The failure of Christian witness in a world of violence

A West Virginia woman named Holly Fisher stirred up a social media storm with her picture holding an assault rifle and a Bible with the American flag, particularly because it looks very similar to the 2004 photo of Hamas suicide bomber Reem Riyashi on the right above. No, Holly Fisher cannot be equated to a suicide bomber. But her publicity stunt showcases the absolute failure of Christian witness in our age of mockery.

Fisher and Riyashi are very different for two reasons. First, Fisher has never had her neighborhood reduced to rubble by an enemy with a crushingly superior military advantage. When she brandishes an AR-15, she is not holding a weapon that she will ever need to use; it is purely a symbol of her ideological commitment to the right to bear arms. The second difference flows from the first. Fisher has never killed anyone, but Riyashi tragically killed herself and four Israelis at the Erez border crossing on January 14, 2004, in retaliation for Israeli attacks that killed 25 Palestinians in the West Bank in the preceding weeks.

It doesn’t matter that everyone Riyashi killed in her operation was an employee of the Israeli military. She’s a terrorist because her organization Hamas does not have the technological ability or, to be fair, the ideological conviction to distinguish between military and civilian targets. And thus, it’s not recognized as a legitimate military organization by the Western media.

The closest Holly Fisher gets to direct combat is that her husband is in the military. No matter how many civilians Holly Fisher’s husband kills as part of his combat operations, he will never be labeled a terrorist because he’s wearing the official uniform of a military that has the technology and the ideological commitment to at least try to avoid civilian casualties (except for the drone strikes).

What Fisher and Riyashi have in common is an idolatry that transcends religion: the worship of the gun. Right now, in our world, most people have bought into the assumption that violence must always be repaid with more violence. This week, Israel and Hamas are yet again locked in a worthless cycle of rockets and missiles. The Gazan rockets of course are “terrorist” even though they don’t seem to be hitting much of anything, and the Israeli missiles are “not terrorist” even though they kill many civilians (which is just about impossible to avoid doing in a densely populated area like Gaza where everything is mixed together).

Gaza defies the sanitary version of war that we want to believe in from the safety of our air-conditioned West Virginia living rooms. There is no separating military from civilian in Gaza. There are people affiliated with Hamas who actually do launch rockets that pose a legitimate security threat to Israel (even though they have yet to do much substantive damage); there are also many Hamas government bureaucrats whose jobs don’t have anything to do with any kind of violence, but Israel feels justified lobbing missiles at their houses anyway.

The lesson Gaza teaches is that war cannot be sanitized or glorified, because war is always evil. I’m not saying it’s evil to be in the military; it’s just a very difficult job that exposes you to tremendous evil. Every time a soldier dies, it is no less tragic than when a civilian dies. Obviously people who intentionally target civilians are despicable, but war wouldn’t become perfectly clean and pretty even if it were possible to only engage military targets. All soldiers, civilians, militants, and even terrorists are precious children of God who have families that love them. Regardless of what evil a person causes, it doesn’t make their death un-tragic. I’m not an absolute pacifist, but I’m appalled at the complete lack of interest in the practical use of nonviolence in the world today.

As a Christian looking at this pointless, worthless tragedy on the other side of the world, I can neither judge nor justify what either side is doing. The Israeli military and Hamas are both under intense pressure from their respective constituencies to retaliate ad infinitum. I can understand wanting to do whatever it takes to stop the missiles or rockets from coming at you, even if your response is pathetically unstrategic in the case of the Palestinian rockets or abominably disproportionate in the case of the Israeli missiles.

What I can say as a Christian is that I am part of a massive failure to show the world a different way. The English word martyr is based on the Greek word for “witness.” The way that early Christians bore witness to their faith was through letting their enemies put them to death often in public spectacles involving wild beasts that ripped their bodies into pieces. They looked at it as straightforward, matter-of-fact obedience to the words of Jesus that most Christians today feel comfortable completely ignoring:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:38-44]

Nonviolent Christian martyrdom is almost completely absent from the global imagination of the world today which couldn’t be blamed for thinking based on the witness of Christians like Holly Fisher that the two most important things about Jesus are that he loves guns and hates sex.

I don’t have any interest in either denigrating or defending Reem Riyashi’s religious beliefs, but her suicide bombing is obviously the opposite of a Christian understanding of martyrdom. Holly Fisher isn’t merely in conflict with the Christian understanding of martyrdom; she is outright mocking it by putting an assault rifle and a Christian Bible together. Mockery is actually her stated objective in social media; she says that her goal is to “make liberals’ heads explode.” Should that ever be the kind of goal that Christians have for anything they share in social media?

I’m not going to lecture Palestinians or Israelis on what they are and aren’t allowed to do to defend themselves. But I can try harder to stop failing to bear witness to the Christian value of nonviolence and loving our enemies. As a Christian whose sins are paid for by the blood of Jesus, I don’t have any reason to justify my own deeds based on what my enemies doing; I can simply take full responsibility for whatever blasphemy and idolatry I spew out into the world. My idolatry is the root of the world’s injustice, whatever it is, because all of our idols bleed together into a giant demonic global spiritual amoeba of greed, violence, and hate that makes people around the world blow each other up.

Our world is connected today like it never has been before. We all contribute to the memes that circulate around our interconnected cyber-universe. These memes influence what people in very different circumstances are willing to do and not do to their enemies. Are we contributing to the epidemic of mockery and the glorification of violence in our world with what we share from our air-conditioned living rooms? If so, then the fact that we are privileged enough to have clean hands doesn’t make us any less guilty of the violence in our world than the suicide bombers and the drones.

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About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

  • Jayson Bradley

    I couldn’t have said it better, Morgan. Thank you.

  • http://benirwin.wordpress.com/ Ben Irwin

    Really good stuff, Morgan. I would maybe propose on caveat to your statement, “I’m not going to lecture Palestinians or Israelis on what they are and aren’t allowed to do to defend themselves.” Lecture, no. You’re right about that. But I believe we do have an obligation to speak truth as best we can into that situation, advocate for peace, and cry out against injustice. But, to your larger (and much more important) point, we can’t do that effectively unless we are being a witness to the way of peace in our own lives. Thanks for sharing this.

    • MorganGuyton

      That’s true. I just think we need to be careful about our privilege with whatever we say about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I simply don’t know what it’s like to live in fear for my physical safety.

      • http://benirwin.wordpress.com/ Ben Irwin

        Nor do I. I think your caution is a good one. Perhaps one good approach is to devote more of our time and energy to listening to and sharing the voices of those who do know what it’s like to live in fear for their physical safety.

  • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

    Nicely stated I liked the intertwining of the two stories. The bad thing in all of this is that it seems in my opinion that it’s really equating the importance of our country (the constitutional right to bear arms and flag) with Christianity. Being American is equally important as being Christian and thus we have to incorporate both values with little thought it seems. It’s not just the idolatry of the gun, it’s the idolatry of nationalism.

    I think being a witness to peace, at least the way I think Christians should be, requires some distance from certain American rights. I’m not a complete pacifist either, but I’m with you that a picture of an assault rifle and a Bible (and maybe even an American flag) is a mockery. Of course I’m sure anyone who thinks like that are all just people who can’t take a joke though and are far too serious.

    • MorganGuyton

      Yup. When the Bible is held up as a prop with a gun and a flag, then it kind of reveals the Bible is just another idol and not something you’re actually going to open and study.

  • Mike Schwiebert

    Morgan, this is just wrong:
    “She’s a terrorist because her organization Hamas does not have the technological ability or, to be fair, the ideological conviction to distinguish between military and civilian targets. And thus, it’s not recognized as a legitimate military organization by the Western media.”
    No. She’s a terrorist because her ideology is to kill and destroy a group of people just because of their ethnicity. And she was willing to sacrifice herself to that end.

    There is no moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas.
    You are, in fact, making a judgment.

    We shouldn’t expect Jews or Muslims to live like Jesus, but we should expect Christians to. At least we can agree on that.

    • MorganGuyton

      I didn’t claim moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas. They’re apples and oranges and morality is qualitative, not quantitative. It may be the case that Israel behaves more ethically than Hamas; they also have superior technology. I don’t claim to know anything about Riyashi’s personal ideology, which is why I didn’t try to comment on it. Based on what was happening at the time, it was a retaliation for a retaliation for another retaliation just like it always is.

      • Mike Schwiebert

        Ok, I might have misread it and jumped to wrong conclusions on that.
        But do you really not know anything about her ideology?
        It’s being communicated through her picture, right?
        Isn’t that the whole point of this post?
        The ideology communicated by Holly Fisher’s picture.
        Both pictures communicate ideology.

  • http://azspot.net naum

    Wow, hit it out of the park!

    #truth

  • Jeremy

    Strong post. I have become (mostly) a pacifist as I have gotten older and observed the true power of nonviolence. NOT fighting back shows the world there is a different, more powerful way. A true testament of strength.

    • MorganGuyton

      I hope that I will somehow be able to bear witness to nonviolence in a relevant way in my lifetime. I hope I won’t fail the test when it’s put before me.

  • Sean Smith

    The martyr model isn’t gone from the world, but it is easy for the martyr to get swallowed up in terrorist ideology/methodology.

  • Gary J Hill

    The picture was a joke in response to far left nut jobs. No amount of witnessing or love of these people will result in anything but ridicule. When the time is right, God will convict their hearts. In the meantime, we can only love them and have a little bit of fun in return. This picture will help them realize the ridiculousness of their request.

    • MorganGuyton

      “No amount of witnessing or love of these people will result in anything but ridicule.” That’s a very convenient presumption for you to make about a whole category of people. I don’t see anything funny about the “joke” that Holly Fisher’s picture supposedly is. It makes a “joke” of my religion. The Bible should not be used as a prop in a photo regardless of whether it’s serious or joking around.

  • http://www.allthingstruthful.wordpress.com/ Bethany Grace Paget

    I just can’t with that picture of Holly. The sad thing is that I know many people who would have done the same thing.

    • MorganGuyton

      Yup.

  • raylampert

    Actually, I don’t think this is a “failure” of Christian witness at all. I’ve grown up hearing the ignorant, hateful, bigoted rhetoric of Christianity all my life. The people who wave signs saying “God hates Fags”, the people who support kidnapping and torture, the people who label a college student a “whore” for advocating increased access to birth control, the people who say that evolution is a lie from the Devil, the people who say that rape pregnancies are a “gift from God”, the people who lobby for compulsory prayer in public schools while ignoring the declining educational standards in this country, the people who make millions of dollars from donations while we have ever-increasing poverty. No, the message of Christianity is loud and clear, and it has been for decades. And I want no part of it.

    • MorganGuyton

      I’m sorry that evil Satanic people have misrepresented Christianity to you. There is a Christianity that’s very different even if it’s often quite hidden in our society.

  • George Harvard

    So, REAL CHRISTIANS, are guilty of all the terrorism throughout the world??? How can this be explained?……I didn’t know that Christians were terrorists.

  • George Harvard

    Why did the LIBBIES invent this “Sojourners”…Is this “Sojourners” a method of liberalism’s attempt to worship God, while breaking the Law of the Lord?……

  • Madeleine Alexei

    Morgan, you reference the photos of Fisher and Riyashi in this post, but since transferring your blog to Patheos the photos haven’t been transferred with it. The post doesn’t make as much sense without the photos at the top. Is there a way to remedy this?


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