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After September 11, 2001: What Should We, as Catholics, Do? Patriotism and Pacifism

Fr. Baxter is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a Catholic Worker.

In 1917, Senator Hiram Johnson said that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” Given that the attacks last week on New York and Washington have been widely described as acts of war, and seem to have catapulted this nation toward fighting a war,
it is surely incumbent upon us to track the fate of this potential first casualty: truth.

One way to do so is to track the use and misuse of words. “War” is one such word. There are others: words such as “terrorism,” “cowardice,” “extremist,” “religion,” “freedom,” “civilization.” The words in which I am most interested these days are the words “us,” “our,” and “we.” Why did they do that to “us”? How did they breach “our” security systems? What is it that “we” should do in response? In these sentences, what is the subject? Who is the “we”? The answer is that it is “we Americans.”

Most of the time, I claim the identity of “American” with serious reservations. In times like these I resist it, in whatever way it can be resisted.

My reservations about using the word “we” (and related first-person pronouns) in conjunction with the word “American” is due to the fact that this usage bespeaks a kind of collective purpose, a shared project, a community that is, I would argue, a fiction. The argument here is complex, but the theoretical core of it is, briefly, that genuine political com-munity is not possible in the United States due to the absence of a shared understanding of the good life-an understanding that must be rooted in a substantive account of the purpose of life, and, ultimately, of the Author of life: God.

My resistance to the usage “we Americans” comes from my conviction that in times like these it is important for Christians to identify themselves first and foremost as Christians, coupled with the fact that all too often in times such as these Christians fail to do so. This rejection of Christian identity on the part of Christians rarely occurs overtly or explicitly. Rather, Christian identity is simply merged into American identity, as if they are perfectly harmonious, as if there is absolutely no conflict between them. And thus Christianity gets subordinated to the aims and purposes of the state.

This is true not only of Christians. In times of crisis, of emergency, of declared or undeclared war, virtually all segments of society get subordinated to the aims and purposes of the state. On this score, it is helpful to recall an essay published by Randolph Bourne in the midst of World War I, called simply “The State” (see War and the Intellectuals, 1915-1919 [New York: Harper and Row, 1964]). Bourne observes that once war is declared, every facet, or nearly every facet, of society is organized in service to the war effort. All the old national symbols are dusted off and brought out. The old patriotic songs are heard once again. This is not done by executive order or Congressional decree. It is done willingly, by each of these segments of society, by the press, by the churches, by schools, all of which strive to be part of the collective whole, of the herd, resulting in a social monolith motivated by what Bourne calls “state-feeling,” a kind of mythology featuring words like freedom, justice, the American spirit.

Over the past nine days, we can see this dynamic taking hold here at Notre Dame.
Flags are virtually everywhere: dorms draped in Old Glory; the lunch tables in Decio Hall donned with centerpieces featuring little flags; red, white and blue ribbons pinned to Prayers of St. Francis and distributed at the Center for Social Concerns. The Notre Dame Web page presents images of the stars and stripes as evidence of patriotic unity on campus. I could go on. This proclivity toward nationalism at Notre Dame goes back to World War I days when the University trained hundreds of students for military service, which included target practice on the walkway from Corby Hall to Old College in preparation for European trench warfare. It goes back to World War II as well, when hundreds of students training for the military regularly attended formation exercises on the South Quad. Similar displays were evident during the Vietnam War (though this was complemented, fortunately, with a vibrant and vocal peace movement on campus) and Gulf War (when, unfortunately, the peace movement was muted or, better, drowned out). It seems that the University’s proclivity toward nationalism during wartime will be part of the near future as well. The football game this Saturday promises to provide a full display of critical U.S. nationalism, a prospect that I find disheartening and chilling. The University, under the leadership of the administration, will be partaking in what is a nationwide crusade in the making.

We should take note of a certain kind of extremism that has emerged among Christians, an extremism that is willing to kill, not for God, but for the nation-state. In this context, I welcome the work and words of colleagues such as David Cortwright, who counseled caution on National Public Radio yesterday; George Lopez, who also counsels caution in an article distributed this past week; and Daniel Lindley, of the Department of Government, who, speaking in a similar gathering a week ago and approaching matters from a traditional political realist perspective, came close to offering this advice: “do nothing.” I think this is good advice. For forty days, the traditional period of penance, the United States should do nothing; tighten up airport security, continue investigating the bombings, but other than that, nothing. This interval would provide the space for a more sober-minded analysis of what is happening in the world than what we have seen thus far.

I would like to reflect on another comment made by Daniel Lindley last week. He argued that one way to prevail in this struggle against Muslim extremism would be for colleges and universities in the United States to host more Muslim students, and in this way instill in them the values of democracy and freedom. This would defeat extremism because, as he put it, “the American Way of Life is subversive.” This, it seems to me, is exactly right. The American Way of Life is subversive. It is subversive not only of Muslim extremism, but also of more traditional forms of Islam. And also of traditional forms of Christianity.

In this latter case, the way this subversion works is that the teaching and example of Jesus is rendered irrelevant to the crisis at hand. “Love your enemies.” “Do good to those who persecute you.” “Bless those who curse you.” These words are regarded as unrealizable ideals, nice thoughts but useless to the exigencies of the state. And most remarkably of all, it is Christians who are among the forceful in declaring the Gospel to be irrelevant.

The problem of religion and violence is often depicted as a problem of extremism. People taking religion too seriously. But I submit that the problem, when it comes to Christians, is not taking religious seriously enough. Not taking Jesus seriously enough. If we–and here I mean “we Christians at Notre Dame”–were to take Jesus’ teaching and example with utter seriousness, we would, in addition to hosting students from the Arab and Muslim world, send our students in greater numbers to the Arab and Muslim world. There they would perhaps learn more about the deleterious effects of the American Way of Life in that part of the world; perhaps they would decide to unlearn certain aspects of it; perhaps they would even decide to learn anew certain aspects of the Christian way of life, such as Jesus’ command to Peter, and us, to put away the sword. If this were to happen, then we Christians would be able reach out to Arabs and Muslims with the reassurance that, in spite of our differences, we will not kill you.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXI, No. 6, November 2001.