[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the September, 2011 issue of the Virginia Advocate, a publication of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.]
This month marks the ten year anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. The attackers were religious extremists who believed violence to be an appropriate response to cultures and ideologies they perceived to be threatening them.
The tragedy two months ago in Norway has sharpened this conversation. The killer in Norway had written of his anger toward Muslims. Their presence threatened him. He had hoped to spark a revolution to stem the tide of immigration in his country. His views were extreme and he felt threatened. His response was violent.
We do not have enough information about the shooter in Norway to know whether his murderous rage was motivated by ideological extremism or mental illness or both. Regardless, the killings in Norway in July were senseless and evil, as were the killings in New York in 2001.
Lingering Questions In My Mind
The events ten years ago in New York and two months ago month in Norway settle a few questions for me but also stir some lingering questions in my mind. Here is what I do know. Evil exists in today’s world. Sure, I cling to the hope expressed in our prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Along the way, though, until that day, evil will confront and threaten us.
As well, I know my own passion – let’s call it anger – in reaction to the murders in New York and Norway (with plenty more in between). Sometimes I feel anger when I see evil, especially when it threatens me or my family.
But a few unanswered questions still churn within me, like — How should I respond to people who threaten me? And a bigger question — How should the Church respond? We could easily catalogue a few examples from across the centuries, or across recent years. The Church has an earned reputation for doing violence when we felt threatened. We justify our violence because we have concluded that evil exists, evil sometimes threatens us, and someone needs to stop it.
So, let’s agree — for a moment — that sometimes the Church must endorse a violent response when a real evil threatens us. This by no means is a settled debate, but for the sake of moving us to a more nuanced and helpful conversation, let us agree with (or step over) this premise.
How Do We Know If The Threat Is Real?
The more pressing concern in my view then becomes this: How does the Church decide when someone or something is a real threat? Let’s admit, sometimes we are confused about this. The Gospels are filled with examples. The well-intentioned disciples considered children to be a threat. Jesus corrected their misperception. The religious elite considered women, Samaritans, lepers, and tax collectors to be a threat. Jesus corrected their misperception. Now and then one or two of the disciples considered the other disciples to be a threat (because there are only two seats next to Jesus). Jesus corrected their misperception.
Today, the Church is mired in a policy debate about whether or not immigrants (documented or otherwise) are a threat to us. How would Jesus correct our perception? While we dare not suggest as with the Norway shooter that a violent response to our immigrant neighbors is warranted, we might wonder if the words we choose or the policies we propose are indeed violent in their effect.
Further, we are mired in a policy debate about whether or not homosexual persons are a threat to us. Sometimes our response is violent, if not physically, surely with our closed-heart, closed-mind words and policies that close our doors. How might Jesus correct our perception?
“They Are Not Like Us!”
Ten years later we remain mired in a debate about whether or not our Muslim neighbors are a threat to us. Too many of us – to our shame — have been unable to disentangle in our minds the violent extremist forms of Islam from moderate, nonviolent forms. Our tangled thoughts prevent us from reaching a more carefully nuanced perception, sorely needed in our relationships with our Muslim neighbors. Is this not hypocritical? After all, when one of our “own” representing an extremist form of Christianity publicly burned copies of the Qur’an (an act of violence in my view), we quickly disentangled ourselves from him. “He is not like us,” we resisted, when our detractors suggested that all Christians must be violent extremists like him.
If we have learned nothing else in ten years since the attacks in New York we should have learned this: We were attacked by members of a violent, extremist form of Islam. The attackers do not represent the majority of Muslims. This act of violence brought fear to our nation, and shame to many Muslims.
How do we respond? The Church’s response today to our Muslim neighbors, and to all of our neighbors who are different from us, must be formed – and corrected if necessary — by the example set by Jesus of the Gospels. We welcome them, we love them, we serve them.
© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2011)