Over the last two months of ISIS-perpetrated massacres, displacements, and beheadings, a two-line scene from The Two Towers movie has played itself out in my head over and over again. As hordes of orcs besieging the terrified forces of a battered human community threaten to break into their last mountain stronghold, Aragorn, the up-and-coming Messiah-figure, stands in the middle of the stronghold talking to Theoden, the aged king of Rohan. When all seems lost, Theoden asks with tired desperation, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”
I think this confused horror captures the mood of many reading the news about ISIS—not only in Iraqi Kurdistan but also in the West–especially when things seemed to be at their worst a month and a half ago.
After Theoden’s question, Aragorn pauses for a moment, and then looks up with new light and says to the worn-out king, “Ride out! Ride out and meet them!” Theoden, freshly inspired, summons his guard and careens down the castle ramp in a glorious charge. And just when it looks like their senseless courage will cost them their lives, the dawn breaks and Gandalf the wizard arrives with an army of reinforcements who sweep the enemy away.
Back on August 8, when President Obama announced he had begun targeted airstrikes on ISIS forces threatening Erbil, where we live, and Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yezidis were besieged, I felt like chiming in with Aragorn. “Ride out and meet them!” I was scared. The evil was stark. The responsibility to protect was clear.
No politician has channeled this sentiment better than vice-president Joe Biden who said a few weeks ago that the US would pursue ISIS “to the gates of hell.” Even Obama has climbed on board with his promise to “degrade and destroy” ISIS last week.
I’m not a creative enough pacifist to imagine alternatives to the apparent necessity of US airstrikes. I do know that ISIS militants aren’t orcs. I know their fundamentalism is more modern than medieval. I know that a great deal of the blame for the current conflict can be placed squarely on the legacy of US invasion and occupation. I know that the longer the US (and now French) bombing campaign against ISIS continues, the more likely it is to be counterproductive, to put it mildly. And I also know that Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis alike in Erbil and throughout Kurdistan received news of US airstrikes with the same gratitude with which Tolkien’s imagined refugees regarded Gandalf’s reinforcements.
So what can I say? After what many Iraqi Christians regard, with alarming frankness, as 1400 years of persecution, “turn the other cheek” is a hard command to hear. Reminding them of it is not something I feel I can do. After all, as a US citizen living in Erbil, the airstrikes came explicitly, in part, on my behalf.
I remember going to the English-language mass on the evening of August 8, the start of the US bombing campaign, feeling deeply unsettled. Not just scared and confused, but completely without answers in a world of senseless violence. The first reading of the service was Elijah’s encounter with God on the mountain. Elijah, who had been hiding in a cave from those seeking his life, is told to stand outside and wait for God to “pass by.” A wind, an earthquake, a fire, and then “the sound of sheer silence” all take their turn on the mountain before God speaks to Elijah, telling him to get on with his vocation as a prophet. I’d never realized before that evening that the text doesn’t say, as we often infer, that God spoke in the silence. Each event—silence included—just happens without any explanation. And then the story continues, and Elijah resumes his work. This feeling of purposelessness matched my mood, and it wasn’t comforting. God is here. But as usual, it’s hard to see where.