It’s very difficult to know what to say about September 11th, 2001, or if anything should be said at all. As we’ve witnessed most recently with hurricane Katrina, evangelicals tend to be the first ones to give theological explanations for why these things happen, and they’re not always very good ones. Sometimes we are to the world what Job’s friends were to him, claiming to speak for God, dishing out confident judgment, even though we don’t really have the foggiest idea of what’s in His mind.
What evangelicals like myself are a little slower to learn from Job’s friends is the one blessing they actually did bestow upon him, which is, of course, being respectful enough to keep silent for at least a little while (Job 2:13). Four years have passed since Islamic extremists smashed two fully occupied commercial jets into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. In a single day they murdered over 2,900 people; 2,900 souls, including men, women, children, Americans, internationals, Muslims, Christians and pagans, perished in one dreadful instant. The President of the United States declared what many Americans felt after seeing another plane explode into the side of the second building, and as droves of the doomed flung themselves from the towers’ top windows rather than being burned to death – “The world has changed”, he said. There was the almost universal feeling that we weren’t safe anymore.
Four years is a lot of time for reflection, and it’s certainly seems long enough for silence to be broken. But the question is, what sort of words does the Church have to offer? What should we say to these things? It’s potentially a very politically explosive topic for Christians to discuss, given how America has responded since then. Conservatives, liberals and moderates are at war about the war in Iraq, and whether America should or shouldn’t have responded this way to the horrifying events of that day. So what can we say? Not only is it not a very safe topic, but it’s a potentially very confusing one – not even all Christians are sure about whether America should or shouldn’t have responded the way it did. Issues of how the church should relate to the state, what constitutes a just war and whether there is such a thing as a Christian foreign policy aren’t easy subjects; they’re very complicated, and no matter what we conclude, we should approach them with a lot of fear, trepidation and even an appropriate amount of uncertainty (check out some book reviews representing Just War and pacifist variations on the topic).
But there is a message that the Church has to offer Americans in light of Sept. 11th that we can proclaim boldly, without fear, because it is the one thing God has actually given us to say: and that is the message of the Gospel. It’s a message that neither republicans nor democrats can bring, because it’s a message about a kingdom to which they don’t belong. It seems that the one message Americans need to hear about Sept. 11th is something that only the Church can say.
But America isn’t just confused about the Gospel, or ignorant of it; the problem is much worse than that. She believes a gospel, it’s just not the Gospel. When Christians respond to Sept. 11th with the Gospel, we’re not just filling a vacuum in the heart of this country – we’re smashing idols. We are, as Paul says in 2 Co. 10:5, “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.” Missionaries to foreign fields spend years studying the culture so that they can determine what kinds of idols and false beliefs need to be confronted with the Gospel; but on Sept. 11th, 2001 God revealed some of these things to us. What emerged in this tragedy for our country was America’s false fears, fruitless faith and her uncertain future. And even though these things have already faded from the minds of most Americans (we’re so quick to forget), I’ll never forget how universally they were on the lips of every American in the months following that attack.
Terror. That’s the word which is still being used to describe what happened, and the purported war on terror(ism) that sprung from it. Never before have people in this country felt so vulnerable – these things didn’t happen in Beirut; they didn’t happen in Israel; they didn’t even happen on an island off the American continent somewhere as with Pearl Harbor – thousands of people were killed by foreign attackers within our borders, under our noses, in our faces, in a major city of the United States. And the enemy proved to be practically invisible! They went completely undetected, and we have no idea how many more of them are still within our borders. The attacks were soon followed with mailed packets of anthrax, and even the possible threat of a manually detonated nuclear attack. If something like this can happen once, it can happen again. And they’re promising that it will.
There are so many levels at which this event exposed American fear, but the most obvious one is the fear of death. Perhaps no other people in the world are as simultaneously both afraid and fascinated with death as the United States is. The fact that we’re afraid of death can be seen in how our society handles it – the dying in this country are invisible – they’re carted off to nursing homes, hospitals, and ultimately funeral homes. Americans never have to see them; we don’t have to touch them, or be reminded that it’s going to happen to us. At the same time Americans spend millions of dollars getting plastic surgery, lathering on cosmetic creams, distracting ourselves with toys and entertainment, and going to Disneyland where one can “be a kid forever”. We try to keep death as far from our eyes as possible, and we’ll spend as much money as it takes to prolong it for as long as possible, because we’re scared to death of death.
But at the same time, we’re fascinated. We parade staged, phony death before our eyes all the time. We witness violent, meaningless death after death on television, movies and in music. One columnist said it this way: “Americans are fascinated with death – so long as it’s done at a distance, done to someone else, and done with special effects.” What made the enemies of America who smashed planes into those buildings so terrifying to Americans is that they don’t share this sensibility – they are willing to die in order to kill us! They don’t cling to their lives or go kicking and screaming into death like we do – they welcome it, they even pursue it with determination. They’re willing to die for their beliefs, which is something that simply does not compute for most Americans who don’t even like waiting in line at the ATM. An enemy that’s not afraid for even his own life scares the hell out of Americans who can’t stand to think about death unless its glamorized in entertaining fiction.
A serious reason that death is so scary to Americans isn’t just the indulgent materialistic lifestyles we live (though that’s a huge part of it – we consume more resources than just about anyone in the world), it’s also the fact that we’re terrified by the meaninglessness of it all – the futility of it. Americans don’t mind if their lives are mostly meaningless; they don’t give much thought to life beyond their own personal happiness – but they can’t stand the fact that their deaths would be meaningless. Americans want meaningful deaths without meaningful lives. And so those who died in the World Trade Center weren’t just victims of senseless violence – they were martyrs of freedom. They were characterized as heroes, every bit as much as the firemen and rescue workers at ground zero. Donald Rumsfeld said in a memorial service following the attacks: “Everyone who died were heroes every day. We are here to affirm that. And to do this on behalf of America.” A nice thing to say – but is it true? Did dying in a terrorist siege transform them into heroes, every day? Why isn’t it enough to characterize them as victims, instead of bestowing this additional honor? As tragic as their deaths were, they didn’t give their lives; their lives were taken from them. But Americans just can’t accept that they would die as victims – if they die, especially at the hands of their enemies, they have to die as heroes so that our collective lives as Americans can mean something more than the selfish way we actually live them. It’s interesting that in George Bush’s speech following the attacks he said that the terrorists were attempting to destroy the American way of life, and that in order to show the terrorists that we won’t stop being Americans, the American people need to . . . shop. If that’s all there is to the American way of life, you can see why Americans don’t do death very well.
But the Gospel confronts our fear of death with freedom. Not necessarily freedom from terrorism, the freedoms of civil liberty or democracy; that’s not the kind of freedom the Church can offer. We can live with terrorism. We can live without civil liberties. We can even live without democracy – Paul did, and so did Jesus. What we can’t live without, and what the Gospel does offer is freedom from death. Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through [His] death [on the cross] He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”
Americans may enjoy, for this short period of time in history, some political liberties, but they are slaves – slaves to the devil and slaves to their own lusts. The Gospel has set us free from the fear of death, which means we are free to be the people of God: free to love, because we don’t fear the consequences of love, which could be our deaths!
Like the Muslims who murdered those people, we too are willing to die – but unlike them, we aren’t willing to die in order to kill our enemies, we’re willing to die FOR THEIR SAKE! And just as deliverance from death frees us to love, love frees us from the fear of death. As the apostle John said in 1 Jn. 4:18-19, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.19 We love, because He first loved us.”
This doesn’t mean that Christians are without fear; but our fear is far different from America’s fear – ultimately we don’t fear death, fanaticism or the enemies of democracy – we fear the God to whom both believer and unbeliever will answer. Mat. 10:28 says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Almost 2,900 people died from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. America’s Gospel says that this was an attack on our political freedom, and that the answer to the slavery of radical Islam is the spread of democracy. But Americans are quick to forget that nearly 2,600 Americans die from heart disease every day, one person every 34 seconds. On Sept. 11, 2001 35,615 people in this world died of starvation, and around 85 percent of those were children under the age of 5. Surgical abortions kill something like 1.5 million American children every year. Part of what made Sept. 11th so difficult for Americans is that it riveted them to that which they’re most terrified to face – they’re going to die. We're enslaved to sin and death, and democracy can’t free us from that kind of tyranny.