The Common Good
November-December 2001

A Time for Hard Decisions

by Joan Chittister | November-December 2001

War was so much easier before the world's borders began to seep like a sieve.

War was so much easier before the world's borders began to seep like a sieve. In past times, the enemy was always a nation, discretely identified, locked within its history, obvious in its breadth and scope. There were no such things as shadowy groups independent of the political state, unrespecting of borders, only ideologically defined. There were simply national rivalries to justify retaliations or a series of negotiations that broke down or incursions into foreign territories or treasons or spy activities out of which to fashion global tensions. It was all neat and military and official. War was not a handful of individuals seething with anger, taut with murderous purpose, seeking vengeance against a nation through the determined violation of its civilian population.

And that is precisely the problem. This time there is no one with whom to negotiate, no international laws to argue, no armies to pit one against another in precise soldierly fashion. It is a delicate situation, politically, psychologically, socially.

It is an even more delicate situation spiritually. It requires the wisdom of Solomon to judge between the perpetrators and victims, to know one from another, to arbitrate between one and the other. We don't know how to handle this one.

But we do know that at no time in history have the powerful ever prevailed over the powerless. The powerless have been defeated, of course, but they have never been conquered. They wait and they rise again. "Peace to the shacks, war to the palaces," they shouted in the French revolution. And in the end, it was the shacks that won, as did farmers in 18th century Vermont against the British army, the most disciplined, best equipped, best trained army in the world.

It is not possible to defeat people who have nothing to lose. All the Neanderthal nuclear weapons and fanciful nuclear shields in the world will not defend us from the perception of the Arab students who danced in the streets to celebrate the attack on the United States.

Either our national policies or our public relations programs need to be evaluated. Either we are doing good and this good does not persuade or we are perceived to have done ill and this ill must be repented. At this crossover moment in history, we must be as self-critical as we are critical of the terrorists. We must ask how all of this came to be. We must ask why so many people are listening to a man we know as extreme, maybe even insane with power.

The fact is that Jesus' mandate to "love your enemies" means that making peace is more difficult than making war, that it requires as much effort as retaliation, that vengeance is not justice, and that cause is in the eye of the beholder. But we must do it because Christianity depends on it. We need some Samaritans who decide to cross the road, we need people willing, like Peter, to put away their swords for a while. And listen. Otherwise, as the Roman Seneca says, we run the risk of "making a desert and call it peace."

Joan Chittister, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision, a resource center for contemporary spirituality.

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