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America Responds: A Faith-Based Approach

Generally, the term in its ancient meanings connotes “to restore right relationship”.  The paradigm of reconciliation finds its earliest roots in the Abrahamic mandate of tikkun olam which embodies a call “to heal, to repair, to transform”.  Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their roots back to Abraham, and, thus share this mandate.  However, the paradigm of reconciliation finds its most profound expression in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Regardless of one’s religious tradition, we find in Jesus of Nazareth a basis for reconciliation far more enduring, far more deeply transforming, and far better able to penetrate the darkest spaces of discord than any secular, rational actor model can offer.  Thus, we call it faith-based reconciliation.

There has been a lot of talk about religion since the attacks.  In the week following the attack Americans poured into houses of worship seeking comfort and reassurance.  Lately, Americans have become interested in learning about Islam.  Lectures and courses on Islam are suddenly overflowing.  To what extent do Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network reflect Islam?  Religious language and rhetoric is now on the rise in our domestic political discourse.  President Bush himself is interested in how religious leaders regard the attacks, for he assembled a bevy of pastors, religious scholars and leaders in the White House to discuss the religious dimensions of the crisis.

However, our purpose in this opinion piece is to reach into religious traditions to find concepts for thinking about justice.  Others have done this, too, usually focusing on doctrines and criteria for the just use of force.  Faith-based reconciliation, though, is an umbrella concept that encompasses justice and insists that it be pursued in tension with forgiveness, repair of relationships and healing of deep historical wounds.  Justice cannot be pursued in a vacuum without references to the big picture.

We are convinced that faith-based reconciliation not only delivers the richness of religious traditions’ thinking about war to our present circumstances, but that it offers sound and wise counsel about strategic policy.  A key source of our future security will be sound relationships with the Arab/Islamic world.  A continuing pattern of stirring up resentments will create ongoing security crises in the future.  By contrast, a policy that builds bridges and seeks to heal historical wounds will lessen the dilemmas that we face on many fronts.

There are three ways in which faith-based reconciliation offers insight into our present predicament.  First, it shapes the way that we look at justice.  Reconciliation affirms the importance of justice.  Without justice, reconciliation is hollow; it is cheap reconciliation.  Restoring relationships must begin with accountability.  Here, this means a firm endorsement of the use of force.  Deep within both Christianity and Islam is the notion of a just war.  Both traditions allow it both for self-defense and for just punishment.  To forego the use of force would fail to take seriously the actions of the terrorists or the lives of the victims.  We want to affirm the rightness of both grounds, and to applaud President Bush’s firm leadership in articulating and promoting them.

But reconciliation also calls us to stress certain elements of the just war tradition that are taught in scripture and are likely to be overlooked by secularized versions of the doctrine.  One is the importance of having a right motive.  Namely, one of justice, not revenge.  The first is the desire to bring to people what is properly due; the second involves the desire to do harm, and is motivated by hatred.   In the Christian scriptures, there are several injunctions against revenge and calls to love our enemies.

Whereas the war may be just, the call to right motive brings in to question much of the public rhetoric that we’ve been hearing.  It is very difficult, for instance, to reconcile the demands of the gospel with the perspective of Lance Morrow, appearing in Time Magazine shortly after the attack.  In a piece entitled “Day of Infamy,”  Morrow makes the case “for rage and retribution.”  He says, “Let’s have no grief counselors,” lest we feel better about things too quickly.  And let’s have “no fatuous rhetoric about healing,” which he says is “inappropriate now and dangerous.  There will be time later for tears of misfortune.”  No, Morrow says, “Let’s have rage.”  He argues that a day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage.  What’s needed is a unified, unifying, Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury more - a ruthless indignation” that won’t wear off in a week or two.  “Let America explore the reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa,” he says, which will require “focused brutality. . . America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness—and to relearn why human nature has equipped us with a weapon. . . called hatred.”

Reconciliation also calls us to the just war duty of minimizing the suffering of innocents.  This calls us not only to avoid direct intentional targeting of civilians, which we believe that we are doing, but also to take responsibility for the aftermath of bombings.  This means at least being willing to deliver humanitarian relief to refugees, the displaced, and those who are malnourished because of the war – massive food and medical supplies.  Being faithful to these duties furthers reconciliation because it lessens resentment and hostility within the Muslim world.  They are angered by their perception of widespread civilian deaths.  And they perceive that over the past decade, the United States has used this region to further its own interests, without showing an interest in its welfare.  An example is the alliance with the mujahadeen against the Soviets, then abandonment after the Soviets left Afghanistan.

Second, faith-based reconciliation understands that we can build bridges between the West and Islam by understanding better the religious dimensions of the conflict.  Islam is centered on the notion of the Umma, the Muslim people, living united in submission to Allah.  It is out of this that resentment of the United States arises.  Partly because of the perception of U.S. using Central Asian Muslims; partly because of U.S. support for Israel; but also because of the onslaught of Western culture.  It is Islam’s deep religious sensibilities that are offended by these.  Thus, Bush is misleading in saying that they envy our freedoms.  At the same time, there is a history – in doctrine, and partly in practice – of tolerance and sharing of common ground with other ‘people of the book” – Jews and Christians.  It is out of an understanding of religious sensibilities that we also avoid equating Osama bin-Laden and Al Queda with Islam.  We recognize the deep divergence of these factions with mainstream Islamic thinking about war and peace.  With an understanding of the religious sensibilities of Islam, parties in the West can then speak and act in a way that avoids alienation and finds common ground. 

Finally, faith-based reconciliation understands that we need to address the deep historical wounds that stem of exclusion, prejudice, conflict, injustice or unforgiveness.  In the words of the Jewish author Elie Wiesel, “That which is forgotten cannot be healed, and that which is not healed becomes the cause of greater evil.  The Judeo Christian West and the Islamic world has had a complicated history filled with misunderstanding, disrespect, injustice and domination on the part of both sides for over a thousand years.  What healing words and actions do Americans have for the Pakistani political leader who feels like a “rejected lover”, who we court when it is in our interest and “dump” when it suits us.  Or for the Iranian Theological professor from Qom who nurses a grudge over the U.S. participation in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953.  Or for the Sudanese leader of the Shura Council who now knows as we do that the bombing of the al Shifa pharmacutical factory in Khartoum was based on faulty intelligence.  What healing words and actions do Americans need from Saudis and Pakistanis for putting the Taliban in business.  Or from Sudanese for intense persecution of Christians in Sudan.  Or from Iran, Syria, Iraq and Libya for its state sponsorship of numerous worldwide terrorist movements.

Both the West and the Islamic world would benefit from an honest conversation about the nature of justice as a response to the September 11 attacks, about how to build mutually respectful bridges and about the painful history between us.


Brian Cox is Vice President of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy in Washington DC.  Daniel Philpott is Assistant Professor of Government and Fellow of the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Both are involved in faith-based reconciliation work in Kashmir.

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