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New York, Dresden and Wounded Knee

17 December 2001

These past months have been wrenching for all Americans, and not least for religious leaders -- Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis, Muslim clerics.

Most of us feel deep patriotism. I never hesitate to pledge allegiance to our flag, joining others in commitment to the freedoms we enjoy. At athletic events I've always sung our national anthem with vigor, even though most around me -- until recent months -- stood mute. During my active career I traveled to more than 40 countries around the world. I never touched down again on American soil without feeling deeply grateful for being a citizen of this land.

My love for this country is deep. And so is my abhorrence of terrorism and bigotry. Like the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who risked his life in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, many religious leaders would be ready to do the same if we could stop the madness of men like Osama bin Laden.

So why is it that many of us feel so uneasy when we try to put these troublesome days into a larger perspective? Is it because we see what some have called "the dark side of patriotism"?

We forget our own terrorist history, both in our religious communities and in our nation. Christians and Jews can read about forms of fundamentalist religious bigotry on the pages of our sacred writings. An Old Testament psalmist urges the faithful to take "two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples."

Most Jews and Christians wouldn't take that command literally. Unfortunately, some have and still do.

Before his conversion, Paul the Apostle, principal founder of the Christian church, was a radical religious terrorist, presiding over the execution and imprisonment of anyone who did not agree with his fundamentalist views. He thought he was pleasing God. Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, said cruel and unkind things about Jews that Lutherans, all too belatedly, have had to apologize for.

At times zeal turns into madness. I can't believe that religious fervor could lead one to slash the throat of pilots and fly airplanes into buildings filled with innocent people. I've tried to imagine the last moments for some of the victims as their bodies were sheared in pieces or incinerated by the intense heat of burning jet fuel. I can't believe it.

But neither can I believe the decision of Allied military leaders to bomb Dresden at the very end of World War II when the conflict was all but over and when there was questionable military justification for it. When I visited East Germany a decade ago I stood at the very spot overlooking the city where a traitor to his people sent radio signals to some of the 1,300 American and British bombers, helping them to pinpoint their deadly loads. Some 78,000 homes were destroyed. An estimated 25,000 to 35,000, including refugees from the countryside, were killed. Women, children and helpless elderly who sought safety in bomb shelters suffocated when temperatures on the surface rose to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit. I can't believe it.

I can't believe that an evil man like Bin Laden and other fanatics would actually call for the death of any American or Israeli, no matter how innocent -- women, children, babes in arms, helpless elderly. Just kill, kill and kill some more. I can't believe it.

But neither can I believe what happened at Wounded Knee when U.S. troops fired indiscriminately into a crowd of innocent Indian women, children, babes in arms and helpless elderly and left them to die in the bitter cold when a blizzard swept across the plains of South Dakota. Three days later, small children who survived the massacre were found alive in the snowbanks. I can't believe it.

I can't believe that hundreds of thousands -- maybe more -- are so addicted to holy jihad that nothing else in life matters. They seem ready and anxious to kill anyone who gets in their way. I can't believe it.

But neither can I believe that so many in a cultured nation, steeped in Christian tradition, could come under the spell of an evil man like Hitler, believing that they were a master race and that they were justified in murdering and incinerating millions of innocent Jews. I can't believe it.

It's tempting these days to slip into the easy assumption that the world can be divided into two distinct camps -- the good folks and the evil folks. That's the dark side of religious and political patriotism. When an American soldier dies we all feel profound grief for that family, and rightly so. But when we see the body of a Taliban soldier in a crumpled heap on a barren landscape a half-world away we tend to think only of a dead terrorist who got what he deserved. Like those who heeded a pope's call to the senseless Christian Crusades, we wonder why he linked himself to the Taliban. But are we able to imagine that a wife, children and parents are mourning his death as well?

When we read the stories of families left without a mother or father because of the Sept. 11 tragedies we respond by opening our purse strings to support them, and rightly so. But are we ready to give as much for the starving, homeless refugees in Afghanistan? Are we troubled that so much money and effort are going into the search for one terrorist and so little, by comparison, into relief efforts for millions who are innocent pawns in this war? Now that the war in Afghanistan seems to be winding down and the stock market seems to be moving up, it will be tempting to put this nightmare behind us as quickly as possible and get back to a more normal way of life. That would be a huge mistake.

During this time when all of our religious traditions -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity -- pause to celebrate holy seasons, it would be well for us to pay closer attention to common streams that flow in all three religions. Among them are the need to reflect on acts of terrorism in our own religious and political history, to repent of those wrongs, to convince extremists of the folly of their ways, to rededicate ourselves to understanding those who are different from us, and to work for peace and justice for all people.

Herbert W. Chilstrom.
Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
(c) Herbert W. Chilstrom.

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