Is There a Theological Response to Terrorism? (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ted Parks
c. 2001 Religion News Service

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. And, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

“We want to tear those pages out on days like this,” admitted Christian ethicist Shaun Casey after the terrorist attacks last week on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “But, ultimately … in the grand scheme of things, we’ve got to ask, what are the things that make for peace?”

While Christianity along with other world faiths brings the voice of tradition to bear on questions of war and violence, some experts wonder if answers forged by religious thinkers over the centuries still speak clearly in the chaotic context of international terrorism.

“How do you think about responding to violence when it is terrorist violence?” asked Jonathan Wilson, who teaches religious studies at Westmont College near Santa Barbara , Calif.

Wilson and others point to two classical approaches to war in the Christian faith: pacifism and the “just war” tradition.

Pacifism rejects all violence. Just war theory concedes warfare can be necessary, and lays out principles for nations to evaluate their motives for fighting and the ways they conduct combat.

The theory begins with the question, “Is it ever right to take up arms against other human beings?” said Casey, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington , D.C. While pacifists would answer an unequivocal “no,” just war thinkers give in to war if the motives for it are proper.

Looking at the criteria as first outlined in the 4th century by Christian theologian St. Augustine , Casey said one just cause is defense of an innocent party. Another is to punish evildoers.

The just war tradition offered additional standards to decide the legitimacy of a conflict. War must be a last resort, the final measure after every other option failed. Furthermore, a party should go to war only if it has a reasonable chance for success. And leaders must think through the lasting consequences of opting for war.

“We capture these terrorists, but the Middle East goes up in flames and World War III starts,” Casey suggested as a current application of the principle. “You have to weigh the good you hope to produce, versus the evil you may produce in the process.”

The just war approach not only asks questions about reasons and potential results, but seeks to contain war’s fury.

“Discrimination” and “proportionality” are key concepts here, Casey explained. The first principle demands that noncombatants not be targets in the conflict. The second insists that warring parties use only the force necessary to win their objectives, not wipe the enemy off the map.

Casey acknowledged that 21st century terrorism strains the historic concepts of the just war. “The changing nature of warfare puts pressure on the ethic,” he said.

For example, modern terrorism makes enemies hard to pin down. “The just war ethic puts very high demands on the military response,” Casey said. With the enemy camp no longer “a discreet piece of real estate,” he said, the new context “raises the temptation to strike back at larger entities.”

While the just war ethic sought to purify motives and limit destruction, another strain in the Christian tradition questioned whether a faith grounded in love had room for any kind of bloody reprisal.

J. Denny Weaver, professor of religion at Ohio’s Bluffton College , argues that Christian faith does not legitimize an in-kind response to aggression.

“Nonviolence … still holds” as a valid Christian response, Weaver insisted.

Bluffton is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA. Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers comprise what scholars have called the “historic peace churches” because of the groups’ pacifist stance.

For Weaver, the question is whether believers allow the enemy to set the tone for their own actions. “Do I base my response on how bad the deed is?” he asked. “The fact that this is a very heinous deed doesn’t change how I should respond as a Christian.”

Drawing on the Christian nonviolent tradition, Weaver questioned if the frantic urge many feel to “do something” could only mean striking back the same way we were hit.

“Think about the fact that the people who did this terrible deed also believe that violence works,” he said. “You’ve got both sides saying that.”

Acknowledging that the world longs for justice, Weaver distinguished two ways to understand the concept.

“Retributive justice,” the standard of American jurisprudence, “means inflict pain, suffering, violence, that’s equivalent to the deed done,” Weaver said. But that approach has problems, he said. For one thing, the victims who suffered in the first place benefit little from the violent confrontation of the misdeed. Retribution doesn’t restore.

“Restorative justice,” on the other hand, would focus not on punishing the perpetrator but bringing back some of the good snatched away by the original evil. “You can’t put back murder,” Weaver said. “No amount of punishment is going to restore anything.”

Leaders “need to start … a process that lessens violence,” he said.

David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum, a private foundation promoting international peace, believes principles from both just war theory and pacifism apply even in today’s murky conflict.

He underscored the just war concept of “discrimination” that would call military planners to think twice before targeting civilians to get at terrorists.

And Cortright looked to pacifism as a warning against the black hole of violence. Pacifism reminds us of “the spiral of violence, the notion that violence begets violence.”

Other religious traditions share Christianity’s call to carefully ponder war and its potential for destruction.

Muhammad Al-Hanooti, a leading Islamic scholar who lives in Virginia , said that Islam could justify war under circumstances of oppression. “You have the right to defend your life, your property … especially your territory.”

But, he added, “we don’t fight against anybody because of his faith or because of anything racial, ethnical, tribal.”

Al-Hanooti said that Islamic tradition teaches parties preparing a violent confrontation to warn their enemy before attacking.

“The root meaning of Islam is peace,” stressed Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American Muslim advocacy group. “The whole purpose of the religion is to establish justice on earth, so that we are in harmony with God’s creation. Islam has no room for terrorism.”

Similarly, Judaism enshrines principles intended to humanize war and reduce its destructive consequences.

“There is a thrust in the tradition that you go to war in defense of yourself and in defense of other people,” said Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, spiritual leader of the Kol Tikvah Reform congregation in Woodland Hills , Calif.

“You have to contain your anger,” Jacobs said, adding that the goal of exercising power is “to be able to turn your enemy into a friend.”

Fourth Freedom’s Cortright echoed the importance of thinking not only about retaliation, but redemption. Justice, he said, means not only “bringing those responsible to trial,” but “trying to find means of economic and social equality” for needy people.

With the millions spent on defense and intelligence-gathering, which still failed to thwart last week’s attack, Cortright wondered about other ways for the country to use its enormous resources.

“If we had spent those kinds of moneys in … helping the poor of the world, perhaps we’d create a better image of ourselves and begin to address the … economic desperation that motivates people to these extreme acts.”

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Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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