Tuesday 25. June 2019

Annihilation – is this the right response to terrorism?

Europe is still reeling from the terrorist attacks of recent months. Gerhard Beestermöller, Professor of Theological Ethics at the Luxembourg School of Religion and Society, looks for appropriate answers from a Christian point of view.

We are often told that Nazism had to be eliminated because it was evil. Moreover, even if we are not supposed to compare the so-called Islamic State (IS) with National Socialism (Nazism) – all comparison here being inappropriate – we can still say that the IS is evil. No peace agreement should be concluded with the IS. It must be annihilated. Can anybody raise objections against this argument?

 

Avoiding Manichaeism

There is justifiable concern that such logic constitutes the rebirth of a new Manichaeism. For the Manicheans, world history is viewed as a major battle between the champions of light and darkness. Anyone who holds to this belief is in danger of demonising other races and canonising themselves. This is the path to enmity and the desire to exterminate. Each side is ultimately fighting a holy war. Can such behaviour be deemed an appropriate response in the spirit of the Gospel? Is lethal enmity the only alternative to starry-eyed appeasement?

 

The tradition of Christian social teaching presents the alternative doctrine of the “just war”. Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas developed his doctrine of war within the framework of the God-given virtue of love for God and one’s neighbour. War can only be legitimate if it is an act of expression of this love. But can you wage war from love and within love?

 

Righteous anger

The whole Christian tradition used to hold firmly to the belief that such a thing is possible. Injustice triggers righteous anger in a person who is imbued with the love of God. Righteous anger is a state of mind that harbours a part that is love and a part that is hatred. The loving side is positive towards the object of their love and wishes them well. The hating side rejects the object of their hatred and wishes them ill. The angry person rejects the injustice of those who outrage them, but wants to lead them back to justice and peace.

 

Righteous anger goes together with courage and the willingness, even in the face of death, to stand up for what is right and good. Put in modern terms, it is a peace-loving position that has passed the test of violence. What we have here is the determination to act against injustice, having recourse to violence if really necessary, combined with the same determination to apply self-criticism; it is a matter of listening to others, of trying to understand them and of looking for every possible means of achieving peace with unshakable openness.

 

Openness to the whole truth

What does this mean in real terms? It means, for example, being open to the whole truth. In the Western media we have all read and heard that the Islamic terror group Boko Haram abducted 200 girls in Nigeria, most of whom are still reported as missing. But what nobody heard anywhere was that the abduction of Muslim girls had already been done earlier by Christian soldiers. Of course this doesn’t make anything legitimate, but it does mitigate the possibility of a Manichaean-type outrage.

 

The unjust war conducted against Iraq by George W. Bush forms part of the background history of the IS. Has anyone been called to account for the fact that the Security Council was presented with false evidence of a nuclear programme? How many thousands paid for that with their lives in the war that followed? Even at the time of the so-called “peaceful sanctions” of the Clinton Administration, people were aware that they were costing hundreds of thousands of lives, because no more medicines, powdered milk, etc. were allowed into the country. Did this trigger huge waves of outrage throughout Europe?

 

The spirit of reconciliation

In the eyes of people living in the Middle Ages the worst crime of all was heresy, because it threatened eternal salvation. That is why it was deemed legitimate to persecute heretics and if need be to kill them. But if a heretic repented, he had to be pardoned and even had to be returned to his former position, because this was the best way of keeping the peace. In what spirit should we treat the people who, for example, defect from the IS? Are we going to adopt in our innermost being the attitude of the Gospel’s merciful Father? How does the idea of reconciliation sit comfortably with that of national Law? Are we well-advised when we perceive the rule of law as the ultimate horizon of our image of the nation State? Or can the idea of peace bring this framework back to its rightful dimensions?

 

Indeed we should and must defend ourselves, but should do so by adopting the attitude of a person who knows that there will be no peace unless the justified complaints of the other party are heard, and then fight the injustice of that situation with the same degree of determination.

 

Prof. Gerhard Beestermöller

Luxemburg School of Religion and Society

 

Translated from the original text in German

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