Thoughts on 9/11 – On Turning the Other Cheek and Legitimate Self Defense

Most of us remember well that terrible  day 8 years ago when terrorists ruthlessly attacked us. Although that day is etched deeply in most of our memories, what may have slipped away is how we experienced September 12 and the days that followed. We wondered, was this the first of many more attacks? Was another shoe about to drop? How would we protect ourselves from new attacks? There was a lot of anxiety in the days and weeks that followed.  But most people agreed, this nation had to protect itself from further attack. We needed to identify our enemy and end the threat that enemy posed.

In the weeks, months and years that followed this Country undertook significant actions to end the threat posed to us by Al Qaeda. The problem was that this enemy did not live in a single region or country. The field of battle was difficult to define. The army we faced wore no uniforms and lived among non-combatants. Opinions began to differ widely as to the best way to address the threat posed to us.

Among Christians who reflected on what to do, Biblical teaching, the example and words of Jesus present definite challenges  to those who proposed a strong military solution. Jesus seems so clear and unequivocal when he teaches in this regard:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well….”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:38-44)

What a text! It is so radical as it seems to exclude self-defense. What does it mean to offer no resistance to one who is evil? When you are attacked Jesus does not say “defend yourself” he says “turn the other cheek.” So radical does this text seem to most that they are overwhelmed and simply turn the page. Is this a call to radical pacifism? Does it mean that a Nation should have no police force, no judicial system, no army?

Instead of turning the page, we might do well to reflect on the message of a text like this. Perhaps some observations and clarifications are due here:

  1. The text seems to be more about matters of personal dignity than actual physical attack. True, the strike on the cheek seems quite physical, but in the ancient world such attacks were understood as an attack on one’s personal dignity no so much a grave physical threat. This is true even today. Being slapped on the face is not a devastating threat to our physical well-being. Rather it is an insult. In the ancient world one who wished to humiliate struck (always with the open right hand) the left cheek of the person. This was an indignity but not the worst one that could be inflicted. The worst insult was to strike the right cheek of a person with the back of your right hand. So what Jesus is describing here is a question of dignity. His basic teaching then is that if some one tries to rob you of your dignity by a slap on the cheek, realize that your dignity is not in what others think of you. Realize that your dignity is given by God and no one can take from you. Show this by offering your other cheek. Don’t stand on your precious dignity, don’t retaliate to regain your dignity. The one who struck didn’t give you your dignity and they cannot take it away.
  2. Hence this text is not about defending from life threatening physical attack, it is a text about personal dignity. All the getting back at others because they offended you or did not praise you, or poked fun at you, or did not give you your due, all the revenge for stuff like that ends because it no longer matters to you, at least not when Jesus starts to live his life in you.
  3. So this text has a cultural context that would not necessarily require us to interpret Jesus’ words as an absolute exclusion of legitimate self defense in moments of serious physical threat.

But any distinctions I have made above by way of explanation cannot remove the core of Jesus’ message which is meant to limit our retaliation and remove from it anything “personal” other than the protection of life from imminent threat or significant injustice.

This then serves as background to the Church’s very careful and thoughtful approach to necessary self-defense. The Catechsim sets forth this teaching in its exposition of the 5th Commandment (Thou Shall not Kill). Here are some excerpts:

2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. The one is intended, the other is not.”

2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:  If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful….

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the state.

2266 Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.

2267 ….the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If however non-lethal means are sufficient…authority will limit itself to such means….the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity  are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However…governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 1- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 2- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3- there must be serious prospects of success; 4- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

So, some reflections on 9/11. How have we done? It seems we had a right to defend ourselves by discovering our enemy who so threatened us and removing this threat. I do not claim that we got it all right and that every action of ours was right. Indeed, if I can leave you with one “take away” from this reflection it might be this: Self defense and the ending of unjust aggression can never be something we do lightly and without reflection. The Lord and the Church require of us serious reasons for bringing lethal blows even to enemies and we should never undertake such measures without considering carefully other less lethal means. Respect for life means that it is right that I demand my enemy respect my life but also means that I must respect his. Recourse to war or other lethal means may sometimes be necessary but we do well to carefully consider our motives and means in such a serious undertaking.

Have we done this? I leave this to your prayerful consideration. Pray for also our leaders who have important decisions to make in the protection of this great nation of ours.

7 Replies to “Thoughts on 9/11 – On Turning the Other Cheek and Legitimate Self Defense”

  1. I worked in the Pentagon, South Parking for over 20 years. My son at the time of 9/11 was 8 years old. Today we both reflected on this horrific day. I can not put in words the sadness I feel to this day. I lost a cousin and many friends. May they all rest in peace.

  2. There are two things that I feel are worth mentioning after reading this. The first is something a lot of people wondered after 9-11, including myself, which was: why did these people attack us? And why did so many people from the Middle East seem to be happy about it?

    What we were told by our leaders is that we’re good, they’re bad, and because they’re bad, they hate us (because we’re free and rich and they’re not). Some still cling to this ignorant theory, but for the most part, it’s very clear that the conflict we have been engaged in before and after 9-11 with these people is not that black and white. It seems they have some legitimate grievances when it comes to our aggression and violence towards their people’s dignity, many of whom are innocent. This has to be mentioned, not to say that we’re bad and they’re good, but rather to say that an honest, unbiased look at the conflict reveals a very complicated situation in which both sides are guilty of serious sins. As Christians, we should be able to critique ourselves and not simply focus on the splinters in the eyes of other nations, lest we look like hypocrites and make an idol out of our country.

    The second thing is that the past two Popes have been very clear about their opposition to our war, especially the main effort in Iraq, and their view that it does not qualify in any way as a just war. As someone who has studied the Catholic response to the war, especially in America, it’s amazing how many are totally unaware that the Vatican and many others in the Church continue to stand against our interpretation of “self-defense” as justifying preemptive wars, torture, and other “illegal and immoral” acts against humanity, to quote John Paul II.

    More balance is needed in these matters. We can’t continue to make all sorts of noise about abortion and then become either silent or very “careful” when it comes to life issues where we are invested, where we might be implicated. We need more voices who can be consistent, critical, compassionate, good citizens, and above all, faithful Catholics.

  3. As to your last point I think it is not far from what I am trying to say. We ought to be very serious in our deliberation as to something so serious and deadly as war. But I DO feel compelled to add that abortion is an instrinsic evil that admits of no exceptions. It is the killing of non-agressive innocents pure and simple. The question as to when to go to war is more complicated and often involves the right and duty of a state to protect it’s citizens. You are right that the last two Popes did not approve of our entry into the war with Iraq. I would tend to agree with you that I did not think we met the criteria of the Just War teaching (in particular the jus ad bellum as pect of it). I said so at the time. While it is true that many thought we faced imminet threat I was not that convinced and I thought we rushed into it. FInally as to your first point I suppose it is constructive to try to understand why we are rather disliked in many parts of the world. However, I chalk some of it up to less than fair judgements of us. When you are as large and as powerful as you are there is going to be some hatred merely on that fact. We surely have our faults and have not always used our power fairly but it is also true that we are a very generous nation and ever since WW II have been a force that has liberated many from tyranny and freed many from hunger and injustice. We cannot simply be reduced to the evil potentate that some extremists both abroad and right here in the good ole USA have sought to portray us. Like most things in this fallen world, we’re something of a mixed bag.

  4. Perhaps I read your post wrong, but I heard it as a defense of our response to 9-11 and a critique of Jesus’ teaching of non-violence (critique may not be the right word…maybe a diffusion?). My response was an attempt to critique our response and defend Jesus’ teaching. Reading your response to my comment, I guess we share more in common than I thought? I don’t know.

    1. Yes I think so. My critique of Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5 was more an attempt to stake out a postion distinct from a radical pacifist interpretation. While the Church has great respect for the pacifist position (cf CCC 2306) we do formally teach this. Hence, if we were to interpret Jesus teaching in Matt 5 in a absolute manner we could never defend our life, we are not permitted to have an army at all and even a police force would be forbidden since Jesus said “Offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Now if all we have is a literalist interpretation then it’s kind of a show stopper and we are simply wide open to attack by criminals, and enemies foreign and domestic. Hence, some distinctions are necessary but NOT distinctions that rob Jesus’ words of any profound meaning. Hence my words in the article: “But any distinctions I have made above by way of explanation cannot remove the core of Jesus’ message which is meant to limit our retaliation and remove from it anything “personal” other than the protection of life from imminent threat or significant injustice.” Hence we have a lot of soul searching to do in terms of our entrance into any war, let alone the Iraq War which I agree did meet the criteria that I think the Church sets forth for so called just war.

      So unless your an absolute pacifist then I think we do agree substantially

  5. I hear you, Msgr. And the interpretation is correct, I believe.

    However, I see too many people take that interpretation and either apply it to validate the aggressive, immoral, unjust practices of our country or use it to avoid thinking about the whole issue altogether. It’s a generalization with many exceptions in the Church, I know, but it needs to be raised. The Church in America can’t keep repeating its teaching on abortion, an issue with clear right and wrong, but then shy away from its stances on issues where it gets more complicated and where, as I said before, we might be found to be guilty of being pro-choice when it comes to the sanctity of life.

  6. Yes, the Just War Tradition is intended to limit war more than to justify it. As for the other point you make, it remains true that the Church is extremely cautious and nuanced sometimes to a fault. Sometimes, like a prophet you just have to enter the fray, risked being misunderstood, misquoted etc and take bold stands that upset folks. But historically the Church is cautious, careful and very thoughtful about everything. Often decisions are rendered by the Church after long decades, even centuries of study, meanwhile the teachable moments come and go without a clear stance being articulated. I have agononized over this trait of the Church most of my adult life and have come to accept that this is the way things are. I suppose there is value in “shying away” from issues before substantial reflection, but the tradeoff is that we miss some pregnant moments which issue in still birth rather than prophecy.

    Soon enough on this blog we must turn our attention to capital punishment since I have read that John Mohammed has been scheduled to die in November. Capital punishment is like throwing a hot potoato into the pro-life movement, which it shouldn’t be, yet it is. Stay tuned!

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