I have noticed an important evolution in Christian discussion about our nation's response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the initial days after the attack, I signed onto a national statement called "Deny Them Their Victory." This document grieved the atrocious attacks and named them for what they were ("utterly evil"), but called on the nation to deny the terrorists the pleasure of gaining victory over our society by tempting us into unrestrained and indiscriminate violence.

This was not a pacifist statement. Christians who do support the rare resort to war were among its signatories. I count myself in this group, though with a particular emphasis on the Christian obligation to support aggressive peacemaking efforts. But I do believe that war is sometimes a necessary evil, and that the biblical witness can be justly read as supporting this view.

The statement represented a point of convergence between pacifist and just war positions, which actually share key convictions concerning the tragedy of war and the spirit with which it should be considered. Now that our nation is actually engaged in military actions in Afghanistan, though, that convergence has largely collapsed, revealing a visible fault line in American Christian opinion.

On one side of this fault line can be found those who do support U.S. (and allied) military actions in this case, based on the criteria of the just war theory and the conviction that peacemaking with Osama bin Laden and his ilk is impossible. Here one finds many Catholic leaders, the Southern Baptist Convention, and many influential evangelicals. On the other side can be found conscientious pacifists, such as those in the Mennonite and Quaker traditions, who simply cannot support war under any circumstances. Both are reputable positions, deeply rooted in Christian tradition.

What does not seem quite as reputable at this point is that perspective which is attempting to straddle the fault line. These Christians, including some Catholic leaders and many influential voices in the Protestant mainline denominations, do not claim to be pacifists. But they are not willing to support this military action. It's not that they reject, in theory, the possibility that warfighting might sometimes be justifiable, it's that they cannot bring themselves to support this particular effort.

To this group the question must be asked: if you cannot support this effort, even as a necessary evil, what possible military effort might you ever be willing to support? If an attack using civilian jetliners against largely civilian targets that obliterates at least 5000 people sitting at their desks is not cause for some kind of military response, what is? If the apparent mastermind of that attack taunts us with the promise of more airplanes falling from the sky, and if we know that an international terrorist organization is hard at work seeking to penetrate our civilian and military defenses in order to kill more of our women, children, and men-if that kind of threat cannot gain your support for military resistance, what would?

The straddlers remind me of the squishy stance of many church leaders during the 1930s. Sickened by the carnage of World War I, and deceived by their own faulty presuppositions about the essential goodness and the perfectibility of human nature, many leaders were oblivious to the gathering storm represented by the twin evils of fascism and Communism.

They supported U.S. isolationism. They foolishly believed the occasional feints in the direction of human decency that emerged from Hitler and Stalin. They were utterly unprepared for the absolute evil that descended upon the world from 1939 to 1945; some learned little and repeated the same mistake during the long twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.

Islamic fundamentalist terrorism may not threaten the world with annihilation like Hitler and the Soviet Union did. But it does threaten US and global peace and security in a most profound way. For thousands widowed and ten thousand orphaned on September 11, it has already left a grief that can never be assuaged.

There is no way around it this time-this adversary must be contained, and if possible destroyed, using in an appropriate way the legitimate military and political tools available to the nation and the world community.

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