The challenge of pacifism

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The editors participated in a challenging interview today with Jim Forest, who is the young activist from Thomas Mertons’ famous “Letter to a young activist.” We asked Forest—who left the Navy as a conscientious objector, joined the Catholic Worker movement, and corresponded with Merton—how Dorothy Day and Merton would have reacted to terrorism and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Day even objected to World War II, so there’s no doubt that her reaction would be to oppose the war on terror.

Forest’s reaction to the assassination of bin Laden was what really struck me as challenging: Forest asked not only what information we could have gotten from bin Laden (which is ultimately self-serving), but he also asked what if the terrorist repented? The Catholic Worker movement was born in a large out of Day’s conversion following an abortion, Forest said. Could bin Laden actually have repented of all his sins if he lived?

A few weeks ago, I finished Karen Armstrong’s 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. As I read one of her last chapters on “love your enemy,” I tried to picture loving Osama bin Laden. I couldn’t get there yet. Even those of us who aren’t rejoicing in his death generally feel some sense of relief. A part of me says he would never repent, but the question asked “could,” not “would.” And that question truly humanizes him.

Completely coincidentally, we’ve been preparing a survey for the 10th anniversary of September 11 this week. We want to know not only what you think about the death of bin Laden, but what you think of other political issues that have been raised these 10 years, what your memories are, and how 9/11 affected your life and your faith. Please share your thoughts with us here. (Results will appear in the September 2011 issues, or for a lighter topic, take our August survey on kids at Mass.)