By John Fitch
George W Bush asked this question in his 911 address. It is a question that I pondered much during my retreat in NY with my Franciscan Order and especially during the 911 memorial at ground zero in Manhattan on the 10th anniversary. The theme of this year’s gathering was the story of St. Francis and the Sultan. We looked at the lessons learned from history and St. Francis' take on what Jesus would want us to do instead of waging war on our neighbors. Our main text was the book The Saint and the Sultan by Paul Moses.
The gist of the story is that St. Francis traveled to stop the Fifth Crusade in 1217. The Crusaders' plan was to conquer all of Egypt which would capture the riches of the fertile Nile Valley and strategically defend against the Egyptian Navy by controlling the Nile. This would ultimately lead to safe passage to Jerusalem in the South. Francis first tried to reason with the crusaders camped on the opposite side of the Nile which came to no avail.
Francis tried to convince the Bishop in charge that war is not what Jesus wants us to do to our neighbor but instead we are to love our neighbor. The Bishop in charge of the army was certain he could win and would hear nothing about peace and reconciliation. Francis begged for permission to speak to the Sultan and permission was granted only that Francis was acting on his own as a missionary to convert the Sultan and did not have the authority to negotiate peace on behalf of the Church.
Francis then went with one other Friar to the Muslim camp and asked to speak to the Sultan. They were arrested and beaten but not killed because the commanders of the Sultan’s army believed they were sent by the other side to negotiate a peace settlement and hence were taken to the Sultan Malik al Kamil. Al-Kamil was a learned man who knew of the Coptic Christians and had great respect for holy men. He was interested in finding a peaceful resolution and ready to offer the Christians control of Jerusalem in return for peace. Francis told the Sultan he did not have the authority to negotiate a truce but instead wanted to convert him to Christianity.
Francis was not successful in converting the Sultan, although the Sultan was impressed by Francis and granted him safe passage back to the other side. The battle went on as planned and all the Crusaders were slaughtered ending the 5th Crusade. It does not seem to me that we have learned much about peace seven hundred and ninety five years later. We are still waging war at the tremendous cost of many lives and economic losses. Jesus' message of peace has not changed and I don’t believe he would say any of the wars have been justified.
On Sunday some of us traveled to Manhattan to attend the 911 Memorial. The mood was somber. I saw a lot of firemen and policemen who looked like they were reliving that tragic day 10 years ago. One fireman looked like he had been crying and he was carrying a photo of Fr. Mychal Judge the Franciscan Friar who was the much loved Chaplain of the fire department and was killed when the building collapsed because when warned to leave he said, “I can’t leave. I have to stay with my men. "
911 was a tragic event and it came as a shock to most people because always before wars and acts of terrorism have happened somewhere else. Because we are an introverted society we don’t pay attention to wars and conflicts that in many cases we are involved in around the world. “Why do they hate us so much when we so good” is the question we all need to seek answers to.
Most Americans believe our military interventions are justified and necessary for our defense but I suspect that the people on the receiving end of our bombs don’t see our actions as just and are responding to our violence with continued acts of terror. We have been responding aggressively for ten years at a tremendous cost in both money and lives lost since 911 and we have not made any real progress toward peaceful resolutions of conflicts.
In his sermon preached at the Episcopal Church on Wall St. on the memorial Sunday the priest called on us “to never forget the power of love”. Franciscans like Quakers have been especially aware of Jesus' message of loving our enemy. Our ecumenical Franciscan group has decided as our focus of study this year to learn more about Islam and the ongoing conflict to seek understanding so we can help find a peaceful means of solving our differences.
John Fitch is the founder of the Renaissance House community and is an alumnus of ESR. He is currently studying in the Doctor of Ministry program at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology and is participating in a one year internship with the monks of New Skete training dogs and learning about traditional monasticism. In his spare time he enjoys photography.