A small gathering the other evening in Washington felt like a step through the looking-glass. Marie Dennis, Trinity ’64, a true exemplar of the values of Trinity and the Sisters of Notre Dame in her work for social justice around the world, invited me to join some other friends in welcoming South African Bishop Kevin Dowling to Washington. Marie and Kevin (as he insisted we all call him) are the co-presidents of Pax Christi International, an organization founded in 1945 to promote human rights, justice and peace amid some of the world’s fiercest conflicts. Trinity Trustee Sister Patricia Chappell, SND is president of Pax Christi USA and also joined us for the evening with other great friends deeply committed to the cause of peace.
As the discussion wove through the evening, laden with sidebar commentaries on the dismal state of American politics today, the superficial nature of the political conventions and the abhorrent absence of concerns for the poor in either party platform — political documents that dared not utter the word “peace” as if the very idea might be toxic to voters — I almost felt as if we were all back in our college dorm rooms of so long ago, passionate idealists dreaming of a world where hunger, poverty, war and environmental degradation would no longer be fearsome realities for vast swaths of the global village. Such concerns seem almost hopelessly quaint, certainly naive in a political environment that promotes an insidious disregard for the idea of sharing wealth and resources, treating concern for justice and peace as some unpatriotic socialist plot rather than the moral foundation of a good society. Even the so-called “liberal” politicians — remember those? — run scared from advocacy for the marginalized people of this earth, fearing that any suggestion of redistributing wealth to help people in need might lose votes, or at least be the focus of virulent negative ads distorting the reality of a more just message.
Coincidentally, this gathering came on the cusp of this year’s observance of September 11, that date we wish we did not have to remember, but a date whose fate we can never escape. The damage from that awful day continues — cancers from the toxic clouds of the World Trade Center continue to claim lives, even as American troops continue to die in Afghanistan and the toll of civilian deaths may never be known. The Taliban is resurgence is fearful and murderous; the civil violence in Iraq continues unabated.
But among all of these tangible facts about the legacy of terrorism in our lives, the intangible losses also mount. September 11 made us a vengeful people, turned us inward to focus in a nearly narcissistic way on the need to assert our national power against real and perceived evildoers. “Justice” in the post-September 11 vocabulary never included the words “and peace” as the phrase used to go. Instead, “Justice” became about promoting even more death — “Bring him to justice!” we cried out. And so the leader who offered the hope of change just four years ago had his most popular moment when he brought Osama bin Laden to a violent end. “Justice” was served, but peace stayed away.
More than a decade later after that terrible, horrible day — and yes, it was all of that and more, and the murderous acts of the terrorists were pure evil — we still struggle as a nation to find our bearings and balance for the future.
September 11 — perhaps the time has come to observe this day in a whole new way. Perhaps it’s time to give voice to the essential moral idea of forgiveness for even the most wicked acts. Perhaps it’s time to restore our national moral center in the real idea of justice — not as an eye-for-an-eye, but as service and advocacy for those who are most in need of our talent and resources. Perhaps it’s time to speak the word we have not dared say — Peace. Can we hope to turn the legacy of September 11 into a force for something good, for a renewal of our commitment to peace as a way of life?
Let us remember all of those who lost their lives — the victims of September 11, the military personnel from so many nations who waged war on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan, the civilians of all nations who suffer so terribly because the human condition readily wages war but finds sustaining peace so mightily difficult. We pray for them today, and we pray even more for a future that restores our national balance with a moral center focused on caring for those who need our help the most. If we work for real justice, we will find true peace.