What Would Jesus Do About Terrorism?
[NOTE: I support the "Listen
for Peace" proposal.]
What would Jesus say and do about September 11? The situation is bad and
could easily be much worse. One wonders why the terrorists have not already hit
a major metropolitan area with a wide dissemination of anthrax spores. Itís
also possible that terrorists have a crude atomic weapon, but no one has yet
attacked a city with nuclear weapons (well, not since 1945, anyway).
The immediate driving force behind terrorism is anger and hatred. The
underlying force behind hatred is a destructive relationship with nature. The
link between a destructive relationship with nature and a destructive
relationship with fellow humans is not obvious but is extremely important.
It is not always possible to separate our attitudes towards nature and our
attitudes towards our fellow humans. Species are going extinct at a rate 100 to
1000 times faster than normal today, and a cavalier attitude towards animals and
nature often goes hand-in-hand with a cavalier attitude towards humans as well.
But there is a far more straightforward problem. We are exploiting the resources
of nature with great technical ability, but the soil, water, forest, energy, and
mineral resources of the earth are being rapidly depleted. These resources are
finite, and are being used today at a greater and greater price. Groundwater
tables are falling both in North America and in Asia; soil erosion takes
valuable land out of production; tropical forests are disappearing at an
This leads to a situation in which some people have control of these
resources, while others donít. A significant minority in the richer countries
are living a lifestyle which is ecologically unsustainable, while the rest of
the world is left with a choice of somehow emulating this overconsumption ó
with increasing difficulty, as much pressure has been brought to bear on natural
resources ó or subsisting with much less. This creates inequality within the
framework of ever-diminishing resources.
If we do not alter these basic facts, terror will triumph in one form or
another. Even if the terrorists, and their network, are completely eliminated
from the face of the earth ó down to the last person ó the roots of terror
will have been left intact. Terror will change shape and re-emerge, learning
from the lessons of the past, and confront us in an even more horrible shape.
Western civilization is not entirely innocent of terror. Itís true that
there are many delightful and positive features of our way of life: the
availability of hot and cold running water, basic sanitation, housing and
heating, health services, steady employment, the widespread presence of public
libraries, and an unusual degree of civil liberties. But on the other hand, the
Western world, with about 15% of the population, uses over two-thirds of all the
economic output ó in a world in which resources are being rapidly depleted.
No important figures seriously suggest practical measures to reduce consumption or preserve
nature. This is a civilization which annually butchers billions of innocent
animals to support a meat-eating habit which is not only unnecessary but is the
major cause of the rapidly rising medical expenses to treat heart disease and
cancer. When you approach other Americans, even your friends, with these facts,
you get a puzzled look. They donít get it; they donít see a problem. They
donít want to talk about it, they donít want to think about it, and they
continue their behavior. Of course, they also canít understand why September
Ambiguity about Terrorism
It is disturbing to Americans that some people see the terrorist actions in a
very ambiguous way. This varies all the way from the Palestinians who joyfully
celebrated the September 11 attacks in the streets, to others in Arab countries
who say casually and privately, "Sure, what the terrorists did was wrong,
but the United States had it coming." How can we understand the point of
view of such ambiguity? Why canít everyone agree that killing innocents is
immoral? Isnít there an absolute moral divide between those who tolerate
terror, and those who do not?
Let us put aside pacifist objections for the moment and assume that war,
provided it is conducted in a reasonably honorable way, is an acceptable, though
not desirable, option. Doubtless, the terroristsí actions are absolutely evil
ó but the United States cannot condemn the killing of innocent civilians, in
itself, without a broader context.
Hereís an example: suppose the U. S. had the atomic bomb much earlier in
the Second World War ó say, in 1943. Suppose, further, that it was possible to
drop the bomb in such a way that it would kill Hitler and most of his generals
while they were meeting in Berlin. Even though the overwhelming majority of
people killed in such an attack would probably be civilians, the military value
of the target, for most people, would justify its use. Indeed, its demoralizing
ó shall we say terrifying ó value would have been so great, that even if
Hitler and his generals not been present, it probably would have been
militarily justifiable. It might very well have brought the war to a much
quicker conclusion, and saved millions of lives. The ultimate use of the atomic
bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was much more controversial, because the war was
almost over and the outcome was pretty much a foregone conclusion; but it would
be much harder to fault such a use of such a terror bombing in 1943. If the
enemy is evil enough, terror becomes legitimate.
Germany in 1943 had no large civilian jet airline industry. But suppose there
had been such an industry. And suppose there had been some Americans who somehow
had managed to get behind the enemy lines, hijacked a German airliner and
crashed it into the Reichstag, destroying the building and resulting in
thousands of casualties. Would we not have saluted these Americans as heroes?
The number of civilians killed in such an attack would probably be far fewer
than if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Berlin. Yet is this not exactly
analogous to the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11?
If the war against Hitler was justified, then we cannot reach the
conclusion that the killing of civilians is automatically wrong. It is usually
wrong, but there is a larger framework to be considered, in which terrorism ó
while certainly not the weapon of choice ó is only one in a range of
possibilities. We must evaluate terrorism in the light of the ultimate
objective. If we object to the tactic of attacking civilians per se, we must do
so consistently, condemning it on our side (and accepting the consequences) as
well as condemning on the side of our enemies.
Therefore, it is not sufficient to say about September 11, that killing
innocents is pure evil. Look at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden: three
terror-bombings which together were 100 times worse than September 11. Did we
see war crimes tribunals convened to deal with American war leaders, just as we
dealt with the far more serious war crimes committed by the Nazis? What about
the war in Vietnam, where it was quite clear that our policy, while arguably not
targeting civilians, was nevertheless resulting in countless civilian deaths
with no other demonstrable military effect? Either actions which clearly cause
civilian deaths are always wrong no matter what the cause, in which case we have
to reopen the case of American actions in the Second World War and the Vietnam
War; or we have to admit that the current cases of terrorism cannot be
automatically condemned. Terror must be examined in the context of its objectives.
For an even more recent example, what about the sanctions on Iraq? Since
these sanctions have been in place, it is estimated that tens of thousands of
people have died, perhaps to a total of over a million. Here, the situation is
complicated because of the brutal and repressive Iraqi regime; and many of the
deaths have been only indirectly due to the sanctions, more a consequence of the
crushing poverty brought about by the sanctions rather than because of the
literal lack of food on store shelves. Nevertheless, there is no question that
many of those deaths can be attributed to the sanctions themselves, rather than
to the Iraqi governmentís reactions to the sanctions. Of course, Iraq could
comply with the demands of the U. S. and end the sanctions. But the point is,
that civilians of a foreign country are not supposed to be targets because the
U. S. disagrees with the actions of such a foreign government. The sanctions
have the effect, in practice, of targeting civilians. This is not to
necessarily say that the sanctions are wrong ó again, if war is justified,
then perhaps the deaths of civilians is sometimes unavoidable, if the cause is
And this is precisely what makes September 11 more problematic in the rest of
the world. To Americans, our own innocence and basic goodness is obvious, and
therefore our enemies appear simply as the incarnations of evil. But to Muslims
who have over the past half century witnessed the bombing of Vietnam, the
bombing and sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the persistent American opposition to
Palestinian aspirations, the situation is more ambiguous. That is what makes the
question of how to respond to September 11 a dangerous political question as
much as a moral question.
Many people have varying opinions of the United States. They see the
terrorist acts as bad, but not quite so bad as Americans see them. The
difference is not in the moral significance of the terrorist actions, but in the
evaluation of the end for which these actions were committed. Those, of course, who
see the U. S. as the Great Satan ó as diabolically evil, perhaps, as Nazi
Germany ó may actually approve of the terrorist actions. But it does not
necessarily follow that they have different moral principles from Americans on
the question of killing of civilians. They might have the same basic
moral principles concerning targeting civilians in warfare, but differ as to the
evaluation of the end for which the taking of life was committed.
It is completely incorrect to compare the United States to Nazi Germany,
which is basically the scale of comparison youíd have to make in order to
justify the September 11 attacks. But you donít need to read the news reports
from the Middle East to see that people are angry. And when people become angry,
comparisons between the United States and other evil countries become more
plausible. We should therefore recognize the ambiguity of evil, especially since
our own country is not completely innocent itself.
Consumption as terror
There is something odd about the richest and most powerful nation in the
world making war on a country ó Afghanistan ó whose poverty is comparable to
that in medieval times. This does not mean that whatever the reactionary brutal
government of poor country does is justified, and that it can resort to any sort
of violence it wants. We canít say, "O. K., youíre poor, so go ahead
and crash airliners into our buildings." Moreover, let us state at the
outset that some economic inequality in the world is not only inevitable, but
probably a good thing.
But there is a principle of proportion involved. When gross inequalities
exist, this makes further violence more likely. Gross inequalities have a
"terrifying" effect on the subject population. The U. S. A. has less
than 5% of the world's population, but consumes 30% of its resources. In the
meantime, 78% of the world, in developing nations, consumes 16% of the output.
This disparity in resource allocation applies even to resources for food, a
basic human need. The American style of life requires at least 3.5 acres of
agricultural land per capita. (About 90% of this agricultural land is going for
livestock agriculture, by the way). Even if all the other resources (fertilizer,
water, energy, tractors, and agricultural "know-how") were all present
in abundance, we still would need to more than double the amount of
arable land in the world to raise the rest of the world to the American standard
of living. Even maintaining our current level of food output is severely eroding
our agricultural resources. And what about starvation and world hunger? A
conservative estimate is that on the order of 250,000 people starve to death
each year. Other estimates of hunger-related deaths range from 11,000 to 25,000 per
Do the math: how many airliners would we need to crash into public buildings
to approximate this sort of terror? Do we have outrage? Do we urgently demand
retaliation against the perpetrators? Do we seek out the leaders of this network
of starvation, seeking to arrest them as war criminals?
Of course not. There is both a political reason and a practical reason. The
political reason is that the victims of September 11 were in the richest and
most powerful country in the world, and we saw the crimes committed on TV. The
victims of this agricultural system are in the poorest countries, and die
quietly out of sight of the TV cameras. The practical reason is that, even if we
were so inclined to be outraged, there is no readily identifiable immediate
cause for starvation. True, the Western system of agriculture is partially
responsible, but so are the local governmentsí corruption and inefficiency. No
single individual or individuals can really be clearly blamed. But because the
responsibility cannot be as clearly allocated doesnít mean that people arenít
dying or that we canít do something about it. The world needs the reassurance
that we are really all together in our struggle for a better world.
Overconsumption does not provide this reassurance.
Overconsumption creates a strong presumption of injustice. While it may be
that Americans are more hard-working and smarter than the rest of the world, it
stretches the limits of credulity to say that they work ten, twenty, or one
hundred times harder than those in the developing nations. Think of the
difficult and very strenuous work involved in planting rice, gathering wood, and
carrying water: this is the daily life of many in the developing nations, no
matter how intelligent and hard-working they may be. Our "freedom"
which we hear so much about is certainly responsible for part of this increased
productivity, but there is a heavy element of control of physical resources
which is just as important, if not more so. This creates the strong presumption
that only the strong rule, and therefore the only real crime is defeat.
Overconsumption creates inequality between humans, which is itself violent.
There are always those who live at the edges of the social order. In the United
States, the poor are relatively well off ó there is rarely any danger of death
or starvation, even for the homeless. But for other nations, the whole society
is poor, and those at the lower edges of the social order may actually die. Is
not this a kind of violence?
Overconsumption loots the earth of resources for others and for future
generations; and looting the earth also harms all the other non-human creatures
who inhabit the earth. In short, it is violence towards the earth. Now, of
course, many people donít think that non-human creatures have
"rights." Nevertheless, two things hold true: (1) billions and
billions of innocent animals are needlessly slaughtered each year, and species
are going extinct at a rapid rate; (2) this systematic, if unconscious,
pillaging of the earth will eventually have repercussions for humans.
Eventually, we will start to run out of resources ó in fact, it is
happening already. The supermarket shelves are hardly bare, but behind what we
see when we visit the supermarket is a reality of soil, water, energy, and other
resources which make the U. S. agricultural system possible. We in the United
States have no immediate shortage of these agricultural resources, though they
are being increasingly depleted. But that is because the U. S. is rich in
agricultural resources. The United States has over twice as much arable land per
capita as the rest of the world, not to mention vast stores of energy and water
resources. The so-called "civilization" as we know it today has only
recently arrived in North America, so even after three hundred years of
exploitation of the earth, much still remains.
But for those in the developing countries, the situation is different.
Agricultural land per capita has been declining world-wide for over a decade.
For those in the rich countries, it will hardly matter; they will have to pay a
little more for their oatmeal, one supposes. But elsewhere, this will create a
tight situation for those at the lower end of the social order in the developing
countries, and often it will mean a lower standard of living or death.
How to fight terror
How can we resolve the conditions which promote war and terror?
Letís put aside for the moment the specifics of a comprehensive Middle East
settlement or how to deal with Palestinian refugees. Letís not ask what we
should do, but just what Jesus would do and would want us to do. The gospels
describe Jesus as saying things like:
"Do not violently resist one who is evil." (Matthew 5:39)
"Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew
"You cannot serve God and money." (Matthew 6:24)
The early Christians lived together sharing everything they had:
"And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and
they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had
need." (Acts 2:44-45)
true that the world of Jesus was different from our world; but we should
certainly learn something from these words. The first is to live as simply as possible, both as individuals and as a
society. There is an environmental crisis and the growing shortage of natural
resources. Overgrazing by cattle is tearing the topsoil apart. Cropland per
capita is declining, year after year. The era of oil-dependent vehicles is
coming to an end. The resources simply arenít there to feed the entire world a
meat-oriented diet; the resources simply arenít there to supply one billion
Chinese with cars and freeways.
Simple living is a complex issue, because there are some areas of our lives
in which the infrastructure for a simpler or more environmental lifestyle just
doesnít exist. American cities are designed with the automobile in mind, mass
transit is largely a joke, and bicyclists take their lives in their hands when
they venture out onto the open road. Even for those who have cars, it is
dangerous ó about 40,000 people die in automobile accidents each year, over 10
times worse than the September 11 events. On the other hand, there are other
areas where the individual can change his or her lifestyle, such as in regard to
diet. A meat-oriented diet requires a lot of land use; it requires 5, 10, or
even 20 times as much land to produce meat as to produce the same nutritional
value in plant foods. Switching to a vegetarian diet, or at least reducing meat
consumption, is something that Americans can do today. Therefore we must change
our lives where we can, and to work for and advocate in the political arena the
infrastructure for a simpler lifestyle in those areas where it is more
The second thing we can do is to live as nonviolently as possible. We need to
recognize that the roots of the problems we are now experiencing lie in the
Middle East ó and as of September 11, the U. S. is part of the political map
of the Middle East. The disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs
have gone on for over a half century, with no end in sight. As a practical
matter, as long as there is no comprehensive political settlement of this issue,
there will be no end to the war on terrorism. At an individual level, we can
further nonviolence through interreligious dialogue. Many of the disputes
between people these days have their origins in religion. By increasing
understanding, even if it is only at an intellectual level, we can gain a
greater sense of what it means to be human. When people of different religions
eat and pray together, then we will be making progress.
The American way of life is, in its present form, destructive of the earth
and cannot be maintained merely by force of arms. Guns cannot make the earth
more productive; we cannot eat gasoline, money, or bullets. The evil will not go
away; it will simply change shape.
For the purpose of peace it is essential that we turn our society around and
live much more simply. Anything else is madness. We will probably have to endure
madness for some time more, but we cannot delay too long. If we do, we will be
faced with an environmental, economic, and political collapse in the face of
which the events of September 11 will appear as a footnote in history.
ó Keith Akers