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Clergy urge 'justice not vengeance'

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | October 23, 2001


"Terrorism is not a person, place, or thing. You cannot blast it out of this world."

—Joe Volk


As if Americans don't have enough to worry about in the wake of Sept. 11, now there's a theological puzzle, too.

Many religious leaders are trying to focus their flocks on justice, not vengeance, when many Americans are the angriest and most heartbroken they've ever been.

Can feelings of patriotism safely co-exist with the urge for revenge? Not when people think that discrimination and personal violence equates to love for one's nation, said Gordon Bates, associate conference minister for justice and witness for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

Then those attacked by terrorists are in danger of becoming terrorists themselves, he said.

"I'm sure a large number of our clergy are caught in the same ambivalence that many of us find ourselves in, of desiring to be patriotic, and of wanting to have justice done for the victims of the hijackers, yet aware that each reaction leads us further onto the slippery slope of curtailing civil liberties in the name of national security and using the same methods we condemn when used by others," he said.

More than 90 percent of people polled by CNN across the country said they support military action in Afghanistan. This leaves some clergy trying to share what could be an unpopular message: violence begets more violence.

In an Oct. 10 letter to President Bush, Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, urged a halt to military action.

"We urge you to stop the bombing, stand down the U.S. military, feed the hungry, and work diligently through peaceful means to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and other peoples throughout that region to the cause of justice for the victims of September 11," Volk said.

Volk added that U.S. bombing and a war on terrorism will not bring justice for the victims of Sept. 11. "Terrorism is not a person, place, or thing. You cannot blast it out of this world," he said. "On the contrary, terrorism is a vicious type of human conduct provoked by hatred or greed and carried out by fanatics and by governments. Violent retaliation by the U.S. will only sow more seeds of hatred and reap a new harvest of terror."

The Mennonite Central Committee also issued a message, similar to the Quaker's call for military restraint, that said a campaign of military retaliation, "...will harm many more people and perpetuate the cycle of violence. Therefore, we call all people of faith to speak out against calls for revenge and retaliation."

At the very least, added Bates of the UCC, "We need to put at least as much effort into the actions that might produce peace as we do in the actions that perpetuate war. The fact that we trained and funded bin Laden's and other Middle East rebel groups in the 90s to help Afghanistan fight the USSR has now come back to haunt us in a hideous way."

The theological knot has been tightened by President Bush's choice to cast the war on terrorism in terms of absolute good versus absolute evil, said Bates. "It's a struggle to distinguish the profound difference between loyalty to the USA and an idolatrous nationalism which will countenance no dissent or criticism of the government's choices."

Whether a particular denomination supports military action or not, most church leaders are urging government leaders on all sides to protect innocent people.

The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Rev. H. George Anderson, said, "as Christians, the love of our neighbor obligates us to act to prevent wars and seek alternatives to them."

But sometimes there is no other way, he added. "We understand that under certain circumstances, there may be no other way to offer protection to innocent people except by use of military force. Now that we are engaged in military action, we call on our leaders and military forces to do all they can to protect civilians from harm. We urge that diplomatic efforts continue in an effort to find peaceful solutions."

Catholic leaders adopted a similar stance, saying that sometimes military action is unavoidable and urging the U.S. to exercise restraint. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that U.S. military response 'must be guided by the traditional moral limits on the use of force. Military action is always regrettable, but it may be necessary to protect the innocent or to defend the common good. We support efforts to make clear that this response is directed at those who use terror as well as those who assist them, not at the Afghan people or Islam."

Leaders from Action by Churches Together (ACT) International warned against linking humanitarian airdrops and military action. ACT is a worldwide coalition of churches and related agencies that respond to disasters. The director of the ACT coordinating office, Thor-Arne Prois, said that the air drops were jeopardizing the credibility of humanitarian aid in the region and were not an effective means of meeting the desperate needs of the people of Afghanistan.

"Why should Afghan authorities and the population trust 'real relief actions' by the UN or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the future, once the concepts of impartiality and neutrality have been broken?" Prois asked.

Churches on the local level are not only engaged in fundraising for humanitarian relief efforts by ACT and others. Local churches are also engaged in peacemaking, said June Licence of the Riverside-Salem UCC in western New York. Members of the Riverside-Salem church are involved with the Western New York Peace Center, which advocates a non-military response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The Peace Center called a press conference the day following the attack, at which several Arab-American and Muslim representatives spoke," said Licence.

The Peace Center also hosted a forum on alternatives to war that addressed Middle East history, human rights, civil rights, and media coverage. "The Peace Center has joined others in a public park presence at every major turn of events," said Licence. "The Peace Center also holds receptions every Friday afternoon for people who just want to come and share their thinking and questions. "

In a statement issued Sept. 12, the Western New York Peace Center issued a statement expressing concern about the potential for an escalating spiral of violence. "We are concerned that the violence perpetrated yesterday

will be the catalyst for additional and equally tragic violence," the statement read. "As Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. once wrote, 'An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.' "


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