A Christian Realist Approach to the Events of September 11

[1] “I’m a loving person, but I have a job to do,” said the President. His statement reminds one of the famous distinction Luther made when he wrote about the Christian’s calling. He said that if an individual Christian went into the forest and was beset by robbers, he might well not resist and even offer the robbers more than they demanded. However, if a Christian who was a sheriff went into the forest and was beset by robbers, it was his duty to arrest the robbers, using deadly force if necessary.

[2] The sheriff inhabited an office with a set of duties, just like the President does. And the ethic of the personal realm-especially the Christian ethic of love-does not apply directly to the duties he has as President. Other principles have to guide him, principles that are more worldly, that allow for the use of power and force in realizing them. In doing his job the President must follow the principles of the just war tradition. America has been grievously wronged in terrorist attacks. There may be many just claims against America among Arab and Palestinian people, but no grievance, no matter how serious, can morally justify the direct attack on non-combatants by a group that is not legitimately constituted and that has no aim to restore a just peace.

[3] These just war principles allow for just retribution against our enemies and for vigorous defense of our people. However, our response to the horrible acts of September 11 must be deliberate, proportionate, and carefully directed against the perpetrators, not innocent noncombatants. As has been suggested by several statesmen, it is time to make a concerted effort to pursue and disarm or destroy all terrorist groups that have the capacity to threaten our countries. The success of the terrorists of September 11 will give great encouragement to all terrorists groups. Now is the time to make preemptive, defensive moves against them. Failing that, we may well be facing far larger catastrophes precipitated by biological or chemical attacks, which may take far less ingenuity and resources that those used on September 11.

[4] This Christian realism seems far more persuasive than the sentimentality that is exhibited by so many religious individuals and groups who commend the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount for guidance in this situation. The ethic of love, forgiveness, and non-violence is proposed as the proper religious path to follow. But that is a confusion of what individual Christians might do and what the government must do. If the government does not act with firm retributive and defensive action, who will protect the sheep from the wolves? On the other hand, Christian realism is just as sharply distinguished from the blind bellicosity that would attack all Muslims or would obliterate whole countries. Such a crusade-ethic is just as far from sober Christian ethics as sentimentalism.

[5] Sentimentalism in Christian ethics is aided and abetted by the therapeutic culture in which we Americans are immersed. The therapeutic impulses of our culture lead us to equate our own feelings of shock and grief with those of persons who are directly affected by the horrible events of September 11. There are no doubt good reasons to counsel young children and those who have been seriously wounded psychologically by the disaster. But too often we focus on our therapeutic needs to be comforted than on the those who need and deserve comfort much more than we. We should be less focused on ourselves and more on those with truly gargantuan needs.

[6] There is an important role for religious communities in this difficult time. They are to place this tragedy into a transcendent dimension that offers solace and hope to all, pray for the injured and the families of the dead, pray for wise policies on the part of our leaders, help bind the wounds of the injured and offer support to their families, reflect critically on the role of our nation in the world, remind ourselves and others that even our enemies are creatures of God, and try to hold our nation accountable to the principles of a just war.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.