From Patriotism to Peace: Christian Reflections on 11 September By Richard Davis*
In the aftermath of the horrific hijackings and suicide attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 I, like many
others tuned into CNN. One comment by an American woman interviewed there has stuck with me as I have tried to make
sense of the attack and how I, as a Christian, might think about, and respond to these events. She said that she had
been brought up in a Christian home and was taught forgiveness and love for one’s enemies but that she had now set these
aside. Her faith could not, it seemed, accommodate her emotional reaction to the atrocity. This got me thinking about
what our tradition has to offer in terms of analysis and action.
I believe that Christianity can offer humanity a meaningful response to the tragedy.
I share my reflections and thoughts here under the following headings, Understanding Terrorism, Waging War and Prompting
Michael Walzer writes that the “The word ‘terrorism’ is used most often to describe revolutionary violence.” He
describes the widespread acceptance of this definition as a “small victory for the champions of order, among whom the
uses of terror are by no means unknown.” Terrorists can range from the smallest revolutionary group to the largest
country on earth. Walzer defines terrorism as “the random murder of innocent people” with the intention to “destroy the
morale of a nation or class, to undercut its solidarity”. The acts of 11 September were certainly terrorist, but
Walzer’s definition permits one to say that the sanctions on Iraq are also terrorism, being indiscriminate and morale
destroying. Christians, I believe should oppose terrorism of all kinds, whether conducted by revolutionary forces or by
governments. We do well to remember the story related by St. Augustine: “It was a pertinent and true answer which was
made to Alexander the Great by a pirate whom had been seized. When the king asked him what he meant by infesting the
sea, the pirate defiantly replied: ‘The same as you do when you infest the whole world; but because I do it with a petty
ship, I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor.’ ”
To followers of world affairs this tale rings true today and it is understood that the USA is terrorist and therefore an
object of hatred by those terrorised. From a third world perspective the USA is a rogue state. Here we must focus on the
evil things done the United States, without delving into a moral calculation about the merits of the United States. When
convicting someone of a crime we look to the relevant facts and do not weigh their heinous crimes against the good they
have done. Rather we look for the evidence that the charge is justified.
Following the criminal attacks on the USA it has been commonplace, as with any crime, to determine a motive. This is
not to seek the justification for the attacks, for there is nothing that can justify the taking of innocent life.
Determining the motive for the terrorism will provide clues as to who did it, why they thought the action justified, and
should act as a warning on how to prevent such a thing happening again.
From the moment planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon propaganda sought to cloud understanding
of what had happened and what motivated it. Some suggested that killing Americans was the hijackers’ objective, ignoring
the obvious fact that much larger targetable crowds gather on American soil and that flying into a nuclear reactor could
have caused considerably more deaths. For others the buildings attacked were rarely mentioned; it was freedom,
democracy, civilisation and the West that was under assault. Some would have us believe that this was an attack
motivated by jealously of the American way of life.
In my view the targets were selected as symbols of American domination in world affairs. America is the world’s largest
economy and the only military superpower.
These two forms of power are under attack from terrorists who wish to see a different world order than the one that
To American mythmakers and patriots the USA is a force of justice in the world, but to anyone familiar with the facts
the United States has also been a sower of injustice and violence around the world. In 1967 Martin Luther King called
the United States the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”[ 4] Things have worsened since then. Specific
various injustices done by America have been well documented by authors such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and need
not be listed here. Most relevant to the events of 11 September are the following injustices sown in the Middle East and
Of primary importance is the unqualified support the USA gives to Israel. This support takes the form of military
assistance to the tune of $3billion a year. Other forms of economic assistance take the annual sum to nearly 40% of the
United States foreign aid budget. This aid is not linked with humanitarian objectives as it is elsewhere. The USA has
been hypocritical in its application of UN Security Council resolutions. It is zealous in its enforcement of those
against Iraq while resolutions condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestine are regularly ignored.
Second, there are the sanctions United States is enforcing on Iraq (with New Zealand support) through the United
Nations. On 11 September 2001 Wellington daily, The Evening Post carried a story on the effect of these sanctions. It
quoted a United Nations official working in Baghdad as saying “the sanctions are the equivalent of dropping a nuclear
bomb. So-called civilized countries do not treat other nations like this, even one which lost a war.” It is estimated
that 5,000 people a month die as a direct result of the sanctions. With the education system in tatters, poverty rife
and infant mortality high, much money is needed to halt the humanitarian disaster occurring there. An Iraqi economist
says that “Iraq needs 3 billions of dollars to repair this country and the Unites States allows it millions.” No wonder
the Iraqi people are “bitter”.
A third factor is the 1998 USA cruise missile attack on the Sudan (predominantly Muslim and Arab). This bombing
destroyed a major pharmaceutical factory and along with it that country’s ability to supply its necessary medicines.
According to the English engineers who built the factory it could not have produced chemical weapons – the justification
given by the USA for the attacks. Sara Flounders cocoordinator of the International Action Center said of the attack
that “The U.S.
claimed that they had credible evidence that the Al Shifa plant was producing weapons, but that’s a lie … Even the New
York Times said in an article on Monday that the decision to destroy the only pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was based
on guesswork. The U.S. wanted to punish the Sudanese for their independence and to show the world that the Pentagon can
and will bomb anywhere, anytime with impunity.”[ 5]
Of more general interest is the fact that the United States has been pushing a neoliberal economic agenda in the Middle
East, as it has throughout the world. As we know from our New Zealand experience, this increases inequality and hardship
for an increasing number of poor people.
So, not surprisingly, it appears (at the time of writing) that the hijackers were from the Middle East and perhaps
Islamic extremists. It is simplistic and wrong to blame the religion Islam for the actions of these terrorists, just as
it is wrong to blame Christianity for the evil things done in its name. Yet as Christians we have the responsibility to
look at ourselves to see what blame attaches to us for the events of 11 September. Here the words of Jacques Ellul are
“One thing, however, is sure: unless Christians fulfill their prophetic role, unless they become the advocates and
defenders of the truly poor, witness to their misery, then, infallibly, violence will suddenly break out. In one way or
other ‘their blood cries to heaven,’ and violence will seem the only way out. It will be too late to try to calm them
and create harmony … So, instead of listening to the fomenters of violence, Christians ought to repent for having been
too late. For if the time comes when despair sees violence as the only possible way, it is because Christians were not
what they should have been. If violence is unleashed anywhere at all, the Christians are always to blame.
This is the criterion, as it were, of the confession of sin. Always, it is because Christians have not been concerned
for the poor, have not defended the cause of the poor before the powerful, have not unswervingly fought the fight for
justice, that violence breaks out. Once violence is there, it is too late. And then Christians cannot try to redeem
themselves and soothe their conscience by participating in violence.[ 6]”
For too long America, and other countries of the dominant West, such as New Zealand, have been unwilling or unable to
face up to how they are perceived by the rest of the world, especially the third and fourth worlds. Time will tell
whether they are able to see themselves through the eyes of the poor and oppressed. Until then, war and acts of
terrorism will be a recurrent inevitability.
Following 11 September there have been several characteristics of American life pushing it into war. Two directly
opposed to the Christian ethic are egotism and patriotism.
Ego plays perhaps a larger part than we care to admit in the politics of war. During the Gulf War a decade ago President
George Bush Snr got tough to show that he wasn’t the wimp hawks accused him of being. I doubt that his son will make the
same ‘mistake’ his father made in letting people make this accusation appear justified. He has a point to prove and he
will prove it, without regard to the lives taken on the other side of the planet.
There is a connection, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, between egotism and patriotism: “The man in the street, with his
lust for power and prestige thwarted by his own limitations and the necessities of social life, projects his ego upon
his nation and indulges his anarchic lusts vicariously. So the nation is at one and the same time a check upon, and a
final vent for, the expression of individual egoism.
Sometimes it is economic interest, and sometimes mere vanity, which thus expresses itself in the individual patriot … A
combination of unselfishness and vicarious selfishness in the individual thus gives a tremendous force to national
egoism, which neither religious nor rational idealism can ever completely check.”[ 7] In his ‘Presidential Address to
the Nation’ on 7 October 2001 President Bush gave a fine example of patriotic selflessness and nationalistic egoism: “I
recently received a touching letter that says a lot about the state of America in these difficult times — a letter from
a 4th-grade girl, with a father in the military: ‘As much as I don’t want my Dad to fight,’ she wrote, ‘I’m willing to
give him to you.’”[ 8] She is selflessly willing to sacrifice her father for the nation, which represents her ego.
In another passage Niebuhr’s analysis reads as if from a manual Bush may have consulted recently:
“The best means of harmonising the claim to universality with the unique and relative life of the nation, as revealed in
moments of crisis, is to claim general and universally valid objectives for the nation. It is alleged to be fighting for
civilisation and for culture; and the whole enterprise of humanity is supposedly involved in its struggles. In the life
of the simple citizen this hypocrisy exists as a naïve and unstudied self-deception. The politician practises it
consciously … in order to secure the highest devotion from the citizen for his enterprises.”[ 9]
Examples of the application of this teaching abound in the aftermath of 11 September. President Bush, for instance, in
his ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People’ said “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger
and called to defend freedom … This is not, however, just America’s fight.
And what is at stake is not just America’s freedom. This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the
fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.”[ 10]
Just before the attacks, in the first week of September, I read Leo Tolstoy’s “Christianity and Patriotism”. The timing
was exceptional; a week later I was listening to a ludicrous debate on CNN on whether it was Americans’ patriotic duty
to buy shares in the post-tragedy bearish stock market. In his book, Tolstoy, perhaps the world’s most famous Christian
anti-patriot, wrote that “Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most unmistakeable significance is for governing
noting but a weapon for the attainment of aggressive and mercenary aims, and for the governed is the denial of human
dignity, common sense and conscience, and slavish subjection to those who are in authority. This is what is preached
wherever patriotism is preached.”[ 11]
Elsewhere Tolstoy offers a critique of patriotism from a specifically Christian point of view. To him patriotism is:
“…nothing else than putting one’s own state or people before every other state or people ... It may very well be that
this feeling is very useful and desirable for Governments and for the unity of a State, but it is impossible not to see
that it is not at all a lofty sentiment , but on the contrary, a very stupid and very immoral one: stupid because, if
every state is to think itself superior to all others, it is obvious that they will all be wrong; and immoral because it
inevitably inclines every man who feels it to endeavour to obtain advantages for his own state or nation to the
detriment of other states and nations – an inclination directly opposed to the fundamental moral law acknowledged by
all: not to do to others what we would not [wish] they should do unto us.[ 12]”
Despite this, patriotism has been elevated to such a virtue that it overrides the commandments not to kill and to love
one’s enemies. This false ideology of patriotism is a cancer eating at the heart of American life. It is
counterproductive to world community and genuine peace. This hubristic patriotism has now led Americans and its allies,
including New Zealand, into war.
Contrary to patriotism and elevation on the nation Christianity offers a worldview where humanity is one under God. It
teaches universal values and supremacy of the sovereignty of God over the sovereignty of nations. Christianity is
therefore a force for universal brother/sisterhood between all peoples, without regard to arbitrary national boundaries
and ethnicity. We are commanded to love each other, not states or ways of life that oppress others. An outcome I hope
for from a more Christian approach to the nation is the transformation of the patriotic cry “My Country!! Right or
Wrong!” into the ethical query, “My Country: Right or Wrong?”
Christianity is a religion of peace. The peace Christians should now seek is not the peace that existed before 11
September; that was an illusory peace that disguised much wrong with the world. That peace, Pax Americana, concealed the
germinated seeds of injustice and terrorism that were about to break forth above ground. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote of
tyranny, “It is peace, but it is a peace which has nothing to do with the peace of the Kingdom of God. It is a peace
which results from one will establishing a complete dominion over other wills and reducing them to acquiescence.”[ 13] I
wish here to focus on two of the most relevant ways Christians can promote real peace in the aftermath of 11 September.
These are forgiveness and non-violence.
Forgiveness at a time like this has to be one of the most difficult things about being Christian, but it is not
optional. In the Lord’s Prayer and in many other places (such as Mark 11.26) Jesus make forgiveness of another’s sins
vital to our relationship with God. Forgiveness of others is not only a way to win God’s favour and forgiveness for our
own transgressions, it is a way of promoting peace and breaking cycles of revenge and ever-escalating violence.
Forgiveness is not just about God’s forgiveness of our sins or interpersonal forgiveness; it has an important political
function, according to Muslim peacemaker Chaiwat Satha-Anand. He values the Christian ideal of forgiveness and writes
that the Qu’ran also has injunctions to forgive others.[ 14] In general terms he writes that “forgives serves a more
radical alteration of social and power relations than revenge. During revenge, the avenger becomes a new victimizer and
the foe is transformed into a victim.”[ 15] In the process of revenge we become what we hate, violent, unjust, and
shedders of innocent blood.
One of the best contemporary statements about forgiveness that engages with these themes is the address given by Pope
John Paul II on the World Day of Peace in 1997.[ 16] His speech, entitled “Offer Forgiveness and Receive Peace” is worth
quoting at length:
“Certainly there are many factors which can help restore peace, while safeguarding the demands of justice and human
dignity. But no process of peace can ever begin unless an attitude of sincere forgiveness takes root in human hearts.
When such forgiveness is lacking, wounds continue to fester, fuelling in the younger generation endless resentment,
producing a desire for revenge and causing fresh destruction. Offering and accepting forgiveness is the essential
condition for making the journey towards authentic and lasting peace …
Certainly, forgiveness does not come spontaneously or naturally to people. Forgiving from the heart can sometimes be
actually heroic. The pain of losing a child, a brother or sister, one’s parents or whole family as a result of war,
terrorism or criminal acts can lead to the total closing of oneself to others. People who have been left with nothing
because they have been deprived of their land and home, refugees and those who have endured the humiliation of violence,
cannot fail to feel the temptation to hatred and revenge. Only the warmth of human relationships marked by respect,
understanding and acceptance can help them to overcome such feelings. The liberating encounter with forgiveness, though
fraught with difficulties, can be experienced even by a wounded heart, thanks to the healing power of love, which has
its first source in God who is Love.”
As the Pope rightly states revenge is an understandable emotion in face of human-inflicted suffering. However, our faith
demands non-violence, even in the face of violence against us. Unfortunately some Christians have not read past the
Pentateuch, where a familiar passage (Exodus21.23–25) reads: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”[ 17] Far
from permitting unqualified and endless retaliation this introduces an important principle, lex talionis, the law of equivalent retribution.[ 18] However, the principle is of proportionality in punishment, not identical
treatment, so that a non-violent punishment can be an appropriate response to a violent crime.
In addition to the lex talionis passages the Old Testament also speaks against revenge-taking and violence. Leviticus 19:18 reads, “You shall not take
vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”[
19] On the subject of violence it was God’s distaste for the violence filling the Earth that prompted the great flood
and the destruction of humanity (Genesis 6.11–13). Furthermore, the soul of the LORD “hates the lover of violence”
(Psalms11.5). The sixth commandment of the Decalogue states, “You shall not murder”, and it is this unequivocal
commandment that deserves closer attention.
In its commentary on the sixth commandment the Scots Confession of 1560 lists those works that delight God. “To save the
lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed,” are all actions pleasing to God. “To murder, or to
consent thereto, to bear hatred, or to let innocent blood be shed if we can prevent it” are all acts that always madden
God and provoke Him to anger. French theologian Jean Lasserre in War and the Gospel sees this text as a “formal condemnation of war.”
He asks, “for how can a Christian claim to be protecting the lives of innocent people if he begins destroying in the
lives of other innocent people? How can he claim to be resisting tyranny if he begins exercising a tyranny as brutal and
odious as the other? How can he help the oppressed if he becomes an oppressor himself, helping the oppressors on his
side? How can he stop the shedding of innocent blood if he contributes to the shedding of innocent blood?”[ 20]
In the New Testament Jesus moved beyond lex talionis in Matthew 5.38–41 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do
not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue
you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Jesus further instructed us to love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us (Luke 6.27–36). Paul in Romans 12.14–21
also instructed us to care for our enemies and to “overcome evil with good.”
It is important here to examine what Jesus meant by “do not resist an evil doer.” ‘Resist’ in the NRSV translation
(above) means to “resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.”[ 21] For clarity,
therefore, Wink prefers the following translation of Matt 5.39a “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil”.[
22] By saying these things Jesus instituted a new approach to violence, which Walter Wink calls Jesus’ ‘third way’.[ 23]
This approach is an alternative to both violent reaction and passivity. Jesus taught practical, militant and active
nonviolence resistance. Wink suggests that by this approach “evil can be opposed without being mirrored.”[ 24] We must
resist the sort of terrorist evil demonstrated on 11 September, but trading violence for violence is not the way of
Christ. Doing so can only make matters worse. We ought to take heed of Jesus’s warning against the cycle of violence in
Matthew 26.52: “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Given what Jesus said about loving one’s enemies and avoiding taking the sword I believe that those Christians who
believe that retaliation and further violence is a justified response to the terrorist acts on 11 September have a moral
and theological case to prove. To summarise and make their case more difficult I close with the fitting words of 1 Peter
3.8–9: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do
not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were
called—that you might inherit a blessing.”
“Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,” reads Proverbs 22.8. Everyone agrees that the USA has seen calamity. But
has it sown injustice? Without a doubt many in the developing and Arab world believe it has, and history shows that they
are justified in this belief. The flip side of this verse is 1 Peter 3.13 “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do
what is good?” To stop terrorism for good will involve sowing the seeds of justice and doing what is good in the eyes of
God. In the short term we have to resist going to war and work against the forces of egoism and patriotism that lead
nations into battle with each other.
It’s not always easy being Christian, but in testing times such as these, we can decide to put our faith and tradition
aside, or to look into it for answers. It can seem as though God asks us to comprehend the incomprehensible, forgive the
unforgivable, love the unlovable, pray for the unprayerworthy and indeed we are to do these things. But these seemingly
impossible actions will remain beyond us without help from God, who makes all things, even the miracle of love,
* AUTHOR NOTE: formerly Executive Officer of the New Zealand Churches’ Agency on Social Issues. Email: email@example.com
1 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 197.
2 Saint Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed and trans R.W. Dyson, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Book 4, Chapter 4, 148.
3 This was the view of St Thomas Aquinas: “There is, therefore, simply no justification for taking the life of an
innocent person.” Cited in Daniel A. Dombrowski, Christian Pacifism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 75.
4 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence’, Speech on April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York City, http://www.ssc.msu.edu/~sw/dates/mlk/brkslnc.htm
[accessed 6 October 2001].
5 IAC Media Release, September 21, 1998, http://www.commondreams.org/pressreleases/Sept98/092198d.htm [accessed 11
6 Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1970), 155–6.
7 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, (London: SCM Press, 1963), 93–94.
8 President Bush, ‘Presidential Address to the Nation,’ 7 October 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011007-8.html
[accessed 11 October 2001].
9 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, (London: SCM Press, 1963), 94.
10 President Bush, ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,’ September 20, 2001, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html
[accessed 8 October 2001].
11 L. N. Tolstoy, Christianity and Patriotism, trans Constance Garnett (London: Jonathan Cape, 1933), 74.
12 L. N. Tolstoy, Christianity and Patriotism, trans Constance Garnett (London: Jonathan Cape, 1933), 65-66.
13 Reinhold Niebuhr, Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist (London: SCM Press, 1940), 25.
14 Chaiwat Satha-Anand, ‘The Politics of Forgiveness’ in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking, eds Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 75–6.
15 Chaiwat Satha-Anand, ‘The Politics of Forgiveness’ in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking, eds Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 75.
16 Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the Celebration of the XXX World Day of Peace ‘Offer Forgiveness and
Receive Peace,’ 1 January 1997, Hyperlink To Vatican
[accessed 11 October 2001].
17 Also see Leviticus 24.20 and Deuteronomy 19.21.
18 See Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans; Auckland and Sydney: Lime Grove House, 2001), 78–89
19 See Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids: Eeerdmans; Auckland and Sydney: Lime Grove House, 2001), 80. Other relevant verses are Deuteronomy
32:35; Proverbs 20:22; 24:29.
20 Jean Lasserre, War and the Gospel, trans Oliver Coburn (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1962), 179.
21 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee, 1998), 100.
22 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee, 1998), 101. See also Walter Wink, ‘Jesus Third Way’ in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking, eds Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 34–47.
23 See Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee, 1998) and Walter Wink, ‘Jesus Third Way’ in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking eds Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 34–47.
24 Walter Wink, ‘Jesus Third Way’ in Transforming Violence: Linking Local and Global Peacemaking, eds Robert Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1998), 40.