A Christian Response To Holy Terror
The religious dimension makes modern terrorism such a complex and dangerous reality to deal with. But it must be dealt it. It is vital that internationally co-ordinated efforts are made to counteract it. A coherent strategy is required that balances short-term and long-term remedies. The short-term need is to shut down or contain terror groups and networks and bring known perpetrators of murder to justice. The long-term need is to ensure that terrorist ideology loses its appeal among populations made vulnerable to it by perceived humiliation, human rights abuses, economic deprivation and other forms of collective distress. The challenge is to achieve the goal of containment without making the goal of prevention more difficult. There is also need for a third kind of response, a theological response that seeks the transformation of the religious mindset that feeds holy war. Let me tease out each of these three responses in a little more detail.
1 The Task of Containment
Since 9/11, the international response to terrorism has focused primarily on the job of containment. Huge efforts have been made to hunt down known terrorist leaders, to destroy the material and financial bases of their operations, and to enhance domestic security. The predominant means of containment has been by the use of raw military power. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent and tens of thousands of lives sacrificed in the so- called “war on global terrorism”.
Now war is always a blunt and bloody instrument for resolving conflict. But the strategy of warring against holy war is a particularly unsophisticated and fruitless way to respond to religious violence.46 The problem is not only that large scale military assaults compound the suffering and the humiliation felt by the constituency from which terrorists emerge in the first place, making future recruitment much easier. The main pitfall of waging war on religious terrorism is that the religious zealots’ underlying ideology of holy war is actually strengthened every time military power is directed against them.
Military reprisals prove that their diagnosis of the world is correct: a great battle for religious truth truly is underway, the enemy really is a satanic monster, and believers must now rally to defend true religion. Displays of massive counter-violence may even be welcomed by terrorist leaders, for they help to spread the seeds of burning rage and religious zeal that guarantee “the enlistment of a whole new generation of faith-based terrorists, ready and willing to wage a life and death struggle for the global soul”. 47
Making war on terrorism also validates something even more fundamental – the terrorist conviction that violence is ultimately a redemptive medium. Religious warriors believe in the saving efficacy of righteous violence. But so too, apparently, does their opponent.48 When President Bush initially referred to the attack on Afghanistan as a “crusade”, he was saying more than he realised.49 The term was quickly abandoned because of its sensitivity to Muslims. But changing the label does not change the product.
The war on terrorism retains many of the hallmarks of a crusade, which is the Christian term for “jihad” or holy war: the campaign is strongly dualistic, with an overt demonising of the opponent;50 it sees total annihilation of the enemy as the only way to lasting peace;51 it refuses any thought of compromise or negotiation with the enemy;52 it expresses suspicion towards those who inquire into the causes of terrorism53 or who call for moderation; it claims to be fulfilling a sacred duty;54 it is bolstered by claims of moral purity and certainty;55 and, most revealing of all, it favours pre-emption over prevention or deterrence. In the judgment of ethicist Edward Leroy Long, the Bush Administration’s adoption of the doctrine of pre-emptive strike “clearly illustrates how deeply the model of crusade has taken over as the controlling paradigm since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon”.56 Holy war, it appears, has elicited holy war, a holy war fought arguably in the name of American civil religion.57
Yet imitation is the greatest compliment that can be paid to terrorism. Not only do both parties compete to instil the greater fear and exact the higher price, but both insist that purity of motive justifies immense cruelty of action. Both conceive of the problem as a battle to be won rather than an injustice to be resolved. But if terror is to be reduced, rather than ratcheted up ever higher, the issue must be conceptualised in different terms. How we speak of a problem is surprisingly important, for it determines how we conceive of solutions. Lee Griffith bemoans:
… the growing American incapacity to address any problem without resorting to war. This is more than a matter of semantics. Behind the linguistic style that speaks of a war on crime, a war on poverty, a war on drugs, and a war on terrorism lies a style of being and acting. The enemies must be identified, not merely as abstract social problems to be solved, but as real flesh-and- blood enemies to be vilified (which is why the “war on poverty” so quickly turned into a war on the poor). The enemies must be defeated rather than being transformed, much less loved (which is why there is profligate spending for prisons and executions but scant resources for drug treatment). When there is a problem, America goes to war because the world is viewed as ripe for conquest rather than ripe for redemption.58
Instead of conceptualising the issue in terms of fighting a war, it is more helpful to think of it within a law enforcement framework.59 Global terrorism, notwithstanding its ideological agenda, may be classified as a type of organised criminal activity in which the whole global community has a stake. Attempts to track down its perpetrators should therefore take the form of international police action, with intelligence gathering serving as the equivalent of sound detective work.
This is not merely tinkering with words. Police action differs from military action in terms of its normative character. Police work is subject to judicial restraint; it is guided by the requirements of procedural fairness; it has strictly limited aims (viz., to control wrongdoing, not to kill all wrongdoers); it does not exercise judgment or administer punishment; its coercive power is applied to the offending party alone; and it is expected to employ minimal force in performing its duties. It is also usually successful in achieving its purpose, and is compatible with longer term restorative objectives. In all these ways, policing differs from soldiering. Police action against terror cells could still employ military personnel. But their methods and goals need to conform to the normative character of police work, rather than the normal practices of war-making.60
Even so, as the analogy of domestic justice shows, police action by itself is never sufficient to significantly reduce offending. Efforts at prosecution must be matched by efforts at prevention. The same is true of terrorism. The long- term task of prevention is ultimately more important than the immediate goal of containment.
- The Task of Prevention
Religious terrorism is often likened to a deadly virus that spreads contagiously in deprived, oppressed and traumatised communities where traditional forms of religious adherence are high. This being the case, the most promising remedy is one that boosts the collective immune system so that it does not succumb to the infection.61
This requires treating the environmental risk factors that predispose communities to violence, such as poverty, joblessness, human rights abuses, indebtedness, ready access to weapons, state failure, political or military repression, and other perceived injustices and humiliations, many of which stem from US foreign and economic policy.62 In this connection, advocates of the new ethical paradigm of “just peacemaking”63 have several specific proposals to make for helping to prevent or reduce terrorism, such as: working to advance human rights, democracy and religious liberty; developing the institutions of civil society;64 promoting co-operative methods of conflict resolution; strengthening the rule of law; identifying common security interests between adversaries; and, perhaps most crucially of all, making concerted efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.65
Prevention and prosecution, therefore, belong inseparably together in the campaign to reduce terrorist violence. But a third kind of response is also needed, one that seeks to sever the religious as well as the sociological roots of holy terror.
3 The Theological Task: Funding Religious Resources for Peace
Religious terrorism is more than a simple response to poverty, oppression, or humiliation. It is also an acting out of a particular theological world view, which rests upon a selective appropriation of key texts and themes from sacred tradition, and is energised by a determination to defend true religion against forces of apostasy and dilution. Counter-terrorism strategies that ignore this spiritual dimension are doomed to frustration. Along with other means of containment and prevention, efforts must be made to displace the
belief system that sanctifies killing in God’s name, in favour of theologies and practices that promote peaceful protest and reconciliation.
This is not a task for secular academics and politicians, who seem incapable of understanding, never mind reshaping, people’s deepest religious sensitivities. It is a job for the leaders of believing communities themselves, and for all sincere members within those communities. After all, it is religious believers who commit religious violence, so it is religious believers who belong to the same faith tradition as the killers, and who share the same spiritual concerns, who are best equipped to penetrate to the spiritual source of their terroristic zeal.
How is this to be done? What is required of religious communities today in the face of the rising tide of sacred violence? How can those who share a belief in God and in the rewards of the spiritual journey, but who are appalled at the commandeering of religious conviction by purveyors of mass violence, reply in ways that will de-legitimate holy terror and cure its contagion? I want to suggest that five interrelated kinds of response are necessary.
- Affirming the Validity of Protest
First, faith communities and their leaders must affirm the complete legitimacy of believers engaging in vociferous protest against all forms of oppression and injustice. Since faith-based terrorism flows from a particular spiritual perception of a deep-seated social malaise, common ground with militants can be established by acknowledging their perception of the malaise, and the validity of them raising strong objection to it. Strident denunciations of terrorist brutality will fall on deaf ears without some acknowledgement that, as sincere believers, they do well to bridle at injustice and spiritual indifference. In other words, the concerns which motivate terrorists can often be affirmed, even if their methods and ideological framework require vigorous critique.
- Interfaith Engagement
Second, religious communities must increase their commitment to engage in conversation and co-operation across confessional and religious boundaries. Such inter-faith contact should not, in the first instance, be aimed at exploring or debating doctrinal differences, but simply at building humane and trusting relationships.
Interfaith dialogue is not a new idea, of course; it has been happening at a formal institutional level for over a century now. But arguably its impact has been limited because it is mainly carried out by theological and academic elites rather than by grass root believers, and tends to focus on religious ideas more than on fundamental human aspirations and needs. More urgent than theological dialogue today is the need to bring local faith communities into face-to-face contact, both to express their acceptance of one another as equally valued human beings and to explore how each other’s religious insights can help promote human rights and peacemaking. One powerful example of such inter-communal contact was the decision of several American Mennonite churches in the weeks following September 11 to observe the fast of Ramadan with local mosques, as a sign of solidarity with them at the time Muslims were under suspicion and attack in wider society.
- Improving Lay Education
Third, to equip people for hospitable encounter with other traditions, and to challenge extremist voices within their own tradition, faith communities need to invest heavily in the education of their grassroots membership. There are always wide variations in the extent to which religious adherents understand their own traditions. Some have only a tacit knowledge. Others know basic beliefs but are illiterate in their texts and traditions. Others have a narrow or polemical understanding of one strand of the faith. Some are well-versed, or even have the ability to think critically and reflectively about their beliefs. Usually it is those with very limited or highly sectarian understandings who are most vulnerable to being swept up into violent crusades.66 A committed and theologically informed laity is therefore an important resource for resisting violent voices.67 Knowledgeable believers can challenge the militants from within their shared theological tradition, as well as encouraging others to reject their call to arms.68
This is why Miroslav Volf, the prominent Yale theologian, argues that “the cure against religiously induced or legitimized violence is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion”.69 Religious believers contribute most to peace, not by moderating their convictions or reducing their faith to a privatised spirituality, but by remaining specifically religious actors in the public sphere, with a deep and informed commitment to the content of their faith. “Strip religious commitments of all cognitive and moral content, and reduce faith to a cultural resource endowed with a diffuse aura of the sacred”, Volf writes, “and you are likely to get religiously inspired or legitimized violence. Nurture people in the tradition and educate them about it, and if you get militants, they will be militants for peace”.70
Of course, it is important to be realistic about what can be achieved by education. Militant fundamentalism is as much a psychological complaint as it is a want of education. But even the most traditional of believers can still be taught, from within their own foundational texts, that any religious claim to truth depends ultimately on two prerequisites – the existence of human life as a mysterious gift from beyond, and the freedom to engage in the spiritual quest, which in turn requires the right not to engage. Without life and liberty, there is no way of knowing truth or pleasing God, which means that every believer must respect the right of all others to life and liberty if they are to be true to the very traditions they claim to venerate.71
- Faith-based Dispute Resolution Mechanisms
Fourth, religious communities need to support the development of faith- connected mechanisms (such as restorative justice) for promoting healing and reconciliation in situations of communal strife. Politically-initiated peace negotiations sometimes fail because those involved are unable to harness the power of religious conviction. The inclusion of respected religious leaders in the negotiations can help make both the process and outcomes acceptable to religiously devout antagonists.72
One important role for such leaders is to identify and articulate those parts of sacred tradition that summon peacemaking and forgiveness ahead of self- interest, those parts that affirm the sanctity of human life above all else, including even the pursuit of justice. It is true that there can be no peace without justice, as we are often reminded these days. But it is equally true that peace will never come if all traces of injustice must first be eliminated. This is what religious terrorists believe as they prime their bombs and load their guns.73 Attempts at reconciliation cannot be conditional on the prior achievement of perfect justice, else it will never happen.
To use Volf’s well-known metaphor, the will to embrace precedes the act of embrace, and while the act of embrace, if it is genuine, requires a commitment to equal justice, the choice to embrace is ultimately an expression of grace.74 Religious traditions have a unique capacity to unlock the wellsprings of grace – those repositories of generosity and hospitality present in every culture – so that peacemaking becomes an active partner in justice-building, not just its eventual outcome.
- Undertaking a Terror-Audit
Finally, and most importantly, every religious tradition should be encouraged to undertake a terror-audit on itself – by which I mean a fresh and honest assessment of its own historical, moral and theological complicity in violence. It would be naïve to think this could happen on any grand scale across all religious traditions, or even thoroughly within any one tradition. But even if a small percentage of active believers were to accept the obligation to undertake a self-critical assessment of the violence that emanates from their own religious community, it could have a dramatic affect. Intra-religious dialogue on such matters is just as important as inter- religious dialogue.
One religious tradition cannot do this for another; Christians cannot tell Muslims where their religion opens the door to sanctified violence and vice versa – or at least not until each has begun working on its own house first. And the Christian house certainly needs urgent attention.
The Need for a Christian Terror-Audit
Such is the emphasis today on Islamic terrorism that many Christians conveniently forget Christianity’s own long and shameful history of violence and terror.75 And it is our recent history, not just our distant history, we are talking about. As Griffith points out, “It was not ‘Muslim extremists’ who brought horror to Rwanda; it was Christians killing other Christians. It was not some ‘demonic’ cult groups that planted bombs in Northern Ireland; it was Christians trading brutality with other Christians. It was not ‘atheistic communists’ who instituted a reign of terror to enforce apartheid in South Africa; it was Christians kidnapping and torturing and murdering other Christians … even in the Balkans, violence between Serb Orthodox Christians and Croat Catholic Christians has been as vicious as between Christians and Muslims”.76
On a similar note, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown questions whether Christians have any right to feel superior to their Muslim counterparts when it comes to violence. As a Muslim, he laments what he calls the “authoritarianism, philistinism and barbarism [that] are now the hallmarks of most Muslim
states and too many Muslim immigrant communities,” and he concedes the need for a Muslim reformation. But the Christian record is far from exemplary. He points to how the foundational teachings of Jesus are daily betrayed by the militarism of Bush and Blair, by the excessively punitive character of British and American criminal justice systems, by the West’s hostility towards asylum seekers, by its obsession with materialism and its neglect of the poor. He also observes that most of the world’s weapons of mass destruction are not owned by Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Bahais or pagans. They are owned by Christians. “Christianity seems to me the most redemptive and merciful of all the major religions”, he writes. “But where, oh where, is that essence of forgiveness among the merchants of power today?”77
A terror-audit on Christianity must address not only its past and contemporary history of violence, but also reconsider the moral validity of its two dominant ethical viewpoints on war – the Just War Theory and Pacifism. The phenomenon of global terrorism raises new challenges for both positions. Pacifism has to consider whether non-violent responses are adequate or defensible in dealing with international networks of small groups of extremists who seek union with God through unrestrained violence against defenceless civilian targets. Just War Theory, on the other hand, has to confront its susceptibility to capture by terrorist ideology.78 When Michael Bray, the imprisoned leader of a violent anti-abortion group in the US, said: “Christians tend to be opposed to violence … But there is nothing in Scripture to support this view. Violence is amoral – its moral content is determined on the purpose of the violent act”79 – he was actually articulating the fundamental premise of just war thinking. Any serious terror-audit of Christianity must surely confront the inherent dubiousness of the process bywhich just another war is almost invariably converted, by court prophets, into a just war whose fighting God approves.
As well as examining its history and ethics, a terror-audit on Christianity also needs to consider the role biblical and dogmatic theology have played, and still do, in underwriting righteous violence. This involves identifying and naming those themes, images and texts that are so easily and frequently marshalled in support of divinely sanctioned bloodletting, as well as identifying and naming those strands of tradition that provide a basis for explicitly countering visions of redemptive violence.
Both these critical and constructive tasks are inescapably hermeneutical in nature. It comes down to what we do with contradictory evidence. The biblical text and subsequent theological reflection on it provide ample resources for holy war ideology, as history attests, and ample resources too for the definitive rejection of holy war, indeed of all war, as a travesty of the character and will of God, as Quaker and Anabaptist history prove. It is a hermeneutical decision as to what we do with both kinds of biblical material, and, as my own Anabaptist tradition rightly insists, hermeneutics must always be anchored in ethics.
It is time to finish. This has been a wide-ranging ramble over complex territory. Rather than attempting to draw the threads together, as a good teacher ought to do, I would like to finish (as a good theologian ought to!) by quoting part of a prayer I heard two or three weeks ago. It is a prayer that captures the kind of religious outlook that believers who seek the way of peace must increasingly cultivate in this age of holy terror.
O God, our creator and friend, we live in a world of rich beauty
Overflowing with possibility, a world of your making
Yet our hearts are heavy with the suffering of the ages:
The blood of the innocent stains the earth, cries of anguish fill the night
We have squandered the gift of life, abused the freedom entrusted to us
The good life of some is built on the pain of many,
The pleasure of a few on the poverty of the millions
We serve death in our quest to possess ever more things;
We serve death in our hankering after
our own security, our own survival, our own peace
As if life were divisible, as if love were divisible.
Forgive our life-denying pursuit of life,
And teach us anew what it means to be your children
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.