It is a while since we had to consciously brace ourselves for the worst before watching the evening news.
We, who live in areas which are free from conflict and lawless anarchy, are not used to feeling the grip of that cold ‘something’ which is the fear of real and immediate danger. Perhaps we should be used to terrorism by now. It has become the norm in many countries.
But there is something different about ISIS, as it was originally known; the fact that its name mutates as time passes says something about the nature of the evil, and of the fear that it engenders. It is anarchic, and yet meticulously thought through, spreading unseen as it evolves. Perhaps this is what grips us, the fear of some dark entity not yet fully realised, or even fully named, which is being fomented in our streets and universities.
There is something about the immediacy of the Jihadist crisis, and about this particular perversion of religion, that insinuates itself into the human spirit, and this makes it more frightening and more deadly. It is also rooted in a history which we helped to shape, through the arbitrary forcing of collective destinies brought about by the re-defining of national boundaries in the aftermath of the first and second world wars. There is unfinished business, wrongs unresolved, which have helped to fuel the heat of the hatred which now permeates the Middle East.
But while hatred can be hot to begin with it is most potent when pure and cold, and the fomenting of hatred used to calculated ends, the hatred we are seeing at work in Iraq and Syria through those who now call themselves Islamic State (IS) is both hot and pure. It is like molten metal being poured into a misshapen crucible. It grows cold and takes the shape of evil. Murder and brutality are now the means towards the realisation of ideological ends which are the perversion of a good religion, and good religion twisted out of shape and used as a weapon of hatred becomes the stuff of pure evil.
How, then, should Christians address such a dangerous and terrifying phenomenon? It is clear, that by its own self understanding, the particular brand of jihadism represented by IS represents a spiritual challenge. As such, it requires a serious and focused spiritual response. For this to be possible we, as Christians, need to be clear about what we are doing when we engage in such a response. We need to do something practical. I would therefore respectfully suggest that Christian leaders of all denominations call a day of fasting and prayer with this in mind.
Like Jesus, we are called to confront the evil which is at work in the hearts of jihadists and those who indoctrinate them in the way he himself confronted evil, in a spirit of serving and of yearning to see the greater good which may yet lie hidden in the hearts of the worst of murderers. This needs to be done in a collective and concrete way through the mutually supportive activity of prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting dispose us to commit ourselves totally to the love of God in accepting the fact that we ourselves are loved unconditionally by God in Jesus Christ. Committing ourselves into God’s love also helps to enable a wider field of spiritual vision.
Many of us find this very difficult, and the idea of spiritual vision hard to understand, but it is only in allowing ourselves to be loved that we can allow God’s transforming love to pass through us to the perpetrators of great evil and so transform their hearts. It is not we who do the loving, but God himself, because they are made in his image and likeness, even though that image seems to have been totally obscured by hatred. Their hooded faces, their uniforms and guns, and their military hardware, all hide, even obliterate, the face of God in these people who are human beings like ourselves.
Spiritual warfare, underpinned by fasting, takes place therefore on two levels, in facing our own fear, the fear that grips us before we turn on the news and while we watch it, and in confronting the fear we have of these hate-driven men and women. We are helped to do this by being aware of the fact that they, in their humanity, are also deeply afraid. They are afraid of those they hate and they are afraid of each other. Above all, they are afraid of anything that resonates with goodness, compassion and the truth which comes of both.
So we need to hold these jihadists, whose faces and whose humanity we cannot see, in the light of God’s love, at the foot of the Cross and in the morning light of the Resurrection. But we can only do this when our own hearts are vulnerable to fully receiving God’s love for ourselves. People who cannot receive love, perhaps because they are too frightened of its possible consequences, cannot really give love or know how to abide in it, as Christ tells us to do.