present war is not a war between a secular nation and a
Muslim nation. Ours is not a secular nation. We are the single-most
religious of all the advanced nations, and the third- or fourth-most
religious of all nations anywhere on earth.
religion, in case you want to know, is predominantly Christian and
Jewish. And a good thing, too!
Now, it may
well be that politicized Muslims actually do believe that suicide
bombings are a way to Paradise (though I doubt it). But they're
making a mistake if they believe that they are alone in being
willing to die for their beliefs. They are not even alone in
believing in eternal life.
We Jews and
Christians do not morally approve of suicide. We regard a suicide
bombing of innocent noncombatants — such as those going to work in
the World Trade Towers on the peaceful Tuesday morning of September
11 — as a symptom of pure, rank, and rotting evil in the bodies that
are willing to die in self-defense, we are willing to give
our lives for others — as did our brave fellow citizens, our
brothers, on United Flight #93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, who
crashed into the ground to thwart the would-be suicide bombers.
Many, many more of us will be willing to die in the battles
Hebrew Scriptures speak more than once of prayers and sacrifices for
the souls of the dead, Jewish writers make little reference to
eternal life. It is otherwise with Christians. We believe that life
on earth, sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter, as may be, is framed
within a far larger reality: the lightsome reality of our Creator
and Redeemer, Who has called us, as He once called the patriarchs of
Israel, to be His friends.
We do not have
much idea what eternity will be like, although sometimes we have
intimations of it, in moments of overflowing absorption in things
beautiful and good, when we lose all awareness of passing time, and
seem to dwell in an abiding now of total
been much moved by the sweet, sweet beauties of earth, we have no
doubt whatever that that Beauty, in whose image all things beautiful
were made, is superabundant, overflowing, beyond our capacities to
absorb even a fraction of it.
To be in
communion with the One who has addressed us as "friend" is to have
stretched our capacities for love and life and light infinitely
I have yet to
see journalists point out the political implications of the
prevailing Christian view of eternal union with God, and its Hebrew
analogue. These implications are many and profound.
First there is
the dignity of the individual. Addressed by his Creator as friend,
each woman and man faces the solitary responsibility, the
inalienable responsibility, not to be shucked onto anybody else, of
making a free response.
Our God wants
the friendship of men and women who are free and standing erect —
not the worship of slaves.
"The God who
gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," Thomas Jefferson
A sense of our
individual and inalienable responsibility in the face of God gives
Jews and Christians our bedrock conviction in the dignity and
immortal value of every single woman and man. Our Creator made us
so, gave us such responsibility, holds us alone accountable for it.
No other person, agency, or institution dares to interfere with that
That is why we
hold every single individual to be an irreplaceable diamond, an
person," Thomas Aquinas wrote, "is the only creature made to be an
end-in-itself," a center of self-governing insight and choice,
formed in the image of God Himself.
There is a
second political point. Whereas, for the Greeks and Romans — and for
virtually all other peoples on earth — it is the inequality
of humans that is the natural law, for Hebrews and Christians every
man and woman is made in the image of God, is of incommensurable
value, and is in God's eyes equally needy and equally precious. This
very idea of equality owes its origins to belief in human
immortality before the judgment seat of God. In God's eyes, every
boast of humans, insofar as it is true, owes its reality to Him. No
human being huffed and puffed his own way into existence. We are
dust, and unto dust we all return.
political point is that eternity is to be imagined as a communion
with all those we love, with all who have extended friendship to us,
and we to them. Our idea of community is friendship, and the freedom
from which it springs and in which it is rooted: the free gift of
self to another, and of another to oneself.
That is why the
Christian founders of Pennsylvania chose as the name of their
capital city the inspired name of Philadelphia, "love of
It no doubt
seems odd to other people, in other places, that we Americans, when
danger looms, do regard one another as friends. We rely on each
other as teammates do. (Did you watch the Americans in the first
hours of the World Trade Center disaster?) We work together. We
freely form one will. We unite. Spontaneously we adjust to one
another, see what each of us can do, and set to doing it without
waiting for orders from on high. We know what needs to be done. We
do it. As brothers, as sisters. As Cicero wrote, the essence of a
republic is friendship.
Perhaps I am
taking things too far, making too much explicit — but this is also
why Christians regard God as more like a community of persons, a
Trinity, than like the solitary nous that Aristotle imagined.
Ubi caritas et amor, ibi Deus est, runs the medieval chant,
in a lilting Gregorian tune: "Where charity and love is, there is
God — That unites us in one, that love of God."
To think of
Americans as materialists is to get things all wrong, upside-down,
crazy. There are a few materialists among us, very few. Mostly, we
To think of us
as secular is to mistake the most vocal eight percent for the
political institution of the American Republic is their
religion," Tocqueville wrote — I paraphrase. From our religion we
get our sense of the importance of the individual, our love for
liberty as the deepest drive in the human breast (at the origin of
inquiry, at the origin of love and friendship), our sense of
equality before God, our fiery friendship for one another, and our
willingness to die for our experiment in liberty.
religion teaches us that at its pure root is the conscience of each.
Though we are all called to one community, the roads by which we
journey to it are many, often twisting and obscure, and in any case
to be traversed by each man and each woman, and each community of
faith, at an individual pace, in an individual way.
As the things
of Caesar are not the things of God, they must not be given to Him,
nor the things of God to Caesar. So also experience shows that a
pluralism of religious paths is best. The God who wants our
friendship will accept it only freely given, from the depths of the
conscience of each. For the conscience of each, therefore, more than
tolerance is due — respect is due. The same respect the
Creator lavishes on it, with infinite patience for all.
All of us in
America know in our ancestral memory — often not further back than
two or three generations — what it was like to have lived in other
lands. We know that, there, we could have worked physically harder,
and in the end had less to show for it. We know that, there, we
would have been scarcely half as free as here. We would have had
less than half the opportunity.
Here, we know
we have no excuses. Here in America is the fairest place that ever
was. We each have our chances. If we don't use them, blame us.
Don't blame America.
Don't call us
secular, bin Laden. Don't call us unbelievers. Don't call us
infidels. God shed His grace on us! and crowned our good with
brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
You ought never
to have messed with us, bin Laden.