Theologians examine crisis
Amid all the confusion from the September 11 terrorist
attacks, one overriding question has been: What does it all mean? On Monday,
the Ethics and Public Policy Center sponsored a forum: "After September
11: Biblical and Ethical Reflections on the Current Crisis." The keynote
speakers were N.T. Wright, canon of Westminster Abbey in London and one of the
world's foremost New Testament scholars, and Gilbert Meilaender, professor of
theological ethics at Valparaiso University. Mr. Wright is an Anglican and Mr.
Meilaender is a Lutheran. Here are excerpts from their talks:
Mr. Wright: Theologian Leslie Newbiggin said the challenge for the 21st century is the rise of militant Islam on the one hand and the rise of unfettered global capitalist empire on another. This is not a war of America against Islam. Obviously [Osama bin Laden] wants to say that so he can get his coalition behind them. We have to go on saying these are not the terms of the conflict.
Mr. Meilaender: I am slightly puzzled by our response as a people. At least many of us tend to act as though everything we thought about life has been altered and the world has been turned upside down. My reaction was of anger and sheer amazement at the audacity and sheer luck of the thing but not the sense that my world had suddenly turned upside down.
So much of the Christian talk I heard in the days following the attack seemed to me to be utterly inadequate. Maybe because I've spent my life in the academy. It seemed to me there were things Christians ought to be saying; themes they ought to be rehearsing for themselves that I didn't hear very many people say. We will get tired of singing 'God Bless America,' especially in its country-music renditions.
There's been an outpouring of public religiosity but it's just ersatz religion. It will never have within it the capacity to recognize distinctions such as having a higher loyalty [to God] or to actually see how Christianity had a shaping influence on Western culture because religiosity has no shaping influence at all.
There is sense in which we all bear a measure of responsibility [for this] but I'm not prepared to take back the insight I heard from [theologian Reinhold] Niebuhr when he said that equality of sin doesn't diminish the inequality of guilt. The precondition for punishing terrorism is not to establish the equality of guilt but establishing that terrorism is guilty and it is to be resisted.
The "evildoers" language the president has been using is precisely intended to relieve him of the need to refer to Islam. It's a prudential judgment and maybe it's wrong. It's precisely to not talk about 'Islamic' terrorists. Getting rid of injustice doesn't necessarily get rid of terrorism. Some of that injustice is not necessarily global American capitalism and it's not always within our power to alter things. Some of that injustice is intramural Arab arguing and there's a limit to what we can do to change that.
Mr. Wright: The idea of forgiveness is unthinkable in the Middle East. Forgiveness is deeply embedded in the Christian language. We're not very good at it, we haven't thought out too much how to do it but at least we know forgiveness is a very good thing. In classic and contemporary Judaism and Islam - and I didn't know this until I lived in Jerusalem - forgiveness is not a moral virtue. It's a weakness.
I am often asked when I lecture about Jesus and the significance of His death and resurrection. People say, 'Well, that hasn't done any good in the world. The church hasn't done any good in the world,' that's the postmodern critique. But we have two recent extraordinary examples, one of which happened in South Africa. Who would have thought in the 1970s down there that there would have been a commission on truth and reconciliation chaired by an archbishop bringing the sides together? And the other is the role of the pope in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all that went with that.
Fifteen years or so, John Bouker, an English theologian, wrote a book in which he argued strongly that the reason why politicians can't solve our crises is that none of them took religious studies in university. And since most of the major crises have an irreducible religious element, which they have factored out because in the post-Enlightenment political discourse, it is assumed religion is irrelevant; it's what people do with their solitude, not with their public life. It's been ironically amusing to me to see [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair jetting to and fro reading the Koran on planes. It's like reading a manual about the nature of fire when the house is on fire.
One of the things we have to learn from this is to forswear the nonsense that all religions are the same. But when I have done public debates with Marcus Borg (a member of a group called the Jesus Seminar that believes Jesus was not divine) where when he has said all religions are equal ways to the divine, people - large American audiences - applaud. Vigorously. What's going on in your culture that makes them do that?
Mr. Meilaender: As to whether Christians have much in common with Muslims, I'm not very given to the standard academic language about Abrahamic religions. There is some way these civilizations clash. For Muslims, part of the problem is American troops on Muslim soil. The territory is localized for them in a way it's not for Christians.
Mr. Wright: You don't eliminate terrorism by killing terrorists. You simply make more terrorists if you treat terrorism in certain ways. Ultimately addressing the causes is the way to go. When we listen to these people, they associate - for better or worse, rightly or wrongly - their condition of mega-indebtedness, growing the wrong crops because they need the money for export, all their social evils, they associate that directly with the symbolisms of the global empire they see in London, New York and Washington. This is simply the way they perceive it. There has to be an addressing of that. That is the perception that is out there in a long swath of the world. And until something is done to alter that perception, not by spin but by substance, then we're going to have the same thing happening again.
No matter how much you believe in the just war - and I am not a pacifist - war is always a business you should be sad at having to go to. What makes me very sorry at the moment is that I am hearing, both in Britain and in America, this, 'Oh good, now we can have another war. And it's going to show what great people we are, etc.' I've been listening to a lot of CNN in the past month and that's the tone of voice I hear - and in the British House of Commons as well. The danger is we are simply allowing this to legitimate what could be an idolatrous militarism, which I think has been characteristic of great empires through world history.
Mr. Meilaender: I don't think that's true. I think that Americans have been shocked into realizing they may not be able to fight wars in the antiseptic way that our power had allowed us to. There is a kind of sober recognition that we may be closer to doing it the right way now.