Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Christian Response to Terrorism

Brenda Kay Zylstra


August 19, 2011
by Brenda Kay Zylstra

A decade ago the 9/11 terrorist attacks shattered the post-Cold War global order and resonated around the world, setting into motion a chain of events that would significantly alter the geo-political landscape.

Terrorism is not a new threat, but in an age of hyper-interconnectedness it is a newly powerful threat. Its random violence and the looming specter of another 9/11 have led to a frightened American public willing to trade much treasure for the feeling of safety.

As a community of believers we have largely failed to articulate a particularly Christian framework for thinking about terrorism, instead falling in with the standard line of whichever political party we prefer. To begin such a project, I present three angles for further examination.

First, we ought never to be among those who demand our government take every precaution against terrorist attacks. We will never be totally safe from terrorist attacks, and in the process of seeking an unattainable security, the United States government has gone beyond the right exercise of authority many times. The public debates about the Patriot Act, torture, and the Iraq War acted on the assumption that maximum safety was our highest goal. Maybe it should not be.

Besides being logistically impossible, the very idea of seeking total security on this earth ought to seem incongruous to the Christian. This earth is not our home. We need to be deeply critical of the trade-offs our government has made and continues to make in the name of greater security. Without denying the harsh reality of international relations, our imperative is allegiance to Christ before country. 

Second, we ought to be among the first to remember that most terrorism in the Western world is not committed by Islamists. According to Europol, in 2009 Islamists committed only one terrorist attack out of 294 in the European Union. The other 293 were committed by separatists and anarchists. Just a few weeks ago when the news broke of the terrorism in Norway, many media outlets jumped to the conclusion of Muslim terrorism, only to be forced to recant a few hours later when the perpetrator was revealed to be a Christian.

This bias indicates the paucity of our understanding of terrorism. Terrorism plays out all over the world, as disenfranchised minorities fight for reasons political, religious, or ethnic. We need to divorce the association between Muslim and terrorist that has grown in our collective consciousness.

Furthermore, terrorism increasingly blurs with organized crime, as terrorists engage in various forms of trafficking to fund their political activities. This is a global issue, a sprawling underground economy of nodes and networks. What this means is that our framework for dealing with terrorism must assume significant international cooperation.

Skepticism about international institutions has its place, but there are certain problems we cannot address alone. Terrorism and organized crime stand at the top of that list.

Finally, we should ourselves be wary of the conditions that lead people to commit terrorist attacks, and avoid fermenting the same anger in our own circles. For example, many times I have seen pro-life activists compared to terrorists, and sadly, when the activism turns into bombing and shooting, the terrorism label is undeniable. No doubt the larger pro-life community has tried to distance itself from the fringe membes who perpetrate such needless violence. But this is not enough. We need to exercise extreme caution in the language we use when engaging in public debate.  When activists refer to debate as a ‘war’ and demonize their opponents, is it any wonder the righteous anger of a few turns to vengeful hate?

In the same vein, we are in a political moment in which it sometimes feels like the only voices heard are those screaming in anger. This will only intensify as the Presidential campaign heats up. We need to exercise calm, maintaining compassion for those we disagree with and belief that God’s sovereignty reigns beyond our control. Terrorism stems from fury at a seemingly hopeless situation. We have a greater hope.

—Brenda Kay Zylstra is a recent graduate of the Harris School of Public Policy and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”