Beyond 11 September: Implications for the Churches*

*. Concluding remarks at the World Council of Churches symposium «Beyond 11 September: Assessing Global Implications», Geneva 29 November – 2 December 2001. Reprinted by permission.

My remarks, which build on the exchanges in the previous two days, will concentrate on three aspects: discernment, vulnerability and security, and the symbolism of power.


The immediate response of the churches to the horrible attacks on 11 September was an expression of solidarity and sympathy with the people directly affected in the United States and with the people of the United States as a whole. The World Council of Churches has expressed its sympathy not only in letters addressed to its member churches in the United States, but also by sending an international ecumenical delegation to meet with leaders and members of the churches in the United States and to listen to their pain and anxiety.

Now the time has come to assess the implications of these events, not only in the United States but all over the world. The churches are called to an act of discernment trying to understand the significance of the events on 11 September. Such discernment must include a critical evaluation of the interpretations given to the events. This is all the more important since the interpretation determines to a large extent the nature of the response. The official interpretations offered by the Government of the United States and by other centres of political authority, including the Security Council of the United Nations, have set an agenda which is presently being implemented. Can the churches go along with these interpretations and the form of response?

The dominant category to interpret the attacks on 11 September is to identify them as an act of «terrorism». However, terrorism is a political concept which is full of ambiguity and so far lacks an agreed definition in terms of international law. All efforts to formulate an international convention against terrorism have so far failed. The concept of terrorism is used to characterize acts which aim at causing terror and fear among the population and to disrupt the public order. Terrorist tactics are used by different actors, including states. To qualify certain acts as terrorism is a political statement which is meant to legitimate an uncompromising response by force. Many of those who, in the anti-colonial liberation conflicts in the 70s and 80s, have been qualified as terrorists have subsequently been recognized as legitimate and respected representatives of their communities. Since any act of terrorism is a violation of the basic order of legality, there is a danger that those deciding about the response feel justified to use means outside legality.

The second level of interpretation speaks about a «war against civilization» or of a declaration of war against America. Both the Security Council and NATO have qualified the attacks of 11 September as a «breach of international peace and security» or as «aggression». The Security Council has authorized acts of individual or collective self-defence according to Art. 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. The US Government has formed an international coalition for the «war against terrorism». With these categories we move into a field that is relatively clearly defined, both ethically and by international law. A military response to an act of aggression is being considered as an act of justice and thus categories of the «just war» doctrine are being invoked. But is the traditional concept of war applicable in this case? There is no declared enemy with an army and military objectives. The military response has become a war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as the main supporter of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network. There is sufficient evidence that the military intervention has caused disproportionate damage to the infrastructure of the country and an untold number of civilian casualties. The question must be asked whether the interpretation of the events in the categories of war is appropriate.

The least controversial interpretation of the attacks of 11 September is to characterize them as a criminal act, which falls under the legal category of a «crime against humanity». This is an accepted category in international law and there are effective ways of prosecution and law enforcement, as the examples of the international tribunals and the institution of the International Criminal Court show. There is universal agreement that the perpetrators of criminal acts, particularly of such unimaginable magnitude, need to be identified, caught and brought to justice. This is therefore primarily the field of police action which may be difficult and take long, but ultimately serves to strengthen the rule of law also on the international level. The churches should consider very seriously the implications of the present tendency to militarize what is essentially a task of enforcing internationally the rule of law. The institution of military courts for this purpose by the US Government is in danger of undermining the rule of law.

However, the task of discernment does not stop with the question which leading category is appropriate for the interpretation of the events of 11 September. Under the immediate impact of the events it has been affirmed by many that after these attacks nothing would be as it was before. They were given decisive historical significance and were considered as marking a fundamental qualitative change on the global scene. But what has actually changed? Our discussion during the previous two days has focused on five aspects: global governance, global security, global economy, human rights and humanitarian concerns. In all five areas, the analysis has led to the conclusion that the critical conditions, including the threat of terrorism, were present even before 11 September. The events have certainly sharpened the challenges, but they do not seem to have caused a qualitative change of the global conditions, at least so far.

Does this suggest that our categories of analysis, especially the segmental approach which looks at these five areas separately, are no longer sufficient? Of course, the analysis has to be continued to gain a more comprehensive picture. We also have to go beyond the usual statistical analysis and look at the implications for people’s lives in everyday situations. The one factor in our analysis which was new is the role of religion, of values and of the symbolic significance of these attacks. We are not used to including the religious dimension in social, political or economic analysis. It may be that in this regard the events of 11 September oblige us to develop new tools.

This becomes particularly clear when we consider the dramatic interpretation offered from both sides, presenting the challenge of the attacks as a fight between good and evil, as a defence of civilization against anarchy, as an indefinite war with the appeal for sacrifice, and as a final confrontation. This Manichean perspective is projected from both sides which therefore reinforce each other. But is this dramatic interpretation convincing and acceptable?

It is at this point that the task of discernment by the churches becomes particularly urgent. The Manichean dualism between good and evil, light and darkness, has influenced Christian thinking throughout the history of the church. In its confession of faith the church has rejected this dualism again and again. For the Christian faith this struggle between good and evil, life and death, God and the devil has been decided with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This affirmation of eschatological realism does not imply that we are now assured to move towards a bright future and that all evil has been eliminated. Yet, our hope is not dependent on the victory of the project of our civilization. Civilization and empires may fall; even the world may perish, but our hope is rooted in the certainty of faith that God’s faithfulness and love remain and transcend human history. Christian discernment therefore implies the task to distinguish between our eschatological hope and a religion turned into a political ideology. Remembering the misuse of religion and of the name of God in situations of war and violent confrontation, the churches should be very critical of the claim that there is a «mission from God» in fighting the war against terrorism.

Vulnerability and Security

Apart from the ambiguous role of religion in this present confrontation, the one genuinely new feature is the fact that the United States of America, which has lived with the self-image of the invincible sole super-power, has become vulnerable on its own territory. Even the attack on Pearl Harbour did not reach the American heartland. The attacks of 11 September not only took place on American territory, but they were directed at the very symbols of American pride and power, economic and military. By transforming civilian aircraft into massive incendiary bombs, the attacks were carried out with means which themselves have a highly symbolic value for the American sense of prosperity.

Of course, the sudden realization of vulnerability has brought home to the United States as the leading force in the process of globalization an experience to which the majority of peoples throughout the world have been exposed increasingly over these past two decades. Globalization has increased social and economic disintegration, has sharpened civil and ethnic conflict, has weakened structures of government and public order and has thus produced a climate of vulnerability. In a world of instant communication without borders and with total interdependence, the potential for vulnerability has continuously increased. There has been a genuine manifestation of solidarity and sympathy with the people of the United States in this situation of vulnerability which had so far been unimaginable. Will the people of the United States now be prepared in turn to share in the condition of vulnerability and victimhood which has been the dominant experience of people in other parts of the world?

The natural response in a situation of exposure to vulnerability is to call for security. However, the very nature of global terrorism, in particular in the form of suicide attacks, shows that there can be no guarantee of security any more. The logic of globalization and the logic of national security are incompatible. The political and legislative measures which have been implemented in many countries since 11 September show that the search for security tends to pervert the very values of freedom, democratic rights and the rule of law on which the civilization which feels under attack is built. Over against this tendency, the churches should be advocates of maintaining the rule of law as the basic framework of protection for the weak and vulnerable. They should constantly remind those in power that even the enforcement of laws can become a cause of injustice. They should seek to transcend the call for retributive justice and become advocates of restorative justice.

Ultimately, security can only be obtained on the condition of total isolation, but even then the fear of being vulnerable breeds suspicion and defensiveness. Therefore the churches need to continue to work on a new understanding of security, going beyond national security to people’s security or human security and recalling the insight emerging from the period of nuclear confrontation during the final phases of the Cold War that only common or cooperative security arrangements are viable which recognize the legitimate security interests of the potential adversary.

Going again beyond the level of social and political analysis, the churches should remind themselves that in the horizon of the Christian faith the acceptance of vulnerability is the way towards a new way of being human. We confess a God who in Jesus Christ became vulnerable to the point of giving his life for the life of the world. God became vulnerable in order to reconcile the world to God-self. Vulnerability and dependency therefore are not marks of weakness but the decisive indicators for recognizing life in relationships. The events of 11 September therefore challenge us as people of faith to accept our condition of vulnerability and to seek security in building relationships with those who, because of their being radically different from us, are perceived as a potential threat. This implies the readiness to limit our claims of power, to share in the suffering of the millions who are victims of the uncontrolled exercise of power in the context of globalization. On the political level, it implies an affirmation of the multilateral instruments of the United Nations as the appropriate and legitimate ways of responding to the threats of terrorism.

The Symbolism of Power

Obviously, the present confrontation is a conflict of power. What is new, however, is the fact that it does not focus on power over resources, territory or trade routes. Rather, it is a conflict about symbolic power. Any legitimation of power is based on symbols. The use of patriotic symbols in the United States underlines this point. The symbolic nature of this power conflict is heightened by the influence of the visual media at least in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The main secular symbols of power which were the targets of the attacks on 11 September are capital and arms. However, these symbols of power are particularly vulnerable because they have a weak basis of legitimacy.

Ultimately, the symbolism of power has religious roots. This becomes visible when religious language is used in economic or financial contexts. God is the fundamental symbol of power, and in all cultures the religious communities are considered the trustees of the basic values of society. Therefore those who exercise political, economic or financial power seek religious sanctioning. This may also explain the urge on the global level to obtain a common framework of values or a global ethic through inter-religious dialogue in order to come to terms with the global exercise of power.

This becomes particularly important in the encounter between Islam and Christianity. Both religious traditions have a tendency to symbolize power as a system of total and comprehensive domination requiring absolute obedience. Their God-language tends to be exclusive rather than inclusive, drawing lines of distinction and defining clear borders. Both traditions have inherited a patriarchal understanding of God, of God’s rule, God’s will demanding obedience. This distinguishes them from Asian religions searching for knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. In the present confrontation there is a tendency on both sides to use religious symbolic legitimation for the attacks as well as for the response to them. The churches are called upon to break this confrontational logic of power and to replace it with an understanding of power as blessing, sharing of life, empowerment, as the energy for life, rather than as domination and potential destruction of the other.

The churches as well as Muslim communities have access to resources of symbolic power which speak to the soul and the heart of people, which convey a transcending vision of hope. I have spoken before about the biblical symbols of eschatological hope which in the prophetic tradition stand against the secular symbols of power. In this present situation of crisis the churches must overcome their hesitancy to use religious symbolic language in the public context. They have to accept the task of prophetic criticism but also the constructive task of restoring the legitimacy of power and of the rule of law.

This means in particular to resist any claims of total power but also the tendency to claim universal validity of specific symbols and values. All symbols are particular and gain their meaning in a historical or cultural context. The Islamist claims in this confrontation are as misguided as the secular western claims to universal validity. This does not question or diminish the important achievements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments which express a basic framework of values and responsibilities. The critical situation arises when these values are being used as a means of political power and domination.

The basic Christian symbol of power is oriented towards the sharing of power in community, the recognition of the other not as a threat or an object of domination, but as created in the image of God and loved by God. The churches therefore should resist the tendency to turn the present confrontation into a conflict about the hegemony of symbolic power, about the universal validity of a particular civilization and its values. They should rather seek to «de-globalize» the conflict and even be careful with the effort to identify particular root causes, which provide a comprehensive interpretation. They should remain sensitive to the historical dimension of any symbolism of power and to the particular cultural and contextual conditions. This is of particular importance in view of the tendency to treat the entire Muslim community with suspicion.

After the attacks of 11 September there are many attempts to foster inter-religious dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews. It is indeed important that in inter-religious dialogue ways be found to address together the entry of religious symbolism into the public arena and into the present situation of conflict. However, this will not provide the solution. There is no solution in the sense of resolving and removing the basic challenge. We have to learn to live with the vulnerability and insecurity brought about by the condition of globalization. We have to focus our attention on the real challenges of living together in a situation of plurality and accept the ambiguity of our analyses, and in all of this we have to resist the tendency to turn religion into an ideology for struggle.

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