From the very beginning, I worried that the U.S. would respond with great force to the events of Sept. 11, slipping once again into the ancient belief that violence saves. The extensive war rhetoric increased my fears. I sensed that columnists and editorials that sarcastically dismissed nonviolence and anti-war demonstrations weren’t offering sound guidance. I knew justice wasn’t vengeance.
I wondered if everyone singing “God Bless America” really wanted to hear what God spoke about retaliation. The week of the attack, the assigned daily Eucharist readings were from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, where Jesus instructed us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
During those days, the dominant response was still shock at the horrible evil and great grief. So I turned to scripture scholar Walter Wink, who writes in Engaging the Powers: “We are so interconnected with all of life that we cannot help being touched by the pain of all that suffers…We human beings are far too frail and tiny to bear all this pain…We are to articulate these agonizing longings and let them pass through us to God. Only the heart at the center of the universe can endure such a weight.”
Recently, more insight came from Jesuits in Peru. Given their faith as well as their direct experience of terrorism over many years, they wrote to President Bush. After expressing their horror and promising their prayers, they urged that those responsible be brought to justice.
“Here in Peru, it took us a long time to learn about the nature of terrorism and to find effective ways to struggle against it,” they wrote. “We do not want the people of our native land to have to endure the same struggle of trial and error. We do not want our fellow countrymen and women to fall into the same trap of the vicious circle of violence breeding more violence.
“Only when the terrorists could not demand support from the villagers did their campaign begin to decline. On the other hand, when the police and armed forces used their military might for direct attacks against the terrorists, they created a situation that made the terrorists appear to be the better alternative.
“Terrorism is bred by ideological means, and it finds its ultimate justification in the poverty of the people who have no hope for a better life. Therefore, terrorism must be attacked on those same levels—by offering another ‘ideology’ to counteract the terrorist system and by responding to the root causes of violence.”
They go on to recommend three responses: First, the U.S. must begin massive humanitarian programs, carefully monitored and using money originally budgeted for military attacks, to end the root causes of violence, especially for countries surrounding those that harbor terrorists. Second, it must use all of its diplomatic efforts to pressure Israel and the Palestinian movements to come to terms in a definitive project of coexistence. And, third, Christian churches in the U.S. must begin an intensive program of interreligious dialogue in order to better understand Islam.
The Jesuits’ words of wisdom, forged in faith and terrorism, offer sound guidance. This wisdom also helps us all to respond to Wink’s haunting question: “How, then, can we overcome evil without doing evil—and becoming evil ourselves?”
Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is a professor of theology. This article originally appeared in The Catholic Telegraph.