Our Only Hope: Balancing Justice and Mercy

Words delivered at a September 12 Candle Lighting and Prayer Service for the Victims of the Day of Terror

BY: the Rev. Forrest Church, All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City


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History supports each of these statements. In the first instance, we must recall history's most ironic lesson: Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them. Terrorism is powered by hatred. If we answer the hated of others with hatred of our own, we and our enemies will soon be indistinguishable. It is hard, I know, to curb the passion for vengeance. When we see Palestinian children dancing in the street to celebrate the slaughter of our neighbors and loved ones, how can we help but feel a surge of disgust and anger, the very emotions that precipitate hatred. But the Palestinians are not our enemy. Nor are the Muslims. This is not, as some historians would have it, a war between civilizations. It is a war between civilization and anarchy, a war of God-demented nihilists against the very fabric of world order. I hope you will all go out of your way in the days ahead to practice the second great commandment and love your Arab neighbors as yourself. Few outside the circle of those who lost loved ones in yesterday's tragedy are more surely its victims than are the millions of innocent Muslims whose God's name has been taken so savagely in vain.

This said, to pray only for peace right now is unwittingly to pray for a war more unimaginable than awakening to the World Trade Center smoldering in ashes. After a day's worth of breathless repetition, we may be tiring of the Pearl Harbor metaphor, even finding it dangerous. Yet, if anything, the comparison is too comforting. After simmering for decades, yesterday World War III commenced in earnest, against an enemy more illusive and more dangerous than any we have ever known before. Good people here in American and around the world must join in a common crusade against a common enemy. From this day forward, any state that sequesters terrorists as a secret part of their arsenal must be held directly accountable. The only way the world as we know it will not end in a chaos of nuclear terror is if, first, we take every appropriate measure to destroy the terrorist henchmen themselves; and if, then, we make any cowardly nation state that finances and protects terrorists so manifestly answerable for this crime that they will never commit it again. Both challenges are daunting. I am not in the least confident that success in either or both will prove possible. And I know that the effort to curb terrorism will shed more innocent blood, claiming the precious and fragile lives of children and parents, lovers and friends, falling from windows, crushed under buildings. But the future as we knew it ended yesterday. Even as Churchill not Chamberlain answered the threat of Hitler, we must unite to respond to this new threat with force not appeasement.

With the war to be fought one between civilization and anarchy, our only hope lies in the balance we strike as we enter this uncertain and forbidding future. It rests in how well we balance justice and mercy, retribution and compassion, the might of weapons and the power of love. Our hope hinges on how effectively we unite a riven world against a common enemy. But it also requires that, singly and together, we answer to the challenge of maturity that will arise so quickly from the ashes of our shattered innocence. To do this we must not only gird our minds; we must also prepare our hearts. Above all else, this is a spiritual challenge, one that each one of us must meet. If before we could seemingly afford the luxury of relegating our spiritual lives to the occasional Sunday, today, facing a transfigured future, we must redirect our energies and spirits. In times like these, measured against the preparation of our souls, all lesser priorities lose their urgency.

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