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president-obamaThe beheading of journalist James Foley has shocked the world and elicited outrage from virtually every corner of civilized society.

Unfortunately, this kind of brutality is no longer uncommon. The ISIS rampage has delivered grisly videos of executions, reports of religious minorities being maimed and killed, and beheadings in the Middle East, all designed to draw attention to the bloodthirsty antics of terrorism’s most recent villains.

Foley was not an outlier. He was the public victim of Islamic militancy’s newest wave of terror.

The threat of ISIS should concern anyone who loves freedom and justice. But I fear that the moral convictions needed to confront such unspeakable evil may be missing in the United States today. We seem to be gaining our moral bearings from an overly optimistic vision of the world’s future and human nature.

President Obama’s remarks on the Foley incident included a theme that surfaces frequently in political discourse today. It is the theme of progress, the future, and what it means to live in the 21st century. Obama sounded the note of hope by appealing to the future:

People like [ISIS] ultimately fail.  They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy and the world is shaped by people like Jim Foley, and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.

The president’s comment about the future may be powerful rhetoric, but it is not reality. If history shows us anything, it is that “the future” has often belonged to those who are passionate enough about their cause to destroy anything in their way in order to build something different.

It was “building” a society that inspired Adolf Hitler to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. It is the “rebuilding” of Russia that led Vladimir Putin across the borders into Crimea, a conflict which has resulted in the destruction of a plane full of civilians.

ISIS does not see itself as destroying; these thugs see themselves as building an Islamic Caliphate. They have an apocalyptic worldview; they are for “progress,” only their definition of progress is radically different than ours. They are righteous; we are evil. Therefore, they can pillage, rape, execute and behead with impunity. They see themselves as the future.

Here is where the president’s appeal to “the future” and “progress” lets us down. Let’s summarize the thought process behind these remarks:

Humans are evolving into a more compassionate and just society. These acts of brutality are reversions to our basest, primitive instincts. They are no longer acceptable for a world that is building for the future, continuing on the Enlightenment experiment that leads to peace, prosperity, and justice for all.

A century ago, the world’s leaders were saying similar things. The days of feuding families and pillaging peoples were behind us. Technology and science were ushering us into a new day, and the bloody battles of the past would become a distant memory.

Then came the Great War. The optimistic appeal to societal advance as a hedge against warfare was the pathway to the bloodiest century our world has ever seen.

In last week’s speech, President Obama also said this:

From governments and peoples across the Middle East there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer, so that it does not spread.  There has to be a clear rejection of these kind of nihilistic ideologies.  One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century.

I appreciate the president’s calling ISIS a cancer. But it appears he uses the metaphor in a way that focuses on its spread, not its intrinsic evil.

Note the last line in that paragraph. Radical Islamic ideology has no place in the 21st century. Which begs the question, In which century does such brutality have a place?

From a purely historical standpoint, the president makes a good point. These kinds of killings are reminiscent of horrible carnage in medieval times.

But simply claiming that the tides of time have done away with such brutality, that the wave of progress has “left these groups behind” is to miss the reality of what is taking place. It’s to appeal to societal advance as the rationale for opposing ISIS, not good and evil. And “societal advance” is the same reason ISIS is fighting the West; they think we are the cancer infecting the world.

Unfortunately, even calling ISIS a “cancer” was too harsh for Michael Boyle of The New York Times. He chided Obama for this choice of words, worried that adding a moral dimension to these events will cloud our judgment when it comes to policy:

Moralizing rhetoric also defines groups on the basis of their tactics rather than their goals. However appalled we might be by a group’s actions, our objective should always be to understand our enemies as they do themselves: in this case, a highly organized insurgency with specific strategic objectives.

Ah, that’s right. We need to better understand what it is the terrorists want, to walk a mile in their shoes, right?

This kind of criticism reminds me of when President Bush was criticized for his “Axis of Evil” talk. Though Bush regularly misapplied his language of “good and evil” (he positioned the United States as the great power “ridding the world of evil”), he was right to speak from within a moral framework. Reagan was right to label the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” No other word captured the oppression of that society.

“The language of good and evil may provide a comforting sense of moral clarity, but it rarely, if ever, produces good policy,” says Michael Boyle. Tell that to Winston Churchill. Without a deeply rooted sense of the goodness of their cause, the Allies would not have had the moral fortitude to stand up to the Nazi war machine.

As Christians, we cannot see the calendar as the arbiter of justice. We uphold the portrait of humanity so richly presented by the Scriptures. Humans are not basically good, building the future of progress toward paradise. Humans are corrupt through and through, and our Towers of Babel are destined for dust.

Until we recognize the innate evil in every human heart, we will seek to relegate dangerous ideologies to “another age,” unable to imagine the moral high ground from which we say that some things are simply wrong, unspeakably evil, always - no matter what day of the week it is or century we find ourselves in.


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26 thoughts on “President Obama’s Mythical 21st Century”

  1. Carl DavyRomano says:

    Great thoughts here, Trevin.
    The “funny” thing about President Obama’s remark is that ISIS, in my opinion, is THE sadistic poster child of the 21st century. They are a well-funded, social media-proficient force of evil. The heart of man is always against God, save redemption in Christ, and with the advance of the ages I’m sure we can agree we’re only going to see an advance in the form(s) evil manifests.

  2. Noah Lang says:

    The conversation surrounding Boyle’s comments reminds me of something G. K. Chesterton wrote in All Things Considered:

    “Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death tomorrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.”

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      You win “commenter of the day” for quoting Chesterton. What a great quote! Thank you.

    2. Jim says:

      Plus one!

      1. Josh says:

        Very good article, and quote! Thanks

  3. Trevor H says:

    “Humans are evolving into a more compassionate and just society. These acts of brutality are reversions to our basest, primitive instincts…”

    Base? Primitive? He clearly did not watch the VMAs last night.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Actually, what’s fascinating about this appeal to the calendar is that Obama would see the Sexual Revolution as part of the societal advance toward progress. This is the de facto argument used for same-sex marriage for example. “It’s time,” says Biden.

      1. Nathan Clarke says:

        Yes good old humanist rhetoric. Everything is getting better despite evidence to the contrary. I was also confused about the, ‘of course gay marriage, it’s the 21st century isn’t it!’ arguments. In the next breath it is stated, ‘well the Greeks did it’.

  4. I agree that we must call evil when we see it, but the danger of using language like “good and evil” is that we will automatically put ourselves on the “good” side. In doing this we feel morally superior, which from one perspective may be true, but it allows us to justify our own “evils” without self-reflection or a willingness to listen to the critique of others. As true as it is that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” it is also true that those that do evil often believe they are the “good men”.

    1. Cate Tuten says:

      Simon, I must disagree with you. There is a right and wrong in this world based on what God says is right or wrong, not our own moral compass. When we, as redeemed children of God, speak out against it, we are speaking as sinners saved by grace, not as from a superior stance. But as His adopted sons and daughters, we must speak out the Words of our Lord, the heart of our Lord, into a lost and confused world.

      1. Cate, I completely agree.
        I wasn’t saying that there is no good and no evil. I am just cautious about us defining ourselves as the “good guys” as it may lead us to not examine ourselves.
        The context isn’t really parallel, but it’s a bit like the rich young ruler who came to Christ and Christ questions him on his definition or understanding of “good”, pointing out that “no one is good but God alone”. He did this, not because he wasn’t good, but because he wanted the man to question his own goodness. We must do the same, even when we are calling out true evil in the world.

    2. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      o “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”

      o “those that do evil often believe they are the “good men”

      Here’s another one: “To be silent or to do nothing in the face of evil is to be complicit with evil.”

      Anyways, the Word of God is True North when it comes to determining what is Good and what is Evil.

      ISIS’s murderous actions are evil. Stopping ISIS (which in all likelihood wil have to involve violence) is good.

  5. Chad Damewood says:

    We just completed the bloodiest century in all of human history and the first 13 years of this century haven’t exactly been bloodless. It seems that the President is not a student of history.

  6. Rob Pochek says:

    When I see comments like those of President Obama I think of the following story: Following the successful rescue mission by Navy SEALs of freighter Captain Richard Phillips on Easter morning, 2009, Ryan Job was asked by a local reporter if he thought using Navy SEALs against Somali pirates was overkill. His response was, “despite what your mamma told you, violence does solve problems.” This then became the motto for Craft International, the training group started by the late Chris Kyle.

  7. Dillon says:

    Trevin,

    Great read–thanks for posting. But I’m curious–what do you make of Cornelius Plantinga’s and Ross Douthat’s thesis that the public square still has a category for talk of sin (i.e., that some actions are right and wrong), but that the categories have changed? So, for example, it is said to be wrong (sinful) to, say, deny same-sex couples the right to “marry.” There seems to be comfort in using the language of sin, provided it’s on liberal terms.

    If this is true, though, the criticism of your post becomes more stark yet, since the language of “evil” might willingly be applied to alleged violations of “human rights” (especially sexual “rights”), but not necessarily the right to live.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I don’t deny that. Douthat is right that we still have talk of sin, only that the definition of who is the sinner has changed.

      Like I pointed out above, much of the ‘debate’ over gay marriage, for example, has been made on the basis of societal advance, and from there, the charge of bigotry toward anyone who disagrees.

  8. Dean P says:

    “President Obama’s remarks on the Foley incident included a theme that surfaces frequently in political discourse today. It is the theme of progress, the future, and what it means to live in the 21st century. Obama sounded the note of hope by appealing to the future” How is this pursuit any different than George W Bush’s pursuit of creating utopia via democracy in his attempt at nation building that put us in Iraq to begin with? No its all politics no matter what bobble head from a party repeats the rhetoric. They all use the same rhetoric its just we have a short memory when our guy says essentially the same thing.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Good point, which is why I said in the post that Bush’s language was often misapplied. See Peggy Noonan’s take on Bush’s 2nd inaugural, for example:

      “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” “Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”

      Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.

      1. Dean P says:

        But was his solution for ending tyreny in the Middle east? It seemed to be the prospect of setting up democracy and as we have seen based on what is going on now democracy and Islam go together like oil and water. And based on the present state of that nation Obama would never be saying what he is saying to begin with.

  9. Ray H. says:

    Trevin,

    I feel like your comments are a little oversimplifying the situation. Of course there needs to more discussion about moral categories in our public discourse. But the picture in the Middle East is extremely complicated. Let’s not forget that ISIS has massive popular support due to the awful mismanagement of Iraq by Maliki, who we put in power (and Iran supported). ISIS is evil, but in fighting them means we do a big favor for Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all of whom have been fighting ISIS since 2012 – and maybe in this case that’s the right thing to do. But it’s a whole lot to consider.

  10. Curt Day says:

    It’s quite easy for us to see the evil of others, it’s another matter when it comes to looking at one’s own actions. Do we honestly think that people weren’t beheaded, babies weren’t slaughtered, and fetuses weren’t aborted by the bombs and missiles of Shock And Awe? And don’t the victims of Israel’s operation Protective Edge count in our eyes? Certainly, there are other past Western examples we can go to.

    The point being is that the bar for moral is not being set high when it is measured by our resistance to ISIS. Piling on in condemning the atrocities of others is a fan fave. And though Boyle may not be correct in the solution suggested by his criticisms. his concerns have strong historical support.

    Currently, the conservative Christian view of war is that it will occur and so we use whatever rules, such as Augustine’s Just War principles, and go on our merry way. The problem is that we haven’t studied war past Augustine et. al. and thus we end up perpetually repeating the same mistakes. This is a problem because, as Barth note, most of today’s wars are bout expansion and the proliferation of WMDs is inevitable–surprise, there can be something new under the sun.

    No, the real moral courage lies with those among us who call for us to practice self-criticism so we can change for the better even if their call is flawed. Of course for the better will involve opposing evil. But it will also include letting oneself be accountable to others. And that latter something seems to be almost missing in America’s interventions.

    1. Jamie B. says:

      Whilst I appreciate the article here by Trevin, I wonder if groups like the Gospel Coalition offer articles of introspection on such things as double tap drone strikes etc. When we talk about evil we are so quick to point to the other (and this is not to deny that what ISIS is doing is evil) but we are often unable to critique our own actions. People are morally outraged when an American journalist is beheaded, and yet as you rightly alluded to, we bear little thought of the possibly beheadings caused by our long range missiles.

  11. Brian Spears says:

    Read your blog post. You do ISIS is funded and trained by the United States of America. The plane in Crimea was the only passenger jet flying through a no fly war zone. Who told them to take that route, when everyone knew it was dangerous. ISIS is Al CIAda new name same guys.
    Also the brutality that is going on is nothing new, its just being posted on twitter. Look Rawanda, Liberia, Darfur, Pol Pot, Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil this crap happens all the time.

  12. Ken says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this very thoughtful post. Admittedly, I have the attention span of a gnat and I find myself dismissing much of what the politicians say and not spending the time I should to carefully evaluate what dribbles from their lips. When we hold what we say up to the objective truths of scripture, our arguments can look pretty foolish. The world never does that. Their vision of truth is more like an untethered buoy bobbing about and being driven by the sea of humanistic pride and delusion.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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