On a clear morning a small band of missionaries embarked upon a task they believed had been given to them by God. They prayed fervently for its success. They were backed by the prayers of many others. They saw their mission as an assault on the heart and head of the Beast. Its cost was martyrdom: they laid down their lives. But it shook the world and was believed to be, despite the loss of 4,000 lives, a victory for God against apostasy. Multitudes gave thanks.
This description of the appalling events at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 is bound to be offensive to most people. Yet the idea that these attacks were deeply religious acts cannot be easily dismissed in favour of the comforting notion that they had ‘nothing to do with religion’, as many Western political and faith leaders claim.
Of course we can say that those who committed the atrocities were unrepresentative fanatics, that true religionists do not commit mass violence, that ‘at least Christians do not behave like this.’ But we are faced with powerful counter-evidence: the countless thousands who have supported these attacks, the millions who believe religion can justify violence to prosecute their cause, the recent ghastly history of genocide in Rwanda — possibly the most Christian nation on earth.
After 11 September faith requires not just pastoral wisdom but deep mental rigour and self-criticism in the face of incalculable suffering. In particular, we need to confront three huge missionary challenges.
The first is the reality of toxic religion. Especially when fuelled by a sense of injustice and combined with powerful national, racial, ethnic or political aspirations, religion can be an incredibly dangerous thing.
The anthropologist and literary critic René Girard has long argued (1) that doctrine and ritual may be both positive and negative factors in channelling the mimetic tendency of human beings to project pain and anger onto others. Sacrificial systems are designed to absorb the potency of the scapegoat mechanism by which we expunge fear and hate. But at the same time, they can also project (and sanctify) scapegoating by attributing it to God.
Girard has, interestingly, explored these issues through detailed study of the Gospels, especially the passion narratives. Jesus, he says, overwhelmingly rejected the scapegoat system. Indeed he often turned the tables on prime scapegoaters — those who used religion to exclude people they deemed unworthy or unclean. Prostitutes were entering God’s realm ahead of them, he once said. For this reason Jesus had to be killed. He became a scapegoat precisely to break the scapegoating cycle, which we call sin. For this reason he was vindicated by God.
Ironically, says Girard, the essentially anti-sacrificial nature of the Gospel narratives has been turned by some versions of Christianity into the story of a vengeful God who punishes an innocent for the wrong of others. In this subtle distortion lies one seed of the mutation of the Gospel into toxic religion. But Jesus, the Way, calls us back by asking us who and what really saves. It is this call that must be shared and explored with those of all faiths and none if we are, together, to redeem the path to God.
Second, there is the challenge of missionary violence. I am not just talking of violence in the name of religion here. In a sense all violence is missionary. It proclaims its ability to achieve positive aims, to bring change, to redeem. But redemptive violence is the most dangerous myth of all. It is the one that motivated those who bombed the Twin Towers, and also those who unleashed bombs on Afghanistan to kill more innocent civilians than died in New York. It is the ‘logic’ that will justify continuing cycles of retribution and revenge across the world. It claims rightness, but it deals death.
What Christianity has mostly offered in the face of violence is the historic Just War theory. To my knowledge no national religious authority adopting Just War as its doctrine has ever formally condemned, let alone stopped, a war. The theory remains largely unadapted to the realities of nuclear, chemical, biological, ‘virtual’ and non-territorial terrorist warfare. Let us accept, however, that it is a valid Christian equivalent to the Jewish Lex Talionis — the law of measured retribution (‘an eye for an eye’) that aims at restricting cycles of violence. Neither theory, however, is about embracing heaven. They are about avoiding hell. An important start, but far from what we could call Gospel.
The Jesus of the Gospels, by contrast, says to his followers that we are to love our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, to pray for those who persecute us. He rejects missionary violence wholesale. Of course this will not do. It is not ‘realistic’ (whereas the cycle of violence apparently is). So only minority traditions such as Mennonites embrace it. They do so not only because they sense that God’s foolishness is wiser than the strength of the world, but also because they believe that active, costly, justice-bearing non-violence is the only way to witness to the final Victory of the Lamb.
So the central theological issue is not about pacifism versus non-pacifism (a well rehearsed, irresolvable argument on its own terms) but about how effective witness can be made. In pursuing its contribution to the UN / WCC Decades to Overcome Violence and Build a Culture of Peace under the rubric of ‘Following Jesus in a Violent World’, the Baptist Union of Great Britain may have provided us with the basis for perhaps the ecumenical missionary question post-11 September. Who or what really gives life?
Third, there is the connected temptation of illusory power. This takes two forms. One is the kind unleashed by a wounded political dragon: the superpower that lashes out in denial because it has finally realised that it is not invulnerable, but is unable to cope with this reality. The other is the type perpetuated by deluded religious leaders who preach impregnability to their own, but only by putting down, damning and excluding everyone else.
To the former, the Jesus of the Gospels offers the saving hope of a communion of equals rather than a false system of domination. To the latter he offers a Lordship that undoes all lordliness, a kingdom that brings down the mighty, a divine order where the last usurp the first at top table, a feast of fellowship for the excluded. This is power at the service of love. It is also a message of free grace which does not produce submission — but requires repentance (first among those who announce it) of our many attempts to manipulate God. Jesus asks all people what kind of truth will really set us free, and what distortions of truth will enslave us.
These are necessary disturbances to faith after 11 September. None are new. All are more urgent than ever. And behind them is a core theological question: Who is God and how is God justified in the face of atrocities in God’s name? This question can only be faced if we are able (as those of different faith communities and none) to advocate and promote ways forward in a spirit of openness to truth for the purposes of love. (2) This is mission through testimony. It is not an alternative to dialogue, but an essential part of it. What is it an alternative to? War, actually. It is talk that seeks to redeem rather than provoke or justify. (3)
(1) See, for example, René Girard, tr. Yvonne Freccero, The Scapegoat (Athlone Press, 1986).
(2) I am grateful to Canon Tim Dakin of CMS and Dr Kai Funkschmidt of CCOM for raising these issues.
(3) This talk was first given to the Partnership for World Mission committee of the Church of England on 29 January 2002.