book review, Lee Griffith, myth, Richard Hughes, violence, William Cavanaugh

On Griffith and Terror

In Review, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God

The book sustains a well-made argument for nearly 300 pages, ranging from socio-political and historical analysis,1 scriptural interpretation,2 theological conclusions3 and practically proposed solutions.4 While Myths America Lives By was simply written and seemingly half-positive of the American Myths, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God rips away the entirety of the innocence façade. Through the use of diverse voices Griffith throws no soft punches and deconstructs any sense of righteous innocence and justified anger. For example:

Meanwhile, the shelling of Muslim neighborhoods by the New Jersey did not differentiate between soldiers and civilians. While there were doubtless members of militia groups residing in these neighborhoods, the bombs could not set them apart from the children or the grandparents or the other women and men who were clearly noncombatants. If the defining feature of terrorism is the civilian identity of those who are targeted, then the “terrorists” in Beirut were not those who bombed military barracks but those who lobbed car-sized bombs into city neighborhoods.5

I do not mean to overload on quotes, but reading through this book was like a solid meal with great quotes, particularly in comparison to Hughes’ appetizer book. This is a work of solid scholarship in my mind and speaks the well-supported conclusions without fear:

When we follow the trail and trace the violence back, we do not find God. We find a mad confluence of godlets. We find principalities and power, imperial nation states and barely organized guerilla fronts, all self-exalted, all petty, and all appealing to as much inhumanity as humans can muster. It is called Liberation and martyrdom. it is called defense and justice. Call it what you will. It is Terrorism.6

Any book that says the following would put itself in good stead with me, “In nations in which the majority of believers are Christian, the church must bear the responsibility for the ease with which the name of God has been co-opted into the service of carnage.”7 And so The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God was simply one of my favorite reads of the summer: well argued, excellent conclusions, good quotes and best of all, very helpful for my own purposes.

For My Research, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God

The first new concept of importance that greeted me was quite surprising. According to Griffith there is a “lack of definitional agreement [on what a terrorist and terrorism is] among terrorism experts.”8 For a brief second I was surprised and then it occurred to me that terrorist or terrorism is a label, it is propoganda, and so the common use of the term is perspective based. Using the term “terrorist” is name-calling rather than saying a terrorist is someone who inflicts terror as a weapon. And with this use in mind, then the definition by Edmund Burke of a terrorist, “those who are lacking sufficient awe for Father State,” fits perfectly.9

Using “terrorist” as a negative label, instead of neutral and applicable to all, is what Griffith calls demonizing. Demonizing is virtually mandatory for visiting violence on a perceived enemy; the enemy must look bad to justify war, otherwise there is generally no need for violence. Demonizing also creates problems for solving conflict with anything other than violence. In the current political climate, talking to a demon legitimizes the demon and seems to make those talking to the demon as weak “and if the demons will not change their ways (and how could demons be anything other than demonic?), then warfare is foreordained as the only possible form of engagement.”10 With rational dialogue between opposing forces seen as soft and ineffectual, then in the eyes of the world, diplomatic conversation a weak option at best. This is scary. Debate over military intervention is no longer confined to coercive force as necessary with those who just cannot be reasoned with; instead military intervention is the first and last option because dialogue cannot happen.

Demonizing continues to make the situation worse on a life style scale. Dealing with demons, or the fear of the demonic striking at anytime, anywhere, “one can never be too prepared or too strong. This also means that one should never allow oneself to feel secure.”11 The fear of a Russian nuclear attack during America in the 1950s comes to mind, as does this “War on Terror.” The fear of the demonic and perceived the need for military buildup is nothing new and in the eyes of the frightened, this system is strangely comforting: “the nation is innocent and glorious, there is a great and unprovoked evil that desires to do the nation harm, but worry not, our technological advances in military will save us all. The nation will protect you, your money and give you peace.”

This narrative provided by the one’s own nation-state is terribly deceptive, but the theologian to best continue the argument is with William Cavanaugh later. Still, Griffith does touch briefly on the deceptive story that the nation-state tells. Griffith recognizes the illusionary salvific nature of the tale: “it seeks to tell a story of freedom spread through self-sacrifice, not victories won through the spread of terror. To sustain the myth, Americans need to rewrite history just as surely as did Stalin to sustain his own version of communist orthodoxy.”12 The implications of such a story does not stop with rewriting history, but it is also liturgically/eschatologically competitive and Griffith touches on this as well when he notes the Reagan idea of a bright dawn occurring in America during the 80s.13

1. “Woven into the very fabric of U.S. origins, terrorism emerged in two forms: (a) in the violent confrontations between cultures on the frontier, and (b) in violent confrontations between the growing consciousness of rural interest and the power elites of the cities.” Griffith, 145.

2. “These are the two sides of the prophetic mission: to announce judgment on the present order and to weep at the consequences the judgment portends. This biblical pattern is so pronounced that it seems fair to suggest that if either side of the mission is lacking, then the word that is being offered is not prophetic.” Griffith, 119.

3. “Violence is a form of proselytism which preaches that there is no God. The preachments of violence are more effective than televangelists, more zealous in winning converts than those who sell religion door to door.” Griffith, 68.

4. “In order to witness to the defeat of terror, churches and other faith communities must also be zones that are free from terror. Rather than peddling fears and threats of damnation, the church is called to witness to the one and only sufficient antidote to terror – the resurrection of Jesus.” Griffith, 251. Also see 268-270.

5. Griffith, 5.

6. Griffith, 6.

7. Griffith, xii.

8. Griffith, 7.

9. Griffith, 12.

10. Griffith, 86.

11. Griffith, 84.

12. Griffith, 38.

13. Griffith, 143.


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