Jon Pahl, Ph.D. is a Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
Unexamined Sacrifices and Unexplored Opportunities:
Five Peacebuilding Principles toward a Better Post 9/11 World
A Decade after 9/11:
Unexamined Sacrifices and Unexplored Opportunities:
Five Peacebuilding Principles toward a Better Post 9/11 World
Jon Pahl, Ph.D.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the overwhelming empathy extended toward American victims from around the globe, the United States could have forged an unprecedented “soft power” alliance across traditions and nations on behalf of peace and against religiously-inspired violence. Instead, we “hit back” with military force, first in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. In my brief remarks, I will contend that U.S. policies failed to realize the peace-building potential post-9/11 because of a pattern of religious violence, and especially a form of sacrifice, that is deeply embedded in American history, and especially in what scholars have identified as the American civil religion. This sacrificial pattern in the civil religion—a tendency to scapegoat enemies in the interest of what I call American “innocent domination”--ironically led us to mimic some of the worst behaviors of those diffuse “terrorists” against whom we have waged war for the past decade. My argument today builds on that of my latest book, Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. Near the end of my remarks, I’ll outline five peace building principles that have emerged across religious traditions in the twentieth-century, and that are solidifying into what I call a “coming religious peace,” as a hopeful way forward into the next decades.
9/11 as a Crisis in the American Civil Religion
9/11 was a crisis in the American civil religion. As is well known, devotion to the nation operates through and alongside traditional religions in America (and especially through evangelical Protestantism) to project unto the nation a transcendent origin (“one nation under God”) and a transcendent horizon (“God bless America!”) This hybrid civil religion is associated with sacred symbols such as the flag, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution; with holy days such as Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Veteran’s Day; and with sacred sites such as Civil War battlefields, the shrines in Washington, DC, and (most recently) the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93 Memorials.
Now, linking these many symbols, holidays, and sacred sites is a system of sacrifice—a series of discourses, practices, and institutions that depend upon substitutions or exchanges to produce favor or blessing, which is what every sacrifice boils down to. In Empire of Sacrifice I call the American form of this sacrificial system “innocent domination,” or (sometimes) “blessed brutalities.” That is, in the American civil religion the nation is an imagined community of largely innocent citizens (“the good guys”) who through their willingness to give of themselves and to work hard (to “sacrifice”) win victories that allow Americans to dominate enemies (“the bad guys”). Americans win, so the logic goes, because we have a moral or religious right to do so, and because in our domination we bear no malice toward those dominated. Succinctly put, the doctrine at the core of innocent domination is: right makes might, or, perhaps, piety produces power. This mentalité was once dubbed “Manifest Destiny;” it now often bears the name “American Exceptionalism.”
And insofar as this system of sacrifice encourages self-criticism, intentional altruism, and cooperation on behalf of the common good it is, indeed, admirable. There is nothing inherently good or evil about a civil religion. But throughout American history the structure of the sacrifices, and even more, those who are the victims of sacrificial processes, are often unexamined. Innocent domination in the American civil religion has a way of becoming what Robert Jewett has called “zealous nationalism.” The result, a decade after 9/11, is that we end up with a costly two front (if not global) war against a remarkably diffuse enemy, “terror,” in which we employ not only conventional weaponry but surveillance, drones, smart bombs, renditions, and torture that belie any assertions of innocence or that expose as hypocritical any civil religious mythology that right makes might or piety produces power.
The roots of this kind of sacrificial system are deep, and its fruits bitter, in American history. Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust has brilliantly shown how memorializing Civil War dead “created the modern American nation” around “sacrifice” in the mid-nineteenth-century. Even earlier, versions of America’s nascent civil religion imagined a mythology of white (Christian) purity that promoted the sacrifice of those who were constructed as racially and religiously other—notably the indigenous peoples of North America, and West Africans brought to America as slaves. It is surely worth noting, in passing, how historically slippery the categories of scapegoats can be. Among those deemed unworthy to be included in the benefits of innocent (white) domination were (at one time or another) Italian, Irish, or (almost any other) Catholics, Germans (during World War I), Asians (first exploited as laborers, then excluded by law, then interred (if they were Japanese) during World War II, and Jews (repeatedly), to name only a few.
Similarly, gender has been another category around which the sacrificial system has been organized in oft-unexamined ways. Women were of course systematically excluded from full participation in early American society—and the first wave of feminists (like Elizabeth Cady Stanton) quickly discovered that to assert their rights meant to run into some serious religious resistance. Today, those whose sexual orientation is different from the heterosexual norm join women in having experienced silencing, segregation, and the sacrifice of their economic and civil rights in the ostensible interest to “protect” (what an “innocent” term!) marriage, through DOMA Laws (currently on the books in 38 States) and other policies that in fact appear quite patently to construct a political solidarity over and against what will always be a relatively fragile minority. I could go on—to talk about the war on drugs (which is basically a way to sacrifice young black males), or the war on so-called Islamofascism (which is how some in America still see the legacy of 9/11)--but I hope the point is clear. The unexamined sacrifices of “innocent domination” in the American civil religion have deep roots, and bitter fruits, in American history.
9/11 posed a crisis to this sacrificial system of innocent domination in at least three ways. First, as historian of religions Bruce Lincoln has shown, the terrorists themselves were, quite vividly, sacrificing themselves. They exaggerated (in post-modern hyper-realism and technological banality) exactly the conjunction of innocent domination, or blessed brutality, that Americans like to claim as our own. They claimed that their religion justified their violence—just as Americans like to claim that our righteousness (however defined) makes us worthy of empire. Second, the targets chosen by the terrorists were only “innocent” if one was willing to do some very fancy maneuvering. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon obviously represented concentrated U.S. wealth and military power, respectively. To put it mildly, these institutions have not always been received as benign on the global stage, especially since Vietnam. And while it might be accurate to say that the individuals at both places were innocents (in the sense that they weren’t, literally, combatants) many people around the globe would recognize both the WTC and the Pentagon as “sacred symbols” or even “sacred places” in a “clash of civilizations,” as Samuel L. Huntington famously put it. And it was into the symbols of one side in this clash that the iconoclastic fury of those inspired by the illegitimate fatwa of Osama bin Laden quite literally crashed. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it was not at all clear that this was a “war” Americans could win through traditional military means of “sacrifice.” Time and again, critics of the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have lamented that the “sacrifices” to support these wars have not been shared, but have been disproportionally borne by those in the U. S. military. I largely agree with this assessment, yet I also find this call for shared sacrifice largely hollow, since it has not led to higher taxes or other obligations for even the richest among us. Instead, I suspect that underneath this anxiety about “shared sacrifice” lurks a dim awareness that if this really is a clash between civilizational systems of sacrifice, ours is quite likely to lose. Frankly speaking, the policies of the past decade pit a mercenary (albeit volunteer) military propped up by the American civil religion against insurgents willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of God. The odds aren’t good for victory in that contest. As the Obama administration seems dimly to be recognizing, there is simply no military solution to 9/11, unless we are willing, God forbid, to create yet another “Ground Zero” in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Pakistan (not to mention Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Syria and so forth). When zealous nationalism meets zealous religion the result is a standoff, at best, escalating destruction, at worst. Perpetual warfare produces perpetual insurgency (not to mention perpetual economic crisis); hardly the kind of Pax Americana any of us would want to live in. It’s been, in short, a rough decade—in my historical judgment one of the worst in American history.
Hope for Traditions in America
Given the above, is there any chance to recover the prospects that existed immediately post-9/11 to mobilize religious and secular agents against religious violence and on behalf of peace? In fact, I believe we can witness precisely such an emerging consensus within and across historic religious traditions that might make them quite congenially allied with secular citizens who also seek more just and peaceful societies through some other means than perpetual war.
I can only sketch that consensus here, but it runs from Mohandas Gandhi in India to Dianne Nash in Birmingham to Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam to Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa to Anna Walentynowicz in Poland to Leymah Gbowee in Liberia to Fethullah Gulen in Turkey. It is the single least known story in the 20th century history of religions—the consistent, pragmatic application of the principles of non-violent resistance to effective social change. Religious peace builders have been effective agents of non-violent social change in context after context, across traditions, including here in the United States, not only in the civil rights movement, but also in the first wave of feminism and the successful struggle for women’s suffrage, and in the agitation for changes in child labor laws during the Progressive movement. Organizing interreligious and ecumenical energies on behalf of a more just and peaceful world is the untold story of the history of religions in the twentieth-century.
And the growth of religious peace building can be (note well that conditional) the most significant story in the history of religions in the 21st century. Basically, religiously-engaged non-violence or peace-building seeks to build a society that is no more utopian than a society based upon trust. Such a society seeks to enhance and sustain life more than it destroys or harms it, backed up (as necessary) by means to hold people accountable when trust is broken. In fact, this "social capital" or "cultural power" of trust is the most vital component of any religious tradition. Trust marks the daily interactions between religious adherents who count on each other to mean what they say, and (insofar as possible) to say what they mean. It is the scandal of religions when trust is broken, but this only highlights how fundamentally trust is woven into the fabric of religious communities. As I put it in Empire of Sacrifice: religions exist to end violence, insofar as possible.
In practice, religious agents build trust through the application of what I call the five peace principles. The first is literacy—broadly understood. People of faith—like those inspired by the Muslim imam Fethullah Gulen, build, and support, schools. They teach self-critical learning. They welcome insights from all disciplines. And they are learned in their own sacred texts and teachings—what Gandhi called satyagraha—truth force. The second peace principle is what I call practiced means. That is, people of faith build peace by practicing the rituals that promote peace within their discrete communities. If, as I contend, and the point of these rituals is to promote solidarity and trust in non-violent ways (it is only a small minority of extremists across traditions who imagine that building bombs is somehow God’s purpose for their worship), then practicing those rituals can also enhance the capacity for constructive engagement with those “outside” one’s own tradition. The third peace principle is what I call (inelegantly) interdependent sociability, or (more simply but inaccurately) empathy. Religions foster the capacity to recognize the suffering of others in the midst of our own inevitable suffering. At their best, and even at their typically mediocre, religions lead us to recognize how we are woven (as Dr. King so beautifully put it) into a mutual garment of destiny, or how we are (in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh) inescapably engaged in “interbeing.” The fourth peace principle is what I call grounded pluralism. Often, we imagine “strong” faith as exclusive, ruling out all others. In fact, the kind of faith that promotes peace is confident enough of its own convictions to risk them in dialogue and debate; to give reasons for them in the roiling contingency of public life—as traditions have increasingly had to do in our pluralistic world. Finally, religions promote peace through organizing. It is currently fashionable for many to shy away from “institutional” religion. But an un-institutional “spirituality” is also a disorganized religion, liable to manipulation by demagogues or liable to forgetting in the face of inconvenience. Only regular community life—real human interaction--can foster the accountability to trust that is the glue of any society we would want to live in.
Now, this may sound hopelessly idealistic, but in fact what I have sketched is exactly what has already emerged in the interreligious and ecumenical movements of the past century that transformed American society (and many others) into more peaceful and just places than they otherwise would have been. The five peace principles provide, in short, an empirical foundation for what I see as a coming religious peace in our post-9/11 world. Such a peace repudiates the “sacrifices” of terrorists, but also repudiates the innocent domination and unexamined “sacrifices” demanded on behalf of zealous nationalism. Instead, religious agents (and secular allies) can continue to forge the contours of what David Cortright has called a “pragmatic or realistic pacifism.” Such an approach welcomes the deep ethical and practical resources of religious traditions as compliments to those peace-building factors of classical liberal politics--representative government, participatory economic life, and civil liberties—including (of course) religious freedom. Engaged in this way around the globe, as is already the case on the ground in many places (if not in official policies), there is reason to hope that the coming decades might take the tragedy of that autumn day and turn it into a springtime that renounces religious violence and fosters instead a coming religious peace.
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