Don’t Call it War (by Tim Suttle)

Don’t Call it War (by Tim Suttle) November 20, 2015

This post is by Tim Suttle, author of Shrink, a book I highly recommend. For more about Tim, scroll to the bottom of this post. In this post Tim proposes that what we call these murders in France reveals both what we see and what we will do. This is a thoughtful piece about how Christians can think.

My heart goes out to the people of France, especially the residents of Paris. When faced with such unspeakable violence and barbarism humans cannot help but experience a visceral loss of our sense of security. The fear resulting from such a loss can send us straight into our limbic system, and it’s fight, flight, or freeze. America came out fighting. Will France have the discipline to choose an alternative response?

In the wake of 9/11 theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas pointed out that President Bush and American leaders made a massive tactical mistake in terms of the language they used to describe the attacks. They called it an act of war. But it wasn’t war. It was murder.

I see the leaders of France making the same mistake. This was not an act of war, this was cold blooded murder. Those who planned and executed the attacks are not warriors. They are murderers. The moment you call an act of terrorism an act of war you give the perpetrators of such violence exactly what they want. You elevate them to a status far beyond what they deserve.

This was not an act of war. This was an act of murder, and great nations don’t go to war because of murder.

Turning a plane load of civilians into a smart bomb is not an act of war, it’s an act of lunacy. Turning the peaceful public sporting events, concerts, and restaurants into bloodbaths is not act act of war, it is an act of madness. When Americans adopted the language of war in order to describe the hijacking of airplanes and flying them fully fueled and loaded with people into buildings, we normalized that behavior, categorizing it as collateral damage in this horrific thing we call war.

I beg the people of France not to make the same mistake America did. When America adopted the language of war it initiated not one, but two wars at the cost of trillions of dollars and untold lives, not to mention a massive financial recession. The major result of those wars was the creation of ISIS, the organization now taking credit for planning and executing the violence in Paris. Our strategy of war has not been very effective in terms of quelling global terrorism, and it has eroded all of the goodwill we experienced after 9/11.

Call terrorism an act of war and you unwittingly surrender the high ground. Call it murder, and you name these acts and their perpetrators much more accurately. Call it murder and you can still promise to hunt down the murderers and bring them to justice, but this time you can say: we refuse to stoop to your level. We could bomb you into oblivion but we wont, because we’re better than that. We will not become murderers like you. We refuse to seek revenge and retribution, and the world will see our true colors. We promise to bring these murderers to justice, but we refuse to join the ranks of ordinary nations by acting rashly.

Nations have already begun to rain down bombs in response to the violence in Paris. If you continue down this road and let slip the dogs of war I can promise two things will happen.

First, you will find out that going to war with radical Islam will not make you safer, and it will not make you happy. You may get a momentary buzz of actually doing something in response, but the euphoria will be replaced by the cries of mourning as your sons and daughters are lost to war. War will never satisfy the longing you have right now, because what you long for is peace, and the road to peace only comes through forgiveness.

Second, you will find that once you go down the road of war with radical Islam, you cannot control the outcomes. You can have the most powerful military, the best strategy, the greatest leaders, and the most virtuous intentions in the world, and you still won’t be able to determine outcomes to your satisfaction. War in the Middle East will always go sideways because the West has more to lose. Desperate poverty makes for a dangerous enemy. Those who fight wars on terror will invest more and more money, relational capital, and lives with very little to show for it in the end. The only way to vanquish this enemy is to make them a friend. If France will have the imagination and discipline to pursue peace with as much creativity and vigor as the U.S. pursued war, they may well lead the way to a better future.

Compared to France, America is still a relatively young nation. We made the mistake of youth. We responded to our tragedy by calling it war instead of murder. Maybe, if we had the discipline to call it murder, we would have more quickly heeded the wisdom of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who said,

“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

To the people of France I say: you have the benefit of maturity and many more centuries of experience. I urge you not to make the mistake of youth. Don’t call it war. Call it murder. Don’t try to murder murder. The only way forward is for France to do what America was unable to do: find the high road, and take it. Find a way to forgive. If you don’t, you only have yourselves to blame. If you do, you will prove yourselves to be a great nation.

Find out more about Tim at

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of He is the author of several books including his most recent – Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim’s work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band’s most recent album is “Straight Back to Kansas.” He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim’s blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    I don’t think America came out fighting, we came out frozen by fear.

  • danaames

    Highly recommended: Article from The Atlantic, March 2015, “What Isis Really Wants” by Graham Wood.


  • Of course this was an act of war. It wasn’t an act of just war (certainly no jus in bello and probably no jus ad bellum either), but it was an act of war. Daesh has a semi-functioning state, government, administration, and military. To act like they’re not those things is bizarre. Dispatching soldiers and operatives to massacre dozens of enemy civilians is absolutely an act of war (in about the clearest and least ambiguous sense), and that is what Daesh did and has been doing.

    It’s fine if Suttle wants to leave Daesh in power (or count on the power of prayer to topple them through miracles), I guess, but “bringing murderers to justice” is empty rhetoric in practical terms. How do you bring the leaders of Daesh to justice without acts of war? You don’t. Do you send in some police officers (or maybe a SWAT team) to serve a warrant, with permission of the host government? Probably not. Any police officers with the ability to fight their way through a Daesh base to snatch an enemy leader are functionally soldiers, and sending them is an act of war. Churching it up by calling it “law enforcement” is disingenuousness of the highest order. Any police force which is able to pacify a militia of hundreds (or thousands) of armed fighters on the militia’s compound is, functionally, a military. And what if we have no permission from (say) Syria or Iraq? Do we just say, “well we were kidding about that whole justice thing anyway”? OK, that’s fine. But then admit that the intent is really “bring the murderers to justice, so long as other countries are OK with it”.

    Finally, Suttle’s approach—people who do/support these acts are lunatics, not ordinary people with real motivations—makes it impossible to solve the problem in any fashion *except* violence. He makes them into rabid animals, rather than angry and disaffected young men who feel marginalized or victimized or whatever else. If they’re the latter, we can try to figure out ways to ameliorate the conditions which give rise to such anger and hatred. If they’re just animals, well, we have to put them down. That doesn’t seem like his preferred approach. (It also seems pretty racist.)

  • Bev Mitchell

    Dana, You are right, this is a great essay, and there are many more should we care to look. Many voices are also saying that we should not give these extremists what they are looking for – a big fight that they believe will bring on their version of Armageddon.

    The press and politicos have us jumping from crisis to crisis, from country to country, but this is all connected. Attacks in one place have repercussions in all other places in the greater Middle East, North Africa, the former Soviet republics in the south and parts of Africa. And the repercussions are not in our favour.

    I will resist sending a list, but a particularly worthy essay by Anne Jones will be of interest because of its strong personal content. She tells much of her story through the eyes of her friend in Afghanistan who still works tirelessly on behalf of women there. It’s difficult to see how another big push by any number of western countries, and Russia will improve things in the region.

    You can find Anne Jones’ essay at Tom Engelhardt’s site, Tomdispatch. It is datelined Nov 5, 2015.

  • Ted Johnson

    The Atlantic piece is indeed must reading here. Daesh is more of an Islamic country at the moment than many other Islamic counties. And unfortunately they are at war with us, the West, with Christians, with Shiites, other religious groups. How many Christians, French, Germans, Brits, Americans, Azidis, Shiites, Kurds, have to die or be inhumanely enslaved and dehumanized before we act in a decisive military way. I am afraid for those like Tim Suttle, far more than many others, including me, can tolerate or live with and keep looking the other way and saying but we are not at war, it it just a criminal justice thing with a few crazies. In my humble opinion, Daesh is not a few psychos, they are a movement, an ideology, a form of a religion, and they are rational, serious, and they are killing, raping, enslaving and terrorizing entire populations and cities at a very large and significant scale. And those voices cry out for more than just put a few people in jail. They cry out for Daesh to be defeated and their reign Of terror and horror to stop. We have not been witnessing the largest movement of refugees since WW2 for nothing. They are fleeing the likes of this:

  • Larry S

    I read this essay several days ago. I think it is an important piece.

    I’ve found this article from ThinkProgress which critiques Wood I think we should read both articles.

    It sounds like Islam has “progressives” like us. Perhaps they need someone like our Christian Smith (the Bible made impossible) to write a book.