Reflections Prompted by the Taliban

“But for God’s command, we would be murderers.”

This thought may very well have entered the heads of the men who, in the name of the LORD, were ordered by Israel’s military leaders to devote several Canaanite cities to destruction (Joshua 10:29-43).[1] Now, as the United States has completed its ignominious withdrawal, the same thought likely occurs to men marching through the streets of Kabul with assault rifles, killing foreigners and abducting women as spoils of war. A superficially thin but monumental difference separates these token renunciations of personal guilt: in the one case, the justifying sentiment’s underlying supposition—that God had in fact commanded the violence in question—is true; in the other, it is false. Because of this difference, while the actions committed by the Taliban and by ancient Israel are by outward appearance similar in character, one of these groups is guilty of great sin, while the other is actually deserving of praise. The latter group was rewarded with their enemies’ land as an inheritance, while the former men, if they do not repent, will be eternally punished for their actions in Hell. In a word, the Taliban mujahideen are murderers; the Israelites, as a rule, were not.[2]

These are discomfiting observations. Modern secular morality would have us condemn anyone who kills non-combatants, no matter their ideology and no matter the alleged justification. Such a sentiment is well-meaning and intuitively obvious—yet, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Violence, of course, is a hateful solution to any problem, and, even when prescribed by God, should be undertaken only with great sorrow and regret. Moreover, given the merciful and longsuffering character of God, only very rarely is violence actually justified—especially in the age of Christ’s church, in which the prevailing rule is “turn the other cheek” rather than “devote to destruction unto the LORD.”

However, despite these qualifications, we must not forget that God is a just and holy Judge. He will end the Church age by calling the world to account for its sins, and will ultimately punish His enemies with fire and sulphur (Revelation 14:10), treading them underfoot like grapes in a winepress (Revelation 14:19). As Christians, our highest duty is not to pay homage to even the uncontroversial elements of the moral milieu (such as “violent conquest is universally immoral”), nor even to always obey our own intuitive senses of right and wrong, but ultimately to obey God Himself, and to have faith that His commands are just and right—even when, from our temporally-bound and limited and sinful perspectives, they may seem to be immoral. We have such faith because we understand that God and morality, by their very natures, cannot possibly conflict.

Søren Kierkegaard’s masterwork Fear and Trembling wrestles with precisely this topic. Kierkegaard approaches the conflict between ethical and religious commitments through the story of Abraham and Isaac recounted in Genesis 22, in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. Abraham, of course, obeys God—right up until the knife is raised over Isaac’s throat, whereupon God rescinds His command and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead. Upon hearing such a story, one might well ask: Has Abraham not betrayed an ethical commitment to his son, one placed upon him and upon all parents by God, and understood intuitively as being natural law? If we were to read in the news that a man had tied his innocent son to an altar and killed him with a knife, all of us would condemn him as a murderer, even if he loudly insisted that God had told him to do it. I would go so far as to wager that most Christian pastors, teachers, and priests would likewise dismiss the man’s story as obviously false, on the grounds that God, of necessity, never commands anything through personal revelation that violates the precepts received within His special revelation.

Why, then, should Abraham be praised?

Is it because Abraham had a prescriptive right to be a great man, so that what he did is great, and when another does the same it is sin, a heinous sin? In that case I do not wish to participate in such thoughtless eulogy. If faith does not make it a holy act to be willing to murder one’s son, then let the same condemnation be pronounced upon Abraham as upon every other man. If a man perhaps lacks courage to carry his thought through, and to say that Abraham was a murderer, then it is surely better to acquire this courage, rather than waste time upon undeserved eulogies. The ethical expression for what Abraham did is, that he would murder Isaac; the religious expression is, that he would sacrifice Isaac; but precisely in this contradiction consists the dread which can well make a man sleepless, and yet Abraham is not what he is without this dread.[3]

For Kierkegaard, Abraham was a great man because he obeyed God, even in something that was not only supremely painful, but also apparently unethical. He trusted God over the demands of the “ethical realm,” trusting that the Giver of the laws had both the prerogative and a good reason to suspend them in this particular, special case. He trusted God, even though he knew that the most ethical of men would, from their own perspectives, be justified in thinking him a would-be murderer.

The claim, nota bene, is not that God can or does modify or revoke moral laws at will, as though he were changing the substance of what the standard of His holiness demands. God’s laws are not arbitrary; they are the expression of His unchanging character, and grounded in the same. Rather, the claim is that, because the ultimate end of all ethics is the glorification of God—the summum bonum—universally-quantified moral laws, such as those given in the Ten Commandments, which work exceedingly well as shorthands, nevertheless can often bend in specific situations, in which their direct application would no longer serve that highest of ends. Nevertheless, we can only be justified in breaking such a moral law by our knowledge of a direct command from God which overrules the law. This is the essence of the “dread” to which Kierkegaard refers: the epistemic struggle of knowing when God truly has spoken in such a powerful and fearful way; of discerning whether or not we are being deceived. Essential to this dread is the fact that it is not resolvable. There is no “litmus test,” no logical flow chart with proof texts in the footnotes, for determining the authenticity of a presumed encounter with God. In the end, anyone who takes it upon himself to perform such a “teleological suspension of the ethical” will be required to make a leap of faith—either to Heaven, or to Hell. He must be confident, on independent grounds, that he knows God well enough to recognize His voice (John 10:27).

Of course, Fear and Trembling here becomes a koan—for this describes all of our situations, and there are eternal, unfathomable consequences both for getting our religious judgments right, and for getting them wrong. Nothing could ever be more significant than whether the words we speak about God are true. No wonder, then, that we are commanded to continually “examine [ourselves], to see whether [we] are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5), and, in doing so, to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Now, back to the Taliban—and to a troubling thought. From their perspective, the Taliban are justified in their conquest. They believe that God has commanded their jihad against both Christianity and the secular West, and, moreover, that their taking of Afghanistan is an important victory in that metaphysically-laden holy war. Are Taliban militants thereby absolved from personal guilt for their acts of terror? Resoundingly and emphatically, we must answer No. This is despite the fact that God can and sometimes does command things that, like holy wars, offend even the most well-founded of modern ethical sensibilities. For, while it is true that, if the Taliban had such a command, they would be justified, it is not true that they have such a command; and so their guilt remains, regardless of their beliefs. This is where the brunt of that Kierkegaardian “dread” may be found—in the distinct possibility of being wrong; of sinning in the name of God, and thereby taking His name in vain; of claiming divine right to kill and burn where no such right has been given, and thereby bringing holy wrath down upon your own head. (Even more precisely, that dread is rooted in the possibility of getting it wrong in either direction: as an object lesson in the opposite direction, Ahaz cited the Law as an excuse for disobeying a direct command from God’s prophet, and was rebuked for it. See Isaiah 7:10-13.) So then, the fact that the Taliban genuinely believe they are in the right is no more relevant to their objective guilt than is the fact that any hard-hearted unbeliever genuinely believes that the evils he commits and endorses are in fact choice goods.

One more clarification. Am I saying that, for all we truly know, God could have endorsed and commanded the actions of the Taliban? No; I am not. Through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, Christians may know with absolute and direct certainty that God does not approve of the Taliban’s actions. However, our knowledge that the current violence in Afghanistan is not divinely sanctioned is rationally justified from Scripture: from our understanding that God always acts to glorify His Own Name, and that of His Messiah; from our knowing that God loves His Son, and His Son’s people, the Church. It does not come from the violent character of the actions themselves, as though these were somehow antithetical to the prescriptive will of a holy God.

God commands some men to kill, and to kill in ways that are objectively brutal. Whether those men are Israel or the Taliban is, at least for now, a matter of debate. Yet, if we condemn either group, it must not be in a moral and contextual vacuum, nor even from within a sphere of “ethics” which does not seriously consider the reality of divine commands, and of divine authority over interpersonal ethics. To a claim of divine command, one can do nothing but investigate the source and determine the authenticity of the command. There can be no abstract calculi of morality, no decontextualized analyses based upon so-called “universal principles,” and no ethical judgments made from outside of the ethical system of Creation taken as a whole—that is, without taking God’s work in history, and His relations to His creatures, His existence and His nature, all into holistic account. Divorce God from His creation, attempt to formulate ethics entirely from within creation, and you will get nothing but disaster and inconsistency, and all of your prescriptions will be ultimately without ground. The only way to genuinely obey God is to hear His voice and to follow it. This, as Kierkegaard understood, is one of the greatest terrors of faith.

[1]  The interpretation, veridicality, and theological implications of this passage are obviously all hotly debated. Of particular note, Oeste and Webb (2019) have argued on the basis of similar Ancient Near Eastern war records that biblical language of wholesale slaughter is hyperbolic, akin to a football player’s boast that his team “slaughtered” their opponents.

[2] The edge case motivating the inclusion of the “as a rule” is the hypothetical Israelite who enjoyed the slaughter of the Canaanites, for its own sake—who carried out a morally justified but inherently distasteful action with immoral, sadistic glee. Such a man could arguably be called a murderer even though his situation made the killing of his enemies permissible qua warfare. For discussion, see Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (1969).

[3]  Fear and Trembling, tr. Walter Lowrie (“Preliminary Expectoration”)


One response to “Reflections Prompted by the Taliban”

  1. the account of Abraham and Issac has another amazing and graceful perspective

    God is declaring through these passages. that he is a God of grace and no amount of sacrifice and pleading and “works” will “appease” Him, because He isn’t like the gods the pagans of Abrahams time were “worshipping”. these pagans were always in a state of “working” and sacrificing to appease the gods and gain favor, be “blessed” save ones life. and yes these pagans were sacrificing their children to their so called gods out of fear and trepidation. It wasn’t unusual to witness child sacrifice at the time the beauty of this account. is that God was displaying that he wasn’t like the pagans gods and when he asked Abraham to sacrifice Issac – he was taking him through the ritual only to turn it around and say No You don’t need to sacrifice your son to appease me. I value the children and I am not like those pagan gods. I will provide the sacrifice

    so in essence He is partially acting on the protocol of the day and then showing the people and Abraham the right and perfect way. I, God ,will provide the sacrifice. you don’t have to act out in fear and carry on dancing to the gods and doing all kinds of crazy things to appease the gods. I am the true God and I love you and I will provide the sacrifice. (don’t work so hard and laboriously to be at peace and blessed. don’t sacrifice your child out of fear). I God don’t work like that I don’t require
    I will provide the sacrifice.

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