Shaun Casey is a senior fellow with the Luce Project on Religion and Its Publics at the University of Virginia and a Pulaski Institution non-resident fellow. He served as director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and professor of the practice in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University from 2017 to 2021. He previously was U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs and director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He has also served as professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and held positions at the Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Casey has written on the ethics of the war in Iraq, as well the role of religion in American presidential politics. He is the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (2009) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Political Theology (forthcoming, with Michael Kessler); he is writing a book on ethics and international politics tentatively titled Niebuhr’s Children. Casey holds a B.A. from Abilene Christian University, MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, and M.Div. and Th.D. in religion and society from Harvard Divinity School.
September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. As I have been reflecting on what I have learned in the subsequent years, my mind wandered to an episode three days after 9/11. I had just begun my second year of teaching at Wesley Theological Seminary. I was still the new kid on the block trying to figure out my way, both at Wesley and in Washington public life. Channel Four called the seminary looking for a faculty member to represent the “Faith Community” on a panel discussion with medical, security, and political experts to be aired on Sunday morning. A senior seminary administrator volunteered me without any consultation. Having never done any media, I was both intrigued and petrified.
Given my rookie status, it was a bit of a shock to hear my brother and sister panelists speaking confidently about what the attack meant for their communities. They were clearly veterans of Washington television punditocracy. I vaguely remember mumbling something about “only time will tell who these people were and what they want and how we should respond.” The disdain from my fellow panelists was palpable. Their message to me was clear: Up your game, pal, or you’ll never make it here in the big leagues.
The main lesson I drew from this inauspicious beginning to my public career was that this town has an insatiable hunger for instant analysis, and there is no shortage of instant experts ready to fill that hunger on any subject, including religion. We’re still paying a price for the caricatures of religions, especially Islam, on the part of some of those early quacks. Fifteen years later, I have a few more lessons, but I am still troubled by what often passes for expertise on religion in public life.
This town has an insatiable hunger for instant analysis, and there is no shortage of instant experts ready to fill that hunger on any subject, including religion.
I want to reflect on the Genesis passage, to see what lessons we can draw some 15 years after 9/11.
Jacob and Esau were twins, born to Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac loved Esau, the eldest, and Rebekah loved Jacob. Only one could inherit the divine blessing from God to their grandfather Abraham, the other would not. When Isaac was near death, he commissioned Esau to hunt game for him and prepare a meal so he could formally transmit the blessing onto Esau. In a tragi-comic scene, Rebekah intervenes with Jacob to trick his blind father into giving the family blessing to Jacob. Chaos, hate, and intrigue ensue.
In the aftermath of this deceit and fraud, Esau vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah overhears his vow, she warns Jacob, and Jacob flees to a far-off city. Years go by, and now Jacob is moving his family and animals, taking a journey where he has to pass through the land Esau rules. Jacob is afraid that Esau’s memory and subsequent loathing for his younger brother still burn hot after many decades have passed. So, he develops a strategy to send waves of emissaries as buffers between the brothers. Some messengers return with the somber news that Esau is coming with four hundred men, so Jacob does what any rational actor would and he panics.
He sorts his entourage into two companies and divides each company into waves of animals, slaves, family, and more animals—hoping that if Esau starts killing them, the ones in the back of the parade may escape.
So, what does this have to do with where we are today? The second thing I have learned since 9/11 is that memory, hatred, and fear have been—and probably always will be—powerful drivers of human behavior. If we want to understand conflict in the world, we have to understand the history of grievances, we have to know the texture and context of history and belief, and that is very hard work. So many places I have traveled as a diplomat present complex, competing narratives of what caused and fed conflicts—memory, hatred, and fear are often intertwined. We should resist the quick and instant punditry that seeks to reduce cases to simple formulas and theories. We should also reject the temptation to draw quick analogies from our own cultural or religious experiences to those of others.
If we want to understand conflict in the world, we have to understand the history of grievances, we have to know the texture and context of history and belief, and that is very hard work.
But the biblical scene does not end with Jacob’s plotting from fear. When the pair finally meet, Esau runs to his younger brother, embraces him, kisses him, and weeps! He appears to have moved on.
This is a great example of how the biblical narrative subverts our contemporary impulses. The listener is set up to expect a blood bath from the hands of the unlucky older brother who has been robbed of his fame, fortune, and divine blessing by his conspiratorial younger brother and his mother! There is no clash of civilizations being played out here. Instead, a deeply wronged party has resisted the very deep human impulse for vengeance or violence. Love has somehow triumphed over hate. But maddeningly, we are not privy to how and why Esau has changed his mind. There is no program or recipe for peace here. It just happens.
And this is the third thing I have learned since 9/11: The hardcore political realists are wrong. People can and do change. Memory is not fate, human nature is not fixed, hatred and power are not the only forces at work in human beings—love and transformation are possibilities.
If the narrative ended here, we would have the perfect feel-good sermon. But the text points us in a less perfect direction. Esau tells Jacob, “Let’s travel together down south to my home.” And yet Jacob hedges, saying, “My party is slow and tired so you go ahead, brother.” Esau says, “Let me leave some helpers behind with you.” Again, Jacob prevaricates and says, “We don’t want to slow you down. We’ll see you on down the line in a bit.”
Esau relents and heads south toward home, while Jacob makes a dash westward, putting miles between their companies, never going to visit Esau in the south. Many a preacher stops with Esau’s bear hug of Jacob, ignoring the fact that the brothers have not reconciled in any deep sense. Jacob apparently feels he has had a brush with death and does not yet fully trust his brother, so he moves on.
Here, I see the fourth lesson I have learned since 9/11. We in the West spend a lot of time hoping for and working toward fairy tale endings in our global politics. But what we have in the Jacob and Esau story is what St. Augustine called “peace of a sort.” It isn’t the eschatological peace of the Kingdom of God or even a good ending to a television miniseries. But it is worth noting and celebrating.
We in the West spend a lot of time hoping for and working toward fairy tale endings in our global politics. But what we have in the Jacob and Esau story is what St. Augustine called ‘peace of a sort.’
So, what is the upshot from this ancient text for our day? If there is a word from God, it might run something like this:
In the wider frame, God’s promises of peace and blessing are played out in the lives, and via the agency, of complex, flawed, and ordinary people. For the most part in the biblical narrative, God does not deliver these divine promises of peace as an overt actor. Instead, we who live in the aftermath of that horrible day should keep on doing what we have always done: seek to partner with anyone of goodwill—no matter what their religion or politics—in the pursuit of peace, justice, and love. We come together in our diverse religious beliefs and practices to feed the poor, welcome the refugee, comfort the grieving, and do myriad concrete acts that push back the frontiers of evil. For in so doing, we, too, may help birth a “peace of a sort” in our own time.