Toughest tenet to obey: Love your enemy

Major religions require forgiveness, discourage warfare for revenge

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- On the second morning after terrorists toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Gospel read at all Catholic Masses was especially challenging: In no uncertain terms, Jesus told his followers to "turn the other cheek," to forgive their enemies, to do good to those who hate them.

The reading from the Gospel of Luke might not have been what some churchgoers hoped to hear as they tried to cope with the death of thousands of people in surprise terror attacks on New York and Washington. But, said William L. Petersen, director of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, it's a message early Christians would have taken quite literally -- and which, it might be added, sets up one pole in the religiously charged debate over the appropriate response to the horrific attack.

Much as they did when the Persian Gulf war was fought a decade ago, Americans are looking to their faith traditions to form views over just what level of retribution should be taken, this time for an assault that killed thousands of their fellow citizens.

But religions do not offer a single answer to the complex question of how to right such a wrong.

"There is no universally accepted teaching on revenge or retribution within any of the major world religions," Petersen said, noting that there will be different answers from liberal and conservative wings of the same religion. "All of them are fragmented."

Still, Christian tradition has evolved from the days when early practitioners were pacifists, to develop a "just war" theory of self-defense that often informs the national debate over war and peace. The Sept. 11 attack can be viewed in that light, Petersen said.

"According to the teachings of most churches, you're always entitled to self-defense," he said. "This can be seen as a case of national self-defense; if you don't get them, this will be done again. It's not revenge; it's not retribution. It's simply self-defense."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel had a succinct response when asked how Jewish tradition would respond, "Punishment, yes. Revenge, no."

His explanation: "Punishment is very specific. Certain people have done something terribly wrong. Vengeance is passion; it's irrational. It's an instinctive reaction. We have a God who says, `Vengeance is mine.' It belongs to God."

The Hebrew scriptures take a number of approaches to the issue of vengeance. Laws in the Book of Numbers require that a murderer be executed. But David is seen as praiseworthy for refusing to kill Saul after the king seeks his life.

In the Book of Psalms, God is repeatedly called upon to avenge wrongs. Psalm 137, in which the weeping Jews are taunted by the Babylonians to "sing us a song about Zion," goes so far as to wish that their captors' babies be dashed against rocks.

But Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, said Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions treat such psalms as a powerful way of evoking feelings, not as a model for behavior.

"Jewish tradition focuses around justice, not around retaliation or retribution," he said. "Human beings are obligated to create justice." In the case of the World Trade Center attack, he said, that requires bringing to justice those who assisted.

"But it's got to be done by just means," Waskow said. "That doesn't mean you go to war against an entire country in order to arrest and try and ultimately punish the people who did this."

Christian tradition, too, has evolved its own way of applying scriptural teachings. The criteria for a "just war," which date back to St. Augustine and were refined by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, permit warfare only as a last resort. The cause must be just; there must be reasonable hope for success; and the evil created by the use of arms must not be greater than the evil to be eliminated.

As weapons of mass destruction grow ever more sophisticated, the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant churches have continued to develop their tradition for what constitutes a just war, raising the threshold.

Pope Pius XII, faced with the devastation caused by World War II, determined that war was justified only to defend against an unjust attack. His successor, Pope John XXIII, decried the arms race in a famed 1963 encyclical called "Pacem in Terris," writing that "it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice for violated rights."

There was also a note of caution in a statement that the United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society, released the day after the terrorist attack.

"More violence begets violence," said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the board. "Yes, we believe in punishment, but not in retaliation." He added: "We also urge all Americans, and especially United Methodist Americans, to refrain from rushing to judgment against whoever may have committed these heinous crimes against humanity."

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