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Remembering 9/11

Some days change everything – not just for those personally involved, but for all of us. 9/11 was one of those days.  The war on terror began, the invasion of Iraq followed, a cycle of violence and war which itself was a major cause of the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. I could see it where I then was as Chaplain at London Metropolitan University; the angry and confused young Muslim men who had been attracted by war in Afghanistan began to turn their attention to their own place of residence – whatever their passport, they would have scorned to call the UK their homeland.

The memorial for 9/11 - two huge water features in the footprint of the fallen towers

Iraq has come and mostly gone; Afghanistan continues; security concerns are still ever present and slow down our lives in ways to which we have become accustomed. We know that there will be another attack, some day, we just don’t think about it.

In one way it’s not new; those of us living in Britain in the 1970s were equally aware that an IRA bomb might happen, and occasionally they did. I looked up the history – one source claims that ‘During the IRA’s twenty-five year campaign in England, 115 deaths and 2,134 injuries were reported, from a total of almost 500 attacks’. That’s a whole lot more attacks, and twice as many deaths, as the 7/7 bombings – and doesn’t include the far larger numbers in Northern Ireland itself. I was surprised: I had really forgotten how many attacks there had been, how many people had been killed, how many had had their lives blighted through injury or bereavement. And now … the same people who planned and in some cases executed those murders are now steering the Northern Ireland peace process.

How we think about that fact may help us to work out how we might think about where we stand now in relation to the 9/11 anniversary, and the consequent wars and violence that have followed after it. Arguably the violence in Northern Ireland came to an end because of two very different facts. One was that the violence wasn’t working, in the sense that the political aims of the IRA were not coming any nearer through it. The other was that other doors were opened, through the negotiations which took place while the terrorism was continuing, which made it possible for the IRA to see a peaceful option as a realistic possibility while still seeking its aim of a united Ireland. Would those doors have opened if the violence of the IRA had never happened? Personally, I suspect they would, but we can never know: and I guess many Irish Republicans would say the opposite. But I am sure that the IRA would never have cease their violence if there had not been contacts before the violence ended. The rhetoric of ‘no negotiations with terrorists’ may play well with the public, but it doesn’t bring peace.  It is well known that ‘The British government maintained a secret back channel to the Irish Republican Army even after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that nearly eliminated the entire British cabinet in 1991.’[1]

As we look back on ten years of ‘war against terror’, the same message seems clear.  In some cases, violence is necessary to control violence; but violence will never defeat violence. However complete a victory may seem to be attained, it will leave smouldering the embers of anger among the defeated. We have seen in Libya how long it took for those embers to catch fire again, but also how powerfully that fire has burnt. NATO may have evened up the battlefield, but it was the rebels in Libya who have fought and died to rid themselves of what seemed an all-powerful regime.

What theological resources can we find to help us with all of this? It seems to fly in the face of basic justice that we should advocate talking peace to those who are still perpetrating violence. Is it not encouraging the violent, to begin to offer anything before the violence ends? Where is the justice in that?

But then, where is the justice in the incarnation? Anyone who has any doctrine at all of human sinfulness has to recognise the parallels. God came defenceless among humanity, and not just to negotiate; as Paul says ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. Clearly God’s saving action in regards to humanity didn’t conform to our notions of justice at all. But is that a resource for politics? Is there any way we can transpose God’s salvation onto our relations with those who offer violence to us?

We certainly shouldn’t be simplistic about it. Just because God did one thing in relation to us, it doesn’t necessarily follow that God commands us to do the same thing. We’re not God, after all; the UK Government wasn’t offering salvation and forgiveness to the IRA, just another political path.

But we do have some pretty direct teaching from Jesus on how to deal with our enemies, from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ – which leads all too quickly on to the final verse of the Sermon: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

We aren’t called to be Jesus, either as individuals or as collective bodies; but we are certainly called as individuals to show something of the same unjust generosity towards those who hate us as Jesus did.

So then, what about countries? Is there any meaningful way in which a national policy can reflect love? It’s not the sort of thing you talk about in politics, unless you’ve prefixed it with ‘tough’ – and that generally means something not very loving at all, as far as I can see. It’s certainly not part of the contract that a state makes with its people, that it should sacrifice itself out of love for its enemies. That’s not the sort of decision any collective body can make on behalf of all its members.

But the paradox that we saw in relation to the IRA was that peace eventually came through a process which began covertly and quite in contradiction of the official government line. The politics, in this case, was arguably more Christian than the rhetoric. The UK Government may not have been sacrificing lives, but it was prepared to sacrifice some notions of justice in order to find a peace that would resolve the situation and end the stalemate of violence.

States maybe can make at least that sacrifice: the sacrifice of their own rhetoric of righteousness, reaching out beyond the entrenched pain of injuries suffered and the desire for vengeance. As we come to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that message seems even stronger to me. When the desire for justice becomes tinged with revenge, it becomes a vehicle for the further growth of violence. Even just causes can lead to greater evils. But if the desire for justice is mingled even a little bit with a real desire for peace, then things become possible because the inner walls which sustain the desire for violence begin to be dismantled. If those walls go, it’s not so difficult to breach the walls between warring groups.

Peace doesn’t just arrive one day, it has to be sought. It’s good that we hear so much less of the language of war nowadays in relation to so-called Islamic terrorism. We don’t yet hear much about peace. But then, maybe (hoping against hope) that’s just because peace has to be spoken secretly – the guilty secret, the virtue that dare not tell its name.