“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
-Jesus, Matthew 5:44
The news from the Middle East is not encouraging. Yesterday we received word by means of a video that a second American has been beheaded by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). His name was Steven Sotloff.
Sotloff sadly joins an ever-growing number of those killed, tortured, abducted, raped, attacked, persecuted, and displaced by this vicious and recalcitrant regime. Something more needs to be done to stop their dastardly efforts…and soon.
As I think about the heartbreaking state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, I’m reminded that this may be one of those times when Jesus’ words are put to their greatest test. Can I pray for ISIS? Can I love them?
I want to make the obvious very clear before answering: they are not my enemy directly. They have not persecuted me. I do not live in territory under their control. But they have been clear about their persecution of Christians in the Middle East. These are my brothers and sisters in Christ. They have displaced others and attacked non-Christian religious minorities with whom I share a common humanity. Though I cannot know what it is like to be their enemy in the same way as their victims, I still know that they are my enemy too.
Quite literally, ISIS is an enemy of the human race. Like Hitler, Stalin, and their ilk, they are fairly easy to hate.
And yet, for the Christian, hatred is not an option. Jesus says we must love them. That seems like nonsense, of course. But it is Jesus, so I have to grapple with it.
What does it mean to pray for ISIS? Well, it doesn’t mean praying for their military or jihadi success. It doesn’t mean praying that they’ll prosper in their efforts. That kind of prayer would be akin to asking that we would be delivered from the Kingdom into evil. It would be devastating to so many and, ultimately, destructive to the hardened hearts of ISIS themselves.
Interceding for ISIS, I think, is about praying that they would see the sadly misguided path they have walked upon and be healed. While they may have some legitimate reasons for feeling the way they do, organizing those feelings in the destructive and life-denying ways they have has only set them and those around them on a very dark path. Praying for ISIS, caring for their souls means wanting them to stop all this–for their sakes before even ours.
This “praying for your enemies thing” is–like many of Jesus’ teachings–a fine notion when considered in abstraction. But up close and personal, it is much harder to bear. Praying for a group that has shown itself to embrace evil is a hard task. I mean, honestly, do I really want to pray for them? Watching one of those beheading videos (which I have not) would disincline me to choose that from among my options. After all, we don’t think they deserve it. We don’t think they deserve love. We don’t think they deserve forgiveness.
And you know what? They don’t. But for God.
As usual, our Lord is trying to tell us something here…about ISIS and ourselves. At times like this, though, it can be hard to hear.