We said “never again” when the Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. We said “never again” when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and mass executions against Kurdish and Shia Iraqis. We said “never again” after the Rwandan Genocide.
Yet here we are. The self-styled “Islamic State” gave Christians in Mosul, Iraq, a Saturday, high-noon deadline to: 1. Convert to Islam; 2. Pay a “submission” tax to the Islamic State; or 3. “Face the sword.”
Homes of some Christians have been marked in red paint with the letter “N” (Nazarene) for extermination or expropriation. Church buildings are being destroyed alongside the desecration of crosses and icons. It has been reported that Mosul is now emptied of Christians for the first time in some 1,800 years.
But few can appreciate the massive void that will be left in Iraq when lives lived according to historic Christian theology go extinct.
To be sure, Christianity and its cousins have been the ostensible source of great evils in the world. But creedal Christianity, for all its problems and misappropriations, still offers something unique and powerful among world religions. Namely, it offers a scapegoat who is one of us and one with God.
The extermination of Christians will lead to far greater losses than any United Nations resolution can grasp.
The Iraq War in 2003 had the potential to right historic wrongs, and it may have been doing just that until the American backing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his highly controversial second term in 2010. As Maliki became increasingly intransigent, he alienated and began targeting many of Iraq’s Sunnis, treating them with suspicion while building a sectarian national defense force and consolidating cabinet powers unto himself. By the end of 2013, Sunni tolerance for Baghdad’s oppressive and discriminatory policies had reached its limits.
Fast-forward to June 9, and a cadre of Sunni militants had organized under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and overran the city of Mosul, driving out the predominately Shia Iraqi Security Forces. ISIS quickly earned the tentative trust of locals who had often felt unduly oppressed by Maliki’s military. But after committing heinous war crimes and mass executions in Mosul, Tikrit, and beyond, ISIS went on to declare a new “Islamic State” and implemented some of the strictest interpretations of Islam in history.
And here’s where the extermination of Christians will lead to far greater losses than any United Nations resolution can grasp.
Christianity has offered the people of Iraq a potent alternative to retaliation and silent suffering.
The pain of political oppression, social ostracism, and economic hardship needs an outlet. Pain is energy and it must go somewhere. Our inclination is toward retribution. We naturally project the pain we’ve felt onto others. Without a place for pain to go, it pools and hides monsters beneath the surface.
For a millennium, Christianity has offered the people of Iraq a potent alternative to retaliation and silent suffering. Generations of Christian Iraqis have loved their enemies and placed their pain on Jesus of Nazareth. That’s historic Christianity’s unique offering: someone on whom to cast all our pain as he bears it to the cross and dies outside the city gates for the wrong we’ve done and the wrongs done against us.
That Christian distinctive is about to be destroyed in Iraq.
The agnostic institutions to whom we’ve handed over the fate of the world have always failed to understand that wherever religion is the problem, religion is also the solution. More precisely, doctrine — the things we believe about God — is the problem, and better doctrine is also the solution. Neither official diplomats nor military might can satisfactorily solve problems that are essentially doctrinal disputes.
For Christians who believe the punishment for evil has already been placed on Jesus by the Divine Judge, an attacking enemy can be seen as one whose sins have already been forgiven. Life can still be transformed. Wherever I can let Jesus take the blows of injustice, I don’t become personally vindictive. I don’t repay evil with evil; I don’t take justice into my own hands.
So Iraq, as a nation, is about to lose more than its Christians — more than their culture, ancient sites, and history. For as terrible as the loss of life has been and may be yet, Iraq is also on the verge of losing Jesus — the most powerful scapegoat it could ever have.
If the “Islamic State” is effective in its genocide against Christians, Jesus will disappear from Iraq, and we will be left with only ourselves to blame.