All of the Above?

The days pass.

The television is on far less now than it was the first few days, but still, every time it is, the same images greet us: an unimaginably vast pile of rubble, a mass grave, the past, pulverized beyond recognition.

What does it feel like to be present when history shifts? It feels like this:

The baby clings, nursing, the little girl practices the piano. You make sandwiches for lunch, you nag the teen-age boy about his computer time. You pull out some sweaters, because itís getting cooler. You arrange papers and files on your desk, and make a plan how youíll finish this book, start that one and propose yet another one over the next couple of months.

But every few minutes, you think. You may not stop and think, because life is still moving too fast, but you still think. You wonder if war will really come Ė and if it will be a world war that will call on everyone, even 41-year old you. You think about your nineteen-year old son, and your heart skips a beat. You think about flying, you think about how a week of disruption costs tens of thousands their jobs, you wonder how that can happen. You think about men drinking in bars, then getting up the next morning and smashing a plane, praising Allah before they strike.

And, of course, you think about the mass grave in New York and the black gash in Pennsylvania, and the scarred Pentagon. You think, poor, poor people. Oh God. You think about the thousands of children going to sleep tonight, faces wet with tears, curled up under covers, Mommyís gentle hand, Daddyís hug gone, burned to ash.

And like the rest of the past, simple answers are like ghosts.

What is going on, in the most subtle way, is preparation. The flags flying from cars, pasted up in shop windows and hanging in front of houses symbolize this gathering of strength and settling of focus. We fly the flags so that when we see them, as we do every moment, weíre reminded that all kinds of known and unknown sacrifices lie ahead, and for a good reason.

But for some, thereís another symbol that meets our eye, perhaps no more than usual, but now with a different, even stronger sort of impact: it dominates our vision as we pray for the dead in church, it scratches our skin, hanging from a chain, it meets our uneasy eye as we go from room to room in our houses. It has a body on it.

That cross. What does it mean? What does it mean, ever, and what does it mean now?

Never in my life have I felt such an urgent need to turn to the Church for wisdom as I do now. In the past, the answers to even the hard questions have been so self-evident to me that no searching was necessary. Of course abortion and euthanasia are evil. Of course life is to be lived simply, focussed on the things of God and helping those in need. It wasnít that the answers that the Church provided were ignored Ė itís that it was all clear. The world worked the way the Church said it did, and all the wisdom of the Church expressed nothing but the truth in nature as God made it. It was all just right there.

This day I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursing: therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

But this is different. Or maybe itís not, but I just canít see it yet, just as I canít see how any of this will end.

So, naturally, I turn to the Church. First, those who speak for it today. I am generally unimpressed.

No disrespect is intended here. It is terribly difficult for anyone to find words to meet the gravity and magnitude of such a situation, and one that is so complex. But in the weeks following the terrorist attacks on the people living and working in America, the responses of most Church leaders have missed the mark. Itís not that anyoneís said anything wrong, for it is indeed true that we should fervently pray for peace and work for just solutions. But is this what weíre so urgently wondering about right now? Is that the point?

Well, of course, it always is. We know that. But this is what else weíre really wondering:

Evil people Ė yes, evil Ė have the means and, most importantly, the will to slaughter thousands of us at one stroke. Their desire may seem mad, but it is rooted, not in an insane impulse, but most definitely in a plan. The reasons are complex, a tapestry of perverted religiosity, hatred of the West and all it stands for Ė from religious freedom to female emancipation to Christianity, support of Israel, and more.

In response to this, these people plan Ė not desire, not wish, but obviously now, plan Ė to destroy what they hate, and that is us. They are clearly not interested in global conferences gathered to hammer out our differences and live together in a paradise of diversity and tolerance. They have no desire to tolerate us Ė they are like Hitler, like Stalin, like all fascists and totalitarians. People who slam airplanes full of innocents into buildings full of innocents are beyond diplomacy, beyond negotiation, beyond earnest pleas for understanding.

What are we supposed to do?

As Catholics, as followers of the Gospel, what in the world are we supposed to do?

The extremes repulse us, for various reasons. We canít be enthusiastic about the possibility of war, because war is evil. Even promised intentions of a limited, focused scope to military action leave us somewhat cold because we know our history and we know that war spills like uncontrolled sewage and engulfs millions in its stinking wake. Not just the young men shoved to front lines just so they can fall, but also the civilians staring in disbelief at their bombed-out homes, scraping to feed their children, lives born to be perfect images of Godís love, literally smashed.

We know, even as we sing ďGod Bless AmericaĒ and even as we quite honestly sense that the American experiment of freedom surely must be in line with Godís will for human beings Ė we know that the City of Man and the City of God remain two different things, and that nations fall and empires crumble, even worthy ones. But then again, our country and our culture arenít separate from us. Itís what weíve made with what Godís given us, and along with the dreck (a superficial, materialist culture) and the truly horrible (abortion, of course), there is good, beautiful fruit here, worth preserving, worth growing.

We hold back, too, because we know what Jesus says about enemies and peacemakers. Moreover we know what he did when faced with terror that sought to destroy him. We touch the cross at our throat.

But the pronouncements of pacifists leave us cold, when they donít leave us hot with anger. Itís not about retaliation, either, as they like to imply. Itís about a real threat to real human lives, on a potentially massive scale. As Christopher Caldwell writes in the New York Press,

Like the Nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists are basically a collection of loosely unified criminal gangs with a scapegoat and a desire to take over the world. If anyone had said in 1929 that a few thousand thuggish, unemployed and poorly organized losers scattered around Germany would 12 years later not only control all of Western European territory but also be carrying out genocides on it, heídíve been laughed at. Take the terrorists seriously.

We want to tell our probably well-meaning friends on the Catholic left this, too: You canít have it both ways, you know. You canít, on the one hand, continually ream out the Church of the past for failing to stand up to Nazism, and then jump ahead sixty-five years and preach an understanding of the root causes of terrorism.

So we canít be unthinkingly bellicose and while pacifism rips at our soul and seems (I say seems) to call us as we seek to follow the Gospel, it is decidedly out of touch with the threat.

To make matters worse, in the past weeks, hardly anything said by any American church leader, at least, has offered much to chew on. Weíre called into churches to pray for peace. To pray for reconciliation. Weíre praying for a just resolution. Weíre praying to avoid violence, to build harmony among people. Weíre praying for the dead.

And this, of course, is what we should be doing. Giving ourselves over to God in prayer, rooting out darkness and evil in our own lives. This is not to minimize the centrality of our prayer.

But - what are we to do?

There are answers, of course. They are partial answers because times change and warfare changes along with it. But the truth is, for good or for ill, the Church has been deeply involved in questions of war and peace since its origins, and has evolved ways of thinking about the matter.

Why arenít we hearing about them?

Iím not here to offer wisdom. Iím looking for it, and Iím not finding much of it. As I said before, bishops are urging me to pray, which is good, but one thing bishops are not doing is saying much of anything real about the conflict. We can search for root causes and seek justice all we want, but whatís at issue is the present Ė a shockingly broad and deep plan to destabilize our daily life, our economy and our values. To kill lots of us and work to create a world in which those of us who are Christians and Jews cannot worship, those of us who are women cannot go to school, and all of us would live under a fascist pseudo-theocracy.

What should our response be?

As a Catholic Christian, how should I work this out in my head and in my soul? How can I reconcile the call to Godís peace with the reality that war of some kind seems to be the only defense, and that war means people killing other people, hot blood spilled out on the ground, vacant eyes staring into the heavens, unseeing?

One bishop wrote,

Justice will be served. Violence must be eliminated and those who perpetrate it must be sought out and brought to justice. All of this remains beyond you and me. What does not remain outside us and what we can do, is renew our own personal commitment to bring that peace into our world, our community, our families, our lives. That commitment is rooted in Godís plan and in that justice to which all of us are called.

What brought me up short in that statement was the cop-out in the second sentence. True, Iím not in the State Department or the military reserves or on the White House staff, but I am the citizen of a democratic republic. That means I bear my own small iota of responsibility for what my government does. The thought of war sickens me, but so, to a lesser extent, the implied notion that because Iím a Christian, I can sit out the hard thinking and let other people fight for my freedom, while I work for justice in my community. Is that right?

Another bishop wrote:

This terrible tragedy calls our nation to do two things: Internally, we must improve our nationís security. Externally, we must champion human rights and human development around the world. Weapons and military might are not our best defense against terrorism. We must invest in the welfare of people. We can never excuse terrorism, but we must understand the conditions that breed it. The roots of violence are desperate poverty and oppression.

Again, with all due respect, the ignorance glowing from that statement is staggering. Bin Laden is wealthy. Most of the terrorists, it seems, come from middle-class backgrounds, and are educated to various degrees. Nothing - nothing at all - in that statement about what is clearly the root of this particular river of terrorism, which has nothing to do with poverty, except to the degree that the terrorists exploit the poor.

So what Iím asking the leaders of my Church to do is yes, keep calling me to prayer. Keep calling me to the Gospel of Jesus. But do something else: get real. Get very, very real and plunge in the muck of this messy situation and grapple with it honestly. So far, the only statement that's come close is that of Cardinal Law of Boston, found here. Leave the catchphrases of the Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission back at the chancery, and immerse yourself in the reality of seven thousand dead, which is, I would bet, far less than was planned.

It is not a rationalization or blessing for violence that I seek. Not at all. Itís a way to realistically deal with evil that is decidedly uninterested in negotiating itself into goodness. The platitudes and banners just wonít cut it anymore. We want peace, but we canít see how to defend ourselves without force

So, if force and violence are unacceptable, tell us why weíre supposed to leave our children open to attack. Make sense of that for us. Explain why that is the right thing to do.

On the other hand, if force is acceptable, if the Triumph of the Cross means something other than the passive resistance many tell us it does, explain how all of that works. If the Just War doctrine is applicable, say so, for heavenís sake, and explain why. Delve into the wealth of the tradition at hand, look at it critically, glean its wisdom, and teach us how to balance the rights and needs of the City of Man with the demands of the City of God, and do it explicitly, with close attention to our wary consciences, our understanding of the horror that is war, and always, our hands poised to defend our childrenís lives.

Teach us.

Back to Amy Welborn's Homepage