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Public Theology: Justification of War and Terrorism
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Justification of War and Terrorism
An initial response to the events of 9/11.

By Ed Knudson

Wednesday morning, the day after the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, President George W. Bush sat down with his national security advisors and opened the meeting with these words: "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail." Congressional leaders of both parties sing "God Bless America" on the steps of the capitol. On Thursday President Bush called for a national day of prayer for Friday, asking all Americans to go at noon to the worship center of their choice for prayer and meditation. These events display that we are entering a new era of public theology in the United States and the world.

This theology will seek to justify a major expansion of American military capacity and presence throughout the world. The history of religion is a history of efforts of rulers to use God as a justification for their power and acts of war. This is demonstrated not least in the first of the two testaments which make up the Bible. In that case, however, the theology supported a small nation in its battles against the powerful nations surrounding it. The new public theology developing in the United States seeks to justify the exercise of military action by the most powerful nation in the world today.

It is important for thoughtful people in this country to carefully reflect on the meanings of these developments. This will require courage. In times of war there is a demand for patriotism and blind loyalty. The very intensity of the September 11th events commands the attention of everyone in the country. The outpouring of human compassion for the dead and suffering, the heroism of many in the midst of these tragedies, the national closing down of air travel and sports events, the interruption of normal activities for sustained focus on these terrorist deeds, the overwhelming desire for retaliation, revenge, justice, all these are very real forces uniting people in the country. This is a very major public event which will define the public moral context for the future. For just this reason, however, it is important to make an effort to stand back and try to think.

Think about the terrorists in the hijacked airplanes, apparently three to four in each of the four planes. They are not just criminals or out of their minds. They acted with cunning and calculation within their own moral framework, willing, even, to sacrifice their lives. They, too, were motivated by religious beliefs, by religious understandings within the context of their own social/political commitments. Islamic fundamentalism is a public theology used to justify terrorist acts. Those who study Islamic religion say there is nothing in the Koran which supports terrorism. It is necessary to distinguish clearly between this kind of public theology and rest of Islam. But the terrorists are not just isolated individuals. They justify their violence based on their religious views.

We in the United States experience the acts of these terrorists as the personification of evil. President Bush called them "faceless" criminals but this indicates a severe misunderstanding. As long as we fail to understand who the terrorists are we will not be able to adequately plan realistic responses.

The United States is viewed by many in the Middle East as itself the very source of evil. The World Trade Center is a symbol of that evil and the target of the attacks. The image of those burning towers, 110 stories high, and their collapse, represents a crumbling of the central economic institutions in this country from this perspective. The meaning of this requires a good deal of thought. There is a way in which the cultural results of capitalism as an economic system have undermined more fundamental social beliefs and values. The United States through the commercial media exports a popular culture of consumerism, sex, and violence which is widely rejected by people in more traditional cultures, and, indeed, by many within this country as well.

Political science professor Ann Kelleher of Pacific Lutheran University says that people in the Middle East see the United States as an attack on their own values. "The immorality and violence we send around the world has been noticed by others than just Americans. For a few it gives a highly moral justification for seeing themselves at war with the United States. In their minds, we are at the core of what is evil and power hungry in the world." (Tacoma News Tribune, September 13, p. A15)

President Bush says that we are entering a war of good versus evil. We are the good guys, and they are the bad guys. The national media appear to agree. In three days of watching television along with other Americans I have seen not one segment which seeks to describe and understand in any depth the view of the world or the "public theology" represented by those planning and carrying out the attack on the World Trade Center.

There is another aspect of this affair that deserves a good deal of thought. That is the way this country has related to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, especially more recently. Soon after his election, I was watching a new interview with President Bush. He was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He flinched. My impression was at the time that he mean to move in the direction of disengaging from the conflict, that the two parties would have to solve it themselves. We have seen since, indeed, that the United States has not played as active a role in the region as the previous administration. This has allowed the conflict to escalate. It has allowed Israel to increase military actions against Palestinians. And this, in turn, has helped to create a moral climate within Arab communities to justify the use of violence against the United States.

Certainly, the plans for destruction of the World Trade Center predated the election of George Bush. But it could well be that his tendancy toward disengagement helped create the conditions to allow the terrorist acts to actually take place at this time.

Another element of the moral context of this country is important to recognize and think about: Christian fundamentalism. President Bush was elected partially by the constituencies of religious conservatism. Some years ago I reviewed the content of popular television preachers; I watch their programs daily for several weeks. What was striking was the very central emphasis on political patriotism. Belief in Jesus was most basically belief in the country. Great effort was expended to demonstrate the false idea that this is a "Christian country". The United States is understood as a New Israel, God's chosen nation with a destiny to be the savior of the world. This is a significant historical public theology carried forward today in the gatherings of Christian fundamentalists. This theology is particularly amenable to be used to justify military actions of this country, just as Islamic fundamentalism is used to justify terrorism. It is interesting that both these theologies encourage maintenance of traditional social values. But in their public expressions they justify violence against one another. God may not be on either side.

I do not believe that most people appreciate the degree to which the religious right in this country has dominated discussion in the public context over the past few years. There is a tendancy to view religious conservatives as the "extreme right" and dismiss them. But religious conservatives have been successful in determining the terms of political debate in this country for some time now. Ronald Reagan was able to utilize religious conservatives for electoral purposes, especially about helping them achieve their domestic policy goals related to prayer in schools and abortion. Reagan rather blatantly used the religious right for his purposes; the revelation about Nancy Reagan's belief in astrology was especially embarrassing to religious conservatives.

After the election of Bill Clinton religious conservatives continued to dominate the public agenda in a way more difficult to observer, though it was screaming right in front of our eyes. I am referring to the Clinton sexual scandal. For religious conservatives sexual promiscuity is the central sin (a carry-over from the middle ages focus on sexuality as related to original sin). These conservatives have organized themselves into various groups intentionally created to influence the public media. They thus represent a certain presence within the moral environment of the culture, creating a standard for acceptable behavior. Media workers, though themselves often "liberal" in orientation, are able to use this narrow standard to define the "news". So reporters felt justified in exposing the sexual behavior of Bill Clinton in the oval office and subjecting the country to months and months of debate over this issue.

In these ways religous conservatives were able to dominate the public agenda for a major part of Clinton's second term. This is not insignificant to the current events. As the country has been focused on the narrow, rather petty issues generated from the influence of the religious right it has not focused on the more important policy matters of how this country relates to international developments and the role of corporations within the culture. Economic conservatives may well enjoy the fact that government has been disabled in its role of regulation of corporate behavior in this country as well as around the world. But, in the long run, this has led to the unexpected events of September 11th.

The very real sign of this is the fact that the intelligence agencies provided no warning of the terrorist attack. This involved many people over a long period of time, yet took sophisticated intelligence agencies by surprise. It is not a matter of the facts; there is tremendous capacity to develop data. It is a matter of the interpretive frameworks which are used to understand the data, to determine what is important and not important and the climate within which the information can be communicated within bureaucracies and to political leaders. The religious right has so skewed the terms of public debate, the so-called secular agencies of government have such little understanding of the motivational power of religious beliefs, that they do not know how to deal with events where the participants are motivated by religious views, such as the Waco confrontation, the Iranian revolution, or now, the use of airplanes as guided missiles to destroy major facilities in this country.

Now the religious right will help to justify the exercise of military power against those involved in terrorism. An email I received today from a conservative tax organization referred to "our sacred nation". This will mean a great increase in the national security state. It will mean billions of more dollars to military personnel and equipment. It will mean this country will, in effect, be declaring its own holy war.

In the meantime the conditions in the Middle East which have been generating the conflicts will not be addressed. The central issues are: 1) The conditions under which the Palestinian people have had to exist for several decades now, and 2) The fact that Arab nations are the source of the oil which is so absolutely important to the functioning of the American economy. What we need finally is not more military action against terrorists; in the long run we need to address the issues generating the moral context in the Middle East which justifies terrorism. But I have not yet seen a major political leader in this country with the courage to speak the truth about these matters.

The fact is that this country has been, indeed, engaged in a holy war for some time now. Though the cold war is over, it was the reason for maintaining a very large financial commitment to military technologies and institutions. This commitment has been a major factor in economic stability in this country. When President Bush first met with Republican congressional leaders after taking office he made an off-hand comment that "we are all hawks here." To be a hawk is to believe in a strong military, a willingness to fight. But this also means a great deal of taxpayer money goes to military purposes around the country. It is a way for the government to be involved in the economy without calling it that. To justify maintenance of the military establishment it is necessary to have military threats in the post cold war era. Unfortunately, the terrorists have now provided justification in a most dramatic form.

I believe the "hawk" attitude is precisely what has helped to lead to the events of September 11th. It is an arrogance of power of this country for us to believe that we are so strong we can do whatever we wish around the world, including conducting a major war to protect our interests in oil in the Middle East. We have closed our eyes to understand what is actually happening in the countries of the Middle East. Now we are going to go forward with an even larger investment in the military technology, the very technology that can only lead to greater conflicts in the future.

It would be much better to take the billions of dollars we will spend on efforts to retaliate for the terrorist attacks and use those funds to address the real issues of Palestinians and other Arabs in the Middle East. To even begin to find alternative policies and strategies, however, we need to develop alternative frameworks within which to think about these matters.

The central doctrine of Christian theology is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we understand this doctrine makes a lot of difference for how we think about faith and the world. Modernism places philosophical emphasis on the single individual self. And so does Christian fundamentalism in its focus on the necessity of making an individual private decision to "accept Jesus as my personal savior". But making this a private decision leads away from the primary meaning the the death and resurrection of Christ in the early church. The cross represented the centralized power of the Roman emperor; death on the cross was the way Rome terrorized the hearts and minds of the people. The cross was a military instrument by which Rome tried to maintain order. Jesus died on that cross, but he also rose again according to the faith of his followers. To believe in the resurrection was to believe that the power of Rome was not absolute, that there was another power greater than the power of Rome.

The church was that space in the world within which it was possible to gather in the name of this alternative Power. The cross and resurrection were thus public symbols. They represent, fundamentally, a public theology, not just a private opinion or personal event. It was not until the time of Constantine in the fourth century that Christianity became the official state religion and began to serve the political function of justification of state military action. It is that tradition which continues in Christian fundamentalism today. But the church should not so quickly ask God's favor for the most powerful nation in the world if that nation is not willing to look at how it may have contributed itself to the conditions leading to the terrorist attack against it. Belief in the resurrection leads Christians to realize the power of this country is not absolute; there may be new frameworks for understanding what is happening in the world today.

But President Bush will be calling for a public theology to justify increased military activity. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for public leaders to call for ultimate sacrifice without appeal to some Ultimate Reality. It takes God to justify war. There will be many religious leaders who respond to the call for God to Bless America. I encourage us to think more about it.

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Date Added: 9/13/2001 Date Revised: 9/29/2001

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