As outrageous as Donald Trump has been over the past few months the most sickening display I've seen yet by a public figure was Jerry Falwell's address to his students after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. His reliance on weapons, combined with his violent language toward Muslims, made his address un-Christian and sinful. In the same way that mainline Muslim leaders are seeking to distance themselves from radicalized groups of extremists it is time for Christians to distance themselves from so-called Christian leaders like Mr. Falwell.
However, it is not enough to just distance ourselves from extremists, it is also the case that the radical and risky reconciling message of Jesus needs to find its way into Christian expression again and into public discourse. It's not enough to say who we aren't...we must also say who we are, and how that identity could help shape American life.
Here is a letter that I wrote a year ago September, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. You see, Mr. Falwell, I'm 'packing' too--confident of the transforming love and power of the resurrected Christ.
A Letter of Love? To ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
September 12th, 2014
To ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
I am pastor of a church in New Jersey, in the United States, and I write to you today because of love. Love isn't an option for me--it's a requirement. Love is any action that occurs with the intent of serving one's neighbor as oneself--including one's enemy. Loving action, therefore, can include many things. Today I share loving action of criticism and apology.
The beheadings of the American journalists Foley and Sotloff were particularly horrific. The manner of their deaths displayed that you and your organization have hardened yourselves to the inherit value of human life. Your public sharing of their beheadings--on youtube--was grotesque and beyond comprehension. I am outraged and disgusted that it has been through encouraging (or allowing) extremely violent acts against non-combatants that you've chosen to show your power. I know that these are but 2 of many horrific acts that your people have carried out. The American people, and the world, are right to think that your actions put you into a category of people with whom it is near impossible to negotiate.
However, I am one who believes that acts of love come in many forms. Your enemy status (and you are our enemies) make me want to communicate a broader range of love to you--not just outrage. I follow a Jesus who, even as he was being led by his executioners to his own brutal crucifixion, miraculously restored his captor's ear, after a disciple violently sliced it off while protecting Jesus.
I do not agree with world governmental leaders who say, "you cannot talk with these people--to talk with them is to legitimize them." There are things we can say--that are true and that build you up as neighbor--even now. You are legitimately an enemy and I am legitimately to show you love.
I have spoken truthfully about my outrage over the beheadings. But, to speak in love, I also need to communicate an apology.
I imagine that the behavior of my United States in America over the past 40-50 years in your region, and especially since 2002, has led you, and many who see us through similar lenses, to believe that you cannot talk to us either. The various forms of 'intervention' that we've carried out in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan through the CIA, and then through the first gulf war and especially the second gulf war, have been just horrific.
I don't know if apology matters to you, but I want to apologize for the hundreds of thousands of lives that the war with Iraq took from the Iraqi population. We were so utterly destructive. We have been a horribly abusive nation--and our warring has been unjustified. We had no right to attack a sovereign nation the way we did. I am sorry.
I want to apologize for the forms of torture that we used, in Iraq, in Guantanamo and in other secret prisons around the world. I am sorry.
I want to apologize for the use of lethal drones that have allowed us to kill people from a distance--without having to feel or see the pain we're causing.
Sir, as I've said, I do not work for the government. I am just a pastor of a small church. But I know about love--and loving ones neighbor as oneself has been missing in the equation of international politics, at least in any way that I can see it.
I believe in love, and I believe in a God of love, and that is the only reason I write this letter. Love expresses outrage, and love expresses apology. I hope that both outrage and apology are received by you as a way to work for a better world for all.
Peace to you,
Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale