Christian Pathos vs. ISIS Pathos

03/03/2015 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Pope Francis asks us to pray for victims of "intolerable cruelty" and "to act to alleviate the suffering" caused by acts of terror and violence. Reverend Jim Wallis says that ISIS is evil by any standards and asks how the faith community can respond. He claims that only political and economic solutions will work and that we must understand and address "the roots of terror to build a strategy to defeat it..." Professor of Theology Elizabeth Johnson in Quest for the Living God says "the divine offer of love is always and everywhere present, being more powerful than the mystery of human guilt" (41). These are reasonable and loving Christian suggestions of how we might respond to the horror and guilt we all feel about the current spate of violence and intolerance most dramatically exemplified in the actions of ISIS. They are rational, devout Christian responses to irrational behaviors and misguided religious zeal, but they are long-term solutions to the immediacy of the terror of today. We need to decide what we can do now.

Our religious leaders argue eloquently for justice and charity, reflection, prayer, and study. We all hope and pray that good will overcome evil. We work for social justice, peace. We demonstrate, march, sing, give money, time, and food. Some of us go to the scene and work. We agonize over the hatred and blind zealotry of the terrorists. But how can we match them?

As an English professor for the past many years, I have taught students to write with their audience in mind using ethos, logos, and pathos. Thus, as I consider the terror abounding in our world and now personified in the ISIS acronym and the face of a man masked in black standing threateningly over a kneeling victim, I wonder whether non-terrorists have enough passion or pathos to match this face, this non-face, of terror.

I wonder if Christians and/or we good people have love and kindness, generosity and goodness equal in passion to hatred and anger. Anger, presumably including hatred, is one the big sins, what we used to call the Seven Deadly Sins. They are strong, stirring human emotions. They cause people to torture, hurt, maim and kill others. The terrorist or murderer believes that any deed is justified in the name of the cause or the god s/he worships. There is no ambiguity. Anything is permissible, honorable and necessary in order to serve the cause. Hatred arouses people in a way that love does not. It incites rage and destruction. It blinds its perpetrators to the other, so that human life becomes negligible. The violent one no longer sees the other as real, but only as a target or an object. There is no empathy or care for the other. There is only the drive, the irresistible urgency to destroy and to eliminate the enemy. There is no logos, no rationality other than blind commitment to a belief. There is no ethos in the sense of presenting one's credentials as a reliable narrator or expert since the basic premise is not rational. This is the story of human nature, of conflict and war. We, on the other hand, believe that violence and all it engenders cannot be justified -- ever.

We do not have enough adrenalin, we good people. The bad guys best us in adrenalin output all the time. We wring our hands, talk and pray, but what happens? We want diplomacy, not war; they want to prove their point in any way possible. They are living exciting lives which give them immediate satisfaction. We tend to waffle.

We cannot comprehend what causes young people to leave their homes and families and become killers. We cannot understand the lure of such devotion and behavior. We cannot behave the way they do, but they have the advantage since we will not use their tactics. But what can we do?

I want to know why love, kindness, charity, mercy, tolerance and all the other good values we believe in cannot produce the emotional strength and passion that hatred and its kin can. Does our belief in a kind father/mother God preclude any strong passion? Does our reliance on grace and the spirit of peace and justice within us make us smug or complacent? Are we just lazy? Or perhaps do we depend on the long shot, the long-term effects and delayed satisfaction?

But can we afford to wait for the forces of goodness and justice to counter the hatred and violence of terror? I want the prayer of the Church in Advent to be realized: "Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us..." I want the prayer of the Psalmist to get into our blood so our passion will equal the passion of our foes:

Bestir thyself, Lord; why does thou sleep?
Awake, do not reject us forever.
Why dost thou hide thy face,
heedless of our misery and our sufferings?
For we sink down to the dust
and lie prone on the earth.
Arise and come to our help;
For thy love's sake set us free. (Ps. 44: 23-27)

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