Responding to Acts of Extreme Violence
by Joshua Carson
If there's one thing I've learned in my preaching classes at seminary this semester, it's that the events of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday sometimes require a change in what a congregation needs to hear on Sunday, supplanting what the preacher may have planned to preach earlier in the week. As a youth pastor, I knew that my recent evening message to our students had to change, given that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had carried out terror attacks that killed at least 129 people in Paris, France, on Friday, 44 people in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, and 224 people on a flight out of Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh airport on October 31. I knew that our students were thinking, talking, posting, and tweeting about these events, and that they have grown more globally conscious over the last few years in praying for worldwide events.
What follows is a list of questions and thoughts used to shape the discussion I facilitated with my youth group on the Sunday after the Paris terrorist attack. This discussion was an attempt to process these events along with my students and adult leaders and to provide a theological framework with which we can respond to these kinds of events. I offer it here in the hopes that others might find it helpful in processing, whether individually or corporately, acts of extreme violence.
- When you hear about terrorist attacks, what are your initial reactions? What feelings are stirred up in you? (Some may benefit from consulting this list of "soul words.")
- To what extent does violence surprise you? To what extent has it been normalized for you? Reflect on why you think that is.
- One Christ-like response to violence is to mourn with, grieve for, and comfort the victims. Unfortunately, during a tragedy like this, or even when a friend or family member dies, Christians often talk from a very poor theology. What kinds of unhelpful things have you heard Christians offer, hoping to comfort but instead inflicting greater pain? (E.g. "Oh, God must have needed that person in heaven.") What do you think is behind those kinds of painful statements?
- We can hardly avoid the avalanche of world news that hits us via our computers, radio, and TV. How can we use that same technology to become aware of the positive things going on in the world? How and where do you identify ways that the kingdom of God growing, whether locally, domestically, or internationally?
- What kind of thinking is behind Islamaphobia? Where have you seen terrorism and violent extremism expressed by religions other than Islam?
- Read Colossians 1:15-20. According to Scripture, Jesus gives us the clearest depiction of who God is. How does Jesus offer us a way out of cycles of violence? What clues do we see in how he loves both the Father and others?
- Consider the Apostle Paul's conversion to peacemaker as depicted in Acts 8-9: What led to his deliverance from his terrorist past?
- In Revelation 21:3-5, John gives us a beautiful picture of "a new heaven and a new earth" when the kingdom of God is here in its fullest. How might this promise bring comfort during times of sadness, grief, and conflict?
- Before his crucifixion Jesus was tortured and beaten, but he responded with love for his attackers. What do you think that was like for him?
- Try to recall a time when you or someone you know chose to love an enemy. What was that like? What was the hardest part? How did it change the lover? What effect did it have on the enemy?
- Take a minute to consider the violence that resides in your own heart. How is it most commonly expressed? Read Matthew 5:9. What tangible steps can you take to become a peacemaker in your own person, in your home, and in your school?
Joshua Carson is Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, PA, and is a Sider Scholar and Ayres Scholar with ESA while working on his M.Div. at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University.