Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World by David Carlson brings an original perspective to the discussion of terrorism, especially for thinking Christians. As someone who spent several decades in personal peacemaking and conflict resolution, the title caught my eye, although the subtitle clearly indicates something unique. Being neither Catholic nor Orthodox, I tend to know little about monasticism, probably too little to have a knowledgeable opinion, at least not until I read Carlson’s book. However, I know something about Biblical peacemaking, though not necessarily of the typical anti-war variety.
The 10 years since the 9/11 attacks have passed quickly; Presidents have changed, no further attacks have occurred, as yet, and our soldiers still fight in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was finally found and killed, as have been many other radical terrorist leaders; American soldiers have died, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have also suffered injury and death. Opinions on the United States’ response to 9/11 vary in the extreme, and the views and sympathies of Christians vary just as extremely.
As someone who attempts to anchor his views in Scripture, I found Carlson’s lack of reference to the Bible a serious weakness. Furthermore, Carlson and his monastic sources have a quite mystical view of the Christian faith; he seems to accept the “contemplative” aspects of all religions as equally valid. I have found similar thoughts in other writings on peace, so that such was not a complete surprise nor did it disturb me that much. However, I do hold to the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth, the life” and the only way to God and heaven. In this, I not only express a high confidence in the truth of the Gospel, but I believe it also means the “the Way” is the only way that will work, being the only one promised the direct, influential power of God.
The foundational research for the book was a series of interviews at monasteries across the country. Carlson talked to monks, several nuns, and one pottery artist, beginning with their recollection of 9/11 and then their opinions regarding the American response. In the process, Carlson discusses the monastic calling and life with a great deal of admiration. I won’t attempt to summarize or critic his views on monasticism, other than to say I don’t generally share them. I will note, however, than the criticism that such men and women have withdrawn from community life and are thereby avoiding their society obligations is neither true nor fair. In our day of so much technology, withdrawal from life is more likely through cell phones, social networking, and computer games and perhaps even more extreme.
With those concerns noted, I did find some thought-provoking ideas in Peace Be With You. No matter who the enemy may be, we Christians should know, absolutely, that victory is not a matter of weapons and killing alone. History readily proves that military victory only sets the stage for the next conflict, unless the basis for conflict is addressed constructively. One of the notable accomplishments after WWII was how the United States turned enemies into friends and allies in both Japan and Germany. I believe the Christian values that pervaded American life had something to do with that. The question implied by Carlson is whether we can accomplish that kind of victory without fighting a war.
I also agree that war and even personal conflict often become the excuse to distinguish us, the good guys, from them, the bad guys. Once the enemy is thus defined, even Christians find it easier to deny them what God has called us to give—love. “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “love your enemy” are both clear commands by our Savior. The Great Commandment clearly stands at the top of Jesus’ list of divine expectations so that no other theological position or attempt at a Bible-based excuse entitles believers to hate even those who express their hatred of us, not even Islamic terrorists or their leaders.
However, I believe Carlson makes a mistake people often make in identifying the obligations of Christians with those of this nation, where Christians are only a fraction of its citizens. Indeed, as the influence of Christianity wanes in the U. S., the notion of following Christian values with respect to national security becomes increasingly unlikely, if not irrelevant. Perhaps Carlson would not disagree completely, for he seems to suggest that the individual attitudes and choices of Christians have a power to create change apart from government. He does mention, several times, that the ones primarily responsible for terrorist acts may be or should be apprehended. As a Christian, I have little direct influence on our government (I would wish I had more!); my connection to the providential power of God largely flows from God to me, and not the other way around.
That said, Carlson regards our national response to 9/11 as pure vengeance. I found that insistence interesting as I have supported, for the most part, our military response as necessary; I have not felt the least be “vengeful” in doing so. Granted, it was not personal for me; I lost no friends or loved ones in the attacks nor since in the fighting. However, I have insisted since those days following 9/11 that the answer will not be found simply in killing the enemy, certainly not in hating Muslims or seeing all Islam as the radical variety.
I agree with Carlson that the Great Commandment must be part of our thinking as we respond to people. I also agree that we have a duty to pray for our enemies and not merely for their destruction. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus gives us a high standard for treatment of people. Based on a “vision” of Thomas Merton, Carlson applies that parable globally, to say that Jesus is in every person, including the terrorists, and we must treat them as Jesus.
To me, this seems to go to an extreme; by teaching us to love and pray for our enemies, Jesus was acknowledging them to be enemies whom we should treat in certain ways. One of the first lessons to learn about loving is that it is done in spite of their sin but not it ignorance of it. My prayers for a beloved, alcoholic friend will not ignore his problem, and my loving relationship will neither enable or encourage his drinking. I should pray for the salvation of even an Ahmadinejad (http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/05/14/iran-president-sacks-3-ministers-power-struggle/) but give him into the Lord’s hands if he insists on his evil course.
Here I believe Carlson has gone one step beyond Jesus’ intention. God’s image and spirit exist in all of us as part of his creation, but the image has been broken by the fall and his spirit suppressed by sin. I have no doubt that God loves everyone of us, but that doesn’t mean he denies the evil that we all do. We gain the fulness of his spirit when we trust Christ to be our Savior and are born again. Loving my neighbors as I love myself is the controlling principle, but loving must not ignore sin or evil. Once we do that, then the gift of salvation cannot be accessed; repentance and confession are far less likely to occur if sin is ignored. I believe a Christian may choose to respond to a threat with love, but I also believe he may protect himself, his loved ones, his neighborhood, and his country.
I also believe that sovereign nations have a duty to protect their people, not to wage aggressive war to take land or resources but to defend them from aggression. Even were a nation dominated by believers, as ours is not, forgiveness and love would not be the controlling values of a national government; that is surely the way for a nation of good people to fall to the very worst tyrants. Even our attempts to provide non-military aid often fails and sometimes produces unintended consequences. Such are the risks of idealism and good intentions (I’m reminded of Chamberlain’s “peace for our time“).
Carlson rightly observes that many Muslims hate the West for its corrupt culture, which has spread across the globe via modern technology. I believe he is in error to ignore the imperialistic ambitions of Muslim leaders who would see the world ruled under a Muslim caliphate. Many Christians are also troubled by the degree that Western culture has moved into valuelessness, and we face opposition in our efforts toward restoration by many of our own citizens. Carlson passes over this problem, but he probably opposes the “Culture War” as also incapable of being won without love. The Great Commandment is as much necessary in this war as in the war on terror.
I find much to discuss in Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World, but I’ve already written a great deal for a review. Perhaps I may write and post more at a later time. I have two final comments. First, Carlson seems to elevate Thomas Merton over Jesus or the Bible, even as he uses Christian ideas to do it. Second, he clearly states that all-religions-have-some-truth, despite writing from a Orthodox Christian perspective. These along with his tacit denial of Biblical authority lead me not to recommend this book, except as a discussion starter for well-grounded believers. However, I do believe our nation needs a thinking assessment of our response to Islamic terrorism, led by Christians’ tempering influence, and the Church needs to seek a Biblical balance between hating Islam and Muslims and understanding the evident hatred and desire for domination many openly seek.