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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

#446: Do Muslims and Christians Worship The Same God?



 As Christians attempt to celebrate the sacred season of Christmas amid a sea of consumer excess, the last thing we need to see is conflict among ourselves.  So it was sad last week to see a Christian college punish a professor for quoting Pope Francis. 

Administrators at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical college, placed Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science, on administrative leave last Tuesday after she suggested that Christians and Muslims follow the same God. Her December 10 Facebook posting read: “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The college offered this rationale:

"Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent."

The Internet predictably exploded with sites asking “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” (google it!) The result is a flood of pseudo-academic gobbledygook detailing supposed differences between the “Christian God” and the “Muslim God.”

Many arrive at the same conclusion as Bryan Fischer, columnist for the American Family Association:

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The answer is an unequivocal and unambiguous "No." Muslims themselves will confirm this to you if you know the questions to ask.

  Some of these commentaries argue about words: the origin of “Allah” and “Yahweh” and “Jehovah,” for example.  Some argue about whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael.  Some argue that Allah is not a loving father, or that Allah has no son.  Some finally, detail many differences in Christian and Islamic beliefs. 

All of which provides ample evidence that Christianity and Islam are not the same religion.  We do not share the same faith, which is why interactions between us are called “inter-faith” events.  But all these things are beside the point. 

All these arguments, however distinct, make the same basic error.  It is called a “category mistake”:

A category mistake is an error in logic in which one category of something thing is presented as belonging to another category. For example, to say "the rock is alive" assigns the category of life to that which is not alive. Another example would be to say that an idea is the color blue. It mistakenly applies the category of color to a concept in the mind.


In short, the arguments above all waste our time by making the points that do not even apply to the question about the “same God.”

The category mistake here lies in thinking that talking about “the same God” is equivalent to talking about “the same concept of God” or “the same ideas of God”  or “beliefs about God” or even “names of God.”

These are all mistakes, because the question is not if we all believe the same things.  In fact the question is not about us (our ideas, concepts, beliefs, words) at all.  It is about God. It is not about our beliefs, but about the object of our beliefs. And as Saint Thomas wrote, the object of our faith is not an idea--it is a being, or even Being itself. 

Let me take an everyday example. I have three children.  Do they all acknowledge the same father?  Perhaps one thinks I am generous, another thinks I am wasteful, and a third thinks I am stingy.  They have very different ideas of me--but their ideas do not change me. I am still father to all three.  Do they all love the same father?  Perhaps one thinks she is my favorite child, another believes I have no favorites, and the third thinks I’m the best father in the world.  None of those things alters the main fact--I am still their father, and if they love their father then they all love me. 

My kids’ ideas may be right or wrong, of course.  But those ideas do not change who I am.  Different people’s ideas about God may also be right or wrong.  But they do not change God. 

So Muslims do not believe Allah has a son.  But then, Jews do not believe in the Son of God either.  Nor do Unitarians.  Nor did the 4th century Arians, who believed Jesus was only human.  Then there were the Docetists, who did not believe that God’s Son became human.  And the Jansenists, who believed that God’s grace destroyed our free will.  And the Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, who do not believe, as we do, that “the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.”

Are we to conclude that Jews, Unitarians, Arians, Docetists, Jansenists, and Othodox Christians all worship a different God?  Of course not.  That would make a mockery of Western monotheism, which began with the notion that the God of Abraham is the only God, that all others are frauds.  We may disagree with those others, or believe they are wrong in their beliefs.  We may even judge, as history does, that Arianism, Docetism, and Jansenism are heretical beliefs incompatible with true Christian faith.  But we cannot say they worship a different God.  We all share the same monotheism. 

By definition, monotheists acknowledge only one God.  If Jews worship a different God from Christians, then the God of Abraham cannot be God at all.  So why do we use their scriptures?  Why don’t we reject their God?  But of course, we do not--any more than Muslims reject our God. 

To repeat: the question is not whether we all believe all the same things about God.  The question is not about us at all.  The question is about God.  In short, the focus is not on our beliefs but on the object of our beliefs—and God is and remains the same God whether our beliefs are right or wrong. 

So how do we know we all worship the same God if our beliefs are so different?  The obvious way to consult our traditions. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.

--CCC 841, quoting the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 16, from Vatican Council II.

Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, 3, makes the teaching of the Council perhaps even clearer:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.

And here is what the Quran says:

We believe in God and what has been sent down to us, and what had been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their progeny, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and to all other prophets by the Lord. We make no distinction among them, and we submit to Him.-- Quran 136:2

If we compare these statements, it is clear beyond doubt that both Catholicism and Islam claim to worship the same God--the God of Abraham.  So we share the same God, but we do not share the same beliefs about God--which should be obvious, since we belong to different religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all live by different belief systems, including different beliefs about God.  But we all claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the one true God.  “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Trinity”--all these are different names for the same creator. 

This truth may threaten some Christians. Stating this truth may cost Larycia Hawkins her job.  But the reasons people use to deny this truth inevitably fall into that “category mistake” I explained above.  In fact, what they are really giving us are the reasons why Muslims are not Christians. 

Did anyone think they were?
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

#445: “Ad Multos Annnos !” for Francis —and for HIS Council

The traditional Latin birthday toast “Ad Multos Annos !” (to many years!) had double (or even triple) meaning the last two weeks.

Vatican Council II (1962-1965) finished its work on December 8, 1965.  Two weeks ago the 50th anniversary of that historic accomplishment passed quietly.  And last week the 79th anniversary of Pope Francis’ December 17 birth also passed without much notice.  For me, these two anniversaries are deeply connected. 
When Vatican II who opened in 1962, I was a 13 year old high school freshman--and for the next four years the Council shaped life at my Jesuit high school.  We prayed daily for the Council’s success.  We followed the Council’s progress through John Cogley’s New York Times coverage.  We learned the Council’s background and progress in history and religion classes.  We attended liturgies where the coming liturgical reforms were explained and demonstrated.  We held an annual open “Model Vatican II” complete with all of Vatican II’s working commissions (I always chose to join the “social communications” commission!).
Meanwhile, Jorge Bergoglio (today Pope Francis) was also a student, but in a Jesuit seminary.  For both of us, the Church we grew up in was changing before our eyes--and the Church we would work in would be a very different place. 
Even during the Council, I had shifted parish roles from altar boy to commentator and lector at Masses.  In college I often attended an 11 PM campus Mass where communal participation, folk-style music, and the English language contrasted sharply with the silence of pre-conciliar liturgies.  And when I graduated I chose to pursue theological studies, not as a seminarian, but at a secular university.  I would later decide against a fulltime academic career to pursue professional lay ministry in parishes--something unheard of before the Council.  Forty-plus years later I’m still doing parish work.
Meanwhile Bergoglio was ordained a Jesuit priest and followed the path that led to his election 2013 as the first Jesuit pope.
During our careers, we have both witnessed the euphoria and confusion that Vatican II’s reforms unleashed on Catholic life.  We saw the polarization that followed, as extremists campaigned either for the restoration of pre-conciliar Catholicism or for more radical reforms.  We watched as church officials diluted and blocked the Council’s historic momentum by reverting to the “business as usual” mode that is the M.O. of all bureaucrats.  We both feared that Pope John XXIII’s dream of a missionary Catholicism, actively engaged in modern life as a powerful evangelizing presence, would remain unfulfilled.
But as pope, Francis has seized the opportunity to retrieve John’s vision--and with it, the Council’s promise--with the simplest of strategies. By both his actions and words, he has bypassed 50 years of academic debate about the Council (a debate which unwittingly enabled the bureaucrats’ inertia) by focusing on one simple notion that was the keynote of John’s address on the very day that he opened the Council in October 1962:
We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations…the Catholic Church…desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her.
John’s keynote of “mercy” has become the current pope’s key to rescuing Catholic renewal from the bureaucrats. For Francis, in fact, “mercy” lies at the center of the Church’s mission:
Throughout history, some have been tempted to say that the Church is the Church of only the pure and perfectly consistent, and it expels all the rest.  This is not true!  This is heresy!  The Church, which is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject us because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her; she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness, and the forgiveness of the Father
In short, Francis has made “mercy” a password for retrieving and preserving Vatican II’s vast historical agenda.  This single password “mercy” has allowed him to communicate a simple message that hundreds of millions of people have heard.  He has made mercy the Church’s litmus test: If we are driven by mercy, we become the Church we are meant to me.  But if anything else other than mercy drives Catholic life, then the Church fails its mission. 
What could be simpler?  And this simplicity has not only made Francis the planet’s most popular leader--it has has also rescued Vatican II from the very edge of history’s dustbin. This old man has brought the Council back to life. In a word, 50 years after the event, Pope Francis has now made Vatican II HIS Council! As he himself said, in language implying a critique of the bureaucrats:
Our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.
 For me, that “something” has also meant rescuing my own career from the grim prospect of futility.  No one wants to devote an entire life’s work to a losing cause, only to find that one’s finish line is worse than the starting point.  Before Francis, I feared the real probability that Catholic life would be worse when I finish my work than it was when I began in 1972.  Francis has restored the real possibility that John XXIII’s vision of a merciful Church will finally take root in Catholic hearts.
But birthdays reflect the march of time.  Francis and I share the same December 17 birthday, and neither of us has much time left—he even less than I.  We hear increasing stories that his enemies plan to undo his work once he exits the world stage.  We can only hope that Francis has enough birthdays left to make his rescue mission irreversible.
So now that Francis has made the Council his Council, we have more reason than ever to wish him not only “Happy Birthday” but also “Ad Multos Annos!”
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

#444: To Defeat Terror, We Must Fight Islamophobia

 Fearing or blaming Islam for terrorism only cultivates more terror.
As the mass murders pile up, more people are tempted to blame and fear Islam. We hear Ted Cruz proposing we accept Christian refugees but not Muslims and Donald Trump calling to ban even Muslim tourists. And a poll shows New Hampshire voters' paranoia: 53% of Trump supporters favor a "Muslim database," and 49% want to shut down mosques.
Others, like Catholic columnist George Weigel, are more subtly paranoid. Weigel claims that attacks in Paris and elsewhere target “crusader nations” regarded as enemies of the true religion, Islam.  Terrorists killed those who embody “the West,” he thinks--even though many attacks have been in Africa and Asia and Russia. Weigel says terrorists attack due to “religiously-warranted convictions”--as if Islam justifies such attacks.  He says they kill innocents whom they considered “infidels”--even though many victims (even in Paris) have themselves been Muslims.  He asked for prayers for “the ultimate defeat of the evil that he is Jihadist terrorism” by every legitimate means.
Meanwhile, Brown University’s Stephen Kinzer argues that “terrorism and mass migration are bitter results of outside meddling” by colonial and neo-colonial powers--and he predicts they will intensify.  “Interventions multiply our enemies,” he writes, since every act “produces anti-western passion” that can be radicalized into the “thirst for bloody revenge.” Killing such militants backfires: “killing creates more, not fewer” of them.  So retaliation by European and American forces hands the terrorists what they want: to trap us in the quicksands of the Middle East.
So who’s right?  Is Islam to blame, and we must use “every legitimate means” to kill all the “jihadist murderers”? Or is colonial history behind this, and we must find another solution?
Faced with this urgent question, I find myself doing what, by now, has become a regular habit: I consult the global moral wisdom of Pope Francis.  In his view, the real blame for much of the world’s mass violence is fundamentalism, which has become “a disease of all religions.” "Fundamentalism,” he says, “is always a tragedy. It is not religious, it lacks God, it is idolatrous."
Let’s assume Francis is right--he usually is!  Then we must ask: what does this mean?  What is the connection between fundamentalism and terror?
Karen Armstrong’s landmark book The Battle For God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam supplies a clear and practical answer.  Based on her studies of fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Armstrong concludes that all fundamentalism follows a regular pattern that can lead to violence. Let me summarize:
Fear.  The pattern begins with discontent or fear.  Almost always it arises among people who live traditional lives and are confronted by “modernity.” This takes many forms: Christians who fears secular humanism, or the sexual revolution, or the theory of evolution; Jews alarmed by the growing Palestinian population in Israel--or even the growth of secular Jews; Muslims who fear the invasion of modern customs of dress, drinking, sexual openness, even feminism.  This fear creates a desire to escape or resist modernity.
Powerlessness.  Next comes a feeling of helplessness.  Such people want to avoid or resist modernity, but they feel its momentum is too powerful to stop.  Naturally, this feeling of powerlessness is strongest among the most desperate: people who are already poor, underprivileged, disadvantaged, or disenfranchised.  In other words, the initial fear of modernity is fueled by inequality.
“Tradition.”  Third, fundamentalism turns to “tradition” as a shield that can protect them from the overwhelming power of modernity.  Often, “tradition” means a specific religious tradition, although secular ideologies (white supremacy, neo-Nazism, etc.) are sometimes used. 
But using tradition as a shield faces an obstacle.  All "western"
religious traditions (including Islam) have a history of adapting to changing times--but fundamentalism needs a shield that is fixed, frozen in time.  This requires distorting the tradition, reshaping it into an immovable barrier against modernity.  Thus fundamentalist Christians insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis (a creation lasting seven 24-hour days) to reject the theory of evolution.  Fundamentalist Catholics pretend that priestly celibacy (and the lifelong virginity of Jesus) are absolute doctrines.  And fundamentalist Muslims twist “sharia” into an oppressive legal system and invoke “jihad” as a pretext for killing innocent people.
Violence. Left alone, fundamentalists may be content to survive sheltered behind the shield of their distorted tradition.  But   they may feel that modernity’s threat requires counterattack.  This can happen in two ways.  First, they may feel attacked from within their religion by those who reject the way they distort tradition.  Clearly, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all experience such internal conflicts.  Second, fundamentalists may feel attacked by outside forces representing modernity itself.  Thus the Russian invasion of Afghanistan brought “godless communism” to the fundamentalists’ doorstep.  And repeated intrusions by Western powers--especially the Western military presence in the sacred spaces of Saudi Arabia--threatened to pierce the shield across the Middle East.
Once they are thus cornered, fearful fundamentalists may then turn to violence.  It may be directed at Planned Parenthood (by Christians), at innocent concert-goers (by Muslims), or at Palestinian teens (by Jews).  And it finds a pretext for such violence by invoking “tradition”--even when those traditions do not, in reality, warrant such attacks.
Weaponizing religion.  The final stage comes when this newly violent version of the religious tradition is then wielded as propaganda to “inspire” other discontented people, who then become recruits to terrorism, even to suicidal violence.  Thus fundamentalism reveals itself as the “disease of all religions” whose cancerous expansion can finally metastasize into random outbreaks of terrorism whenever (1) people fear the culture around them and (2) can be converted to embracing the lie of “tradition as weapon.”
Since 9/11, we have learned that anything—a plane, shoes, underwear, a kitchen pot—can be weaponized. But perhaps the most powerful weapon comes when one mutilates faith into a form of hate.
Karen Armstrong’s convincing portrait of fundamentalism leads me to conclude that people like George Weigel have it backwards.  Terrorists are not actually motivated by their religious faith.  What moves them is their fear of the world around them, which breeds a desire for “revenge” so fierce that they hijack their own religion.  Islam does not justify terrorism, nor does it inspire terrorism.  Rather, some hate-and-fear-filled people exploit Islam as a handy “tool” they can use to rationalize the evil they do.  And this rationalization is not a “religious warrant” for terror—it is (like ANY rationalization) just an excuse. In short, Islam does not provoke terror; rather, those already committed to terror invoke Islam since it suits their purpose.
Thus the terrorists are not dangerous because they are Muslim.  They are dangerous because, since they’re so filled with hate, they reject Islam’s peaceful message and will use anything, even their own religion, as a weapon against those they hate. 
The truth is that almost all of us find that “modernity” is difficult at times.  The modern world is full of rapid change, diversity, even conflicts.  Few of us embrace these easily and naturally.  But most of us cope with the challenges of modern life and carry on.  For others, the challenges prove too much.  And whether the result is emotional disorder that leads to violent behavior, or even blind hatred that twists faith into lethal form, we must remember that they’re reacting against something that makes them afraid, helpless, and irrational.  Until we develop the means to eliminate that fear, that helplessness, and that irrationality, modernity will continue to inspire dangerous reactions. 
If we attack or blame their religion, we merely make modernity (which now “rejects” their faith) even more threatening to others who may be vulnerable to the terrorists’ propaganda. THEY may claim the battle is about “Islam vs. the West"—but we must not accept their version of events. We must not help them do their job. To defeat them, we must fight against their demonization of Islam.
The cancer of terror has reached the point where it seems out of control.  It is too late to undo the history that unleashed terror, but it is not too late to help terrorism’s potential recruits—the disenfranchised, disillusioned youth of the Middle East, Europe, and America--learn constructive ways to cope with the challenges of modern life. 
Of course, this would require, not military force, but a solution to the vast inequalities that leave millions afraid, powerless, and desperate.  And so far, we have been much better at producing guns than good will. Can we change?
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#443: Can We Get From Paris to Peace?


The Paris attacks leave my head and heart full of jumbled thoughts and feelings.
Philippe and Marie-Paule were parked at the curb when I exited the Oberkampf Metro station into the cool November evening.  They had agreed to meet me for dinner at a small place I’d been wanting to try on the edge of Paris’ 10th and 11th arrondissements. 

We spent half an hour window shopping in the Place de la République (Marie-Paule was after shoes, and Philippe could always use another of his trademark garish ties).  Then we strolled up the Rue des 3 Bornes to the tiny triangle-shaped Place de la Fontaine Timbaud, with its modest green fountain--one of nearly 80 “Wallace Fountains” sprinkled across the city, named after the English philanthropist Richard Wallace, who financed their construction. They feature 4 sculpted female figures symbolizing “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety.”
La Place de la Fontaine Timbaud (fountain at left)
We took a window table facing the fountain and spent the next two hours relaxing into the rituals of French dining: three leisurely courses, with intervals long enough to enjoy the company, the venue, the conversation--and the wine.  It was a Friday evening, so we were in no rush.

The service was good, the food was decent, we loved the dessert (a very intense molten chocolate cake), and we were particularly pleased by the wine policy: after we left our second bottle of wine half-finished, our waiter took it back to the kitchen, measured the remainder--and billed us only for what we had drunk! 

It was a perfect way to start the weekend, and we gave no thought to our own safety. It was November 2008. 

But when news of last week’s Paris attacks broke, I checked the map and found what I suspected: that cool November Friday evening we were sitting 1000 feet north of the Bataclan Theater.  And the next street up from our table was the Rue de La Fontaine au Roi, where 5 diners  were killed at the Cosa Nostra pizzeria.

 Just 2 ½ blocks further west, two more restaurants (le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon) were attacked, killing 15 more diners.  In other words, we sat that quiet night almost exactly half way along a line that this week connected four of the six attack sites.  All are within ½ mile of each other, and none is more than ¼ mile from our seats. 


I guess I feel like the homeowner who returns home to discover the house has been ransacked by burglars:  I  was not there at the time of the attacks (even though I had expected to make a November visit), so I am glad to be safe--but I nonetheless feel invaded and even violated.  And I would feel this way even if no one had been killed, which of course is the principle tragedy of this event. 

In this I am like many people (including non-Parisians), who are sad for the city itself as well as for the victims. Many of us share this emotional attachment, as if Paris were a second home, and as if we, so far away and safe, nonetheless feel invaded, even violated. We feel the urge to rush "home" and embrace the wounded city and those we love there.


Canal Saint-Martin
I am especially fond of this neighborhood, just outside the Place de la République, a traditionally working class neighborhood, where my best Paris friend Philippe grew up. But it is only one block from the Canal Saint-Martin, which in recent years it has become gentrified, especially for younger Parisians attracted to its many nightspots. It also borders Belleville, which has a large Arab population.

On the hill just above those four attack sites is the Parc de Belleville. On a warm weekend day the park is full of young people smoking hookahs.
Parc de Belleville
 Strolling down the stairs through the park’s lower end, one sees clusters of Arab women in long robes and head-veils, gathered together on park benches. Five minutes further down the slope are the men, standing near the Couronnes subway stop, wearing head caps and speaking Arabic.


Signs of Arab culture are everywhere. Couscous bistros and Middle-East groceries. Travel agents offering packages to Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Kids sporting soccer jerseys for North African and Mediterranean teams. A woman crossing the street in full-length black veil, even her face covered, holding hands with a man in white head-cap, full white robe, and basketball shoes. An Algerian pastry shop with 60 varieties of tiny pastries displayed under a glass counter. A teen-age girl wearing a full-length lavender robe over jeans, a white baseball cap, and cellular earphone. Muslim bookstores featuring religious education materials for all age groups. Tea parlors with chairs lined up with men sipping tea and smoking tall water-filled hookahs. A shop selling “Ready-to-Wear” robes and veils.

One day I noticed saw a butcher standing in his shop doorway, next to a poster advertising the “21st annual meeting of French Muslims,” sponsored by the National Union of Islamic Organizations. I noticed the conference title was written in both French and Arabic: “What is the Place for Freedom of Religion in Today’s Society?” I also noticed the conference dates had already passed.

So I introduced myself and, pleading a journalist’s interest, asked the butcher if I might have the poster. He immediately pulled it down for me, chatted amiably about the issue for a few minutes, then apologized when a voice called from within the shop.”Excuse me he said, “I must get back to my meat.”

Many "mainstream" Parisians do not even know this area, and tourists seldom see it.  Once I used a Belleville anecdote during a Parisian parish workshop. Listeners reacted with surprise: Belleville was a place they would never go.

Thus this part of Paris is a kind of symbolic venue for Euro-Arab relations.  The attacks straddled the fault line between two Paris populations, and offered a tempting, simple-minded model for the myth about terrorism that is embraced by both the terrorists themselves and many westerners on the far right.  Both agree: this is a “clash of civilizations” which requires “boots on the ground.”

This view of terror—“Islam vs. the West”—depends, of course, on ignoring the facts. 

It ignores all the Muslim victims killed last Friday. It ignores last week’s attacks in Kenya and Beirut. It ignores how much of terror does not target the west.

It depends on focusing on Paris, while ignoring Muslim on Muslim terror in Iraq, Syria, and Africa.  

One example of such ignoring: The same week when 17 Parisians were killed at Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram murdered up to 2,000 civilians in Baga, Nigeria, and a few a days later  used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people.  Those tragedies commanded much less attention—as if western lives matter more. Are we surprised if the southern hemisphere concludes that we care less about their lives?  Do we really believe that sending that message helps us fight such violence?

Such a simplistic view (“Islam vs. the West”) also ignores the fact that modern terrorism is not recent at all.  It dates at least from my student days in Paris, when “the troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday accords. It ignores the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof and Munich Olympic attackers in the 1970s, the death squads in El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the bombers of New York (1993), and Paris (1995 and 1996), the sarin gas attacks in Japan, the Madrid bombings of 2004, U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, bombings in Bali and Mumbai, Boko Haram abductions and massacres, etc. In fact, terrorism as we know it probably dates from WWII, and has been a global problem without a solution for nearly 80 years.

Such ignorance brings bliss—specifically, in the appealing and powerful idea that we can wage and win a “war on terror.”  But if we wage war, can it lead to peace?

My long-time view is that the very idea of a “war on terror” leading to peace is a fraud. In 2003, Pope John-Paul II and virtually all the world's bishops (among others) predicted that the US invasion of Iraq would destabilize the entire region and worse. Indeed, the invasion killed 200,000, mostly civilians, created 2+ million refugees, and spawned a fanatical counter-attack—ISIS, led by Saddam's former subordinates—that is worse than Al Qaeda . Why are we shocked?

The brutal fact is that human history reveals an unending supply of people willing to employ evil tactics--even to kill the innocent--to gain their goals.  One cannot end terrorism by killing all the terrorists, because one cannot uproot from human nature its potential for evil. The “last terrorist” does not exist.

For me, the key notion is that terrorism IS a “counter-attack"--so we should start with the question: "WHY is there a counter-attack against us?" After all, solutions will eludes us as long as we insist on missing the point of that question (which is why all solutions attempted since 9/11 have only made things worse).

Nearly all terror attacks of the last century reflect the attackers’ resentment for perceived injustice.  That resentment has nearly always been fueled by poverty.  Arguably, terrorism and poverty go hand in hand: the more poverty, the more terrorism--and the less poverty, the less terror.

This premise cries out for urgent consideration.  For it implies that the trillions we spend on military invasions are futile--and worse, they preclude our chance to spend such resources on reducing poverty.  If the links between terror attacks and poverty are compelling--and I believe they are (just look at profiles of suicide bombers)--then attacking poverty becomes our number one weapon, our number one hope, against terrorism.

Pope Francis has gone even further, connecting the dots that link terrorism to all aspects of our current global crisis. He links climate change to excessive carbon emissions to a consumption-obsessed society that generates massive global inequality, which in turn breeds massive resentment that is fertile soil for recruiting terrorists.  In this view, the current global system is neither physically nor politically sustainable.  Physically, the earth has insufficient resources for the whole world to duplicate the wealthy nations’ lifestyle.  Politically, global inequality is a recipe for permanent conflict—the ongoing piecemeal violence that Francis has called “World War III.”

I think he is right.  I think terrorism reflects a global dysfunction we must face, or peace will never be possible.

And as I pray for the victims of the Paris attacks, I pray too for our leaders to stop ignoring the facts, to face reality as it is, and to lead us on a path where “Kindness, Simplicity, Charity and Sobriety” can prevail.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015