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Looking for lessons in 20 years of war

Can we build bridges and live together, in the face of deep beliefs that divide us?

Miroslav Volf Illustration by Carne Griffiths

Looking for lessons in 20 years of war
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Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. A native of Croatia, he helped found the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek and has returned there to teach. Besides witnessing the genocidal attacks in his homeland, Volf on 9/11 was speaking at a prayer breakfast to mark the opening of the UN General Assembly when planes struck the twin towers. He later became a critic of the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan. Below are edited remarks from a conversation near the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

During the later war years you taught a course on globalization with ex–Prime Minister Tony Blair. What was that like? He was an articulate defender of the war in Iraq, in particular, and I thought it was an unchristian and unjust war. He argued that terrorism threatened the liberal order, and I argued that interventionism contributed to the breakdown.

How did teaching the course together come about? After he finished his term as prime minister, he wanted to continue to be engaged. He had found his way back to faith, and he was most interested in talking about his reading of the Bible. His son was at Yale. The two of us came at this from two morally different standpoints. I have strong pacifist leanings. I can understand just war theory and can affirm it, but I haven’t seen too many good examples of it. When Tony articulated his justification for the wars, we had an inside view of how such decisions are made. And how leaders justify what has been decided on grounds that may or may not be moral. The course went well.

Did good things come of it? I think so. Globalization is pushing people together, and religion is seen as sand in the globalization cog wheels. The thinking goes that we need to tame religion and then globalization can continue. We had important discussions about whether that’s right.

In many ways your topic is always reconciliation, in your books, your teaching, and your speaking. Is that what you were talking about at the UN on Sept. 11, 2001? In many ways the talk was about Christian faith and its potential to contribute to reconciliation. And the role that faith can play as one of the causes of conflict. I quoted a poem by Jewish poet Paul Celan, “Death Fugue.” It begins, “Black milk of morning we drink you evenings,” and he talks about digging “a grave in the air.” I was reciting it as the planes flew into the towers just blocks away, and when we had to leave the building, we came outside to see the black smoke from the towers. It all set the stage for what was coming that day, and the issue hasn’t gone away. Can we agree and can we live together, notwithstanding deep beliefs that divide us?

Can we? I would want to say that we can do that.

I can understand just war theory and can affirm it, but I haven’t seen too many good examples of it.

What did 9/11 teach you about Islam? After 9/11 I participated in a number of interfaith events, in initiatives between Christians and Muslims—the Common Word, Building Bridges seminars—because I felt that the resources are there and we need to build what can be built. In Bosnia and Croatia I had seen what religious wars look like.

What came as a significant experience is how many people were unable to look at anything else except the negative side of Islam. That happens in a war situation. If we humanize our enemy, we lose some of the motivation to fight. I understand that. But Christian faith also is about loving one’s enemies. So the least thing we could do, I would hope, is not demonize but humanize our enemies. Not to justify their behavior, but as a way to engage them.

How did those interfaith efforts turn out? For a while it seemed like religion was a significant factor in international relations. One doesn’t get that impression now. Local dialogues continue to happen. But I could sense we couldn’t do very much about extremists. Moderate Muslims and moderate Christians can find ways to live with one another, having a great deal of moral commonality. I had zero impact on extremists.

Did your work change as a result of 9/11? I think it deepened work that I already was doing. The wars in Serbia and Bosnia were religiously coded among Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. That continues to interest me, seeing the religious roots of conflict.

One of the results is I have started a course at Yale called “Life Worth Living.” We take major religious accounts of what makes human life worth living and analyze them with students. We’re trying to school them to take these questions as the most significant questions of our lives. These are questions that have been marginalized, both in the broader culture but also in the university. We talk now about education as a means to achieve goals, goals that we set for ourselves. But education in what should be the goals, the ends, is lacking.

For some, with 9/11, these long wars, with what we see now in Afghanistan, we begin to believe we can’t control events. Given the wars you’ve witnessed, how should Christians think of our role in the world when we are tempted to feel helpless? I think it’s a fundamental question. We have to keep in mind the Christian faith arose in a situation in which not much could be done. It is a central feature of Christian faith that it motivates change—which it does!—and engagement. But we forget that when the Apostle Paul speaks of the conquest of suffering he doesn’t mean alleviation of suffering, he means the resilience to live victoriously in the midst of suffering.

How do we find hope amid suffering? Hope we think of as “I’m optimistic.” There’s a calculus: “If I engage things here or there, things are going to get better, the effect will be as I anticipate.” But that’s optimism and belief in my own agency. Christian faith is a hope even when the situation is completely without any possibility of change.

Abraham and Sarah cannot have a child, yet they believe, they hope. This newness of hope, notwithstanding circumstances, seems to be one of the great gifts of the Christian faith that we have forgotten how to avail ourselves of.

—Mindy Belz is a former WORLD senior editor

Mindy Belz

Mindy is a former senior editor for WORLD Magazine and wrote the publication’s first cover story in 1986. She has covered wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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