The Place of a Public Theologian

Seeking Life Among the Debris: The Public Role of Religious Scholars
A Core Doctoral Faculty Forum, in the Aftermath of September 11th

William R. O'Neill, S.J.
Associate Professor of Social Ethics
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley

My title is "The Place of a Public Theologian." By "place," I mean the rhetorical "locus" or "topos" which configures what we say: the "storehouse of arguments" we deploy, our stock of tropes and metaphors. For the principal role of a public theologian, at least in the present circumstances, I believe, is less that of prescribing policy, than of "imagining otherwise," schooling our imaginations so that we see aright.

Many religiously minded citizens, I believe, feel acutely the want of such a "place." The words of Dorothy Day, written in September,1957, seem strangely prescient: "So many in these days have taken violent steps to gain the things of this world—war to achieve peace; coercion to achieve freedom; striving to gain what slips through the fingers. We might as well give up our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning. In a way it is like the paradox of the Gospel, of giving up one's life in order to save it."

Unfolding daily under the crawling banner, "America at War," our regnant rhetoric leaves no "place" for such a paradox, much less, a role for the theologian who invokes it. Already our "ceremonies of innocence are drowned" in the rhetoric of "rage and retribution." In Time Magazine's memorial edition, Lance Morrow urges us to "relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon (abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred." In the polemics of "focused brutality" and "self-confident relentlessness," rage has found a voice, seductive and persuasive.

And what are we to say? The public voice of theology seems dulled, discomfited. Shall we take refuge in the "grace of doing nothing," as H. Richard Niebuhr once counseled-the ecumenism of irrelevance? Or do we play the role of Reinhold's "Christian—or Jewish or Muslim— realists"? Yet even here we are but supernumeraries in a drama of muscular religion that beggars the imagination. Before all else, I believe, we must be good physicians and remedy the moral myopia that denies us a place. We must imagine otherwise.

For if we fail here, if by our silence or unwitting complicity we tacitly underwrite what Jean Bethke Elshtain calls" the absorption of politics by the language and imperatives of war," we risk giving up "our great desires, at least our hopes of doing great things toward achieving them, right at the beginning." Let me then, don my hat as a Christian theologian and all too briefly sketch what such a theological locus might look like. In his essay, "War as Crucifixion," written in 1943, H. Richard Niebuhr invites his readers to take a "moral squint" at war; and though we may favor different metaphors or interpretations, his appeal is, I think, exemplary of what we, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian theologians, must do.

So I will take up Niebhur's metaphor, even as I draw different lessons. In the first place, the metaphor of crucifixion speaks to innocent suffering: September's terror is a moral tragedy. Indeed, suffering innocence, crucified love, is at the heart of Christian profession. Yet precisely so, we cannot say "everything has changed," much less that America has lost its innocence. That innocence, as Niebuhr wrote, was "slain from the foundations of the world." And if the cross speaks of innocent suffering, it does so sans qualification. Not only Americas figure in the calculus of innocence betrayed, but all those "crucified on many an obscure hill.” The innocent Afghani civilians killed as collateral damage, the children malnourished, the families displaced. Innocence, of course, is never policy; but the metaphor of crucifixion extends our gaze to every cross and every obscure hill, whether in New York, or Afghanistan, or Iraq. A saving gaze, say Christians. For those with their eyes on the prize, tragedy is redeemed in tragedy. So too, for peoples of the Book, the biblical ideal of shalom reminds us that violence is not the first word, nor is it the last. What a different "place" than our militant rhetoric of "armed peace"!

A second lesson: the metaphor of crucifixion, Calvary's silence, enfleshes the great command, "love your enemy." For Christians, this is the touchstone of discipleship, and strangely enough, the cornerstone of just war thinking. War, for Augustine, was a tragic necessity, the consequence of fallen nature. The "love of enemies" admits "of no exceptions," yet the "kindly harshness" of charity does not "exclude wars of mercy waged by the good." Inspired by the "severity which compassion itself dictates," such "wars of mercy" presumed that those inflicting punishment had "first overcome hate in their hearts." Neither Ambrose nor Augustine permitted violent self-defense; for only defense of the innocent neighbor could satisfy the stringent claims of charity. Cf. Epist. 189, and 209, 2; De Civitate Dei, XIX, 12-13, XXII, 6; Quest. Heat. VI, 10, SEL., XXVIII, 2, p. 428, IV, 44, CSEL, XXVIII, 2, p. 353; De Libero Arbitrio, V, 12, Migne, PL, XXXXII, 1227; Contra Faustum, XXIII, 76 and 79; Epist., 138, ii, 14. Cited in Bainton, War and Peace, pp. 91ff.

Even Thomas Aquinas recognizes the normative primacy accorded nonviolence in Christian life, posing the question thus in his Summa, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 40 "Whether It Is Always Sinful to Wage War.” For Aquinas, and his Renaissance disciple Francisco de Vitoria, war is just only if waged in the name of the common good which encompassed the good of one's enemy. Violence, even when believed justified, is always tragic. Yet such a deep antipathy to violence, for many today, remains best honored in the breach. Indeed, our talk of "just war" often owes more to Machiavelli and Hobbes than Augustine and Aquinas. In the militant rhetoric of Hobbes's Leviathan, the "state of nature"-no longer naturally pacific—is aptly "called war, as is of every man against every man." And in that inglorious "tract of time" we call history, "wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known," we have but one right, that of "self-defense"-the very right Ambrose and Augustine denied.

For Hobbes's modern heirs, war thus ceases to be a tragic exception to the "natural" ideal of non-violence, justified only by the State's special province for the common good. Violent self-preservation, no longer a "stain upon our love for neighbor" in Ambrose's words, is our natural right, writ large upon the "artificial person" of the state.

But for peoples of the Book, who invoke God's blessing of shalom upon America, this cannot be. And so a final lesson: the metaphor of crucifixion beckons us to forgiveness and reconciliation. Machiavelli (whose infamy is exceeded only by his emulation) bequeaths us a militant rhetoric in which there is no "place" for shalom. We must create that place, or better reclaim it. And there is no more miraculous transformation of the ordinary, no greater "ordinary" miracle, than forgiveness. In the African-American and Hispanic community in which I live and worship, September's tragedy did not drown our innocence, so much as reveal the illusion of our nation's innocence. I have learned there, too, that in a world of perjured innocence, where violence is too often at our door, forgiveness must go deep with us. The hermeneutics of hatred is not, after all, something we must relearn. It is a weapon we have wielded often and well in the past.

Perhaps we must rather relearn, in Augustine's words, that for those called Christian, "love of enemy admits of no exceptions," and that those inflicting punishment must "first overcome hate in their hearts." A hard lesson, to be sure, but enmity cannot be a fitting memorial to our grief. Nature, graced even in tragedy, has equipped us with other, better weapons. If September's tragedy has taught us anything, perhaps it is to imagine otherwise. In the words of Dorothy Day, whom Machiavelli would deride as unarmed prophet: "Yes we go on talking about love. St. Paul writes about it, and there are Father Zossima's unforgettable words in the Brothers Karamazov, ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’ What does the modern world know of love, with its light touching of the surface of love? It has never reached down into the depths, to the misery and pain and glory of love which endures to death and beyond it. We have not yet begun to learn about love. Now is the time to begin, to start afresh, to use this divine weapon."


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Theology Interrupted? My Work after September 11, 2001
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The Role of the Theologian in Times of Terror
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