Anxious Times: Reflections on 9/11/2001
by Loren Seibold | 7 September 2021 |
Shortly after 9/11, I rushed out a book on the event for Pacific Press, which they titled badly and promoted poorly, and it didn’t sell. (Lesson: writing a book isn’t an automatic path to fame. I’ve often wondered if anyone read it—aside from Mrs. Hooper, my academy English teacher, who I think felt obligated because I mailed her a copy. To her credit, she was kind.)
Some months later my much-admired friend Wilmore Eva, who was then editor of Ministry magazine, asked me to write a cover article on the tragedy. I poured my heart into the piece for Ministry, one reason being that I was writing as a pastor to pastors. I felt more proud of this essay than I was of my book. I titled this essay “Preaching to Anxious Times.” I wrote, “Now that a year has passed, we need to take a moment to reexamine four of our most frequently-preached related themes, and consider whether or not we have addressed them well and accurately.”
What follows is an adaptation of that 2002 essay. I think it still works. Those four themes are current for me, and still central to Adventists’ spiritual reflection all these years later. That’s why, almost 20 years later, I’m recycling it for our Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar for this coming week, which is the 20-year anniversary of this event.
Most of us feel less fondness for New York City than any other place in America—a city dangerous, expensive, rude, and seemingly inaccessible to those of us who operate by the rules that work in much of the rest of America.
Yet on the evening of September 11, 2001, New York City almost seemed like my hometown—its people, my people. I and many other true blue, honest, upstanding citizens of the United States and the world suddenly found ourselves bonded to New Yorkers, because they had been attacked by a strange and frightening enemy.
Most of us didn’t know any Moslems. What we Americans had seen on the 6:30 p.m. TV news were strangely-dressed people who seemed to live in a state of anger against one another and the rest of the world. After 9/11, we actually found it a bit of a relief that our enemy was someone whose alienness, whose sheer otherness, saved us the trouble of having to understand them.
Yet remembering that as a Christian I am to love my enemy (instruction I suspect we felt unusually challenging right then) I became more attentive to what I heard of Moslems in the weeks following 9/11. In television interviews Moslem experts disclaimed Moslem militancy, declaring it incompatible with their faith. Moslems in America suggested they were the real victims—and in some instances they were right.
Some Christian leaders rushed to Islam’s defense. Yet I also received an email written by a clergyman, that was just short of Hitlerian in its bigotry and willful misinterpretation of the theology and social system of Islam. It advised us not to believe a word we heard from moderate Islamic leaders or their Christian defenders. In this man’s assessment, Islam was fundamentally hateful, its whole agenda the destruction of Western civilization.
Let us admit it is probably impossible for us to understand the Islamic faith from the outside with much accuracy. I can make a few assumptions, though, based on what I know about human beings. I can assume that some Moslems are liars, others honest. Some are angry, some peace-loving. Some bigoted, some thoughtful. Some sincerely wrong, others angrily right. In short, they are quite like us.
I also know from looking at my own faith tradition that it is possible for insecure people to edit their faith to justify hatred, vengeance, and domination. (A historical event called the Inquisition is something in our own history that we who follow gentle Jesus, meek and mild, prefer not to be reminded of.)
Yet it is not our task to either defend or damn the Moslem faith, but to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that gospel identifies all sin as the work of an enemy, one who is not Moslem—not even human. And though human beings may act as agents of that enemy, we are all victims of sin.
Following 9/11, commentators observed that normally brusque New Yorkers had briefly begun behaving toward one another with some courtesy. Sharing a common enemy was a bonding experience. Yet sinfulness is our real enemy, and we hold that enemy in common with thoughtful people of all faiths, including Islam and Christianity. Rather than trying to analyze Islam, we might do well to show how all human beings are victimized by sin, and so make the end of violence and bigotry our common cause.
Actively loving militant Islamists is, I suspect, still some spiritual growth beyond us. Yet we must love our human enemies at least enough that we do not let hatred overwhelm our souls. Of vengeance there is no natural end; someone must choose to end it. And He whom we follow has asked us to be those who do so.
I confess I am puzzled, particularly in the light of what happened to America on 9/11, by those Christian pastors who use pulpits, (either parish or electronic) to glorify war. That countries may have to fight to prevent terrorism is clear. That we ought to honor and encourage soldiers who risk their lives in such a cause is also clear.
Yet it is equally clear that we should find the entire enterprise of war thoroughly regrettable.
Judeo-Christian theology has long wrestled with the question of war. Under a theocratic government, God occasionally appeared to be a merciless commander (Deut. 20:10-20). But today’s Christian attitudes toward war must come from Jesus’ teaching that we should be, as far as possible, non-aggressive, preferring peaceful to violent means.
Knowing, however, that there are times when truth must be fought for, Augustine and others have proposed the theology of “just war”: War should only be fought to preserve peace or to ensure justice. Yet scholars say even Augustine’s writings on the topic are gloomy and resigned, for in his heart he knew war to be irreducibly evil.
Let us be painfully, startlingly aware of one thing: War will always result in innocent people suffering. When faced with war, the best we can do is to choose the slightly better of bad options, which will result in nothing more than the slightly better of bad outcomes. So let us be sure that we do not spend a moment engaging in a sentimental glorification of war or of our fighting capabilities.
Let us not fly our flag at the pulpit or in it, spouting self-justifying cliches that imply God has confined His interests to our side. Let Christians not use words like “revenge,” for even when fighting is necessary, vengeance is precisely what Jesus intended us not to seek. Let us never gloat over our victories or our enemies’ losses, nor take joy in making war, because there is nothing even remotely joyful about it.
The only thing that makes it possible for a fully-aware Christian to fight a war is the hope that the sum total of tears that will be shed because of fighting the war will be fewer than the sum total of tears that would have been shed had we not fought.
And those are sums that, short of heaven, we shall never possess the ability to calculate accurately.
Even on 9/11, the average American was not in immediate danger from terrorism. Even on 9/11, the terrorist threat to our lives diminished beside the overall statistical threat of death in an auto accident.
Yet there need be no actual danger in order for us to feel afraid. Supposing ourselves in danger will suffice.
One of the fascinating reactions after 9/11 was the increase in the sale of guns in America. And these increases took place despite that there was nothing whatsoever in the entire 9/11 episode that could have been addressed by the average person carrying a gun. Did people suppose a recognizable terrorist would knock on the front door during dinner some evening? Given the prevalence of gun-related accidents and heat-of-the-moment gun use, it’s more likely that the arming of America against terrorism, though it nabbed not a single terrorist, led to more ordinary people dying of gunshots than would have otherwise.
For those of you not from here, please understand that firearming ourselves is a typical American reaction to social stress. It is rarely productive. Yet in this case, it had one redeeming value: guns apparently comforted not a few anxious hearts.
The proper pastoral response to such widespread anxiety, it seems to me, is to offer people not external, but internal comfort. Not comfort they must purchase, or manage by their own judgment, strength and reflexes, but comfort that comes from gaining a deeply spiritual perspective on how one handles the matter of living on a troubled earth resting in the hand of God Himself.
Let us begin with the proposition that God still answers prayers that plead for His comforting presence. “Let not your hearts be troubled” still applies. As does the rest of the passage: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
Note that the burden Jesus has been carrying (and that He offers to us) is a light burden! Clearly, Jesus is not as worried about the future (or, for that matter, war, the stock market, or the time of the end) as we are! That is because Jesus knows that by the mercy of His Father all things will ultimately redound to the good of those who love God. After all, Jesus Himself lived with the knowledge that He was going to die a violent death and trusted His Father to carry Him through.
An old gospel song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” Jesus prayed that His disciples, though they were “in the world” would not be “of the world”. They would be, in a manner of speaking, resident aliens.
It is extraordinarily difficult to live in the world, but not be attached to it or adopt its ideas of what makes for ultimate safety and security. So much of us is invested here! This very real though transcendent perspective is the one that we pastors must offer in our ministry.
In the end it is this that brings us and our people real comfort and security. We can never be entirely at home with things as they presently are on our planet. The joys here never totally delight us, nor do the tragedies take us entirely by surprise, for we live in expectation of something better. And all of this applies not only to 9/11 but to every aspect of the struggle we and our people face as a part of living where and when we do.
A truthful eschatology
Following 9/11, the need for pastors to address the world situation eschatologically was clear. Yes, I need God personally, and so do you. But these dramatic events reminded us that not just individuals, but all human institutions, all societies, all governments, all families, need God’s intervention. In Paul’s words, the whole creation is groaning as it awaits deliverance (Rom. 8:22).
Shortly after last 9/11 I heard a radio preacher explain a passage in Revelation that he supposed specifically fitted the World Trade Center disaster into Bible prophecy. He spoke with great assurance, and I suspect some listeners found immediate comfort in his words. Whether or not he is right is something we’ll only be able to evaluate in the future (though it is unlikely that we will, for by then we’ll all have moved on to a new crisis and 9/11 will fade into history).
Yet I was concerned about his presentation. He was interpreting complex Bible passages in order to predict the details of world events and politics. By extending himself so far from the text and being so specific, he was indulging in the kind of imaginative speculation with God’s Word that others do with Nostradamus or tarot cards.
Second, he was making judgments about others that he was unqualified to make. Like the now-infamous Falwell/Robertson interview, he pretended to know which sinners God was punishing on 9/11, and why. This is biblically unsupportable on several counts, not the least of which is that God reserves the right of judgment for Himself and punishes sinners in His own time and way, all without consulting us.
Third, beyond knowing the preacher’s thoughts on the matter, what could listeners do with the information? Like having a gun under the mattress, did they suppose that specific knowledge of world affairs would give them a measure of personal control? And what if his predictions turn out to be inaccurate—as they no doubt will? Would he damage more faith than he could build?
Lost in the details was the foundational message of all eschatology: that God is in charge of the ultimate fate of this earth. An honest eschatology assures of God’s jurisdiction over earthly and political affairs, without taking liberties with God’s Word.
Eschatology succeeds if it teaches people to trust our Lord to keep His eyes on world events, while we “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). There is little in this broken world, and even less in its political and social structures, that we can repair ourselves.
The most helpful principle I have found for interpreting prophecy is derived from the words of Jesus in John 16:4 when He warned His disciples about the future troubles they could expect to come to them: “I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you” (NIV).
This passage reminds me that eschatology was meant not to provide us with a means of predicting the future and managing world events, but as a means of confirming our faith in God’s management when we most need to have it confirmed. We are not in control. But we must assure God’s people that God is in control, whether or not we understand His methods or His chronology.
Our anxious times are hardly over. Terrorism (which is nothing more than another of Satan’s ways to distribute pain) will be with us as long as war is—until Jesus makes all things new. Let us, until then, trust in Him thoughtfully and implicitly, whom no terror can threaten.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today. This essay is adapted from a piece that was originally published in the August, 2002, Ministry magazine.