Grief and critique: A pacifist’s reflections after September 11, 2001

Grief and critique: A prophetic approach to the acts of terrorism

Ted Grimsrud

Originally published in The Mennonite (October 2, 2001), 6-7.

The prophet Jeremiah is incredibly relevant for us as we seek to come to terms with the events of Sept. 11. His contribution to our thinking and feeling and responding as people of faith to our current crisis lies in his powerful uniting of two theme.

Jeremiah combined (1) heart-rending grief over the suffering of his fellow citizens with (2) an unapologetic critique of his nation’s idolatry, which had brought on this suffering. Grief and critique–one without the other is either superficial or callous, either subject to manipulation by power politics or subject to unfeeling self-righteousness.

The prophet writes, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1).

Jeremiah gives us words for our feelings of horror and sadness at the more than 3,000 violent deaths and the countless other lives that have been turned upside down from this tragedy. You can’t help but be moved to tears over and over as you hear of the heartache, the fears, the anxieties. And think of the people on the ground who received desperate cell-phone calls from loved ones on the hijacked planes.

Such grief is linked with the heart of God. There can be no question that the acts that caused such suffering were evil. There can be no question that the devil was laughing in delight as the planes plowed into their targets.

Yet the prophets would have us do more than grieve. What is sadly and dramatically missing in the god-talk of our nation’s leaders is any sense that these acts of violence–evil as they are–should challenge us to consider repenting of the “American way of life.” Jeremiah was clear that the way of life of his fellow citizens–the images, foreign idols, lies, denial of justice and righteousness–was at the root of their suffering.

The prophets understood the events of their day with some subtlety. They saw God’s finger in the human (and evil) acts of the Babylonian attack of ancient Israel. They portrayed these events as having two levels of meaning–acts of bloodthirsty aggressions by human beings sold out to evil, but also expressions of God’s judgment against God’s people and their institutions for the injustice and violence of those people. The prophets understood the occurrence of the evil acts of the Babylonians as a time to look inward with a critical eye.

This is what scattered voices are challenging us to do today as well. I have been enlightened by the responses of some of my international friends. One spoke of watching TV and feeling a sense of internal division. He grieved for the loss of life and condemned those who committed the terrible acts, he said. However, he couldn’t help but think of these acts as retaliation against symbols of American oppression, as violent people responding violently to the violence of the United State.

A Britain-based journalist. John Pilger, in an on-line commentary, mentions just a few of these past acts of violence. On Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before th destruction of the World Trade Center towers, American and British bombers killed eight people in bombing raids over civilian areas of Iraq. About 200,000 Iraqis were killed during the so-called Gulf War in 1991. At least 500,000 more Iraqis, half of them children, have died since then, due to the embargo on Iraq that prevented medical supplies from entering that country. How many Americans know that Osama bin Laden began his “terrorist” work in Afghanistan as a client of the CIA fighting the Russians and that his terrorist training camps were originally built with American money and backing?

Political scientist Chalmers Johnson wrote a prophetic book that came out in 2000, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire. He details how again and again the United States has supported violence around the world in ways that have in time turned on us with unintended consequences.

Blowback. As rock singer Lou Reed wrote, “If you spit into the wind, it comes back at you twice as hard.”

For people who believe that God’s will for human beings is always wholeness and peace, these next several months and years will be challenging. The prophets give us guidance. Their way was to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom of their day. As a result, they were called naive and impractical, even irresponsible.

Are we willing to be called naive and impractical, even irresponsible? We may be facing a season such as pacifists faced 60 years ago, the last time U.S. territory was attacked, at Pearl Harbor. They spoke out when they could, but to some degree they had to wait the war out, since few Americans listened to them.

However, think about the prophets. They spoke out when they could; they wrote what they could. And they were ignored. We probably don’t realize how irrelevant they were in their own time because the main records we have are their own writings, not transcripts from the CNN broadcasts of their day. But the words of the prophets were, if you will pardon the expression, time bombs. These were the words that enabled the community of faith to survive.

It may be most hopeful and sustaining to think of our work as being done for two generations from now. That is, pacifists may not be listened to in our society right now. But we must not despair. We have words of enduring value: Love your enemies; beat your swords into plowshares; let justice and peace embrace; there is no way to peace, peace is the way. Let’s continue to think them and speak them and write them, then have hope that they will not return void.

In her book Powers of the Weak, Elizabeth Janeway writes that people without obvious power have two main strategies that will empower us. The first is to disbelieve the story we get from the powers that be. Redemptive violence is a myth, a lie of the devil. We may choose for ourselves how to think of our so-called enemies. Our nature does not require taking an eye for an eye until every eye is blind.

The second strategy is to band together. Let us find communities that will sustain us. I can’t put into words how grateful I have been in recent days for my friends and family, colleagues and email correspondents. I know I will not be alone. Let us join with other Christians, with Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and humanists, who share our conviction that justice and peace matter more than nationality.

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