“Many are speaking of revenge. But never has it been clearer to me than in this moment that people of faith, in virtue of the Gospel and the mission of the Church, are called to be about peace and the transformation of the human heart, beginning with our own. I am not immune to emotions of rage and revenge, but I know that acting on them only precipitates the very violence I pray will be dissipated and overcome.” Bishop Frank Griswold, ESCUSA.
The unspeakable horror of the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 rapidly gave way to understandable (but deeply dangerous) calls for revenge and retribution. Now the focus is on inflicting military damage on those nations seen as complicit. The path of war will involve spreading the terror, multiplying the deaths of innocent people, strengthening the hand of violent extremism, alienating moderate Muslim opinion, and perpetuating a Manichean illusion that the world and its nations can straightforwardly be divided into good and bad. (1)
Meanwhile the injustices and grievances which drive relatively powerless people to acts of terror not only continue — they are actively worsened. Witness the recent actions of Israel against Palestinians, under the cover of the attack on the US and in the name of a ‘coalition against terrorism’. All this is highlighted by the misplaced language of a ‘crusade’ under the aegis of ‘infinite justice’: concepts offensive to all the major faith communities in the Middle East.
At this time many are preoccupied with supporting those who grieve and mourn. That is right and proper. Some are trying to handle the levers of power in a context in which the gear-shift towards conflict seems strong and incredibly difficult to mitigate. Yet others are concerned with the wider picture, hoping and acting so that the cycle of violence and destruction might not deepen and widen in the wake of the fury these events have unleashed.
Christians, in particular, have the task of drawing attention to another Way — one that leads to healing, reconciliation, peace, justice and life. Unfortunately it is not an easy way. It is one that proceeds, for those who know this awkward road, via a Cross where hideous violence is absorbed rather than inflicted. At its toughest and seemingly most impossible it is encapsulated in words reported of Jesus by the writer of one of our Gospels:
“But I say to you that hear, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’.” (St Luke 6.27f.)
In a complex and ambiguous world such words speak of another domain — vastly distant, and yet tantalisingly in our midst — which issues in a counter-logic to the lure of revenge and scapegoating. It is to this alternative logic (one of community, common struggle and radical for-giveness in the face of division and violence), that those who dare to identify themselves with the Body of Christ in this world are propelled. The point is not to feed self-righteousness or to deny the inevitable, painful compromises of power, but to focus real attention towards that which makes for new life in the presence of continuing death.
In that spirit, and recognising that many who call themselves Christian refuse this perspective (just as many of other or no faith willingly accept it), I am offering here a few resources for those who need to resist the headlong rush into bombing and revenge. Of course it is very difficult to require governements and public institutions to forgo the instruments of power by which they exist, but someone has to point out that there is actually a deep madness in the logic of institutional power which — if unconstrained — will destroy even that which it seeks to save.
A prominent sociologist said in The Guardian newspaper on Friday that the slogan appearing in New York, “An eye for an eye = blindness” (derived from Martin Luther King), is ‘far too simplistic’. In the profoundly compromised and problematic arena of geopolitics that may indeed appear so. But how far is the mentality of revenge determined by careful consideration of causes and consequences? — and how far is it generated by the pretence of might in the face of actual vulnerability? That is a political (not just a personal and moral) question.
An immediate crisis begs an immediate response. But in the longer run we will all be left with hard questions. For the US — how can it renegotiate its place in a world of division and injustice where might is not only far from right but also far from invincible? For people of faith — how can we distinguish and discriminate between religious impulses which lead to life and those which create death? For human communities — how can we take appropriate and measured risks to live together so that we do not die apart?
Simon Barrow, adapted from 18 September 2001.
(1) Perhaps the worst example so far, from Ann Coulter in the New York Post: “We know who the homicidal maniacs are… We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctillious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war, and this is war.” (Quoted by Andrew Brown, Church Times, 21 September 2001).