Trump vs. McGee: contrastive readings of John 15:13 in light of radical Islamic terrorism
This week American President Trump quoted John 15:13 in his first address in the US Capitol. He was regarding, as a martyr, “a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William ‘Ryan’ Owens, [who] died as he lived, a warrior, and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.”
In 2008 and again in 2015 an Irish monk of Worth Abbey, West Sussex, Father Martin McGee also quoted John 15:13 in his books Christian Martyrs for a Muslim People and Dialogue of the Heart: Christian-Muslim Stories of Encounter. He was regarding individuals too: “In 1996 on the night of March 26/27 seven monks from the Trappist monastery of Tibhirine, 96km south of Algiers, were kidnapped by Muslim fundamentalists, and 56 days later, on May 21, all of them were beheaded.”
Already, we may see the contrast of interpretations by Pres. Trump and by Fr. McGee. If you will look more closely with me here, I think you’ll agree that the contrast is very stark. The President, quoting the words of Jesus, begins to sound like the very ones he intends “to demolish and destroy” and “to extinguish from our planet.” The Father, quoting the words of Jesus, begins to sound much different, as he intends “[t]o engage in… interreligious dialogue [that] requires ‘an open and neighbourly spirit,’ a willingness in other words to recognise that whatever our religious differences we all share a common humanity.”
So let’s look more closely together.
President Trump called out “radical Islamic terrorism” and particularly “this vile enemy” namely “ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs.” As Commander-in-Chief he authorized a military operation against this enemy, and he sent Ryan Owen into harms way. Here’s his recognition:
We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our nation. I just spoke to our great General Mattis, just now, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you. Thank you. And Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record [for the length of a standing ovation during my speech]. For as the Bible teaches us [in John 15:13], there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- and we will never forget Ryan.
Father McGee, in contrast, wrote of heroes who sent themselves as non-Muslims to learn from and to serve Muslims. One of these non-Muslims was protected from extremists by a Muslim, who gave up his own life in the act of protection. In turn, this non-Muslim and his cohort stayed on living among Muslim sisters and brothers at risk to their own lives. Here are two pages from the respective two books:
In summary, we have encountered two different uses of John 15:13.
President Trump, on the on hand, quotes the words of Jesus, and adds to them, to say that his military effort to “to extinguish [his] vile from our planet” necessitated his sending “a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William ‘Ryan’ Owens” into harm’s way, and that his death due to that enemy’s defense of itself, nonetheless, made him “part of a highly successful raid,” and that for this he is in heaven, happy at America’s applause, the recognition of a national martyr.
Father McGee, on the other hand, quotes the words of Jesus, in order to ask with Father Christian the rhetorical question, “Do we [non-Muslims attacked by terrorists] love them [e.g. the Algerian Muslims also attacked by terrorists] enough?” And he suggests, “as Western society struggles to find a way of responding to the fanatical wing of Islam,” that extreme, obsessive militarized attempts at demolishing, destroying, and extinguishing extremists from the planet bears less fruit than does Muslims and Christians laying down their lives for each other in learning from one another and in giving to one another.
For further research on what might motivate the contrastive views of John 15:13 of Donald Trump and of Father McGee respectively (and some other not unrelated items):
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s view of women in military with men (implying that the national military martyrs must be men, who may be survived by their widows) “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?“
The GOP 2016 platform on women in combat: “We reiterate our support for both the advancement of women in the military and their exemption from direct ground combat units and infantry battalions.“
The ISIS view of women in combat: “They are not allowed to fight [even if those recruited from the West for marriage to the male fighters since they] are obviously attracted [both] to a medieval ideology, and at the same time,… some attitudes [that] are very Western.“
Father McGee’s view that Muslims sometimes practice what Jesus taught before non-Muslims do: “There were also deeply personal reasons why [Father] Christian should be willing, if necessary, to lay down his life for his friends. While on national service in Algeria in 1959, during the Algerian war of independence, he had befriended a local policeman, Mohammed, a father of 10 and a devout Muslim. One day an attempt was made on Christian’s life. Luckily Mohammed managed to shield him and save his life. The following day, however, his friend was found assassinated by the roadside. This incident left an indelible mark on Christian. He could never forget that an Algerian Muslim friend had sacrificed his life for him.”
Father McGee’s view that extremely religious people are not the only ones to practice what Jesus taught and neither are extremely nationalistic persons either: “This insight is not just shared by Christians but has been lived out by many ordinary Tunisians who courageously risked their lives to save innocent tourists from the IS inspired gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui. One man, Ben Aisha, put it succinctly: ‘You have to understand, I don’t save them [guests] because they are foreigners, but because we are all the same. A Tunisian, an English, an Italian, we have the same body, we have the same soul, we have the same dreams, we are the same people.’“
An American’s recent view on self-denying actions of love: “I am touched by this expression of interfaith – and human – solidarity, and awed by the selflessness of the Muslim community. In return, I am asking more of myself and more of my own [non-Muslim] faith community.“