Coming to terms with evil

Published November 1, 2001

The following is an edited version of a letter from Archbishop Michael Peers, the Primate, to Canadian Anglicans in the aftermath of the September terrorist attacks on the United States. Over the past weeks, we have seen in stark images the power of death. That power now radiates out from events in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania to threaten us all. The power of death has become personal and immediate, through its shattering entry into a world that is all too close and familiar. This scale and new immediacy of violent death raise issues for us as human beings and as Christians.

Since Sept. 11, by all accounts, more than the usual number of Canadians turned to places of prayer and communities of faith. Those places and communities held hope – the promise that violence and death can be understood and resisted. Reminded sharply of “the shortness and uncertainty of human life,” we turned to God, life’s author. The proclamation, both simple and profound, of God’s presence in the midst of the world’s wreckage, is the beginning of what will be – for us, for our nations, and for our world – a long process of coming to terms with this new manifestation of evil. Our communion with one another, and with the God who authors life and overcomes death, seems more vital than ever when life’s fragility and death’s power manifest themselves with the clarity we saw on Sept. 11.

For some, death’s victory seems so decisive, so much the last word, that they say we should no longer resist it. Time magazine recently featured an editorial that included this hymn to death:

“America needs to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness – and to relearn why human nature has equipped us with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred.”

But from Archbishop Rowan Williams, primate of Wales, who was at Trinity Church, Wall Street – just metres away from the World Trade Center – when the planes struck and when the buildings collapsed, we hear an alternative voice:

“We’ve been ‘spoken to’ in the language of terror and hate; if we reply in the same terms, we say, ‘All right, that’s how we are going to go on, that’s what we treat as normal.’

“The unspeakable tragedy of thousands of innocent dead – the tragedy unfolding around us that morning, cannot be made ‘better’ by more deaths.”

Some would call Archbishop Williams naive. But with others, including Bishop Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, he is simply asking us to pursue justice, not revenge. No thoughtful person believes that the actions of those who brought terror to New York and Washington can be justified or ignored. We must say “no” to terror, and call its practitioners to account. A patient, just, and international commitment to justice will take us further towards peace than will a surrender to the language and actions of terror and hate. What is truly naive is the belief that we can be redeemed by violence.

As members of Anglican churches, as Christians, and as participants in a shared and vulnerable humanity, we share a vocation that our baptismal covenant expresses, a commitment to resist evil, to serve Christ in all persons, and to respect human dignity. We owe it not only to God, but also to the world God loves and entrusts to human care, to foster a spirit of justice and of reconciliation. Such a spirit is not served by hate, by violence against the innocent, by scapegoating of others in our society based on race or religion. Nor is it served by forgetfulness. Terror is not a recent innovation. For all too many, it is a familiar element of daily life. We cannot know or trace the lines between the events of September 11 and the poverty, humiliation, and death in which we are silently implicated, or implicated by our silence. In Baghdad, Bethlehem, and Rwanda, in Auschwitz, Coventry and Dresden, in San Salvador and Soweto, we know that the lives of the innocent have been sacrificed on the altar of one power or another.

Now we have seen that sacrifice in a place that is too close, too connected, too much part of our world, to be ignored. This encounter calls, not for revenge, not for hate, not for a naive belief in redemption by violence, but for conversion, the turning of our lives towards God.

The governments of the world face a daunting challenge. Some part of us wants a sign of power. For all too many, the only acceptable power will be that of violence, revenge, and hate. The only acceptable language will be, in Archbishop Williams’ words, the language of “nails and spears, of nail-bombs and air strikes.” We have spoken that language before to God. God answered us in the language of love, the only power worth serving, and of resurrection.

In the weeks and months ahead, I invite you to speak with me God’s daring language of redemption. We cannot speak the language of passivity. We will not speak the language that accepts evil as normal, or adopts evil as necessary. Let us speak together a language that cannot be spoken without courage and conviction. Let us speak a language that expresses the best of our humanity, and calls out to the best of the humanity embodied in our leaders, in our neighbours, and in those who share with us “this fragile earth, our island home.”

Yours in hope, Archbishop Michael G. Peers

Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada


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