The Common Good
November-December 2001

A Light in the Darkness

by Jim Wallis | November-December 2001

This edition of Sojourners went to press just as the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan began, which makes this special issue even more critical. 

This edition of Sojourners went to press just as the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan began, which makes this special issue even more critical. Regular responses to fast-changing events can be found on www.sojo.net and in SojoMail.

 

Lighting candles at prayer vigils is something many of us have done more times than we can remember. Speaking the language of darkness and light at interfaith services, in liturgical seasons, and in the streets has become a matter of habit. But our darkness feels very real and powerful in this moment-almost impenetrable, and threatening to close in on us. And our need for the light feels most urgent.

Old familiar spiritual words must take on a new reality for us now, and a new sense of mission. Words like "Let there be light!" And "A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." We must not just light candles now; we must make a new commitment.

More than we knew before Sept. 11, there are many dark places in the world where unspeakable terrorist violence against large numbers of innocent people is being planned. Those places must be exposed to the light of day and the violence be thwarted. There are dark places within us and in our nation that might lash out from our deep woundedness, grief, and anger, carelessly inflicting more pain on innocent people. The light of compassion and reason must prevent us from spreading our pain.

We need the light of courage to face the darkness that lies so thick and heavy before us-courage to heal the darkness in ourselves; courage to reveal the darkness in the very structure of our world; and courage to confront the darkness in the face of evil we saw on Sept. 11. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resistance to it. In these days, we need to light candles and make commitments so that the darkness will not overcome the light.

 

Two Paths • Two paths are emerging in response to the terror that has been visited upon us. One speaks the language and spirit of justice and invokes the rule of law in promising to bring the perpetrators of terrorist acts to accountability. Those who so violated the standards of civilized life and the human values we hold most dear must never be allowed to escape judgment and punishment, and the danger of even more terror must be urgently prevented.

The other path uses the language of war and invokes a spirit of retribution and even vengeance, emotions we can all understand. A "war on terrorism" summons up the strength and resolve to stop these horrific acts and prevent their cancerous spread. But the war language fails to provide moral and practical boundaries for that response.

Americans have seldom seen up close or felt the pain that comes from the deliberate destruction of innocent life on such a scale. Until now, it has only been in foreign lands where we have observed the horrible loss that accompanies the massive and violent rending of families and relationships in unspeakable events. Now we understand what many people who inhabit this planet with us have been forced to live with.

But it is just that collective experience of terrible pain that may now help shape our response. As one woman put it in a radio interview: "Mr. President, don't spread our pain." A rising sentiment in the country wants our nation's response to be born of our best selves, and not our worst impulses. We are hearing more voices asserting that we must not become the evil we loathe in our response to it, and that we should respond out of our deepest values, not the terrorists'.

Our response will become a "test of our national character," according to the statement titled "Deny Them Their Victory", released in September and signed by more than 2,500 religious leaders. It is, indeed, the victory of the terrorists that must now be denied. They and what they represent must be soundly defeated, but the question we face is how to do that. The religious leaders say, "We can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image....We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be." They too demand that those "responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice," but insist "we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life."

That conviction is motivated not only by moral considerations but also by pragmatic concerns. America bombing the children of Kabul would create utter glee among the Osama bin Ladens of the world, who would finally be able to raise the armies of terror that they've always dreamed of.

A more courageous response on our part is now required. Discipline, patience, and perseverance in vanquishing the networks, assets, and capabilities of violent terrorists is a path more likely to be effective than merely cathartic. An even more courageous national commitment would be to face honestly the grievances and injustices that breed rage and vengeance and are continually exploited by terrorists to recruit the angry and desperate. The debate about which path to take-justice or vengeance-is taking place in conversations across America, including at the highest levels of political power. And despite American anger at the attacks, there has been significant public opinion opposing indiscriminate military counter-strikes. President Bush's admirable call to respect and protect Arab-Americans and Muslims should help us defend them against reprisals in all our communities, and his distinction between the Afghan people and the Taliban can be invoked to prevent the bombing of Afghanistan.

 

Telling the Truth • In addition to the vocation of protecting innocent lives against military retaliation and defending our Arab or Muslim fellow citizens, American religious communities must take on the prophetic role of answering why this happened or, as many have put the question, "Why are so many people angry at us?" The first two tasks, while major undertakings, will be easier to define. It is the third challenge that will require our best discernment and genuine soul-searching.

It is indeed impossible to comprehend adequately the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 without a deeper understanding of the grievances and injustices felt by millions of people around the world. That is a painful subject that the U.S. government refuses to engage, the mainstream media avoids, and many Americans are unable to hear at this moment of mourning, grief, and anger. Indeed, the discussion has the potential to further divide, hurt, and blame ordinary people who already feel very vulnerable and under attack.

But if the conversation can illuminate the confusion many feel, it could actually help in the necessary process of national healing and offer practical guidance for preventing such atrocities in the future. Now is the time to have the courage to face this difficult question. President Abraham Lincoln, unlike most American presidents, pushed the nation to look at its own sins in a time of crisis, to dig deep into our spiritual selves and ask whether we are on God's side, rather than the other way around. We need a Lincolnesque quality of self-examination in this moment. In our task of going to the roots of global terrorism, at least three things are important.

First, in the necessary prophetic ministry of telling the truth about American global dominance and its consequences, let us never even come close to implying that America-including the victims of the attacks and their families-deserved that great day of evil as some kind of judgment for our national sins, as the reverends Falwell and Robertson have suggested from the Right and some U.S. critics have implied from the Left. In a powerful statement released Sept. 17 by Palestinian poets, writers, intellectuals, and political leaders-who all have deep grievances with American foreign policy in the Middle East-the line was drawn: "No cause, not even a just cause, can make legitimate the killing of innocent civilians, no matter how long the list of accusations and the register of grievances. Terror never paves the way to justice, but leads down a short path to hell." Their statement is called "But then, nothing, nothing justifies terrorism," which serves as a fitting final sentence in any discussion about all the injustice that lies behind terrorist acts. We must draw that same line.

Second, we must not make the mistake of thinking that these terrorists are somehow freedom fighters who went too far. On the contrary, the people that the evidence points to are not out to redress the injustices of the world. Osama bin Laden's network of terror would simply create great new oppressions, as is evidenced in the Taliban, the regime that represents their vision for the future. Their terror is not about correcting the great global gulf between haves and have-nots, about the lack of even-handed Middle East policies, or about the absence of democratic freedoms in corrupt Gulf states.

The terrorists don't want Saudi Arabia to respect human rights, but to be more like the Taliban regime-under which girls can't go to school, acid is thrown on the faces of women without head covers, and any religion or lifestyle different than their fanatical extremism is exterminated. For these terrorists, the only "just" solution for the Middle East and the whole Arab world is to expel all Jews and Christians. And their willingness, even eagerness, to inflict weapons of mass destruction on whole populations is beyond dispute.

The root of the terror attacks is not a yearning for economic justice for the poor and oppressed of the world. It is rather a radical rejection of the values of liberty, equality, democracy, and human rights-and the ambition of a perverted religious fundamentalism for regional and global power. However much the United States has fallen short of its professed values and often contradicted them, this terrorism is an attack on those values themselves; it is not violence in their name or on their behalf.

 

A New Empire • If we are to tell the truth about America, let us also tell the truth about the terrorists. We are accustomed to thinking in a political and economic framework. This time, we need to shift and understand motivations that are more ideological and theological. The evil of bin Laden and his network of terror may have been foolishly strengthened by the support of the CIA during the Cold War, but this evil is not a creation of American power. Indeed, to suggest, as some on the Left have done, that this terrorism is an "understandable consequence of U.S. imperialism" is a grave mistake of both moral and political analysis. The terror of bin Laden's al Qaeda network is less a reaction to "American Empire" than the radical assertion of an ambitious new empire.

Third, we must carefully distinguish between seeing global injustice as the cause of terrorism and understanding such injustice as the breeding and recruiting ground for terrorism. Grinding and dehumanizing poverty, hopelessness, and desperation clearly fuel the armies of terror, but a more ideological and fanatical agenda is its driving force. Therefore, the call for global justice as a necessary part of any response to terrorism should be seen not as an accommodation, surrender, or even negotiation with the perpetrators of horrific evil. It is rather an attack on their ability to recruit and subvert the wounded and angry for their hideous purposes, as well as being the right thing to do. Evidence shows that when the prospects for peace appeared more hopeful in the Middle East, the ability of terrorist groups operating in the region was greatly diminished. We must speak of the need to drain the swamps of injustice that breed the mosquitoes of terror and find a way to make this a teachable moment rather than merely a blame game.

Despite the famous arrogance of too many American travelers overseas, many people around the world have an affection for the American people while feeling a real antipathy toward the policies of the U.S. government. If ordinary Americans are to find a deeper understanding of "why so many people are angry at us," we will need to overcome our appalling ignorance of world geography and international events and develop a much deeper comprehension of what the American government is doing in our name.

Practically speaking, one idea for our response to the terrorism of Osama bin Laden might be this: Even if the multinational effort now under way limits its campaign, as it should, to successfully rooting out the networks of terrorism and not punishing the people of Afghanistan, that will not be enough. To be a real international effort against terrorism, it must demonstrate a new compassion, generosity of spirit, and commitment to justice precisely toward those people who have been abandoned and abused. Yes, let us stop bin Laden's plans to hurt more people, but then let us undertake a massive and collective effort to keep the people of Afghanistan from starving this winter. Such a dramatic and public initiative would clearly demonstrate the relationship between halting terrorism and removing injustice. Suffering people everywhere would see the clear signal, and the recruiters of pain would be dealt a death blow.

It's time for justice-for the perpetrators of terror and for the people our global order has, for so long, left out and behind. How we respond to these murderous events will shape our future even more than the terrorists can. As the religious leaders' statement pleads, "Let us make the right choices."

 

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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