What do you do with such pain?

By Tom McGrath| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality War and Peace
This column from the November 2001 issue in response to 9/11 comments that in the face of suffering we ought to seek a wisdom that can lead us out of the valley of death.

"If we don't transform our pain, we will always transmit it," says Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, such transformation has become all the more daunting, yet all the more necessary if we are to survive as a species--not to mention be faithful to our God.

A lot of the world is in pain. A lot of the world continues to transmit pain. Some groups enter into elaborate dances with their enemies in which they continually and obsessively transmit pain in ever higher doses to one another. Vengeance becomes more real to them than the taste of a lover's kiss or the tender breath of a newborn baby. Brilliant minds, strong wills, and bitter and wounded souls are enlisted to plan and execute ever more nefarious ways of inflicting pain. This dance has been going on ever since humans crafted weapons as some of their very first tools. And so it goes.

A few months ago the newspapers showed photos of terrifled schoolgirls in Northern Ireland being pelted with bricks on their way to school. Their tormentors felt justified performing such heinous actions because the older brothers and cousins of these schoolgirls roam the neighborhoods setting off bombs and spreading their own terror. And so it goes.

I'm thinking about the cries of Palestinians and the cries of Israelis, both so deep and heartfelt, as yet more of their family members die. Each side recites an endless list of occasions for their pain. And that propels them to leave the negotiating tables and transmit more. And so it goes.

I'm thinking about the Serbs and the Bosnians. The Iraqis and the Kurds. The Tutsis and the Hutus. The Indonesians and the East Timorese. And so it goes.

"It is natural for our shock to give way to anger," said Bishop Walter Sullivan days after the attack on the World Trade Towers. "We must be careful that it does not give way to vengeance." After repeatedly seeing that Boeing 767 plow into the South Tower, my mind gave way to thoughts of vengeance. I went about my day conjuring up cruel vendettas. In that frame of mind, it would be easy to enter into the dance of death, to begin the long downward spiral that has no end.

In the face of that bleak prospect, Christian hope dares to suggest that there is another choice beyond revenge, and it is reconciliation. Just saying this, I hear the chorus of angry voices accusing me of naivete, complicity with the enemy, foolishness, and treason. But Jesus, who we claim has the words of eternal life, directs us unequivocally to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

I'm not suggesting absolving the criminals nor forgoing the administration of justice. But while we prepare to defend ourselves from a real and ever-growing threat, our preparations should not simply be defensive and certainly not include retaliation against innocent people we assume are guilty by association. We must also begin the difficult work of seeking reconciliation with Muslims around the world.

Osama bin Laden gained popularity among many Muslims for a reason. It's because he strongly articulates the grievances his coreligionists feel. He taps into their pain, puts a twisted religious spin on it, and whips it into violent frenzy. Bin Laden is surely not the first world leader to use this tactic, and he won't be the last. Certainly he must be brought to justice. But what are we doing about communicating with and connecting to the Muslims whose pain he exploits? What do we know of the grievances of these people we dismiss so easily? Before committing the mortal sin of "bombing them back to the Stone Age," wouldn't it be wise to examine the reasons for their intense pain and hate? And in honest humility, wouldn't it be wise to see what our part might be in that?

I hear people say, "Be realistic." But what is more realistic than acknowledging that the evil does not exist just "out there," but that it also exists within me. And it's just as dangerous in me as it is "out there." The most realistic thing I can think of at this moment is that we stand at the edge of a slippery slope and forces of evil are taunting and daring us to slide on down. In the face of death we ought to seek a wisdom that can lead us out of the valley of death. We must seek not only justice but also reconciliation. That will take more strength, courage, and love of country than simply thumping our chests and vowing to "bring these people down." Seeking reconciliation is not only the Way of Jesus, it's our only hope to build a life worth living for those who will come after us.