Fears have been running high for several months in France and other European countries that jihadists returning from conflicts in Syria and Iraq would stage attacks at home. And on January 8 it happened. Three lone gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had caricatured the prophet Muhammad, killing 12 people, including four cartoonists. The terrorists shouted, “Allahu Akbar” as they shot their victims. The story was the top news around the world for several days.
Two Canadian soldiers died at the hands of a terrorist this past October, one of whom was serving as a ceremonial honor guard at Canada’s National War Memorial. The gunman then stormed the Canadian Parliament building, where he was killed by the parliament’s sergeant-at-arms.
Then there’s the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, ISIL, or just IS), which dominated global news during the last half of 2014. On December 16, Taliban gunmen stormed a military
school in Pakistan and slaughtered 132 children, ten staff members, and three soldiers before they were stopped by Pakistani authorities. Less than a month later, news came out of the Nigerian village of Baga, near the border with Chad, that the bloodthirsty terror group Boko Haram had killed as many as 2,000 people and torched businesses and homes.
And while it may have happened almost 15 years ago, the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers and on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, is burned into the world’s psyche as
the worst such event in recent history.
Former U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers said that “it’s only a matter of time” before a terrorist attack like those in Canada and Paris happen in the United States.
The perpetrators of these terrible atrocities are inscrutable, their attacks unexpected. The psalmist could well have been describing them when he
spoke of “terror by night” (Psalm 91:5, KJV), for it is the strategy of these people that we can’t anticipate their violence or see where it comes from. For that reason, it frightens us long after it is over, even when an attack is quite unlikely to happen anywhere near us. That is, of course, why it’s called terrorism.
An ancient problem
Terrorism is nothing new. In Bible times, tribal warriors would raid peaceful herders’ encampments, killing men and taking women and children captive. The first organized terrorist cells were documented at the time of Jesus, when a sect of devout Jews, called Zealots, rebelled against the Roman occupation of Palestine. They rejected open confrontation in favor of covert tactics: garroting a Roman official on a dark street or slipping a blade between his ribs in the press of a crowd. Like terrorists today, these few made an impression on the Roman Empire far greater than their numbers.
Interestingly, Jesus had a Zealot numbered among His disciples (Luke 6:15). Though we know little about Simon the Zealot (not to be confused with Simon Peter), some of Jesus’ teachings sound as if they were for Simon’s benefit. A terrorist would likely have approved of the maxim, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Matthew 5:38). But Jesus also advised His followers that “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (verse 39). Roman law allowed a soldier to conscript a passerby to shoulder his armor and pack for one mile. Imagine how that would anger a Zealot! Jesus might have been addressing Simon the Zealot when He said, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (verse 41).
Under Jesus’ guidance, Simon conquered his anger. Not all Zealots did. In A.D. 73, a remnant of 960 secured themselves at Masada, a nearly impregnable mountaintop fortress near the Dead Sea. So angry were the Romans with these terrorists that their soldiers spent months constructing a massive earthen ramp to the fortress. But when they finally reached the top of Masada, they found that all but 7 of the 960 Zealots, men, women, and children, had committed mass suicide—making them, in a sense, the first suicide terrorists.
Though nothing of the magnitude of the World Trade Center attack has happened again, our fear of terrorism hasn’t gone away. In truth, the actual statistical threat to people like us (even if more terrorist attacks were successful) is small compared with the danger of, say, death from an auto accident or heart disease. Yet there need be no actual danger for us to feel afraid; imagining ourselves in danger is enough to rob us of our peace of mind.
Some try to address their fear by taking matters into their own hands. One troubling response to the attacks on America in 2001 was a surge in gun purchases—though there was nothing in the entire 9/11 episode that could have been addressed by average people having guns in their houses. But people didn’t buy guns because they really thought terrorists would knock on their doors one evening during dinner. They bought them to feel more secure.
Having a means of defense (whether or not they would ever use it) gave people a false sense of security. Some experts opined that gun buyers might actually have become less secure: Given the prevalence of gun-related accidents, it’s likely that the arming of the American public against terrorism, though it nabbed not a single terrorist, led to more ordinary people being shot.
How to attack fear
The Bible suggests three ways to conquer fear.
First, trust God to care for you. The faithful people in Bible times repeatedly testified to God’s protection. King David, often in danger from enemies, declared, “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence” (2 Samuel 22:2, 3, KJV).
I wonder how often God has saved me from threats to my life, health, and happiness that I didn’t even know about. It is no exaggeration to say that if you are reading this right now, you can be sure God has constantly protected you and kept you in His care! Why not take comfort in His protection during 99.99 percent of our lives instead of worrying about the minuscule chance of being a terrorists’ victim? God doesn’t want us to live in fear! Paul insists, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7, KJV).
Second, Jesus encouraged us to seek inner peace—no matter what’s happening around us. Not peace we must purchase and then manage by our own judgment, strength, and reflexes (as with a firearm), but peace that comes from knowing that God is with us. Jesus Himself lived with the knowledge that He was going to die a violent death; yet He trusted His life to His Father’s care. “Let not your heart be troubled,” He said. “You believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1, NKJV). “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 NKJV).* Terrorism tends to weigh heavily on our minds; but Jesus offers a light burden! Clearly, Jesus is not as worried about terrorism (or, for that matter, war, or cancer, or the stock market) as we are! He knows that by the mercy of His Father, all things will ultimately redound to the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Surprisingly, the best antidote to terror may not be self-defense but a kind, open, and sympathetic heart. The apostle John, who himself suffered much at the hands of cruel men, wrote, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment” (1 John 4:18, KJV). How much less torment might we suffer if we’d try, as Jesus said, to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44)? There’s no end to a cycle of revenge; but might not our enemies, if met with love and understanding instead of hate, be less likely to continue their destruction?
Finally, fix your mind on the life beyond this life. Jesus never ruled out the possibility of our facing genuine danger down here. Instead, He advised His followers that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). His own shortened life demonstrated that on this earth, even the very best people are not safe. But eternal salvation is more important than present safety.
“Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” Jesus said, “but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, KJV).
Jesus is, at this very moment, preparing a safe place for us (John 14:2). “Fear not, little flock,” comforted Jesus, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32, KJV). Earthly kingdoms will always be troubled. The kingdom God is preparing for us will never be troubled! The most compelling reason to set aside our fear is that beyond this life is a world utterly without terrorism—or any reason for it.