Friday, September 9, 2011

Terrorism and building peace

In preparing my sermon for this Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an analogy between eleventh century Egypt and the twenty-first century United States occurred to me. The first reading for Eucharistic services that day (Exodus 14:19-31) continues the series of readings from Exodus describing the story of God delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Eleventh century Egypt is prosperous and powerful, their world’s only superpower. Then along comes their 9/11: the renegade outlaw, Moses, shatters their illusions of invulnerability and control with a series of seven plagues.

Perhaps drawing a parallel between Egypt and the United States makes you uncomfortable. Let’s consider that discomfort carefully. God loves all people equally, Egyptian and Israelite, and U.S., Saudi, and Yemeni. God has only chosen one nation, Israel. Much is good about the United States. I proudly served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and for three years as a visiting civilian professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. But in spite of any wishes that we may have, the United States is not synonymous with the kingdom of heaven; the American way of life is not identical with the Jesus path; and God has no plan of manifest or exceptional destiny for this nation. The disjuncture in the analogy is not in drawing a parallel between the United States and Egypt but between Osama bin Laden and Moses.

In the narrative, Egypt responded to its 9/11, as did the United States to its 9/11, by declaring war on the attacker. Today’s first reading describes the annihilation of Egypt’s army and its war’s ugly ending. Biblical scholars and historians helpfully shed light on the disparity between the story and actual history. At most, only a handful of slaves revolted and fled Egypt. A mistranslation of the Hebrew in the text sets events at the Red Sea rather than the Sea of Reeds. Great artists like Cecile B. DeMille bring this scene to life with powerful but inaccurate imagery of water cascading down upon and drowning the Egyptian army. More likely, the small band of escapees eluded their pursuers by safely fleeing through marshes impenetrable by soldiers in chariots or on horseback.

Thankfully, the U.S. military has not suffered annihilation in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, both of the wars begun in response for the 9/11 attacks seem likely to have ugly endings. After ten years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan remains largely ungovernable and has one of the world’s most corrupt governments. Iraq, after eight years of occupation and in spite of the lull in violence produced primarily by putting tens of thousands of Iraqis on the American payroll, remains riven by sectarianism and tribalism. Violence among Iraqis is escalating as the U.S. withdrawal proceeds. And in spite of some notable successes against al Qaeda, the world is not greatly safer or more peaceful today than on 9/12.

War, in the twenty-first century as in the eleventh century, does not move us along the path to peace. War may prevent an evil tyrant from global domination, as occurred in the Allies’ successful war against the Nazis. There are few such justifiable, necessary wars. In all other circumstances war moves the world further rather than closer to establishing peace.

Ending terrorism requires a multi-dimensional response. However, the use of force in responding to terrorism should adhere to a law enforcement rather than warfighting model. Prior to 9/11, the United States, like most other nations countered terrorists with law enforcement methods and resources. Other nations continue to rely successfully upon law enforcement methods and resources to ensure their safety and security. The U.S. should do the same.

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