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The religious response to 9-11

No one should expect religious leaders to act as a council of war. Lord knows, enough blood has been spilled in holy wars over the centuries. The question of when war is justified, if ever, is one of the most difficult moral issues theologians have had to wrestle with over the ages. The church's mission in this world is to be a force for peace and justice, but that does not mean that people of faith can _ or should _ remain neutral in a struggle between good and evil.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, many spiritually confused Christians turned to their church leaders to help them deal with their pain and anger. Too often what they have heard has only added to their confusion.

In Washington this week, where Roman Catholic bishops are gathered for their annual fall meeting, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Houston-Galveston, the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, warned that religious leaders risk alienating thousands of hurting and confused believers who look to their church for comfort and leadership.

"If we are not bearers of a message that speaks to the real needs of people during these times of anxiety, we risk the religious fervor that emerged after Sept. 11 not enduring," he told the bishops. "People will then seek elsewhere what they believe they need."

To their credit, the Catholic bishops appear to have a more clear-headed view of the issues facing the nation in this time of crisis than some Protestant denominations. After the U.S. began bombing Taliban positions in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Bishop Fiorenza said: "Our military response must be guided by the traditional moral limits on the use of force. Military action is always regrettable, but it may be necessary to protect the innocent or to defend the common good."

In a draft pastoral statement being circulated at their meeting, the Catholic bishops defend the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks even as they caution that it must be untaken with "deep regret." The statement, which could be amended when bishops vote on it later this week, also calls on the United States to address issues that "terrorists seek to exploit for their own ends," including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, economic sanctions against Iraq and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The bishops, however, were clear about one thing: "No injustice legitimizes the horror we have experienced."

If only the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops could speak with such clarity. I apparently am not the only one who thinks the Episcopal bishops' statement is little more than theologically correct mush _ obtuse and unsatisfying.

David Kalvelage, executive editor of the Living Church, an independent weekly publication serving Episcopalians, recently wrote that he had read the bishops' statement three times and is still not sure what they're trying to say. "Indeed, even the title, "On Waging Reconciliation,' is confusing and even misleading," he wrote. "How does one wage reconciliation?"

Good question.

In this time of crisis, Kalvelage said, Episcopalians are no different than other Americans. "They are frightened, confused, grieving, hurt and angered," he wrote. "They have turned to their churches for leadership, healing, comfort and hope, so it is reasonable to expect that the bishops would be able to provide at least some of those properties. Instead, we have been given a statement so predictable it could have been written prior to the bishops' gathering in Vermont, perhaps before the tragedies of Sept. 11."

In their statement, the Episcopal bishops called for "radical peacemaking," whatever that means, and highlighted the contrast between American affluence and starving children in other parts of the world. They urged the faithful to "wage reconciliation" but did not explain how good and evil can be reconciled.

President Bush probably wishes the bishops of the United Methodist Church, his denomination, were as muddled in their thinking as their Episcopal counterparts. The Methodist bishops last week all but condemned the war in Afghanistan, declaring that "violence in all of its forms and expressions is contrary to God's purpose for the world." The denomination's social-issues board said that terrorists must be brought to justice, but "war is not an appropriate means of responding to criminal acts against humanity."

So how would the good bishops have dealt with Hitler?

In a recent commentary written for the Religion News Service, Rabbi A. James Rudin wrote that "no Christian or Jewish leader has adequately defined for me the critical issues we face as a nation." Rudin, the senior inter-religious adviser of the American Jewish Committee, found some of the answers he was seeking in the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), one of the country's foremost theologians. In 1941, just 10 months before the United States entered World War II, Niebuhr sharply criticized the "school of Christian thought that believes war can be eliminated if only Christians and other men of good will refused resolutely enough to have anything to do with conflict."

Niebuhr wrote that "there are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war . . . But (religious perfectionists) are wrong in assuming that we have no right or duty to defend a civilization, despite its imperfections, against worse alternatives."

The rabbi wrote: "Niebuhr warns that carrying out justice and defending our civilization's values are solemn and often deadly exercises that allow us no exalted perch of purity, "of guiltlessness from which to proceed against evildoers."'

That sounds about right to me. Sometimes military action is necessary because the alternative is worse. But we should never wage war without a sense of guilt.