There are three Christian journals that I peruse regularly—National Catholic Reporter (liberal Catholic), Christian Century (liberal Protestant) and Christianity Today (conservative Protestant). The adjective “liberal” in the first two journals refers both to their theological and political orientation; Christianity Today is theologically conservative, but has no single political line. The three journals usually appear in my mailbox within days of each other, and with the anniversary of September 11 looming just ahead, I thought it would be interesting to compare how they deal with the event. It is indeed interesting. And I will admit (this is a non-value-free statement) that I was shocked.
The coverage in the first two journals, as of this date of writing, is comparatively sparse—more might come in later issues. I suspect that the overall tendency will be much the same. National Catholic Reporter had a prominent editorial in its issue of September 2, 2011—“Ten years to ponder our losses.” It recalls that the journal published three articles ten years ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; one of them was entitled “Was war the only choice?” with the subtitle, “Experts pose alternatives.” I have not tried to retrieve this piece, but I assume that the journal would not have rejected the alternatives. The current editorial tallies the losses in lives and treasure of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other costs “trailing our efforts to seek vengeance”—torture, rendition flights, incarceration without charge in Guantánamo, and the United States being close to bankruptcy as a result of these wars. The editorial then states that, beyond the moral reasons, there are practical ones to seek “non-violent alternatives”, because these are more successful. The supposedly successful alternatives are described as “good old-fashioned police work.” I am not quite clear whether the latter is meant to characterize the assassination of al-Qaeda leaders all over the globe and the deployment against them of drones in Pakistan.
The coverage of the event by Christian Century in its issue of September 6, 2011, is very sparse (as I said, more might be coming). But what there is, is interesting indeed—a sermon by Theodore Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He used a lectionary which appointed a passage from Exodus 14 to be read on September 11—the story of the miracle by which the children of Israel passed on dry land through the Red Sea and the further miracle by which the pursuing Egyptians were made to drown. Wardlaw speaks of the difficulty of preaching amid “the rhetoric of partisanship and triumphalism that still grips our culture at the end of the first post-9/11 decade.” (Triumphalism? Maybe in Texas, hardly in many other places!) In any case, the message of the sermon is that God is not on either side. He is “not a God who is endlessly biased toward one people at the expense of another.” The sermon’s final message is that the cloud leading Israel out of Egypt both separates and connects enemies.
Wardlaw, we are told, in addition to being president is also professor of homiletics at his institution. One must marvel at the ingenuity of his exegesis. It is too bad that he did not read on to the next chapter, Exodus 15. One would love to see his interpretation of a passage such as this one: “The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is his name. . . . Thy right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.”
The treatments of September 11 in NCR and Christian Century did not surprise me. The one in Christianity Today did. I had expected something a little different from standard political correctness. There were some cases of this in the September issue, such as two pieces that assume the continuing Christian duty, despite the danger, to convert Muslims. But there is little if any difference in the treatment of September 11. The coverage is extensive (it must be noted that this journal, unlike the other two, is a monthly).
The lead article, “The Gospel at Ground Zero”, is by Russell Moore, dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Its central message is that one must not shrink from reality. The subtitle announces, “The horrors of 9/11 were not unlike those of Good Friday.” The reality from which one must not shrink is that the universe is a war zone, in which we are called to “spiritual warfare” against the demons of this world. Moore evidently takes these demons seriously as supernatural beings opposed to God. But they are not beings of flesh and blood. This seems to imply that our “warfare” has little if anything to do with what American forces are doing in Afghanistan or Iraq. In this world (demons apart) the Gospel brings peace and reconciliation.
The issue then contains statements by twelve “Christian leaders”, most if not all Evangelicals, in a piece called “How I have changed since 9/11.” A sample of changes noted: A realization of the terrible costs of the two wars. A sense of missed opportunities for “speaking truth to power.” (The power, presumably, is George W. Bush. What is the truth?) A new determination to fight extreme poverty, an “underlying problem” of terrorism (a problem for some Saudi millionaires?). A warning by major calamities (9/11 mentioned along with Hurricane Katrina) that Jesus is coming. An understanding that “Christendom” is an alternative to both “secular American exceptionalism” and radical Islam (which suggests that non-church-going American generals are morally equivalent to Osama bin Laden). The collection of mostly mushy statements is nicely summarized in the piece by Will Willimon, presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church (a denomination that contains both theological liberals and conservatives): “The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, say to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat.”
In all these texts there is not one word about the obvious moral reality of the event: That the United States was brutally attacked by an enemy of unmitigated evil, against whom violent force was fully justified. Both the goal of Jihadist terror—the establishment of a tyranny with systemic violation of human rights—and the means to get there—indiscriminate mass murder and torture—are utterly evil in the perspective of Biblical faith. That should be at the center of any Christian reflection about September 11.
Of course this evil must not be identified with Islam as such, of which Jihadism is an aberration. Of course the moral justification of violence against Jihadism does not mean an endorsement of every American action in the “war on terror.” One must and can differentiate. Thus one may regard the invasion of Afghanistan as just, but consider the aftermath as having been botched. One may well consider the invasion of Iraq to have been a mistake. (I am reminded of the comment by Talleyrand on the execution in 1804 of the Duke of Enghien on orders of Napoleon: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake”). And of course one may find abhorrent such atrocities as waterboarding. However, the campaign to destroy the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda was and is nevertheless a just one. What is more, one should be able to recognize that American military power can be, and often has been, an instrument of justice.
For people of my European background, World War II and its violent destruction of the Third Reich is a moral guidepost. Other people, with some rudimentary moral reflection, can come to the same conclusion. Nazism was an unmitigated evil, with the Holocaust its horrendous culmination. I think it is useful to see that most if not all themes in the present collection of texts could have been used after Pearl Harbor to oppose the entry of the United States into the war against the Axis. I don’t know if the following story is true, but even if fictional it is useful as one considers the morality of Christian pacifism: Supposedly at some time before 1945 a group of Jews visited Gandhi. They asked him whether he would advise them to employ his non-violent methods against the Nazis. When he said yes, they said that the Nazis would simply kill them. Gandhi is supposed to have said that they would then die in the knowledge that they were spiritually superior to their enemies. In 1938 Karl Barth, arguably the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century, wrote to a friend in Czechoslovakia that every Czech soldier prepared to fight against the Third Reich was serving in a Christian cause. A few years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another celebrated theologian, was motivated by similar moral considerations to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler—a decision for which he paid with his life.
In 1529 Luther wrote a tract urging the German princes, including those who had joined the Reformation, to support the Holy Roman Emperor in his war against the Turkish invasion. This, mind you, was the same Emperor who had put Luther under the “ban”, which meant that anyone could kill him with impunity. Luther made very clear that he was not calling for a holy war. As a matter of fact, he did not believe in any holy war. The Emperor had to wage war against the Turks, not because they were Muslim, but because they were murdering, raping and enslaving his subjects, whose protection was his duty as a ruler. I’m not sure whether Luther made this statement in the context of the war with the Turks, or in the much murkier context of the peasant uprising, but it can serve any discussion of the morality of violence. One of his followers asked Luther how he could square his endorsement of violence in some situations with the Christian mandate to love one’s neighbor. Luther replied: “Sometimes neighborly love means that one assists one’s neighbor to move from this world to the next.”