National Tragedies in Light of Spiritual Truths:
The Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks

For Sunday September 11, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 14:19–31 or Genesis 50:15–21

Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1–11, 20–21, or Psalm 103

Romans 14:1–12

Matthew 18:21–35

           A month ago my wife and I were in New York City and went to the World Trade Center site. Standing there and contemplating what happened made the hair on my neck and arms stand up. America will never forget the trauma of the 9/11 tragedy, nor should we. Ten years later people still remember where they were when they heard the news. I was badgering my son to turn off the television and get to school. He said that something really bad was happening on CNN.

           On September 11, 2001, nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners in a coordinated suicide attack. One plane slammed into the North Tower of the WTC, another into the South Tower, a third one plowed into the Pentagon, and a fourth plane that had targeted the US Capitol or the White House crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers wrestled control from the hijackers. Nearly 3,000 people from 90 countries died in the carnage, including 343 firefighters and 60 police officers. Although he first denied any responsibility, on October 30, 2004, Osama bin Laden said that he had directed the attacks.

National tragedy.
National tragedy.

           Why did Al-Qaeda attack America? How should Christians respond? Ten years is a long time, but it still might not be long enough to understand the tragedy. Preaching at the National Cathedral after the event, Billy Graham observed that no one really knows why such catastrophic evils happen. What follows, then, are a range of reflections more than an adequate explanation.

           Throughout history, nations and non-state actors have justified their wars with all sorts of rationalizations — territorial expansion, retaliation, protection, self-defense, and to spread their economic and political ideology. America is no exception in this regard (see Stephen Kinzer's book Overthrow). The thirty-three page National Security Strategy of 2002, for example, praised American democratic capitalism as the "single sustainable model for national success," and "right and true for every person in every society." We would export our way of life "to every corner of the globe," said the NSS, and we'd act unilaterally and preemptively against any nation that tried to thwart us. Needless to say, some countries didn't like such hubris.

           The attackers were partly motivated by their hatred of western values — secular democracy that separates church and state, religious pluralism, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, the privacy of the individual, and toleration of dissent. For Muslim extremists and conservative Americans this tends to be a black-and-white view of the world with little middle ground or ambiguity. Nations are "either for us or against us," Bush famously said. On one side there's an "axis of evil" that wills us harm, and on the other side enlightened people who champion the true, the good, and the just. I don't find this view helpful; the "Arab Spring" shows that many Muslims aspire to some western values.

           Other people point to American foreign policy. A 1998 fatwa by Osama bin Laden and others objected not to our values but to three specific "crimes and sins" — our support for the United Nations sanctions against Iraq (1990–2003) that hastened the deaths of a million citizens (UNICEF says that 500,000 children died as a result of the sanctions), our biased support for Israel to the detriment of Palestinians, and the presence of our numerous military bases in their sacred Muslim lands. The fatwa also mentioned America's plundering of Arab resources, support for abusive regimes, and undermining self-determination by dictating policy.

           In this view, the 9/11 attacks were a classic case of "blowback." Blowback, said Chalmers Johnson, is "another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows." What many people "hate" about America, Johnson argued, is our global militarism and predatory economic policies which virtually assure retaliations against us for decades to come. Instead of acting prudently, we have acted with what has become predictable condescension towards other nations and with myopia about the consequences. Our overwhelming and global military-economic threat, exercised with little fear of retaliation, is "seeding resentments that are bound to breed attempts at retaliation."

           These are reasonable explanations, but they're not a valid excuse. There's no excuse for Al-Qaeda's global terrorism.

           Some Christians appealed to God's providential intervention. Jerry Falwell infamously construed the 9/11 attacks as divine punishment for the wickedness of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU, and People for the American Way. “I point the finger in their face,” said Falwell, “and say, ‘you helped this happen.’” Pat Robertson, a guest on the show, nodded in agreement, saying, “well, I totally concur.” In their view, America's policies aren't wrong because they're politically imprudent as a matter of practice. Rather, they're morally wrong as a matter of principle because they violate God's standards.

           The remarks of Falwell and Robertson are reckless and hateful. I'm uncomfortable with linking divine judgment and national disaster, whether for America or for any nation. It's one thing to affirm that God acts in the history of nations, but quite another to claim to know exactly how, when, where, or why. And yet, having said that, no less than Abraham Lincoln once described the Civil War as God's judgment on American slavery.

Eva Kor returns to Auschwitz.
Eva Kor returns to Auschwitz.

           Christians face particular difficulties in deconstructing the attacks. The kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are different. Personal spiritual truths in the Bible do not translate into national public policies for a country. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this dilemma during the Nazi horrors. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr he said that "German Christians faced a terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization." The good of the gospel and the glory of a nation often collide, for if Jesus is Lord, then all the pharaohs and caesars of the world are not lord.

           Maybe America is somehow exceptional in the world? Yes and no.

           In terms of economic, political, military, scientific and cultural influence, America is unrivaled. In that sense, it's accurate to say that America is "exceptional," although there's no reason to think this will last forever, or that all our influence is good. But since Christian identity is ultimately spiritual and not political or national (Philippians 3:20), from a Christian point of view America is no more or less "exceptional" in God's eyes than Iceland, India, or Iraq. The historian Rebecca Lyman observes that the early gospel developed in the context of Greek, Roman, and Jewish "exceptionalisms," and has ever since been tempted to mimic rather than subvert them.

           It's natural to love and take pride in your own country. But when it comes to geography, culture, nation, and ethnicity, Christians are egalitarians rather than exceptionalists. We reject any and all forms of narcissistic nationalism. For us there's no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God lavishly loves all the world, each person, and every place, the gospel does not privilege any country as exceptional. An Iranian Muslim is no further from God's love than an American Christian. A Honduran Pentecostal is no closer to God's love than an Oxford atheist. This Christian egalitarianism subverts all geo-political nationalisms.

           Should Americans forgive the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks? I've been wondering about a possible parallel scenario.

           Could you or should you forgive Dr. Mengele, the Nazi "angel of death?" That question haunted Eva Kor, who tells her remarkable story in the documentary film Forgiving Dr. Mengele (2007). Eva and her twin sister Miriam spent ten months in Auschwitz. Along with many other twins, they were separated from their families and subjected to Mengele's horrific "medical" experiments. After liberation by the Soviets when she was ten-years old, and then ten years in Israel, Eva relocated to Terre Haute, Indiana in 1960 and raised a family.

           Eva returned to Auschwitz for the first time in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, and on that occasion she did the unthinkable. She read aloud her personal "official declaration of amnesty" to Mengele and the Nazis. To be liberated from the Nazis was not enough, she said; she needed to be released from the pain of the past. To extend forgiveness without any prerequisites required of the perpetrators, said Eva, was an "act of self-healing." Through the act of "forgiving your worst enemy" Eva said that she experienced "the feeling of complete freedom from pain." Many Jews were outraged by her act.

           In the lectionary readings this week, Jesus and Joseph commend the healing power of forgiveness.

           Joseph believed that God had a larger providential purpose for Israel beyond the private wrongs he had suffered at the hands of his brothers: "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). At least four times he reassures his nervous brothers, "it was not you who sent me to Egypt, but God" (Genesis 45:5, 7, 8, 9). The story concludes: "Joseph reassured them and spoke kindly to them."

Computer rendering of the new Freedom Tower at the WTC site.
Computer rendering of the new Freedom Tower
at the WTC site.

           And in the gospel for this week, Peter asked Jesus, "how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Forgiving someone seven times is generous in the extreme, but Jesus upped the ante and expanded the arithmetic of forgiveness.

           Jesus told an outlandish parable about an "unmerciful servant" who received forgiveness for his own enormous debt, but then instead of extending forgiveness for a tiny debt that he was owed, he imprisoned his debtor. In the kingdom of God that Jesus announced, he instructed us to forgive not merely seven times, but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. The forgiveness that characterizes his kingdom is beyond calculation or comprehension.

           Jesus also linked receiving forgiveness to offering forgiveness. He established a law of proportionality. We can expect divine forgiveness in the measure that we extend human forgiveness: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart." Similarly, in the Lord's Prayer we ask God to "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Our own sense of the need of forgiveness is the basis upon which we freely forgive others. We can only long for ourselves what we lavish upon others.

           Forgiveness of this magnitude finds its basis not only in our own sense of need but, even more sure and certain, in the character of God himself as a fundamentally forgiving God. Paul writes, "be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). And in this week's epistle: "Accept one another, just as God has accepted you" (Romans 14:1, 15:7).

           Frederic Luskin, co-founder of Stanford University's "Forgiveness Project," says that forgiveness "reduces anger, hurt, depression and stress and leads to greater feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self confidence." Luskin has conducted numerous workshops and research projects on forgiveness. He's worked with a wide variety of people in corporate, medical, legal and religious settings. In his book Forgive for Good, Luskin elucidates what Eva Kor experienced and what Joseph and Jesus taught, that in forgiving we can become "heroes instead of victims in the stories we tell."

* With thanks to Rebecca Lyman for her suggestions and insights.

Image credits: (1); (2) Dallas Morning News; and (3)