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A just peace is more sensible than militarism

American religious leaders calling for peaceful ways to end terrorism probably did not make many headlines in U.S. newspapers. The news conference they held by phone Jan. 23 did not feature violence, denunciations or even a photograph. Still, the four religious leaders who participated in the news conference on the eve of the assembling in Assisi, Italy, of world religious leaders and in anticipation of President Bush’s State of the Union Address had plenty of thoughtful remarks to make about the United States today and its role in the world remarks that are worth listening to in a time when short-term military responses to long-term problems are seen as adequate, even sufficient.

Animating the speakers, all members of the Interfaith Coalition for a Peaceful End to Terrorism, was a common conviction that military means cannot produce an end to terrorism and a united appeal to Congress and President Bush that the military conflict not be permitted to expand beyond Afghanistan.

These remarks take on greater urgency in view of the Bush administration’s foreign policy as it was outlined in the State of the Union Address. In calling Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil,” President Bush sounded the drumbeat of war. The president has the international community frightened that the United States may go off on a rampage. Americans should be equally alarmed. A popular leader who steers his countrymen into an unconsidered war is common in history. Now, with patriotic fervor smothering dissent, voices calling for thoughtful reflection, for peace rather than war, are all the more necessary for being in short supply.

Enter the Interfaith Coalition for a Peaceful End to Terrorism.

Even before Bush outlined his request for an astonishing $45 billion increase in defense spending, coalition member C. Joseph Sprague, bishop of the United Methodist Church in Chicago, warned of American’s love affair with the military.

“We have in this country a deep and abiding love affair with technocracy, with bombs and missiles. It borders on idolatry,” Sprague said at the news conference. The Methodist bishop went on to speak of the “collateral damage” that Americans accept with few questions, indifferent to the human suffering that bland phrase covers.

“We fail in this culture to understand that our abstractions, if unmasked, have human faces,” said Sprague.

In seeking solutions to terrorism that are consonant with peace and justice, the coalition emphasized that responses to terrorism must include looking at and treating the root causes of terrorism: poverty, despair and oppression. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, quoted a line from the Torah: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Justice requires not only a just end but just means, said Waskow, and justice must be sought not just for yourself but for everyone.

The Interfaith Coalition for a Peaceful End to Terrorism might be dismissed as a group of pie-in-the sky idealists, but the four speakers at the news conference seemed to have a hardheaded grasp on the international realities that prevail today. An end to terrorism cannot be expected until a just peace is brokered in the Middle East, they said, an idea that was echoed just days later by world economic leaders meeting in New York.

Waskow said the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories must end, and attacks on civilians whether by Palestinian groups, by Israeli groups or by the state of Israel can no longer be seen as a legitimate means of expressing grievances. Waskow said the establishment of an international nonviolent intervention force may be necessary because the two peoples are caught up in such fear and rage that by themselves they cannot stop the cycle of violence.

Americans must be resolute in their support for both an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. They must insist that both are nonnegotiable and must press their government to bring this about in an evenhanded way, said Sprague.

Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Kathleen Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, noted that the United States’ interests in the Middle East have themselves become one of the underlying causes of the violence there. The United States needs to examine its weapons sales, she said, and to address its loss of moral authority in the Middle East.

These were sensible remarks with which most experts on the region would agree. Here, too, however, the Interfaith Coalition was advocating steps counter to administration policy. The Bush administration is becoming less evenhanded, not more, in the Middle East, where it has all but abandoned criticism of Israeli violence, including assassinations of Palestinian leaders. It recently foiled European peace efforts in the region that call for an international monitoring force, but seems bankrupt of ideas on how to staunch the hemorrhaging in the Middle East or even interest in the project. When the French foreign minister compared the U.S. role in the Middle East to Pontius Pilate, he was not off the mark.

Enthusiastic about taking on new military adventures in Iraq, Iran and North Korea but uninterested in turning its attention to the ongoing hostilities in the Middle East, the Bush administration seems on the verge of demonstrating that it is easier to start fights than to finish them. The Interfaith Coalition is one of the few voices pointing out that this may be an expensive lesson for Americans to learn.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002