On May 1, when President Bush triumphantly climbed out of a S-3B Viking jet onto the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, his Top Gun arrival was a signature moment of his presidency. In case anyone missed the point, a banner on the ship’s tower proclaimed: “Mission Accomplished.”
The war with Iraq, though not officially “over,” was entering its clean-up phase. In little more than a month, the United States had started a war, demolished a regime, and announced its readiness to move on in the war against terrorism. The brief touchdown on the aircraft carrier was symbolic of events moving so rapidly that few could comprehend them.
If these events leave us off balance, those of the past year and a half are even more disorienting. In that brief period, all Americans—including congregational leaders—had to adjust to rapidly changing global realities. First came September 11, 2001, and the end of American illusions about our security. Then the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda and toppled the Taliban. Before the dust settled, an international debate began about invading Iraq. Before many churches and synagogues had determined how to address the ethical issues of such a war, it started and ended. Mentally and morally, most of us were playing catch-up.
Congregations responding to the cascading events were all over the map. Over the past 18 months, many had offered special worship opportunities to mourn the dead and pray for those in harm’s way. Some held forums to discuss troubling ethical questions posed by terrorism, just-war theory, national sovereignty, international law, and pre-emptive strikes. Others mobilized—to oppose the war, wave the flag, raise money, or assemble food and medical resources. Some, paralyzed by events, kept silent.
Now each congregation—like each American—must come to terms with the “Mission Accomplished” message. It is clear that the American military has completed its work of defeating the Saddam Hussein regime—perhaps not inducing “shock and awe,” but leaving little doubt about our military supremacy. But the rest of us need to think more about our mission. Are we finished or have we unfinished business at hand?
Questioning Our Role in the World
Reflecting on the past months, I see a host of questions that congregations must address to minister effectively to their members and to the world. The debate on just war and pre-emptive strikes is far from settled, even if the heat is turned down now that some jets, ships, and troops have headed home. A larger question is America’s role in the world. Our recent military performance and our choice to move almost unilaterally against world opinion raise questions about the uses, abuses, and consequences of power. More than a century ago, in 1887, English historian Lord Acton coined the aphorism “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As the wealth and power gap between America and the rest of the world grows, what consequences await the world—and our national character?
Those questions are occasioned by new political, economic, and technological realities. But old questions return with new urgency. Perhaps the most obvious involves the relationship between Islam and Christianity, especially as the latter is mediated through the modern West. In recent months our nation has begun learning how little it knows about the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths. Despite increased warning since the Khomeni revolution in Iran in 1979, our diplomats, military planners, media experts—and religious leaders—have continued to misunderstand the clash of civilizations along the cultural boundaries between Islam and the West.
Few of us can move past limiting stereotypes. Few know that Islam has streams of egalitarianism and peacemaking in its heritage as well as those of fundamentalism and jihad. Most Americans would be shocked to learn that for centuries the Islamic world was more advanced militarily, philosophically, medically, and architecturally than the Christian one. At times Islam was more tolerant of its Christian and Jewish minorities than Christianity was of Islam and Judaism. Few of us can understand that the modernity that gives us so many benefits looks very different to people who believe it has been destructive of the great civilization and traditions they have built.
One way to view our present is to see it as a moment when the unfinished business of world history is closing in. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism now bring centuries of tradition, misunderstanding, hatred, and violence to our doorsteps. The question each congregation must ask is how prepared it is to assist its members and its community in working along this precarious set of fault lines. Increasingly, aftershocks from changes along these ancient fault lines reach closer, now often felt in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our families. Helping our people live along and cross cultural boundaries is of the highest importance.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the Alban Institute special report on leadership.