Since September 11th increased levels of intolerance among average Americans have become more acceptable. Machismo-saturated taunts and nationalistic zeal expressed by the President, that just a year ago would have made most citizens cringe with warm feelings of embarrassment, are now not only tolerated but accepted as normal. The kind of rhetoric emanating from our President resembles the bravado one might exhibit during a sporting event. This would be fine if it were a sporting event, however.people are dying. In an environment of tough talk, it seems that the reality of mass death associated with acts of war gets lost in verbal and ideological chest beating. Let's be frank, it would be more honest if people talked about America's revenge rather than its "justice".
From local car commercials on the radio to late night hosts taking comical jabs on network television, the level of tolerance for intolerance has risen dramatically. Certainly making fun of terrorists is well within the parameters of acceptable humor. However, a lot of what I've witnessed has attacked a culture and way of life that suffers from poverty, and isn't as inundated with an ideology that sees convenience and freedom as intrinsically intertwined. It seems ironic that a large number of people in the U.S. won't hesitate to tout our benevolence in matters of freedom and tolerance but feel unmotivated to stand up for these freedoms when tested. Understandably, there are overwhelming feelings of pain, anger, and fear associated with the atrocities of September 11th. However, these feelings do not justify an apathetic reaction towards hatred however it's packaged. It is not okay to merely excuse racist and xenophobic jokes as cathartic releases, dismissing them as part of the "healing process". What's more troubling (too bad it's not simply surprising) is that Christians in America are reluctant to stand up against this behavior. Often it seems like the average Christian is even supportive of this climate.
The United States is a nation with a significant number of confessing Christians who generally consider their country to be a symbol of hope and freedom to the world. How do we achieve or make reality these ideals when we pander to the same mentality of violence and revenge that motivates the terrorism against us? As the U.S. military continues to defend our "freedoms" and our "way of life", it perpetuates the same cycle of violence that is the antithesis of peace. As Jesus Christ understood, by retaliating when wronged, instead of "turning the other cheek", we perpetuate the cycle of violence that has plagued humanity since the beginning. Yet so many Christians in the U.S. are unwilling to focus on this teaching from Jesus, and even further, demand this action from themselves or their leaders. Compartmentalizing our faith and politics chips away at the integrity of the very faith that we hold dear. When our politics and self-interest take priority over what we claim are our religious beliefs our faith is dead; Christianity and practicality are not synonyms. Somehow loving one's enemy - as Christ taught - and supporting a bombing campaign against our enemy doesn't seem to make sense. If Christians believe as The Gospel of John reads, "The Word became Flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14), how can we claim to believe in Christ's absolute divinity and blatantly disobey His teaching on violence? Furthermore, how can we feel morally justified for it? If we believe Christ is God, committing acts of violence against people who have threatened or harmed us is tantamount to saying "No" to God. And for those who believe the phrase "turn the other cheek" is out of context, I challenge them to think of scenarios, both individually and as a collective body of people, where its application would be appropriate. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."
And so with the above written, what about those who say that there needs to be justice? Is there not a need for justice, not simply to punish the perpetrator of a criminal act, but also to send a deterring message to anyone who might consider doing a similar act in the future? In order to administer proper justice one must be in a position to administer it, which does not mean that the one with the most power is necessarily the most qualified. In the case of America and its attacks on the Al Qaeda and Taliban of Afghanistan, and its possible future attacks on what President Bush calls the "Axis of Evil", we need to examine the history and comparative justness of the United States. A few questions come to mind: How has the U.S., the wealthiest country in the world, contributed to the global economic structure that still can't take care of significant populations of people suffering from hunger, sickness, and poverty? In what way has the U.S. committed its own brand of terrorism, e.g., Vietnam and Nicaragua? How can a country like the U.S., which continues to build stockpiles of weapons of mass environmental destruction and human death find itself in a position of moral superiority? How can the U.S. which delivers sanctions that are responsible for thousands of deaths from starvation each year, due to the belligerence of those peoples' leaders, be considered a just country? How can the U.S. bring justice and peace to other countries when the streets of its own cities are some of the most violent in the "developed" world? Is it just for the U.S. to support ruling families in Arab countries who may not represent the will of the majority of their people nor practice a democratic form of government - especially when our support tends to be for self-interest (how many of the September 11th terrorists came from countries that are our allies?). The list could go on but it seems clear that the United States cannot find itself in a position that would be a suitable dispenser of justice in any remote sense; for that matter what country, on its own, can? Justice can only be as pure as the one who administers it. So what should be done? There should be some way to send a message that terrorism is evil. Ideally, for Christians, seeking revenge by means of war is unacceptable; it repays evil with evil making one no better than the other. How, then, do we protect ourselves from seeking revenge yet send a message to the international community that terrorism is not tolerated and is an evil act?
First we need to illustrate the difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge. Let's use our own justice system. If someone were to break into my home and rob me with a firearm I might go after the perpetrator with my own weapon of choice. However, to do so outside my home would make me subject to laws which would deem my behavior illegal and I'd probably find myself in serious legal trouble. The appropriate action under the law would be to file a report with the police; not take the law into my own hands. We have a justice system in our country which acts as an arbiter. This is to prevent people from settling things in their own way, which may not take into consideration the wisdom of thousands of years of human history, ethics, morality, and law. Having a justice system or arbiter, independent of the parties involved, helps take the responsibility off the victim, or remaining friends and family, to serve justice. It allows for a judicial party, independent of the crime, to hand down a verdict that is hopefully fair and objective. Ideally, this helps prevent a Hatfield and McCoy-type feud of perpetual violence. It also provides (however corrupt and inefficient it may be) a recourse for those who are powerless.
Because we operate on a global scale now, the U.S. could have, and should have, sought justice through an international criminal court. However, the U.S. has consistently opposed an international criminal court because U.S. officials might have to account for their own criminal actions. Consequently, this might undermine U.S. leverage within the international community. This is definite hypocrisy for a country that defines itself as a democracy; democracy depends on a justice system, which as the name suggests has a system of laws that it must adhere to in order to minimize abuse of power. Otherwise, without laws, justice is merely an arbitrary matter dependent solely on the "800 pound gorilla" with the means, subject to nothing but itself. The U.S. government is behaving like that 800 pound gorilla subjecting itself to no authority but its own, trusting itself to dispense justice how it pleases, and ignoring obstacles that impede its "progress". This reality is part of the reason why we were attacked in the first place. How can we market the ideals of this country that we hold dear -freedom and democracy - if we only think it is acceptable within our borders but not outside them? In essence, we are telling the international community that democracy is only an ideal we adhere to when it suits us. We are not willing to defend or even use the democratic process when it challenges our sense of ourselves.
What about our safety? Shouldn't our government be doing everything within its power to protect and defend us from harm? Does it not have a moral duty (justification) to do so, which might require it to act quickly without the consent of the international community? These are very good questions and ones that present profound struggles to Christians and thoughtful people everywhere. The following is specifically Christian, consequently, outside a Christian world view might seem illogical, foolish, and even immoral. As followers of Christ we are not solely under the Law of the Old Testament but follow the One who has fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17). In this way we do not act or react in accordance to exterior actions but to intentions, or matters of the heart. Above all we are required to love others as ourselves. Christ says. "You have heard it said, 'An eye for and eye' and 'A tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you not to resist the evildoer; on the contrary, if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would go to law with thee and take thy tunic, let him take thy cloak as well; and whoever forces thee to go for one mile, go with him two. To him who asks of thee, give; and from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn a way" (Matt. 5: 38-42). Christians are required to go beyond justice because justice is not enough for us to escape the judgement of God. Our intentions are still impure when we merely seek justice on our own. Only love in return for wrong purifies us of our wrong intentions. Romano Guardini in his book The Lord writes:
The Old Law used justice as its norm of human behavior. As others treat you, so shall you treat them. Violence may be returned for violence, evil for evil. The justice of the day consisted in not returning more evil than the amount received, and naturally one was allowed to protect oneself from anything that seemed threatening. Christ says: That it not enough. As long as you cling to 'justice' you will never be guilt-less of injustice. As long as you are entangled in wrong and revenge, blow and counter-blow, aggression and defense, you will constantly be drawn into fresh wrong. Passion by its very definition, surpasses measure -quite aside from the fact that the claim to vengeance in itself is wrong because it lies outside our given role of creature. He who takes it upon himself to avenge trampled justice never restores justice. The moment discussion of wrong begins, wrong stirs in one's own heart, and the result is new in-justice (The Lord, 92).
Guardini's explication of Matthew 5: 21-24 begins to look at Christ's teaching seriously. Christ is not asking us to be self-interested, or to be practical; self-preservation is not an excuse for misunderstanding the words of Christ. To do what Christ asks - love your enemy - may cost us our lives. Compartmentalizing our politics and our faith takes no courage. As Christians and voting Americans, we must meditate, pray, and act in accordance to the infinite well of love that is in Christ. Only then can we truly penetrate the political manipulation and surface polemics that create a haze of confusion. It is not only time for Christians to begin taking responsibility for their own personal actions, but to also take responsibility as citizens of a nation that is part of a global community. It's time to look down at our WWJD bracelets and ask if Jesus would buy that detergent, work for that company, spend four hours watching television, fly a bombing run over Afghanistan, and fill up the 30 gallon tank plus the reserve tank without wondering about the consequences. In short, 2000 years after Christ spoke, we need to begin wondering adamantly what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.