09/15/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

ISIS Is Evil, Evil, Evil... So?

It should be obvious that the so-called Islamic State of the Levant (or ISIS, or the caliphate) is evil. But first, we need to admit that there is objective evil, which is supposed to be no longer believable. After all, the current wisdom says that all moral judgments are only expressions of our emotions and motivations -- they are purely subjective.

So from this point of view, one man's evil is another man's good. There is nothing objective, you see. Some view the recent videos of decapitations of journalists as evil acts, amplified by the broadcasting of them; others see them as proof of the spiritual purity and power of the Islamic State.

However, this form of moral relativism bites its own tail: if nothing is good or evil, then how do we know that this assertion is true? If there is no good, there is no truth. If there is no evil, there is no falsehood. (For instance, is it evil to falsify scientific data?) Therefore the notion that moral judgments are always mere reflections of emotional states has no possibility of being true -- or false. Moreover, as the great economist and sometime theologian Bernard Lonergan pointed out, not one of us ever tries to persuade people of anything by first declaring that she has never told the truth and has no intention to. Or that few are the authors who preface their books by declaring that they have no idea of what responsibility is and have no desire to be responsible for what they write. (follow the link to page 17)

So yes, Virginia, there is an objective evil, and the Islamic State definitely qualifies.

So what are we to do? And why is a bishop venturing to answer that question? My stake in this is not only that I am an American citizen who votes and pays taxes, and am therefore responsible for my part in our nation's government and conduct. I also greatly fear that the Middle East, the lands of the Bible that I read every day, will soon be emptied of Christians, who will have either fled into exile and misery, or else been murdered. As a bishop I have had the privilege of helping bring 1300 Iraqis personally threatened with death for reasons of faith out of that country to safety and asylum (mostly but not all are Christians), and playing an early role in developing talks between Muslim and Christian leaders. Finally, there is a long history of Christian reflection on the morality of war, in whose name I can and indeed must raise my voice, and it has bearing on what the United States should do next.

First, we need to determine whether ISIS is a threat to us in the West. Well, since a significant percentage of the thousands of fighters swaggering across a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria are foreigners (including some Americans), when these soldiers return home, they will carry on. Sometimes a soldier develops a taste for killing people, and this can be encouraged. Clearly the ISIS leadership is inculcating bloodthirstiness in its fighters -- why else would these laugh out loud as they machine-gun hapless prisoners, or delight in beheading people for the Internet? Back home, they will become not suicide bombers (one doesn't waste trained killers for that); rather, they will wage guerilla warfare.

So yes, ISIS is a threat to us. Therefore, we have the right and duty to defend ourselves. But how can we do that so as not to create more would-be caliphs? After all, the American drone campaign against Al-Qaïda in the Arabian Peninsula has killed a number of that group's leaders, but this has only made the organization look good in the eyes of many Yemenis, who have swelled its ranks as a result.

Moreover, we have not had a good track record overall when it comes to the Middle East, not only in terms of international law and standards of behavior, but even in promoting our own interests. In 2006, during a visit to Teheran to discuss developing talks between Iranian and American religious leaders, my party and I were required to meet with Ali Larijani, who personally treated us to a rant in which he gleefully enumerated the long list of failures of American policy in the Middle East. When he finally finished, he asked me whether I had understood. I replied that we were aware of these, but that he had omitted the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. (The talks were allowed to begin, and are still ongoing.)

We have helped the House of Saud for decades, even fighting for it in Desert Storm, while for decades their regime has spent billions exporting its radical brand of puritanical religion, Wahhabism. Part of it is the call for the destruction of everything and everyone that disagrees with it, and this includes us. The present dilemma is that both al-Qaïda and ISIS are actually intensifications of Wahhabism, led by men like bin Laden and al-Baghdadi who are repulsed by the lavish lifestyle of the royal family, and want real Wahhabism to flourish. An analogy would be Christian fundamentalism, which began in the 18th century (as did Wahhabism), as a reaction to attacks on the Bible. This current within Christianity grew to believe that only it represents real Christianity. But it has spawned movements like the Ku Klux Klan, who despise other Christians, including their original churches. Now, imagine if the Klan controlled Texas with its oil wells, wrote the great scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis, and began financing schools and churches to spread its vitriol. Then, imagine that the rest of the United States accepted this because it needed the petroleum...

Besides questioning our relations with Saudi Arabia, there is emerging a consensus among Americans that our invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation were a disaster. Despite clear warnings from our military that we would need twice the number of troops than the administration projected, we charged ahead. As a result, instead of rapidly occupying Baghdad and taking over Saddam's government, we allowed uncontrolled looting in that city. This was followed by other big mistakes, including dissolving the Iraqi army.

There is no need to wonder how a few thousand ISIS irregulars routed ten times their number of the Iraqi army in Mosul. Saddam's army had a million men, and after the invasion then-governor Paul Bremer told them to go home and get a job -- in a country with 70 percent unemployment before the invasion, and in a culture of honor and shame. Many did go home, but others decided to fight on. When ISIS rolled up to the gates of Mosul, the Iraqi military were looking at former comrades-in-arms who called on them to leave. So they did.

We are now fighting what is in some respects the reincarnation of Saddam Hussein's army. This also explains ISIS' surprisingly effective military organization.

So what are we to do? The long-term consequences of decades of short-term, shortsighted foreign policies have been coming home to roost for some time now. These make any move against ISIS problematical, because realizing you've made big mistakes makes you more cautious now. While President Obama has been reasonably circumspect so far, I fervently hope that he and his planners are looking for long-term strategies and allies for the entire region that can dictate effective tactics now. But once a credible plan has been made, there needs to be decisive diplomatic as well as military action, and there must be consistent and effective follow-through over the long term (that's the hard part).

So what the rest of us can do, and need to do, is to get an education. (I also recommend prayer, and helping refugees.) We have justifiable pride in our democracy, but without better understanding of the world today, including our own country, we will decline. And fall. The question we need to ask now is why so many are violently rejecting the vision of personal freedom that we have pursued. ISIS is better at using Twitter than any government in the world today. That doesn't mean they believe in free debate among voting citizens.

ISIS and other power-mongering movements like Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not religious. They are as evil as all the other revolutionaries in the past who exploited the suffering of their people as their royal road to wealth and absolute power, paved with piles of corpses.

So -- good and evil exist. But in the lives of human beings, it is people, you and me, who make them real.