Raymond G. Helmick, S.J.


Volume 29 Number Two Summer 2008, PAGES 24-29

Septemb er 11th, 2001, marked a watershed in our American lives. Since the end of the Cold War, we had exper ienced a decade of relief, a br ief blossoming of hopes for a peaceful world. It was punctuated of course by the Gulf War and marred by tragedies in the Balkans and Rwanda, but we saw prog ress in South Afr ica, in Ireland, and seemingly in the Middle East. 9/11 put an abrupt end to that.

All of us have vivid recollections of that day. I spent that evening sitting on a panel at a local TV station discussing the event. Some things had become clear to me even over that day; first, of course, that we could not allow such things. Terrorism, which until then had caused its measure of death and destruction, mercifully, on a much smaller scale than the terrible wars of the 20th century, had now graduated to a scale of massive carnage. We could do little more to the nineteen individuals who had carried out this outrage at the cost of their own lives, but others, who as persons or organizations or even states had supported and encouraged their action, had to be held accountable. Beyond them, though, there existed a sea of anger at the United States and its policies on the part of people who had driven no planes into our towers. How were we to respond to them?


This constituted an unusual situation for the United States. For most of our history we have enjoyed, deservedly or sometimes undeservedly, a startlingly high reputation with the peoples of the world, as a bea­con of justice, of liberty, of all the good things that oth­ers wished for. We happen not to be seen so in our own time, but instead as agents of much injustice, of the deprivation of freedom, of the monopolization of the goods of the earth, of indifference to the destruction of the planetary environment, of callousness to people’s suffering in vast areas of the world.

If we, as persons or as a nation, do not attend to the grievances of those who act against us and respond to their concerns, we have failed at the most fundamental level of human interaction. It is for this reason that I choose, as my theme, respect for the dignity of the other, as the measure of any hope we may have for the transformation of our conflicts.

Phrasing this in terms of recognizing in the other the image of God acknowledges the common heritage of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which unite in basing the dignity of all human persons on their creation in the image of God. It has always impressed me that the most prominent human rights organization in Israel takes the name B’Tselem, “in the image,” from the biblical phrase b’tselem elohim, “in the image of God.” This yields a basis for human rights broader than the purely individ­ualist one that we have inherited from the 18th centu­ry Enlightenment.

Much of my own life has been spent working with people in seemingly endless conflicts, trying to open up for them, by dint of interpreting their situation, some options to heal their relationships. The task gives any of us a constant reminder of our own helplessness and inadequacy. It has always seemed best to me to do this out of the limelight, to deal with the conflicting parties themselves rather than with a public, to publish books or articles only very occasionally. My writing has been mostly direct correspondence with the parties in con­flict. But here is the experience.


I found myself drawn in 1972 to the conflict in Northern Ireland. I was then a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, studying ecumenical theology in the heyday of its popularity right after the Second Vatican Council. Northern Ireland had come to look like the 17th century with its struggle between Catholics and Protestants, at a time when I had learned that Protestants were my fellows in Christian faith. Some things had prepared me to walk into this: marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, deep opposition to the war in Vietnam, some years of relat­ing closely to the Rastafarian community in Jamaica at a time when they were scapegoats for anything that went wrong on the island. For motivation, here I was, an ordained Catholic priest. There is no other activity I more enjoy than saying Mass. I stand at the altar and say, in the name of Christ, “This is my body, which shall be given up for you.” I could not see others, who are body of Christ, Protestant and Catholic, exposed to peril, and not be there with them.

So I went to Northern Ireland in the company of other American theology students, Catholic and Protestant. That we were together, and less threatening to people there because we came from outside their conflict, made it easier to meet people from all parts of both communities, including the armed militant groups of both sides as well as clergy, politicians and neighborhood people. I made a supposition about the militants, Republican and Loyalist, those who were classified as the “men of violence,” or terrorists, that I was not dealing here with psychopaths, but with peo­ple who had put their own lives at risk out of service to their own communities. I could disagree with their judgment that they had no other option than violence, but I had to treat them with respect.

The most basic lesson I learned was this: in order to be friend of one side in a conflict one need not become enemy to the other, but can be the partisan of peace, a peace that will not cover over the wrongs either side has suffered. For the outsider to become the partisan of one side only in such a conflict is to become excess baggage. There are plenty of partisans there already, and it is not the outsider’s conflict. I found, in every meeting with the Loyalist leadership, that the conversation began with their admission that they had done terrible things and wanted to find another course. With the IRA it was different. They saw themselves as soldiers and wanted to be assured that they were fighting a just war. I could never concede this to them until, by the time of their cease-fires, so many years later, they had committed themselves to building an Ireland in which the Protestants, too, could live and be themselves.


My first intuition with the militants of Northern Ireland eventually proved itself, that the very move­ments and organizations most involved in the conflict were themselves the ones that took the major initia­tives toward peace. I had the experience, for some six weeks during the prison hunger strike in 1981, of mediating between the IRA’s Army Council and Britain’s Northern Ireland Office. Part of my recom­mendation at that time was that it be made possible for the prisoners to use the prison as a place to plan the peace. In later years, I spent much time in Maze Prison’s H-Blocks, conversing with prisoners from both sides in sessions that we dignified with the name of “seminars,” about a future of peace.

Decisions had to be made, of course, by the lead­ership of each organization outside the prison, but the thinking was done there in the cell-blocks. People on either side came to the recognition that neither would ever have a satisfactory life in Ireland unless they learned to accommodate the other side. Accommodation sounds a very meager form of reconciliation, but it had vital importance. The mantra of my own conversations in the prison was that each side needed to become the guarantors of one another’s difference. It is from such thoughts as these that there came the cease-fires of 1994 and the process of negotiation that led, at long last, to the functioning power-sharing government we see today. I attribute the long delay to the fact that those who regarded themselves as the righteous, who had never taken to the gun, were so slow to learn that the name of the game was now accommodation; instead they continued looking for victory over the other side.

One would expect the churches to have been a fac­tor in all this. In Ireland, the various churches were rather disappointing, and the protagonists, those who were engaged in creating the peace in their organiza­tions and in the prison, had in many cases become thoroughly disillusioned with church. But it was their ingrained disposition of readiness to respect the digni­ty of the other, a most profound residue of their faith, that ultimately guided them past their apprehensions and enmity to that goal of accommodation.


If churches and their leadership had often seemed to have little more to say about the conflict than “Don’t blame us,” there were outstanding clerical figures, unfailingly critical but always respectful, who offered genuinely helpful advice and guidance to the militant groups. None was more important than Father Alex Reid of the Clonard Monastery off Belfast’s Falls Road, who gained the respect of the IRA and its leadership and became critically important to its planning of the peace.

On the Protestant side, Presbyterian Minister Roy Magee was of equal importance in his influence with the Loyalist paramilitaries, helping them to create openings for peace. It was he who discovered and encouraged the extraordinary work of prisoner Gusty Spence, convicted of multiple murders, who devoted himself to educating his fellows in the prison in their history, in the character of their own community, and in the opportunities to transform their society into one of peace. Gusty became an important catalyst both for Protestant and for Catholic prisoners.

This fascinating history of the prison in Northern Ireland has its counterpart in what happened on South Africa’s Robbin Island, the prison located far out in the harbor of Capetown where Nelson Mandela worked with his fellow prisoners at developing the transforma­tive ways of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation for his country. We may very well be seeing, if we care to look, comparable things happening in the Israeli prisons where political Palestinians – one thinks of Marwan Barghouti – are building consensus even in these dis­couraging times on how to achieve a just peace.


My own work, especially since the early 1980s, has concentrated mostly on the various Middle Eastern conflicts. When I went to work in Lebanon I was required, for the first time, to work out my own response to Muslim faith. The great priority for all Christians in the latter half of the 20th century was reconciliation with the Jews. When I first went to the Middle East, it was to work on reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. The meetings with Palestinians had never raised the question about Muslims, since Christian and Muslim Palestinians are first agreed on the importance of their being Palestinian, but now I was meeting Christian and Muslim Lebanese in the midst of war.

I had to sort out my response to Islam for myself, existentially as well as theologically, and by the time I had very laboriously done so, I began to realize that most of those around me in Lebanon, Christian or Muslim, had never gone through this exercise or asked themselves these questions. And so a major part of my activity in Lebanon was to raise the question how I, as a Catholic, could relate in faith to the faith of Muslims.

I know very well the difference between faith in one God and a classical paganism. We value much in the Greek and Roman cultures of ancient times, our heritage from them of law and criteria of beauty. Their religion, however, with its multiple deities, taught as its central tenet that our world is a place of terror. Forces overwhelmingly stronger than ourselves surround us: the sun, the sea, storm and drought, war, plague, unruly appetite and dissension, love and lust, hatred, envy and many more.


The ancients hypostatized these forces, personified them as separate deities, male and female. They saw them as the real determinants of the world we live in. This was essentially what life was about. These gods and goddesses had no coherent order among them­selves, nor any real care for us, whom they treated at best with indifference, at worst with hostility. It was the task of life to hold them at bay, to keep ourselves and those dearest to us–family, clan, if possible even a nation–safe from them. That defined religion and the work of religious faith for the Romans and Greeks. We could do no more than to bribe these dangerous deities by our offerings and cower before their wrath and their envy. Sooner or later, we would surely lose. They would defeat us.

Look at our contemporaries, and we can see that many of them still believe something much the same. Life for them still represents danger, terror, its central task protecting ourselves and those we love from all the frightful things that can harm us. That they no longer hypostatize these dangers into gods and goddesses is far less important than that the forces that define life are the same. Some of these contemporaries regard themselves as good Christians, Muslims or Jews, yet still regard protection from these terrors as the center of their lives. Others consider themselves post-reli­gious, agnostic, even atheist. The central choices of their lives, nonetheless, are a tribute to these terrifying forces around whose threat they mobilize all their energies. I would call this a religion, a commitment to devote one’s life to what one understands as its ulti­mate values, as did the classical pagans.


Monotheistic faith tells us that none of this is true. We are safe, in our lives, in our world, in our history, because God is with us. Jews have this as recurrent theme throughout the Hebrew Scripture, practically a signature statement when it is the Lord who speaks: “Do not be afraid; do not be dismayed. Take courage, lift up your hearts, because I am with you.” The same sequence of assurances runs as a current throughout the Christian Gospels and in many other parts of the New Testament. The coming of Christ among us has essentially this meaning. Our salvation arises from what the Lord has done for us, from the love he has shown us, from the promises he makes us, to which he will prove faithful. That is the good news. Muslims, in their principled monotheism, share this faith in God who is with us, who gives our life its meaning, who makes our world the place of his work for our good.

I approach these topics as a theologian. What struck me most was the common heritage all of us–Jews, Christians and Muslims–of the Abrahamic family of faiths have in knowing that the Lord is with us, that the Lord is reason for us to have faith, to live without fear out of trust in God’s presence. This con­trasts sharply with those who believe that the task of life in a world of myriad dangers is to protect ourselves from all the dreadful things that could happen to us.

God, who reveals the Divine Self, can require me to remain faithful to revelation as it is transmitted to me through Christian tradition. Equally clearly, I have to admit that I cannot own God. I cannot demand of him that he act or reveal himself only as I know him through the tradition I have received. He remains free. “The Spirit breaths where he will.” He can reveal him­self as he chooses.

I do not have the experience of knowing God through the tradition of Muslim faith. I have received faith in God within Christian tradition, which is pre­cious to me. But as I see the piety and the life of faith of the Muslim community–imperfect, of course, like my own–I find myself bound, even in faithfulness to God as he reveals himself in my own tradition, to rec­ognize him at work in the faith of Muslims. This con­stitutes, I believe, no derogation of my Christian faith, but actually springs from it.


As a Jesuit, I have another strong anchor drawing me toward respect for persons, even those most opposed to me and all I hold for true, toward the recog­nition of their dignity. This is contained in the spiritu­al guidance given us by Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, a manual for orienting our basic approach to a life in faith.

An introductory page in this manual is called the “Praesupponendum,” the “Presupposition” for the Exercises. It reads:

To assure better cooperation between the one who is giving the Exercises and the one who receives them, and more beneficial results to both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to save the proposition of another than to condemn it as false. If he is unable to save the proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it, and if he understands it badly, it should be discussed with him with love. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used so that, understanding his proposition rightly, he may save it (Spiritual Exercises, no. 22).

This is not simply a proposal of Christian charity in our discourse. It is a theory of knowledge, applicable to all, Christian or not; specific to the Christian only inso­far as it is a practical living-out, in its openness to the other, of Christian faith. If I am to win all the arguments, know it all beforehand, my mind has already shut down. The proposition of the other, of course, refers to what is truly important in the other’s perception, experience, conviction. It is not as if there were no truth criterion. But if I am to learn, I must approach the other’s propo­sition with openness. Winning an argument will get me nowhere, and I will lose the light that the other’s percep­tion could give me. Through real dialogue the other will learn also, coming to an understanding of his own proposition that will enrich it and lead deeper into truth.

We may meet persons or groups whose proposition truly repels us. Here the “terrorist” may be our primary example. But it is this determination to save the other’s proposition that has led me to take seriously, to con­verse with, to strive to save the proposition of those identified as “terrorist,” whether the ideological lead­ership of IRA or the Loyalist UDA or UVF and the common sentiment of their followers, those who, “understanding [their] proposition rightly,” became the initiators of the serious work for peace in Northern Ireland. It brought me to seek out Yasser Arafat when he was most despised as “terrorist,” Yitzhak Shamir when he seemed the least likely of Israel prime minis­ters to work for peace. It meant treating respectfully and listening with sympathy to Serbs, Croats and Muslims of Bosnia. And it means the same in dealing with all the marginalized communities and classes of people we meet here in our own country.


This leads me to conclusions about the issues that most concern us now, the issues of our post-9/11 world in which we can see that we have done so badly.

I think we can see that we have not, as a nation, responded to that crisis by addressing the issues on which so much of the world responds to us with anger. PBS ran an interesting series on the religious elements behind the war last year, “America at the Crossroads.” Drawing on the talent of narrator Robert MacNeil, PBS avoided the most obvious pitfall of damning Islam for our problems, instead contrasting the vengeful actions of our enemies with the actual peaceful teaching of their Islamic faith. But there was no attempt to plumb the mentality of those who attack us, to understand their proposition or to see them as possessed of human dignity.

It is not only Muslims in other countries whom we commonly view with suspicion and apprehension. Muslims living in the United States face such feelings at every turn. In many ways their experience parallels in this respect that of the 19th century immigrant com­munities from which so many of us come. We in the established and empowered communities of this coun­try have a responsibility to work for their good, to pro­tect them from prejudice and help them to find their place in equilibrium with the rest of us around them.

In dealing with conflicts, one of the most useful things we can do is a simple process of interpretation, which we can never do merely by ourselves but can only accomplish in conversation with those whose sit­uation we want to understand. Out of such a process of understanding there always comes a whole menu of options, from which those who are affected by the sit­uation can choose. Where people live in such frustra­tion that violence seems their only option, such a menu provides multiple alternatives.

We Christians, too, do well to remember that, for Jews and Muslims alike, a principal problem for most of our long, common history has been the hostile and exclusionary behavior of Christians toward them. They could communicate more easily and safely with each other than either could with us. Given the history of the last century, however, it has become extremely dif­ficult for Jews and Muslims to communicate with each other, but for us Christians, if we care to learn their ways, it has now become easy to speak with either of them. That gives us a special responsibility, in love for both, to be the catalysts for their reconciliation.

The critical component is that we treat our adver­saries with respect. We have this extraordinary common ground, in Abrahamic faith, among the principal parties to these conflicts we are dealing with, that each bears the image of God and possesses the full dignity that implies. We ignore that frequently, but at our peril, especially our moral peril. Without it, our professions of faith are very hollow. With it, if we follow through by pursuing our adversaries not with vengeance but with our hunger to understand; by plumbing the depth of their hurts and resentments and open to them the depth of our own; by demonstrating our compassion and active help for those who suffer from the results of our combat and by keep­ing always in our eye the humanity of the other and their intrinsic dignity, then we can expect to find in them not enemies, but brothers and sisters with whom we can build a future of peace.


Helmick, R.G., S.J. and R.L. Petersen, Eds. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation. West Conshoken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001.

Helmick, R.G. Negotiating Outside the Law: Why Camp David Failed. London: Pluto, 2004.

Father Raymond G. Helmick, S.J., is professor of conflict resolution at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He has worked in the field of conflict resolution in countries all over the world since 1972 and is author of several books.