The Gospel comforts America’s fear with the hope of Jesus’ victory over death. It confronts America’s no-strings-attached faith in god (little ‘g’) by calling her to a radical faith in the Living God combined with true repentance. But beyond fear and faith, America’s response to Sept. 11th raised some disconcerting questions about America’s future. There was a plainly stated sense of uncertainty about what life in this country would be like after this event. Would America be the new Palestine, where we’d hear helicopters constantly circling in the skies and gunfire outside our houses? Would our cities be full of barricaded roads and our urban streets bear the mark of persistent military presence? If nothing else, one tangible difference that I’ve experienced after Sept. 11th is the guarantee that I will be frisked every time I go to the airport. But outside of the occasional involuntary massage, the problems for America seemed much bigger. The world, especially the western world, instantly became a more dangerous place than anyone living here could have ever projected.
Andrew Sullivan, in his TIME magazine article on the one-year anniversary of the attacks, “Most of us know that there is no moving on from Sept. 11. It wasn't a random tragedy for which grief is a slow-acting salve. It was a massacre—a premeditated murder of civilians by men possessed by a theocratic ideology. It was an invasion—the violation of sovereign American soil, the erasure of a visible monument to American success and energy and civilization. It was a crime—the filling of the air of a great and free city with the irradiated dust of innocent human lives. It was a statement—that radical Islam intends to attack and destroy the very principles of the Enlightenment that underpin the American experiment—freedom of religion, of conscience, toleration and secularism.”
Later on in the same article he observed: “[Sept. 11th] showed us that we stand deeply vulnerable to a destructive force in some ways more dangerous than even the last two totalitarian powers Americans were called on to defeat. This enemy refuses to fight with honor; it hides and disappears and re-emerges whenever its purposes are served; it may soon have access to weapons that Hitler and Stalin only dreamed of. But it cannot be defeated the way Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were defeated because it is more like a virus than a host, infecting and capturing nation-states, like Afghanistan, and then moving on to others. So we will have to act to pre-empt it this time, in Iraq and elsewhere, or it will be too late to resist it at all. For Sept. 11 showed that, for the first time in history, the American homeland is actually vulnerable to a deadly foreign enemy.”
These comments aren’t new or revolutionary – they reflect the same oft repeated sentiment offered by the President immediately following the attacks, and that of most Americans: 9/11 has changed the world; nothing will ever be the same again.
As followers of Jesus, what should we make of that sentiment? Has this admittedly horrifying national tragedy really changed the world? In his Olivet discourse Jesus declared, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” These words weren’t meant to be an eschatological escape hatch by which we avoid very real issues for which we are called to be responsible salt and light in favor of more "heavenly" concerns – but the point is clear. We’ve always had war. Humanity has continually witnessed violent rebellion against sovereign nations (that’s how America was born, remember?) – violence, pain, suffering and evil are as old as sin. But these words, "9/11 has changed the world" are not only dissonant with Jesus’ own realism – they also ring hollow to those countries who’ve suffered injustice on an even larger scale before 9/11, and continue to suffer today. American culture tends to insulate us from the concerns of other nations by their sheer irrelevance to our own well-being. The far-removed turmoil of Rwanda, Darfur, or Nepal are so outside the pale of national self-interest as to not qualify as “world changing” horrors for the people of the United States. It seems as though September 11th, 2001 didn’t really change the world – it continues to be mostly devoid of incarnational, self-deprecating neighbor-love.
But there was a day in human history that really did change the world, because it put an end to the politics of death. One day in 30 AD Jesus the Nazarene (a man attested to us by God, who was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God) we Americans nailed to a cross by our self-involved godlessness and sin. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. Therefore let Americans know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom, by our sin, we crucified. And if Americans are pierced to the heart, let each one of us repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins; and we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for all Americans, and their children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.
The future of America may be uncertain – but the future of those who trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins is not. Their future is a kingdom in which death has been put to death, fear has been exiled, swords have been made plowshares, and all nations and ethnicities have been reconciled into one New Humanity. In this kingdom the law is love, the economy is grace, and the King is God with us. It is a kingdom to come, yet has broken in on our world through the resurrection of Jesus and the Church which His new life empowers through the Spirit.
Rooted in the Spirit’s filling power Paul can raise a defiant voice to the powers that continue to rule below: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”