For Christians to view 9/11 and the world of terrorism through the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection will be difficult and complex. Such a stance does not mean condoning or ignoring what al-Qaeda did on September 11, any more than God, in Christian belief, ignored or condoned the sinfulness of humanity in crucifying his Son. No, forgiveness must mean, as the South African activist Maluis Mpumlwana suggests, helping our adversaries recover their humanity. … The only foreign policy that can promote peace is one based on compassion toward those in need, even toward those whom we consider our adversaries. … For in forgiving and loving the neighbors who surround us in this world, we meet God.
Like so many people, Religious Studies Professor David Carlson struggled to find meaning and a sense of what the appropriate Christian response should be in the aftermath of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. Eventually, he developed an interesting idea: to interview a variety of monks, nuns, and other persons of intentional faith, to try to discern if, as his book’s subtitle suggests, there is “Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World.” His travels took him to several well-known monasteries (Christ in Desert in New Mexico, Gethsemani in Kentucky, New Skete in New York) as well as a few lesser known foundations, like Holy Transfiguration in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In addition to the interviews he conducted, he also reflected on the writings of Thomas Merton, particularly in regard to the cold war — and his epiphany on the street corner in March 1958. Along the way, Carlson and his dialogue partners cover a wide terrain, looking at questions of interfaith dialogue, loving the enemy, grieving the horror of terrorism while resisting the impulse to demonize the terrorists. As might be expected, many of the monks and nuns he interviews are modest, humble people, protesting that they have nothing substantial to offer to the conversation about Christianity and terrorism. But of course, once they start talking, the monastics offer tremendous jewels of wisdom indeed. Carlson acknowledges that there are no easy answers — that even in the same monastery, he would speak to different monks with markedly different ways of thinking about, and responding to, terrorism. The interviews taken as a whole point Carlson toward an epiphany of his own, when he realizes that we as Christians can respond to terrorism the same way God responded to the crucifixion: by eschewing revenge to instead work for “resurrection,” seeking to breathe new life into relationship building and community, not as a way of ignoring terrorism but as a means to building a world where such acts become unthinkable. But this is not a “sweetness and light” book, for Carlson also writes candidly about his own sense of uncertainty, depression and anger at God that this profound spiritual journey forced him to face and work through. Resurrection is God’s gift to us, but crucifixion its terrible price.
Even though Carlson is rather specific in trying to apply monastic wisdom to the particular question of 9/11 and its aftermath, I think much in this book can be applied to the Christian life in general. How do we respond when others hurt us, even in small ways? Terrorism, of course, is a dimension of sin; and Christianity is not worth a thing if it does not equip us, both individually and communally, to respond to sin in a Christlike way. Peace Be With You is a useful meditation on how we can do just that.