Before Retaliation or Redemption

There are times when even an atheist must ask, Who or what can save us from our plight? Sometimes the great rages of the earth, the physical evils of earthquake and tidal wave prompt the question. More often, it is the appalling moral evil of the human heart. Who can save humanity from itself?

Even the massive monuments to human self-protectionthe center of the world’s greatest economic power and the pentagon of supreme military mightare vulnerable before evil. There is no magic shield, it should now be clear to us all, to protect us from disaster; for as long as this world is walked by people who believe, for whatever reason, that their desired goals are so pressing as to justify the slaughter and incineration of persons, we will be forever vulnerable.


When we think of the World Trade Center’s collapse into dust and the gaping wound in the Pentagon, when we contemplate the excruciating loss of life, the brutal terror, the panic and pain to loved ones, there is no military or monetary solution. There is no vengeance, no retribution that will make up for such an atrocity. We could hang, draw and quarter the perpetrators of this monstrous crime, we could tear them limb from limb, torture all their loved ones, and it would not raise up those buildings from the dust. It would not heal the wounds of our national psyche, the brokenness of our hearts. It would not ease the anguish of the victims. There is nothing that could recompense their loss, no payback that could dissolve from memory the terror they endured.

If something deeper than retaliation is not addressed, there will be just more replacements for the predators we now hunt. We must come to understand what it is that would lead people to see such monstrous evil as a good, as desirable, as worth dying and killing for. Why would Palestinian men, military and civilian, celebrate with gunfire and free candy for children, chanting, God is great? How could Iraqi television call it the operation of the century, a slap in the face. The American Cowboy is reaping the fruit of its crimes against humanity?

The hard edge of retaliation is not only found among apologists for the Trade Center abomination. Bomb those countries into rubble, and nuke ’em have been heard on the radio bands. Steve Dunleavy of The New York Post wrote: Train assassins, hire mercenaries, put a couple of million bucks up for bounty hunters. As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts. If not vengeance, then, what are we as a people to do? We cannot stand idle before such monstrous injustice, such profound evil. Indeed, there are political, economic and moral sanctions that we can and should employ. But what we most need to do, in memory of those people who have died, is to live ourselves with the generous courage they taught us. Let firefighters, peace officers and healers win us over to their side, not to the side of those who hate and kill in vengeance.

We who are Christians must call out to other people of faith, especially the Muslim faith. They are people of the book, as our Jewish brothers and sisters are, people of the Living God. And just as we have excommunication, let us invite them to cast out of all Abrahamic communities those who violate the Book we share. Muslim Imams and Islamic leaders have already denounced the terrorists as a disgrace to the Koran, as unbelievers who will never merit heaven by such suicidal madness. Only if their voices are joined by religious leaders throughout the world will terrorists be isolated, disowned, dishonored and incarcerated.

We who are not Muslim must realize that this will take great courage on their part, for there are voices of wild revenge in their midst. And yet, which religion or nation has not had its modern heroes? It was Anwar Sadat, a Muslim, who was martyred for peace; and he was killed by Muslims. It was Yitzhak Rabin, a Jew, who was martyred for peace; and he was killed by a fellow Jew. Just as it was Gandhi before them, who was assassinated by a Hindu and the American President Lincoln, who was shot by an American.

Is anybody, then, so foolish as to think that this war is about nations or religions? No, it is a war of love against hate, a war of hope against despair.

There are voices of revenge in our midst as well. And we Christians, too, must show our courage, especially because of our faith. For while Jesus may be honored by the Jews and claimed as a prophet by Islam, he is our very God made flesh, a God who so loved the world as to enter it, despite all the misery and sorrow, despite its sin and hate, to transform and heal it by the truth that love requires.

Was it a special grace that the day set aside for national mourning was the feast of the Triumph of the Cross? In the Catholic liturgical calender, this is a remembrance of our Lord and Savior, who himself did not return evil for evil and told us to do the same; who himself was killed, armed only with the power of love and mercy; who himself died for all so that sins may be forgiven; who himself had no money, no military might, but only the truth; who himself resisted every evil that masquerades as good.

In that day of mourning, lifted up in pain for all to see, was God, even in our sorrows.

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11 years 10 months ago
As someone who escaped from the recent attack of the World Trade Center unharmed, I read the reflections of John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., (10/1) and immediately thought of one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last public statements: “The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is between nonviolence and nonexistence.” We are at an important crossroads. I love my country as much as the next person, but the blind patriotism of these past few weeks has left me feeling empty. I am not a pacifist by inclination, but the future physical, spiritual and mental health of the nation, I believe, depends on how well we are able to integrate the legacy of King, Gandhi and Thomas Merton into our daily lives. Thank you, Father Kavanaugh, for pointing us in the right direction.


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