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Rethinking responses

Our downfall is in ‘crusades,’ ‘holy wars’

By Leigh E. Rich


The “quality of being religious,” so says Webster’s New World Dictionary (1970), “especially being excessively, ostentatiously, or mawkishly religious.”

This one “explanation” for the terrorist attacks that took their toll on the United States—and the world—last September. But is it the whole story? Was religious fundamentalism the instigator and maintainer in what U.S. officials have deemed a plan that was more than a year in the making?

Something doesn’t sit well with this theory. Sure, over the course of human history, we Homo “sapiens” have turned to our organized religious faiths, in whatever extreme, to explain the unexplainable, answer the unanswerable, and seek guidance to resolve the un-resolvable.

All of these—the unexplainable, the unanswerable, and the un-resolvable—are what we face today, what we faced last September, and what we will face tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. An many Americans, it seems, especially in light of record attendance at religious institutions of all faiths the weekend following Bush’s national day of remembrance and the service at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14, have turned to their religions in this time of crisis—all the while remaining bloodthirsty for “justice.” The lives of more than 6,000 dead do deserve justice, but can we pray and demand revenge simultaneously?

Unfortunately, yes.

How many wars, since recorded human time, have been waged under the guidance or “guise” of God? How often has religion been used as a divider, not a uniter? How many times can major religions preach tolerance and demand “repentance” of all those considered heretics in the same breath? The answer—all too often.

This commentary is not just an attack on the beliefs of the perpetrators of this crime so soon into the 21st century, however. That we pray for the innocent who died, that is gracious. That we sing national anthems and wave Old Glory is necessary and understandable. That we readily named and designed logos for “Attack on America,” “Terrorism in America,” “America Unites,” and “America on Alert” within hours of the attack was in bad media taste. But that we talk of a war as our only response within all of these same news clips, that is frightening.

The news media, in nearly continuous coverage since that Tuesday, provide plentiful instances of Americans uniting—as we should—and of Americans supporting the heroes giving their own lives to save others, be they thwarting hijackers or working at Ground Zero—as we definitely should.

But downplayed in our 24-hour “window watching,” I fear, is also a fracturing of America. Reports of a Sikh—resembling, though not a Muslim—in Phoenix, an Arab-American in Texas and others being beaten and killed, bullet holes disgracing the sides of mosques, and outright harassment and prejudice throughout the nation receive little attention in the news, although the American media have tried a few half-hearted attempts to remind us that we cannot blame what happened on an entire ethnic group—however that may be defined—for the actions of a few.

If we are the “world’s leader” and the “freest land” around, as the rhetoric of the day never lets us forget so we do not take our freedoms for granted, don’t we have a higher moral responsibility to execute and mete out justice in a more civilized way than military strong-arming? Doesn’t Bush’s talk of war—or the media’s replaying of the terrors of that Tuesday—incite a desire for bloodshed beyond and within our own country? By the hands of Americans themselves? How can we begin to blame fellow citizens, people who are just as much victims as the rest of us? This is, after all, the land of the free.

Freedom, of course, is inextricably tied to power—as freedom bestows upon us the ability to act. With freedom and power come self-discipline, however, and without it, our power destroys us and our ways of life.

With religion comes self-discipline, too. A friend of mine, recently discussing a similar topic, asked me if I believe in the human spirit. I do. I also believe in human folly. But, more importantly, I believe in human ingenuity. The same genius that makes us Homo sapiens—that makes us capable of erecting 110-story buildings, medieval cathedrals, or even the great pyramids—is the very same that enables us to destroy such creations using innocent lives as weapons. And, while we as humans are rather apt to praise our gods for our human successes, we also rarely take responsibility for the wars we wage, the deaths cause, the poverty we create, the injustices we let pass.

Gregory Pence, a professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, wrote in his Classic Cases in Medical Ethics (2000), that Christian commentator Augustine in the fourth century C.E. interpreted the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not commit wrongful killing” as a distinction between “private killing and killing that is carried out as the orders of a divine or divinely constituted authority. … God may command a killing, and when this is the case, full obedience is required. … The worldly Ambrose had already said that Christians could kill in war, and Augustine went even further by condoning war against heretics.”

In a literary example, Shakespeare’s Henry V describes himself “not as a tyrant, but a Christian king” and reiterates throughout the play that his plan to conquer France “lies all within the will of God / To whom I do appeal, and in whose name / Tell you the Dolphin I am coming on / To venge me as I may, and to put forth / My rightful hand in a well-hallow’d cause” (I.ii.289-293).

Herschel Baker, writing in The Riverside Shakespeare (1974) of Henry’s Battle at Agincourt, explains, “Henry, knowing who arranged the outcome of the battle, organizes a religious celebration and orders death for anyone who fails to give God credit for his part in the affair” and we as readers are left to “squirm at Henry’s strident patriotic piety.”

The endless list of examples of wars waged in the name of gods can be found in many cultures and many religions.

However the rest of America feels, I do not wish to squirm today, uncomfortable with our immediate reliance on religion or war to give us “answers” or to locate “solutions.” We humans, particularly in this day and age, are better than that.

Relying on God to “save us,” to direct us in our next steps for justice or revenge, or to concretely answer our fears for the future—fears that, for the most part, we have created, be they environmental destruction, food shortages, or nuclear war—is the very same attitude that urges terrorist attacks of the kind we recently witnessed.

Finding common threads between this “faceless” enemy and Americans—or even the entirety of humanity—is uncomfortable at best. We want to think the chasm of differences between us and “them” is great. It can be—and the next acts we take as citizens and as a nation will be telling of how we fare. If we randomly harass, beat, or kill our fellow neighbors and fellow humans because they resemble the “other,” if we carpet-bomb parts of the world in our search for justice, if we fail to find common humanity—in both our genius and our folly—in all of those who seem so different, who follow different religious traditions, who live within different nation-states, we fail to take responsibility for the condition that is human.

If we want Homo sapiens to survive past the 21st century, we must seek higher grounds for measures of justice and not claim righteousness on the part of gods whom we have created.

To do so is to wait for the deus ex machina ending.

A chance—within the shadow of our vast human ingenuity and ensuing responsibility—I’m not willing to take.  

Rich, L. E. (2002, March 13). Our downfall is in ‘crusades,’ ‘holy wars’. CU-Denver Advocate.

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