruesome murder the Islamic State specializes in is a well-worn political tactic. Stalin famously – glibly – quipped that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” and he himself was responsible for twenty million deaths, equal to more than half the population of my entire country, Canada. (Twenty million is a very conservative estimate, says Amis; the actual number may have been double that.) Everyone was vulnerable: “About one million children died in the Holocaust,” he writes. “About three million children died in the Terror-Famine of 1933.” Stalin systematically wiped out his political opponents and everyone he imagined could one day become an opponent, along with their spouses, parents, children, and neighbors. “Death solves all problems,” he said. “No man, no problem.” Millions of Russian citizens were slaughtered for what seemed to be no reason but a good tally, as though Stalin pictured the population in a long line and every fifth one with a bullet in his or her brain. Torture, murder, starvation, labor camps, competitive cruelty, nationwide spying, staff hired to kill imagined conspirators, others hired to kill those who didn’t kill enough – in short, total national terror.

So, Napoleoni complicates the simple good-guys-versus-bad-guys binary by adding historical and social context to the ambitions of the Islamic State, and Amis adds historical depth to what can feel like a brand-new, terrifying threat – both of which open the door for the possibility of some response other than simple hatred. Christian doctrine teaches us that we are to love our neighbors without exception, whether they be friend or enemy. For Christians, love is a universal calling. Historically, of course, the practice of love has been spotty at best, a problem which seems to be a deal-breaker for atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but which Christians have never been surprised by because of another complicating universal: sin.

It’s far easier to speak of “evil” than of “sin,” the former carrying an emotional, gut-response that the latter can never summon: Hitler and Stalin were evil; the Islamic State is evil. “Evil” is a resonant term even for those who attach no metaphysical meaning to it. It’s the final word for something so horrible we’ve run out of every other possible descriptor. “Sin” somehow feels a bit too personal; it’s archaic, potentially psychologically damaging, and certainly unfashionable. “Sin” conjures bad memories – or more likely caricatures – of Sunday sermons from Bible-thumping fundamentalists about hellfire for indulging desires for things like sex, good food, and booze. We assume that we’re better than that now – so much less judgmental. Losing “sin,” we’ve unleashed our desires, normalized old taboos, and made shame itself shameful – no need to feel bad about anything anymore, no need for “sin.”

“He who hates bad men hates all men.” Seneca

Because language is a living thing, constantly in motion, sustained and kept alive by how we use it, there are words whose meanings evolve enough so as to be no longer useful. But “sin” isn’t one of those words. It has fallen out of fashion, but we have not outgrown our need of the term. An understanding of sin as disordered, misaligned loves – as the gap between what is and what ought to be – is far more potent and useful than thinking of sin merely as succumbing to one’s attractions to whiskey, dark chocolate, and lingerie. “Sin,” in its true sense, accounts for the basic truth of what we know of ourselves and of the world: things do not line up as they ought; everyone – including ourselves – falls short. Sin is what’s wrong with the world: murder, meanness, rainforest extinctions, bad dreams, right-wing xenophobia and left-wing sanctimony, genocide, suicide, gossip, corporate greed, poverty, famine, child abuse, frivolous spats with your spouse, “smart” bombs, and sex slaves. Sin, all of it. And when it comes to loving our enemies, “sin” is still useful because it serves as a remedy to the inflammatory generals and politicos who tell us that the Islamic State is full of bad guys, and if we kill ’em off, we’ve solved our problem. “Sin” says we’re all suffering from some measure of the same damn problem, and none of us can claim to be pure.

Not to say we cannot differentiate the scale of things. My impatient nagging at my kids isn’t the same as hitting them; buying coffee when I know about exploitative labor is not the same as hiring thugs to beat the workers at a coffee plantation; having ungracious thoughts toward a homeless guy who smells like piss is not the same as dousing him with gasoline and tossing a lit match at him. The fact that we’re all tangled up in sin doesn’t mean we can’t meaningfully discriminate between different sorts of actions or that we throw discernment and wise judgment overboard. But it does mean that we cannot go along with the Manichaean rhetoric of the pundits whose supposed clarity about good guys and bad guys – “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” – serves a one-sided social or political agenda. “He who hates bad men,” wrote the first century Roman rhetorician Seneca, “hates all men.”

The word “sin” is unfashionable, but we still need it for understanding what’s wrong with the world, from the gory spectacle of the Islamic State to the simple fact that I’m not the dad I know I want my kids to have. “The question ‘why?’… is never quite satisfied by the answer ‘individual psychosis,’” says Amis. In other words, we can’t pin the blame on a few bad apples for all the trouble we’re in. Without “sin” all we’ve got is “evil” – read: Stalin, Hitler – and still we’re stuck with our petty annoyances and bad habits and the great structural injustices and social ills and nothing more than our best efforts to get ourselves out of our self-made messes, from the trivial to the genuinely evil. “Both these stories [Bolshevism and Nazism] are full of terrible news about what it is to be human,” writes Amis. “They arouse shame as well as outrage.…This is species shame.” Good news and hope start by taking the full, punishing blows of the bad news, and if that means our feelings get a bit hurt, so be it. “Sin” takes that treasured sense of progressive moral advancement down a few notches; it also brings the humanity of the enemy more clearly into view. Sin is bad news, but it’s true, and better the uncomfortable truth than doe-eyed self-delusion.

In the fight against “evil,” we can justify total war – whatever it takes. But “sin” muddies the waters...

“This line is metaphysical,” sings David Bazan, “and on the one side / and on the one side / the bad half live in wickedness / and on the other side / and on the other side / the good half live in arrogance … and there’s a steady flow / moving to and fro.” Where does the line go? Am I good or bad? Am I a sinner? Am I evil? And what about you? “Sin” says we’re all in up to our eyeballs and nobody’s clean. Christ on the cross cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” because things are worse than any of us think. Nobody’s as good as we wish; you’re actually a bad person and so am I, and none of us knows how to handle ourselves very well.

The psychology of self-esteem and self-improvement and the hubris of the present moment say our modest imperfections are little more than a bummer – foibles, unusual tastes, personality quirks, the range of socially acceptable bad habits – and that all of us can get along fine with a few imperfections, just as most of us manage to get by with a mediocre car. “Sin,” though, says things are fundamentally stuck; in the words of the liturgy, “there is no health in us.” The plainest reason I hold fast to my religious roots is not because I think I’m good, but because I know, in fact, that I’m not.

How are we to love our enemies? To label them “evil” makes categorical dismissal the most natural option, even for Christians: “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” In the fight against “evil,” we can justify smart bombs, drone strikes, targeted killings, assassinations, torture, invasion, occupation, mass imprisonment, total war – whatever it takes. But “sin” muddies the waters. The goal of talking “sin” is not to obscure the real differences between us. The goal is love, and the means is encounter, the moment when we can recognize ourselves in the faces of our enemies even as they are rushing toward us with their weapons drawn.

Photograph by Day Donaldson / flickr.