Recently, the world marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. This has led to a lot of commentary on America’s response to those attacks and how that response has impacted the past decade. Most of the mainstream commentaries have agreed that we had to respond militarily to those attacks in some way, to get back at those who did this to us. But Robert found one commentary in the New York Times that was so fresh and radical that he said, “How did they allow this guy to say this in print?”
NYT blogger Simon Critchley asks: What would Jesus have had us do in response to those attacks? Would he not have called us to respond with forgiveness? What would have happened if we had chosen forgiveness? Great questions, especially for students of A Course in Miracles.
Critchley begins by noting the famous adage attributed to Confucius, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Responding to an attack with revenge not only is questionable morally, but it sets into motion a cycle of revenge in which no one is safe:
If you hit me, I will hit you back. Furthermore, by the logic of revenge, I am right to hit you back. The initial wrong justifies the act of revenge. But does that wrong really make it right for me to hit back? Once we act out of revenge, don’t we become mired in a cycle of violence and counterviolence with no apparent end? Such is arguably our current predicament.
Of course, each party in this cycle claims that the other guy started it. But how can we really know who started it? In the case of 9/11, in the eyes of the United States government, Osama bin Laden started it with the 9/11 attacks. But in bin Laden’s eyes, the United States started it with military attacks on Muslim lands (such as the first Gulf War).
Of course, this chain of blame goes back even further, at least back to the Crusades. The point is that everyone feels justified in his attacks on the other — the other attacked first! And thus everyone is mired in a game of attack and counterattack, a brutal game that is never-ending. This is an all-too-accurate description of the past ten years, is it not?
In this cycle, everyone is destroyed. Bin Laden, of course, is dead at the hands of the American military. And the United States is now in the grip of fear, mired in two bloody wars, and in the throes of an economic crisis that is exacerbated by those wars. Ironically, a costly counterattack by the United States was exactly what bin Laden wanted. In one of his many video messages, bin Laden noted how much money the United States was spending in its interminable Middle East wars, and said, “This shows the success of our plan to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy, with God’s will.”
But what if we had chosen to respond differently? Critchley recalls George W. Bush’s campaign statement that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher, and asks the obvious question: If that is so, then how would Jesus have had us respond to the 9/11 attacks? For Critchley, the answer is obvious: He would have counseled turning the other cheek. He would have called us to forgive “seventy times seven” times, as he counseled the disciples. He would have had us respond to attack with forgiving love.
Critchley then asks some potent questions.
What if the United States had built upon the world’s love and compassion after the attacks by choosing to respond with love and compassion for the attackers?
What if nothing had happened after 9/11? No revenge, no retribution, no failed surgical strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no poorly planned bloody fiasco in Iraq, no surges and no insurgencies to surge against; nothing.
What if the government had simply decided to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sought to attack it, not seven times, but seventy times seven? What if the grief and mourning that followed 9/11 were allowed to foster a nonviolent ethics of compassion rather than a violent politics of revenge and retribution?
What if the crime of the Sept. 11 attacks had led not to an unending war on terror, but the cultivation of a practice of peace — a difficult, fraught and ever-compromised endeavor, but perhaps worth the attempt?
What happened instead, of course, was “acts of revenge that have bankrupted this country, both financially and spiritually.” How has this worked? Ten years later, do we really feel safer? Can the cycle of revenge ever lead to anything but more terror, more violence, more death?
A Course in Miracles, needless to say, fully endorses Critchley’s radical stance. It notes, as he does, the insanity of the cycle of revenge, a cycle that keeps everyone in the prison of terror:
The world gives rise but to defensiveness. For threat brings anger, anger makes attack seem reasonable, honestly provoked, and righteous in the name of self-defense….
It is as if a circle held [the mind] fast, wherein another circle bound it and another one in that, until escape no longer can be hoped for nor obtained. Attack, defense; defense, attack, become the circles of the hours and the days that bind the mind in heavy bands of steel with iron overlaid, returning but to start again. There seems to be no break nor ending in the ever-tightening grip of the imprisonment upon the mind.
Defenses are the costliest of all the prices which the ego would exact. In them lies madness in a form so grim that hope of sanity seems but to be an idle dream, beyond the possible. The sense of threat the world encourages is so much deeper, and so far beyond the frenzy and intensity of which you can conceive, that you have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought.
You are its slave. You know not what you do in fear of it. (W-pI.153.2:1-2, 3:1-5:2)
This passage, of course, describes life in this world at all times and all places, at least for those mired in the ego. But it seems like an especially insightful description of the post-9/11 years in the United States, years in which our “war on terror” has brought nothing but more terror to us and everyone else it has touched. Indeed, we “have no idea of all the devastation it has wrought.”
What would the Jesus of the Course have had us do? His alternative is the same response advocated by the historical Jesus two thousand years ago: forgiveness. “Anger is never justified. Attack has no foundation” (T-30.VI.1:1-2). We think we have a right to revenge because those attackers really harmed us. But in truth, those who appeared to attack us are innocent Sons of God who attacked us only in a dream, and therefore did no real harm. Because this is so:
Pardon is always justified. It has a sure foundation. You do not forgive the unforgivable, nor overlook a real attack that calls for punishment. Salvation does not lie in being asked to make unnatural responses which are inappropriate to what is real. Instead, it merely asks that you respond appropriately to what is not real by not perceiving what has not occurred. If pardon were unjustified, you would be asked to sacrifice your rights when you return forgiveness for attack. But you are merely asked to see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help. Forgiveness is the only sane response. It keeps your rights from being sacrificed. (T-30.VI.2:1-9)
“Forgiveness is the only sane response.” It is the only response that is in accord with the truth that we are all children of a loving God, eternal and invulnerable spiritual beings who deserve only love. It is the only way to undo the cycle of revenge that keeps us all in an imaginary prison of terror. It is the only way to relieve the distress of those who are in error and calling for help. It is the only way to honor the right to love that everyone shares.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what would have happened if we had chosen this response. And it is reasonable to ask how a forgiving response translates into the world of form. How could we have responded differently on a form level to these horrific acts of fundamentalist Muslim suicide terrorists? How could we have responded differently to the attacks of 9/11?
My honest answer is that I do not know for sure. But at the very least, it seems to me, we could have responded to that call for help in some truly helpful way. Perhaps we could have responded by compassionately addressing the legitimate needs of people in Muslim lands. Though of course terrorism is the wrong way to bring those needs to light, addressing them is the right thing to do anyway, and doing so may have generated so much goodwill toward the United States in the Muslim world that the terrorists would have lost the public support they need to carry out their attacks.
But that is just one idea that comes to my mind. I think the most important thing we could have done then and can still do now is hold the content of forgiveness in our minds; as Critchley says, forgiveness with an “infinite quality.” What would happen if enough of us really cultivated this infinite forgiveness? If the Course is right, then this decision to forgive would open our minds to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and He would tell us how to express that forgiveness in the world of form. So our job is to cultivate that attitude of forgiveness in our minds — for those of us who are Course students, we have the Course’s own exercises to help with this — and trust that the Holy Spirit will show us how to express it on a form level.
Some may say this is pie-in-the-sky idealism. But really, what do we have to lose? In the past ten years, it has become more and more clear to me that combating violence with more violence is not only contrary to God’s ethic of love, but is a complete failure on a practical, worldly level. I’ve seen this not only in the US government’s response to 9/11, but in the Mexican government’s violent response to the drug cartels in Mexico, where I’m now living. Attack simply doesn’t work, on any level. It only increases fear, violence, and death. So, the choice between a violent response and a loving one isn’t a choice between a practical response that has worked and an idealistic response that can never work. Rather, it is a choice between a response that has always failed and a response that few people have ever tried.
So, to paraphrase John Lennon, all I am saying is give forgiveness a chance. Critchley ends by saying, “Perhaps the second grave is ours. We dug it ourselves. The question now is: do we have to lie in it?” Do we? Or could we do what Jesus would have us do and rise from that grave to everlasting life?
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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