Tony Norman: Islamic State puts a pacifist in a tough place

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Between the unrest in Ferguson, the renewal of American bombing in Iraq, the murder of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State and even a few lingering headlines about Robin Williams’ death, it was easy to get lost in a thicket of bad vibes last week.

So when headlines started popping up on various news sites about Pope Francis giving what amounted to a tentative seal of approval to military action against the Islamic State, I thought it was a curious — but not unreasonable — change of heart, even for this particular pontiff.

I only got around later to reading the actual stories under the headlines for more context. The headlines hinting at papal complicity with state-sanctioned violence had initially echoed my own desire to see justice done on the Islamic State.

After all, even my hero, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, joined a group of German dissidents in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Though things turned out badly for Bonhoeffer and the plotters, it was the thought that counted, right? A little pragmatism in today’s world seemed about right, in the face of the kind of evil that enslaves women, persecutes religious minorities, decapitates journalists, destroys priceless artifacts and threatens world domination.

But upon further reflection, the idea of Pope Francis giving even a tacit blessing to what would be interpreted in the Muslim world only as a repeat of Pope Urban’s folly in 1095 didn’t sit well.

Even though Muslim clerics around the world are issuing fatwahs against the Islamic State, and feuding Islamic nations from Iran to Saudi Arabia want to see it crushed as much as Europeans and Americans do, it seemed an odd time for a confirmed peacemaker like Pope Francis to inject a whiff of the Crusades into such a combustible bush of religious passions.

There’s always been a hope that Pope Francis would hold to a higher standard — even an unachievable one — like radical nonviolence. That hope for him was shared by Protestants like myself who admire him but who don’t place papal opinions on a pedestal.

How many times does the theory of conducting a “just” war practiced in this or any other century have to be discredited before everyone acknowledges that it has never worked? The pope is an exceptionally smart and humble guy. He knows this history as well as anyone.

A few days ago, it dawned on me that whatever Pope Francis actually said during a news conference after his recent trip to South Korea had probably been misinterpreted by headline writers. In general, mainstream media have never been as nuanced in their religious reporting as in other areas. Reading Pope Francis’ actual quotes confirmed my suspicion.

“I can only say this,” Pope Francis said when asked what should be done about the Islamic State’s drive to conquer all of Iraq, “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.”

As if to make clear he was not endorsing President Barack Obama’s decision to use American air power and drones, he said that “one nation alone cannot judge” and that the United Nations should weigh in. “Is there an unjust aggressor?” the pope asked rhetorically. “It would seem there is. How do we stop him?”

Yes, that is the question. Do we go the route of conducting a “just” war or do we pursue some as yet undefined non-military approach?

Though Pope Francis offered no specific remedy, he fell far short of endorsing Mr. Obama’s use of targeted airstrikes. Perhaps anticipating criticism of what some might perceive as an initial bullishness for military action against the Islamic State, as a reaction exclusively to its brutal treatment of Christians, Pope Francis made clear that he was not playing religious favorites.

“The martyrs, there are many martyrs,” Pope Francis said of the blood-slicked roads and villages of Iraq and Syria. “But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.”

If anything, Pope Francis sounds as stumped as the rest of us about how to confront the Islamic State without making a horrible situation worse.

Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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