Whose Divine Right?

Book cover
The War on Terrorism and the Terror of Godby By Lee GriffithEerdmans Publishing Co. 404p $29

What more appropriate time than this year of bombings, retaliations, wars and rumors of war to investigate the meaning and practice of terror, especially in its relationship to faith? Lee Griffith, in The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, offers a compelling start.

Although he examines historical and theological aspects of Judaism and Islam, Griffith’s main focus is Christianity, and his context is the contemporary United States of America. It is the violence done in our names, violence perpetrated by a predominantly Christian country that drives his inquiry, as Griffith notes in his preface, itself prefaced by an italicized reference to the murderous events of Sept. 11, 2001.


If one is shocked by the claim that the United States has somehow embraced the logic of terror, it is only because, Griffith suggests, one has uncritically accepted the Burkean notion that there is no such thing as terrorism perpetrated by legitimate states—a conceit surely refuted by the facts of every war during the last century. The underlying elements of terrorism, whether enacted by state or anti-statists, are the use of violence and force, the use of violence for political goals and the intention to generate fear. While the targeting of noncombatants is surely an added weight on the moral evil of terror, what is particularly virulent is the divine sanction so often given to such violence. On Griffith’s account, it is blasphemous. It is apostasy.

Since the range of The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God reaches, by its very title, far into the realms of history and theology, the task Griffith sets for himself is daunting. He weaves, throughout each chapter, strands of (especially American) history with scriptural interpretation, the development of Christianity, literary references, biographical excursions (Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu are the more prominent) and his own personal encounters. Through it all, by this reader’s judgment, he offers devastating critiques of utilitarian defenses of violence, of demonizing the enemy, of the systemic depersonalization and “distancing” required for intentional killing and of the endless patterns of self-justification and divine legitimization for making war. In line with his focus, Griffith—whose previous book is The Fall of the Prison—is acutely critical of American exceptionalism, which permits us massive resources for a military establishment, increasing haste in utilizing the military option, embracing the very practices we condemn in our adversaries and even conjuring up the deadly forces that eventually serve as our demonized enemies.

Griffith’s critique of U.S. policies complements his indictment of Christian accommodation with nation and culture. The tendency to sell out to worldly power, to accept the ideology of the times and to distort Scripture on the one hand is paralleled, on the other hand, by the tendency of “radical” Christian “identity” groups to have their own vested interpretation of the word of God. In a deft extended passage, for example, the author chides Christian militia groups for not being “radical enough,” since they, in profound but subtle ways, reject the way of Christ while embracing power and violence.

The present “war on terrorism” is doomed to failure on both strategic and evangelical grounds. Whoever is successful in destroying the most lives and resources and in inflicting the greatest fear of retribution will win such a war. But the winner will have become, by definition, a terrorist organization. “If terrorism is to be defined by exacting the higher price, utilizing the most efficacious violence and instilling the greater fear, then the war will be won by the party that is able to muster the will and the resources to commit the genocidal and suicidal act of destroying the planet. The only peace that can come from the effort to oppose terror with terror is the peace of the graveyard.”

The alternative to the logic of worldly terror, by Griffith’s Christian account, is the terror of the cross of Christ and the hope of the resurrection. It is the transvaluing “wrath of the Lamb” inverting the logic of violence by the logic of incarnate love in history and community. This truly radical faith empowers Christians to undertake the frightening task of calling a nation to cease making and selling arms, and to embrace a disarmament of spirit in international relations and national priorities. Such faith requires an interior reform of the individual’s own tendencies to violence and economic self-aggrandizement as well as a commitment to nonviolent dissent and not cooperating with national military and economic violence.

In the absence of any substantial pulpit-, political- and press-generated challenge to the received wisdom of our “war on terror,” The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God is a prophetic work indeed. Like the Hebrew prophets, Griffith looks steadily at his own people, his own nation and delivers an indictment that is scholarly, literary, scriptural and historical. It will be pleasing, however, only to those who are already convinced and look for support and evidence warranting their judgment. If you are not convinced, you may well find it unrealistic and presumptive.

And that, perhaps, is its necessary weakness. It is a long book, well researched and documented. But a much longer, much more nuanced work is needed to address fully the problem of terrorism. The same tolerance and evenhandedness that appear in Griffith’s handling of Islam, for example, must be applied to this nation and its believers. That he does not do this successfully is found in the sense that the arguments of those who turn to violence in self-defense are not actually engaged. The fact that we all have a tendency to demonize the enemy does not mean there are no demonic persons in the world. How indeed can the horrible atrocities that humans have inflicted upon themselves be stemmed or stopped? If it is truly the way of the Lord Jesus we take as our own, it may be the full horror of the cross we will have to endure.

The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God is a welcome but disturbing book for serious American Christians. One can only hope that there is a Jewish and an Islamic equivalent of Lee Griffith calling their own people to God. If not, it will be a bloody century acoming indeed.


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