Why Terrorism? What to Do? Perennial Questions for Good Friday and Easter

In the aftermath of the earth-shattering terror attacks of September 11, 2001, politician Dick Cheney (then Vice President of the United States) urged that people not ask the question of why these things happen.

In the aftermath of the most recent terror attacks in Belgium on March 22, 2016, a high-ranking church official gave a seemingly opposite response. This bishop wrote to his constituencies that he asks the why question every time an act of terrorism occurs, wondering why terrorism continues to happen. His conclusion was that he did not know of any answer.

Despite the opposite reactions of the politician and the religious leader, the result is the same: Terrorism is considered to be beyond comprehension and efforts to understand it have no place. In the case of the politician, the fear might have been that trying to understand terrorism might lead to efforts to condone it; in the case of the religious leader, the topic was simply drowned out by sadness.

Refusing to understand terrorism is convenient because it does not require reflection on possible responses and consequences. As a result, any response appears to be justified, all the way to terrorist acts in return.

In the Roman Empire, a response to terrorist acts was crucifixion, designed to strike terror into the hearts of the subjugated populations. The gospels report of one terrorist about to be crucified, Barabbas, who was released in exchange for the crucifixion of Jesus (see Mark 15:6-15, with parallels in the other three gospels).

What might we learn if we understand Jesus' death and resurrection in the context of terrorism?

The gospels do not tell us much about Barabbas, but Mark and Luke mention that he was part of a violent uprising and murder. Jesus, by contrast, was not accused of violent acts of terror but of subversion by embodying a different power than the power of empire (claiming to be the Messiah [Mark 14:62] and suspected to be "King of the Jews" [Mark 15:2]).

It makes little sense to assume that Barabbas had no reasons for participating in a violent uprising. Among these reasons might have been the severe conditions that the Roman Empire imposed on the Jews, including control of the land and of political power, as well as harsh labor conditions linked with heavy tax burdens.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the CIA's term "blowback" gained prominence, referring to the unintended consequences of American politics. The title and subtitle of a prominent book by political scientist Chalmers Johnson, not a radical by any stretch of the imagination, sum it up: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000).

Why terrorism? This question is not as hard to answer as some might want to believe. There are deep discontents and frustrations in our world, many of them fueled by grave differentials of power. While those in power often fail to see these differentials, most others can spot them, particularly those who are forced to endure in their own bodies the more pronounced inequalities.

What are the options? Must seeing inequalities lead to terrorism? The biggest problem, now as then, is that we are led to believe that the solution is all or nothing: either become a terrorist or accommodate to the dominant status quo. Even Jesus is usually interpreted in this way: either he was a terrorist or he was not bothered by the inequalities of the status quo.

The historical account of Jesus is fairly clear. Jesus was no terrorist and neither was he a member of the Zealot movement (to which Barabbas likely belonged) or of any other violent resistance movement. But this does not mean that Jesus accommodated to the dominant status quo of the Roman Empire. The emerging historical account on this matter is fairly clear as well: Jesus was not merely a preacher but also an organizer who inspired and participated in a non-violent resistance movement.

The events of Good Friday and Easter, thus, not only help shed some light on why terrorism persists; they also shed some light on alternatives. The alternative to terrorism is not accommodation but following the way of Jesus. The response to the terror of the cross is not more terror but a non-violent resistance movement. The resurrection--the rising of Jesus form the dead--becomes another kind of non-violent uprising in which God participates.

What Christians call discipleship is nothing less than organizing people for another way of life that deals with the inequalities, the frustrations, the anger, and the hopelessness of their times in constructive ways. This is the hope-filled message of our new book Unified We are a Force (2016).