Does the church have a role in counter-terrorism?

by Stephen Harding

I was in a Firehouse in New York City when Eric Holder held his news conference to announce the foiling of the plot by an agency of the Iranian government to have a member of a Mexican drug cartel assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador and up to one hundred fifty others on US soil.

I have several responses as Fire Department Chaplain to the announcement of this exposed plot: it reinforced my conviction that there will be another terrorist attack in New York City; it shifted me into a more alert mode; it made me angry, because men and women of the Fire Department who I know and love will risk their lives by responding; and has made me question the Church’s priorities and what we are doing to counter the reality of ongoing terrorist threats in the United States.

While I can find nothing on the Episcopal Church’s website about terrorism or counterterrorism, I did find the report of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, “Some Observations on Just War”, prepared for the 2009 General Convention. This restatement of just war theory for the Episcopal Church was helpful, but does not address the issue of terrorism and counterterrorism.

I have, however, found thoughtful and carefully reasoned statements on terrorism and counterterrorism on the Church of England’s website, which argue that the Church has a role to play in counterterrorism.

These documents support my contention that the Episcopal Church has a moral obligation to be involved in counterterrorism, to state its position clearly, to advocate for moderate Muslims in the United States and to function, as people of faith, as emissaries of this country where the government cannot.

I believe that the Church can reduce support for terrorism’s adherents by taking actions such as: building relationships across faiths that promote understanding and respect for each faith; working together to provide opportunities for youth; actively promoting peace; and providing a countermessage to terrorism and murder.

Because counter-terrorism requires the winning of hearts and minds, the Christian churches have an important role to play, both within the United Kingdom and worldwide. The churches have invested considerable effort in building good community relations in the United Kingdom, especially in those cities where there are sizeable communities of those professing other faiths. Excellent relationships have been built up in recent years between Muslim groups and the churches. In a society of overtly secular values, Muslims have often looked to Church leaders as people who understand a religious perspective on life, and are natural allies in combating Islamophobia. In a number of cities there have been joint meetings and peace marches of Christians and Muslims, sometimes also involving Jews. In some places there are action plans in the case of a terrorist outrage, in order to mitigate any anti-Muslim backlash. (from website)

This small but simple step, together with learning much more about Islam and teaching that it is one of the Abrahamic faiths, can mitigate against terrorism in this country. One of the big concerns in the United States is on-line recruiting by salafi-jihadist groups. Their material is immediately available, well packaged, and marketed toward US citizens. There is currently no counter-message or alternative position to terrorism put out by the Episcopal Church, and I believe that to be a void that we are well-placed to provide a reasoned and articulate theology of our position to the world.

The threat of attack is not going away. This most recent threat to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador only makes it more urgent for us, as Church, to sort through the complex issues involved in responding to arbitrary killings as acts of terror and to articulate clearly what we stand for and what we believe about terrorism and counterterrorism.

The Reverend Stephen Harding is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of New York, where he serves as the Protestant Chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. He is working on a D. Min. at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, with a concentration on developing a theology of counter-terrorism.

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