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Living and Dying by the Sword,
or Being Agents of Hope and Opportunity  

Editor's note: Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos is associate general secretary for international affairs and peace at the National Council of Churches USA. Religion News Service edited and published a version of this commentary on October 2.

By Antonios Kireopoulos 

New York, October 3, 2006  Recently I appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss possible solutions in the “war on terror.”  I was to share a moderate Christian perspective. 

Beginning with Jesus’ words, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NRSV), I explained how this admonition applied to all people – in today’s context of terrorism and war, and in the wake of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict – Christians, Jews, Muslims, whomever.  Bill O’Reilly’s interpretation was less equitable; if Muslim extremists were currently living by the sword, then it was up to the United States to wield the sword and justifiably wipe them out.   

I am troubled by this Biblical misinterpretation – after all, Jesus had spoken these words, not to the Roman soldiers who had come to arrest him, but to his own followers who were trying to defend him – and how it is shared by many Christians in the US today.  So what moral alternatives can more moderate Christians offer instead in the fight against terrorism? 

First, relentlessly and smartly pursue the terrorists, and don’t divert resources from this task.  In Britain, it was police and intelligence networks – and not the British military – that prevented the terrorist attack against US airliners.  A similar approach will work in rightfully bringing Osama bin Laden and other terrorists to justice.   

Second, do not pursue policies guaranteed to inflame extremists – enabling Israel to decimate Lebanon, and with US weapons, comes to mind – and instead pursue policies that alleviate situations of hopelessness upon which extremists feed.  It is not a justification to see crushing poverty, social marginalization, and lack of opportunity as conditions that breed terrorism.  These are the very situations manipulated by terrorist leaders, whose dubious visions of martyrdom appeal to young people who have no other hope. 

Third, don’t lump all problems into one monolithic terrorist movement and all solutions into one military campaign.  Different contexts call for different actions. 

In Israel-Palestine, deal squarely with the Palestinians.  Violence in the Holy Land can be traced back ad infinitum to US and Israeli policies that reinforce Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories beyond the 1967 borders.  Legitimate Israeli security concerns notwithstanding, the separation barrier, check-points, and settlements that encroach on land and water sources in the West Bank, as well as measures that prohibit economic growth in Gaza, only mock the idea of a viable two-state solution.  Unless we offer Palestinians a real future, terrorists will continue to find young people willing to become suicide bombers. 

In Iran and Syria, start talking.  In the world of diplomacy, no one ever said you have to like the person across the table from you.  But unless the US wants a regional war, or even a world war, we’d better seek out diplomatic solutions.  How else will Iranian citizens see that there is something worth attaining beyond the hateful, dangerous, and self-isolating rhetoric of their leaders? 

In Iraq, enable US troops to become agents of positive change.  Never mind the original reasons for this war:  if the US’ stated goal is to build a “new Iraq,” then let’s start building one.  Certainly we should come up with a plan for a phased withdrawal, but importantly it should be tied to benchmarks for the reconstruction of that society.  Eventually Iraqis would see the US as creators of stability in which they have a stake, and their home-grown insurgencies as obstacles to peace.  (A similar point was made by Newt Gingrich earlier in the same O’Reilly show, when he suggested the US should try to bring about economic opportunity so that Iraqi civilians could see something to hold onto beyond the current malaise.) 

It would seem to me that this is the seed for a strategy that could win the “war on terror.”  With an Administration that wants to stay the course in Iraq but has no real plan to handle the continued chaos, and with opposition urging withdrawal but with no real plan for preventing even more chaos, here’s the kind of strategy that can garner bipartisan support.  And it’s the kind of moral foreign policy alternative that can bring hope – in Iraq, in Gaza, and wherever else it doesn’t exist.  

As we look for solutions in the “war on terror,” it’s a good lesson to recall the Cold War, and how it was won.  Soviet communism was laid low by the moral authority of John Paul II and Lech Walesa, who gave those behind the Iron Curtain a vision of freedom beyond the constraints of communism.  Certainly, flexing military muscle helped, but even Ronald Reagan succeeded in helping to bring down the wall of enmity only when he no longer invoked “evil empire” language and began to interact with Russians as people with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us. 


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