Of death and life and ISIS and Kayla


The images are jarring in their contrasts — on the one hand, a young woman smiling beside a Kiwanis Club banner, smiling with a child in her arms, smiling somewhere in Syria — and on the other, also in Syria, the masked ISIS warrior, knife in hand above a kneeling hostage, torch in hand beside the caged airman. Ours is a world where such contradictions coexist and compete for humanity’s hearts and minds.

Despite the Islamic State name, and for all their talk of Allah, simple observation argues that Death itself is the god of the ISIS warriors.

The power to inflict death seems for them communion with the divine. Force feeds upon force in a cruel and addictive spiral demanding more and more victims. In their hellish logic, killing is proof of their right to kill and the infliction of suffering a way to glory.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently dubbed the Islamic State a “death cult,” and that is probably as good a description as any. It is a movement drunk on death, giddy with power, and sworn to the extermination of others.

And then there is Kayla Mueller, who has her own arguably strange view of suffering. You have probably read by now her amazing words from imprisonment, “I have been shown in darkness, light & have learned even in prison, one can be free.”

Now, add to those words these from an earlier letter to her parents, as reported in The Huffington Post: “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine,” she wrote. “Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

You and I share a space between ISIS and Kayla, between wrath and mercy, killing and compassion. Which power do we really admire?

In this world, force must often be met with force if the innocent are to be protected, but we must tread lightly through the shadow of death, lest we, too, take lethal might as sign of right and delight in our enemy’s pain.

Death demands our respect but never deserves our worship.

There is another way. Do you wish to find and serve God in this world? Idolaters will appeal to your rage but lead you only into darkness. Kayla Mueller, who knew the light no darkness can extinguish, knew exactly where to find God, and she would lead us there even now.

[The Rev. Mark Westmoreland (mwestmoreland@fayettevillefirst.com) is senior pastor of Fayetteville First United Methodist Church.]