In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and in a hijacked airplane over Pennsylvania, country music superstar Alan Jackson put out a single entitled “Where were you?” I was living in El Paso, TX in officer housing on Fort Bliss, the army base where my then wife was an Army chaplain. We were a military family. I had been an active duty Marine and was honorably discharged in 1994, having chosen not to make a career of the Marine Corps after an accident left me with PTSD and some messed up body parts in 1993. Two years later, my wife joined the Army and by 2001 we found ourselves on Ft. Bliss. I was a full time undergraduate student and a “stay at home” dad. When the attacks happened, I was on my computer in the office, preparing for my English class that day, when my wife called me into the room to see events unfolding on CNN.
We, like millions of others, stood in stunned silence as the second plane flew deliberately into the World Trade Center. Horror struck we watched those two towers, symbols of American economic might, crumble to the ground as if they were made of sand rather than steel, concrete, and glass. Our home was less than a mile from the El Paso International Airport, and the silence was eerie as all planes were subsequently grounded. The lines to get onto the base lengthened exponentially as security measures were put into place wherein every single vehicle had to be searched by military police with mirrors looking for contraband all around the car and its undercarriage, and bomb sniffing dogs, diligently searching for explosives. We quietly and without complaint accepted the perceived inconvenience that caused as traffic jams for civilians and soldiers alike as soldiers, family members, and civilians employed on the base blocked the major thoroughfares as we slowly went through the check points to enter the base. It seemed a small price to pay as we rallied to the cause of America, freedom, and community.
In my English class that day, the professor wrote a single word on the whiteboard as a writing prompt- “Why?” In my recollection, not a single person got that answer correct. There were people, myself included, who had bought into the idea that the perpetrators of these horrific attacks “hated the freedoms” that Americans enjoy. Our way of life, with our ostensible freedoms, were an anathema to the religious extremists who hated America. Not one single student in the rawness and horror of that moment thought to ask or to posit the notion that America (and by America, I mean its governmental, military, and diplomatic policies) had been in any way at fault. To those of us in the room that day, America was the shining beacon of freedom on the hill and while not perfect, was certainly not “to blame.” The uncomfortable truth however, is that, those attacks (and they were truly horrible) were retaliatory. They did not happen in isolation because a small number of people hated blue jeans, rock music, and women walking around without head coverings. That is to say, the people who planned them, and then those that carried those plans out, were retaliating against the American empire that for them, and rightly so, stands for empire, brutality, theft, and warmongering. When as a result of my historical studies as an undergraduate I learned these facts, I was stunned. I cover a good deal of this information in my book Go Golden. Suffice to say though briefly, that the U.S. is a warmongering empire whose actions in the Middle East since the mid-20th century have turned a lot of people into enemies. Sadly, we as a nation keep perpetuating that cycle with the world’s largest military that routinely engages in state sponsored terrorism as it seeks to acquire resources and strategic assets.
The response by the Bush administration was indicative of a misguided belief in the myth of redemptive violence. This foundational myth for western civilization says that the violence perpetuated by “them” (whomever that may be) is bad, while our violence in response is “redemptive” and necessary to maintain order. This myth comes to us from the deep annals of time, all the way back to the Ancient Near East and the myths that were believed in in that time and place as people strove to make sense of their harsh world where death and violence were routine for people. This myth perpetuated the idea that violence was a way to contain chaos and restore order, often through scapegoating other peoples. George Bush, seizing on the idea of American benevolence, rightness, and justice, proclaimed a “Crusade” against the “evil doers” despite the terrible legacy of the Crusades of ostensibly Christian people against non-Christians. He completely ignored the fact that America was itself an “evil-doer” of epic proportions ruled almost entirely by what theologian and scholar Walter Wink called “the powers”. The American response to date has been untold numbers of people killed, obscene amounts of money spent in so doing, and a perpetuation of the cycle of violence that has only served to create more enemies. And so the violence continues…
Contrast that to the message and lived example of Jesus. He is rightly called the Prince of Peace. In response to a violently oppressive Roman regime, he chose to walk in love. He showed this by healing a centurion’s slave and asking God to forgive those who brutally tortured, and ultimately executed him as an enemy of the Roman state. He modeled nonviolent, direct action in response to cruelty, avarice, graft, injustice, and religious malfeasance. He saw the humanity of every sinner and exemplified grace to all. He calls us to do the same.
Recently, I reread a book entitled Living Buddha, Living Christ by Zen monk Thich Naht Hanh and was reminded by this peaceful Buddhist monk that in order to bring forth the kingdom of God that Jesus so often mentioned, I must live out his teachings with mindfulness. I must follow his teachings of non-retaliation, peace, and extending grace to others. I MUST love my enemies (and as Naht Hanh wrote, when that happens these people cease to be enemies) and bless those who persecute me. These are no small tasks, yet they are exactly what Christ calls us towards. We cannot do that by constantly lauding the military, being pro-war, scapegoating Muslims (or anyone else), by giving our unquestioning loyalty to a warmongering government or idolatrous flag waving. We must remember as Christians that our deepest loyalty is to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, not the Stars and Stripes, a political party, or a nation state. We cannot be faithful to Jesus by sanctioning any form of warfare and violence. Period. That’s what Christ taught. That’s the example the earliest Christian adherents lived.