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Responding to Evil

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
September 16, 2001

Matthew 5:38-48
Koran 2:130, 135f, 139; 4:29, 93

    This has been a tough week, a week of enormous, unthinkable tragedy, a week when we have discovered just how vulnerable we are as a nation.  As many have said, our world changed on the morning of September 11.  The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon altered our perception of reality in fundamental ways.  President Bush said it well that evening, “we saw evil, the worst of human nature.”  But as he went on to note, we also saw on that day and each day since  in the response of so many, “good, the best of human nature.” One of my favorite stories to emerge from the dust and ash was that of the shoe store in upper Manhattan.  All transportation had shut down.  Women, who had come to their offices in high heels, found themselves facing a walk home of many miles.  And there were the owner and employees of this shoe store handing out tennis shoes, free, to any woman who needed them.

    This country has a very big heart.  Just how big has been evident in such acts of human kindness and compassion repeated a thousand times over all week long in every community across our nation.  It is such things as this that makes me proud to be an American. 

    But our country also has a dark side.  Late Tuesday afternoon I called my friend Tammam Adi, one of our local Muslim clerics.  Tammam has been active in Two Rivers Interfaith Ministries and a member of the steering committee of the Lane Institute of Faith and Education.  When I called him he had just received a death threat, the first of two.  Several Arab-owned businesses in Eugene have reported bomb threats.  A local United Church of Christ minister is married to an Arab-American.  This week he was accosted while riding his bike.  On Thursday I was part of a small group from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon that met with Senator Hatfield on a different matter.  We discussed the current events for at least 15 minutes.  The Senator told us of a Lebanese woman who was seriously injured in an assault, also a US citizen for over 30 years and a Christian her entire life.  I suspect that every Muslim and every middle-eastern looking individual in this country has similar stories to tell.  Many have compared Tuesday’s attack to Pearl Harbor.  Just as we blamed Japanese-Americans then, so too we seem all too willing to blame Arab-Americans today.  Have we not learned anything in 60 years?

    I fear that this dark side of our nation, if we do not expose and expunge it may well control and consume us in our blind zeal to find blame and to get revenge.  In times such as these we must not forget that we have a choice, always, when we are victimized by evil.  And the choice is simply this:  we can respond from love or we can respond from hate.  Maya Angelou, appearing with Ted Koppel on ABC, said it best the other night.  She said we can seek justice or we can seek vengeance.  There is an enormous difference between the two.

    Vengeance strikes back in anger.  It seeks to get even or to go one better.  The goal of vengeance is to make the other party pay for what they have done.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said this week that we must identify and destroy this enemy.  That is vengeance.  My fear is that when our objective is to destroy the enemy, we have become the very evil we seek to destroy.  I can tell you that Senator Hatfield was very concerned that we would act too hastily in anger against our assailants and thereby make the current situation much worse.  It is for good reason that the Torah says, “’Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord.”

    Justice, of which there has been much talk, is vastly different from vengeance.  Justice seeks to correct the wrong without destroying the wrongdoer.  The aim of justice is not retribution but restitution, to change the evil into good.  We can kill the evildoers, but we cannot kill the evil.  Even if we killed every terrorist, evil itself would still exist and would raise its ugly head again in some other place, in some other form.  Evil is like Medusa, every time we chop off one head, two more sprout.  If we use the same means of evil, we are doomed to achieve the same end.  Or as the founder of Philippine democracy said, “When you fight fire with fire, all you get are ashes.” 

    So how do we fight this evil?  What does justice look like in the face of such enormous grief?  I invite you to consider two responses, one from Islam itself and one from our tradition.

    The week before all of this happened I found myself in the office of Ronald Osborn, now three years after his death.  Nola, his wife, has left it pretty much as Ronald did.  Sitting there amidst all of his books you can almost feel his presence.  He had one shelf dedicated to world religions and as I am putting together a course on the topic for the adult education program of Lane Community College this fall, I asked Nola if I might borrow a few of his books.  One of those was a copy of the Koran.  Ronald had underlined several verses in the first two chapters, and I share one of those selections with you now:

Who will turn away from the creed of Abraham, but one dull of soul?
They say:  “Become Jews or become Christians, and find the right way.”
Say: “No. We follow the way of Abraham the upright, who was not an         idolater.”
Say: “We believe in God and what has been sent down to us,
and what had been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael
and Isaac and Jacob and their progeny,
and that which was given to Moses and Christ,
and to all other prophets by the Lord.
We make no distinction among them, and we submit to Him.”
Say: “Why do you dispute with us about God
when He is equally your Lord and our Lord?”

(2:130, 135-136, 139)

    There is in the Koran great respect for the Christian and Jewish faiths and our scriptures.  I also discovered there several passages which make the term  “Muslim terrorist” an oxymoron, i.e. “Do not seek destruction at your own hands.  Do good; for God loves those who do good.”  (2:195)  “Do not destroy yourselves.” (4:29)  “Anyone who kills a believer intentionally will be cast into hell.”  (4:93)  I have heard two Muslims this week quote the Prophet Muhammad saying, “You are only a Muslim if people are safe from your tongue and safe from your hand.”  These are not things we are hearing about Muslims or their faith in the press today.  Most of what we hear is a distorted view.  Imagine what kind of image you would have of Christianity if your only source was David Koresh or Jim Jones.  Such is the way Islam is often presented to us by the media. 

    After the interfaith service on Friday at the Methodist church, nearly a hundred people went to the Mosque for a vigil during their prayer service.  I spoke to a man there who told me that Muslims are taught if someone cuts you, you must ask them why they did that or if someone steals from you, you must ask them why they stole.  Are they angry at you for some reason?  Or are they just poor and hungry?  He then went on to say that the acts of these terrorist are completely unjustifiable, but we must still try to understand why they did these terrible things.  Most Muslims today, he said, live under oppressive dictatorships.  And most of these dictators are supported by the U.S. government without which they could not continue to exist.  Many Muslims, he said, are therefore very angry at our government and that is why a few may be led to do terrible things when all they want is democracy and freedom like we have here.

    Author Deepak Chopra who has written much on spirituality was one of many who learned of Tuesday’s horror as they themselves were flying across the country.  Chopra was flying from New York to Detroit.  His wife was flying to Los Angeles and his son to San Diego, all at the same time.  His immediate concern of course was for his family.  Once he learned they were safe, he said he still felt like he had been hit by a truck. 

    And I asked myself, Why didn't I feel this way last week? Why didn't my
 body go stiff during the bombing of Iraq or Bosnia? Around the world my
 horror and worry are experienced every day. Mothers weep over horrendous
 loss, civilians are bombed mercilessly, refugees are ripped from any sense
 of home or homeland.  Why did I not feel their anguish enough to call a
 halt to it?
    Everything has a cause, so we have to ask, What was the root cause of
 this evil? We must find out not superficially but at the deepest level....
     Does this evil grow from the suffering and anguish felt by people we
 don't know and therefore ignore? Have they lived in this condition for a
 long time?
     One assumes that whoever did this attack feels implacable hatred for
 America. Why were we selected to be the focus of suffering around the
 world?...     Can any military response make the slightest difference in the
 underlying cause? Is there not a deep wound at the heart of humanity?
     If there is a deep wound, doesn't it affect everyone?...

    Chopra, who is a Hindu, and my Muslim friend at the Mosque are saying the same thing.  The first step in fighting this evil is understanding its root cause.  Some claim that these terrorist are opposed to democracy and freedom.  That is pure propaganda.  At the same time, I think the explanation of my Muslim friend was too simplistic as well.  The questions asked by Chopra are the kind of questions we need to be addressing if we really want anything other than vengeance today.

    We also need to learn more about Islam in all of its manifestations.  At Friday’s service Tammam Adi received a standing ovation from the 1000 present for the following declaration:

    The terrorists want America to declare war on Islam.   They think they are the "martyrs," dying for a just cause. They are wrong.  They don't understand their religion.  In Islam, a martyr is one who dies as a witness against evil or a witness for goodness.  They were not the martyrs. ...
    The martyrs are their victims, our brothers and sisters in the airplanes and the towers and the Pentagon.  They are witnesses against the utmost evil that the terrorists did.  They are witnesses over an America that will become better than ever for their sake.
    Muslims all over the world, America is not the enemy of Islam. America is the best Islamic state on earth.  Americans, open your eyes.  Islam is not America's enemy.  Islam is our way of life.

    The more we understand Islam as well as Arab culture and struggles, the better equipped we will be to find true justice and peace today.

    The second response I invite you to consider should be more familiar, though perhaps more difficult.  I propose that it is precisely times like this that we need to take Jesus the most seriously, and especially his words in the Sermon on the Mount. There we find two principles that speak specifically to this situation.  First, Jesus rejects the idea of an eye for an eye and instead teaches that we must overcome evil with good.  Second, he tells us that we must love, not hate our enemies.     

    How on earth does one love a terrorist?  How can we speak of love for someone who has such little regard for human life and who can massacre thousands in the name of God?  On the other hand, can we afford to do anything else?  Chopra says that “if you and I are having a single thought of violence or hatred against anyone in the world at this moment, we are contributing to the wounding of the world.”  In his last speech before his assassination, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said, “There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us, in order to torpedo the peace process... But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war.  ... For our children I want... to exhaust every opening, every possibility to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace.”  Ironically the lack of such peace may well be one of the contributing factors to the attack this week.

    This is when our Christian faith is put to the test.  Do we really believe the teachings of Jesus?  Do we really believe love is stronger than hate? Or do we believe that a military solution is our only option?  If so, can we fight this war without unleashing even greater evil? What does justice mean for the victims of these attacks?  What does it mean for the 100,000 children who have died in Iraq as a direct result of the embargo against that nation?  General Omar Bradley said that we have learned to split the atom but we have failed the Sermon on the Mount.  Frankly, I am not at all sure how we overcome this evil with good, but I do know that trying to bomb it to hell will put us all there. This is a very difficult and dangerous time.  There are no easy answers to the present crisis.

    I do know this:  we have seen a tremendous amount of good here in this community, around the country and even around the world as people everywhere reach out to the many so tragically impacted by these events.  And I know that we CAN love our neighbor, that we can love our Muslim and Arab brothers and sisters and demonstrate to those in our community that we welcome them here and will stand by them when they are threatened.  I know that we can build bridges of understanding between our cultures and religions that will heal old wounds.  I know that we can pray for the families of the victims, for our nation’s leaders and even, as Jesus commanded, for the terrorists themselves.  

    Lastly, I know that we can help rebuild the fabric of this country that we may hold true to the principles on which it was founded, protecting the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of race, religion or national origin, for such is the beauty and the strength of this great nation.  And I am confident that in so doing, we are doing the will of God.


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