Last week in New York City, while terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and thousands of innocent lives, Volf was only a few blocks away, speaking at the Annual International Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations on the importance of reconciling with our enemies. A week later, Christianity Today senior news writer Tony Carnes spoke to him about terrorism and forgiveness.
When did you discover that the World Trade Center had been attacked?
After my talk, as I was leaving the United Nations building. Some of the U.N. personnel informed us that there had been a major terrorist attack. As I walked out to Grand Central Station, I could see a large clowd of dust in the distance.
Were you afraid?
I felt very strange. I had been inside talking about reconciliation with our enemies at the same time that a terrorist attack was taking place and the World Trade Center towers were collapsing. You have to understand: I come from a country that suffered comparatively much greater damage—where one third of the land was captured and whole cities were leveled. Just one town, Vukovar, nearby my own home city was completely destroyed, and 30,000 people were either killed or driven out. We had about a million refugees out of a population of 4.5 million. Still, I was horrified and shocked by what happened here.
To see New York deserted and its people flocking out of lower Manhattan, like a stream of refugees, was jarring. You could see the fear and shock in people's eyes. Some were trying to make phone calls and could not. There was a huge sense of gloom and danger. I felt trapped. When I arrived at Grand Central Station, my train was not going. I had to wait about four hours before catching the train back to New Haven.
As many as 5,000 people may have been killed as a result of the attack on the World Trade Center. Does this kind of atrocity cause you to second guess your ideas about reconciliation with one's enemies?
One of the points in my talk at the U.N. was that we, as Christians, must develop a will to embrace and be reconciled with our enemy. This will to embrace is absolutely unconditional. There is no imaginable deed that should take a person outside our will to embrace him, because there is no imaginable deed that can take a person out of God's will to embrace humanity—which is what I think is inscribed in big letters in the narrative of the Cross of Christ.
A tragedy like last week's comes close to the sort of offense that one could imagine would put its perpetrators beyond our will to embrace them, but it does not. And it does not simply because Christ already died for all of us.
But reconciliation is the last thing on the minds of most Americans—including Christians. We are angry.
The first thought on many of our minds was that such vicious acts demand revenge. When I realized what happened, I felt a sense of shock and grief for the loss of life and the major disruption that had taken place. But then I felt we needed to go after them, that they needed to pay.
Is it wrong to feel that way?
On one level, there will be a gut reaction—a sense of rage. Rage is natural first response. It is also an appropriate response if we do it before the God of infinite love and justice. It is how I read the imprecatory Psalms, like Psalm 137, which pronounce blessing on those who size and dash the Babylonian little ones against the rock. Those words may sound vengeful. But what is significant is that, this being a ritual prayer, is giving his anger over to God. In the same way, we need to bring our rage before God and the Cross of Christ.
Ultimately, however, we cannot leave it at the gut reaction. There must be a Christian response. And as Christians, the will to embrace and forgive our enemy must be unconditional. How do we respond as Christians, not simply as human beings or as patriots who have legitimate feelings of being aggrieved and assaulted? This is the important question. And the answer lies in reconciliation.
What about justice?
Divine grace does not preclude justice being done. The naming of the deeds as evil and the protection of those who are innocent is extraordinarily important. But none of these things means we should not also seek to forgive the offender and reconcile with the offender. We can never close the door to reconciliation and all our actions must be directed toward the goal of reconciliation. Just reconciliation, of course, because justice is an integral part of reconciliation.
What if the other party—your enemy—sees you as a cancer on the world, as many Muslim extremists view Americans?
The perspective of the other person may not be the correct one and probably is a profoundly skewed one. Enmity, especially strong enmity, has the effect of skewing perspectives on others. However, there might be questions of justice between nations that are at stake here too. We would do well to use this occasion as a nation to ask, "What would cause a person or group of individuals to see us in a way you describe and commit such an act?" Many people from outside this nation, rightly or wrongly, think of the U.S. as this huge giant with economic and military prowess that steps on the toes of smaller nations. That perspective is on the whole not correct, but some of it may be true.
For any victim, particularly us Americans, it is difficult to see ourselves through the eyes of our offender. But for any victim it is the most salutary thing to do. Why was I perceived this way? Why did they act toward me in this way? This in no way justifies the hatred of their behavior toward us—especially when thousands of innocent people are killed—but the sheer exercise of examining our own actions and attitudes can be fruitful, and is indeed essential if we are to reconcile and live in peace with justice.
President Bush has suggested that bringing Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders to justice may require killing them. Would that be just?
We have to protect ourselves from the possibility of such an event happening again. That's an easier prospect when the evildoer can be caught and in some sense restrained. But religious terrorism and suicide bombings are not like other crimes. If you are certain they would repeat the act, trying to stop them and in the process possibly kill them may be required. I think it would be analogous to the situation with Hitler's Germany. I have always felt that Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who attempted an assassination of Hitler, had the right perspective on such acts. Bonhoeffer was convinced that he was doing the right thing—even though doing the right thing entailed doing the wrong thing. He was doing a right thing for which he felt he had to repent. He was doing the right wrong thing. Taking a life is always the wrong thing. The choice Bonhoeffer had was doing the lesser of the evils. However, the fact that one has to do evil and chooses the lesser one doesn't mean it becomes not evil. He must still repent of his sin. The self-righteousness with which we go after those who have assaulted us and the absence of any sense that we ourselves are implicated in their act is to me deeply troubling.
Do you agree with the rhetoric of war that has been applied to this event?
There has been much talk about "hunting down" and "punishing" the terrorists. That is very dangerous language. Animals are hunted down. That language serves to take the perpetrators out of the very community of our species—"They are the barbarians and animals, and we are the good and decent ones." I agree that we must work to find out who did it and, in a carefully qualified sense, bring those people to justice. But we shouldn't speak in a way that debases their humanity. That kind of language seems to put the perpetrator beyond redemption.
How can there be a genuine reconciliation between terrorist and victim when both are dead? And how can there be an embrace when we don't know who did this?
Christians believe that there will be a Judgment Day at the end. And it is my belief that on that day justice will be done and there will be a reconciliation between those who have profoundly injured one another takes place. My Yale colleague Professor Carlos Eire sometimes visits his relatives in a small community of Cuban immigrants near Chicago. Not long ago, a pious Catholic woman there asked him, "Is it possible for Fidel Castro to be in heaven?" Professor Eire told her that the Christian faith teaches that nobody is beyond the pale of redemption. It is possible for Castro to end up in heaven. There was dead silence. Then she said, "Well, I wouldn't want to be in heaven. I can't imagine a heaven in which I would live with Fidel Castro." This woman could not fathom the scandalous truth that no one—not even our mortal enemies—is beyond divine grace.
Many events in this world remain hidden in deep obscurity. We don't know who all the perpetrators of this evil act are. We don't know exactly how to seek real justice. That is why there will be a Last Judgment. Generally when people talk of Last Judgment, they say it is a horrible day. But the final judgment is good news, certainly good news to the victims, and also good news to the perpetrators, since the judgment will be rendered not only by a just Judge who sees and knows all things but by the judge who has given his life for the salvation of the world. Christ who died on the cross is the same Christ who will sit on the judgment seat and who is going to render the judgment, judgment of justice and of grace. He is the reason why forgiveness and reconciliation are possible.
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See today's related transcript of Volf's September 11 speech given during the attacks on New York City.
To read Volf's vita and publications, visit the Yale Divinity School site.
Volf's Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliationis available from ChristianBook.com.
Previous Christianity Todayarticles by and about Volf include:
Love Your Heavenly Enemy | How are we going to live eternally with those we can't stand now? (Oct. 23, 2000)
Peace Be With You | Looking beyond naivete and cynicism about peacemaking at Wheaton's Christianity and Violence conference. (March 20, 2000)
Miroslav Volf: Speaking truth to the world | (Feb. 8, 1999)