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Stone Soup

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Religion editor comments on American religious culture

by Willy Brown
Catholic News Service
NC Catholic, November 4, 2001

Washington - Kenneth Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek magazine, told an audience of Catholic communicators in San Antonio it was no surprise Americans turned to religion right after Sept. 11, but he felt not all the religous outpouring "has been salubrious."
Woodward, a Jesuit-educated Catholic who has been with Newsweek since 1964, was the keynote speaker on the opening day of Unda-USA's 2001 general assembly, held Oct. 17-20. The text of his remarks was released to Catholic News Service in Washington. Unda-USA is the organization for Catholic radio and television broadcasters and communication directors for dioceses and religious orders. The organization derives its name from the Latin word "unda" which means wave.

"It is not surprising that in the wake of the terrorist attacks we saw Americans turn, however briefly, to religion," Woodward said. "Who would have thought that New Yorkers could be so self-giving, so prayerful?"
But he warned that some of the religious outpouring was of questionable value and intent.
"The most obscene response came in New York," he said, "where bands of Baptists descended on ground zero to proselytize firefighters and other workers ... some (who were) trying to identify bodies by their parts in a makeshift morgue at the death site."

"(The Baptists) trampled on sacred ground," he continued, "oblivious to the thousands who had come to light candles and memorialize those buried beneath the rubble, plying their trade like maggots feeding on carrion."

He was no less sympathetic to evangelists Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberson. On Rev. Robertson's television show "The 700 Club" Sept. 13, Rev. Falwell said the attacks were an act of God brought on by certain groups of Americans, including homosexuals and abortion advocates. Rev. Robertson said on the show, "I totally convur."

"What struck me about the now-notorious Falwell-Robertson exchange on television was how very few of their fellow evangelists disagreed with them," he said. "To suggest, as Falwell and Robertson did, that God is punishing us for our moral laxness is to illustrate how little the fundamentalist imagination has to offer, especially in a time of national crisis.

According to Woodward, on the other end of the spectrum is a hollowed-out version of Christianity prevalent in contemporary American society.

"Recall the insipid ministrations of Oprah Winfrey at the praryer meeting in Yankee Stadium," he continued. "She asked us all to have faith in faith, hope in hope, to love love --- a saccharine appeal to the classsic Christina virtues as exercises without content.

"All this is a very big part of the so-caled religioius revival in America," he said. "It is hard to decide who offends most, the evangelists of the Falwell stripe or of the Oprah ilk. Both have huge follower-ships and both, from very different angles, stress what God can do for me."

Woodward also touched upon the issue of America's relation to Islam in the wake of the tragedies...

"Another truth that must be faced is the imporatance --- indeed the necessity --- of rethinking the church's relationship with Hinduism and Buddhism and other world religions in ways that recognize their intrinsic worth without compromising our commitment to Christ as the way, the truth and the light."


Dear Editor (NC Catholic),

While reading Bishop Gossman's explanation of "just war doctrine," I was not persuaded that our current attack on Afghanistan is justified, even by his own doctrinal clarification.

A.) "All other means of putting an end (to the aggression) must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective." From Cuba to Iraq, the United States has advocated economic boycott  and clings to boycott even now - as an effective means of obliging aggressors to yield. We have not yet tried this practical means of evoking a political solution and have thus failed to show that boycott is ineffective. Furthermore, if the United States and its allies were to devise a radically new form of boycott/siege, we might craft an effective means for dealing with rogue nations in future conflicts. How?  1.) Stop ALL monetary transfers into - and out of - Afghanistan until bin Laden is brought before the World Court. Currently, the world banking system  particularly the American banking system  relies on such slack procedures that it's easy for anyone with financial clout to "wash" money and/or transfer it wherever they will. Each year, American banks "write off" thirteen billion dollars in credit card fraud just to keep the system "fluid." If the system were tightened globally -- and if screws were really torqued on Kabul-Kandahar, we would soon witness Taliban's ouster. 2.) Simultaneously, "we" would announce that any and all goods - or vehicles - leaving Afghanistan (except personal possessions carried as individual baggage) would be confiscated and sold. The proceeds from these sales would be used to finance massive food relief. 3.) By massive food relief, I propose the introduction of brown rice, beans and lentils in such abundance that most Afghans would enjoy a more nutritious diet than they do currently. Simultaneously, the ruling, mercantile and managerial classes would find no advantage in cornering the market on rice or beans since the whole country would be awash with both of these highly nutritious foodstuffs, and nothing but these highly nutritious foodstuffs. 

B.) "The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated." "Civilians would not be targeted." If food aid does not flood into Afghanistan during the next several weeks --- when already-planned bombing raids will preclude such an attempt --- it is estimated that 1,000,000 Afghans will die during the upcoming winter (assuming weather is not particularly severe.) If we re-calculate these fatalities relative to the size of the United States, the slaughter visited on Afghanistan would be the equivalent of 20,385,000 ("twenty million, three hundred and eighty five thousand") dead Americans. Furthermore, almost all Afghanis dying from winter privation have as little to do with The Taliban as American-Arabs, who  according to Newsweek magazine - are 43% Roman Catholic!?! (Interestingly, only 22% of American Arabs are practicing Islamics.) 

To argue that we are not targeting civilians, and that we are not deliberately risking "evil graver than the evil to be eliminated," is inexcusably naïve.

According to Bishop Gossman's own criteria, the war on Afghanistan is not a just war.

Rather, it is a growing debacle with ever fewer "serious prospects of success." 

One shrewd student of Arab affairs recently interviewed on NPR noted that bin Laden suffered his most serious setback when America did NOT respond with massive violence at the outset. According to this analyst, bin Ladin was counting on an immediate and extraordinary show of force, and harbored linchpin hopes the attack would polarize non-alligned Islamics into his camp. 

Similarly, Afghans were universally sympathetic with America's plight in the weeks following 9-11, but sympathies have shifted precipitously since bombing began.

Bishop Gossman cautions that "the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily" in deciding whether there can be a proportional response steadily focused on targeted elimination of evil.
Although recent events hint at a sort of slow-motion apocalypse, it is more important that we confront the obvious: Our determination to retaliate  -- like the word "re-taliate" itself -- is predicated on the Law of the Talion. An "eye for an eye" has been the fundamental justification for vengeful hostility since Abraham took possession of Canaan. Ironically, we recognize the deadly futility of escalating hatred between these two Abrahamic tribes, but cannot refrain from nurturing the same seedbed of reciprocal violence. 

Recent American military history is fraught with tragic outcome. From the World Court's condemnation of American involvement in Guatemala's perpetration of genocide, and the World Court's condemnation of the United States' Contra War for destroying Nicaragua's economy, through the nightmare of Viet Nam, the relative futility of Desert Storm, and the addlepatedness of expeditionary forces in Panama and Grenada, we are hard-pressed to recall "the good old days" when battlefields were occupied by gaily-dressed soldiers whose strictly circumscribed war-making was a theatrical event for civilian spectators picnicking on nearby ridges.

Increasingly, "Just War" is just another name for just war.


Alan Archibald