After 10 Years: On Trying to Follow Jesus in Post-9/11 America
Since I (also) work nights, I remember that I was asleep when the first plane struck the tower on that awful day. Kate, my wife, called and told me to turn on the TV–any channel. I did. By the time I’d washed my face and could absorb the horror, we could see the 2nd plane crash into tower 2 and we knew that this was no horrible accident, but a terrorist attack using planes as weapons. Before much longer, a 3rd plane had crashed into the Pentagon and 4th crashed into a field in PA–thanks to brave passangers whose actions probably prevented that plane from crashing into the White House or Congress. Like almost everyone else in the nation (indeed, much of the world), I was numb with shock for much of the day. Then, I drove downtown to the Red Cross and stood in line for hours to give blood.
I was grieving the victims and, like anyone else, afraid of what more attacks could mean. But I was MORE afraid of the reaction of my nation. From the beginning, I knew it would be very, very, bad. I knew that, without wise leadership (which we lacked entirely), the country’s response would not be for justice, much less forgiveness, repentance for our part in creating such hatred, or work for reconciliation, but a thirst for REVENGE that would blind us to idiocy and immorality of our own actions. The U.S. was traumatized on 9/11, and I am not sure we have recovered much from that trauma in the following decade. We continue to act in blind rage. We refuse to ask seriously “Why do they hate us?” and continue to give ourselves the cheap and easy non-answer of “they hate our freedoms,” even while we barter away that freedom for “homeland security” that does little to make us secure. We have loudly retold ourselves the myths of our national innocence (even sinlessness) and refused to examine our foreign policies to see where we are sowing the seeds of hatred and fear that is reaped in terrorist attacks. People from over 50 nations perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11, but we in the U.S. act as if we were the only victims. And we are far too willing to victimize others in return.
The reactions of people varied, of course: Many lost faith in God. Equating all religion with terrorist fanaticism, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others led a wave of “new atheism.” Others simply lost their faith in nonviolence and peacemaking. I had a different response: My faith in God and in gospel nonviolence were reaffirmed and strengthened, but I lost faith in America and in most of the American churches. Now, as an Anabaptist-influenced Christian, I didn’t have “faith in America” in the sense of many Constantinian Christians who believe in such foolishness as “Christian nations,” and who treat patriotism as part of Christian faith. I think all that is anathema to the gospel and have for decades. And I knew too much history to think that my nation was incapable of great evil. But 9/11’s aftermath revealed to me that I did have a lingering liberal residue of faith that my nation, ON SOME LEVEL, really believed in its stated values of democracy, freedom, “liberty and justice for all,” and peace and human rights–however imperfectly it lived up to those ideals. Since 9/11, I have become more cynical about my government and about the moral sensibility of the vast majority of the American people. I now see the U.S. as primarily a force for injustice and violence in the world and not a force for justice or peace. In 2003-2005, I even gave a serious effort to emigrating to Canada and seeking Canadian citizenship. (I would have been open to opportunities to relocate to the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, either–despite the fact that the UK and Australia had become “junior partners” in the “war on terror,” because I saw the resistance of citizens being more widespread there than here.)
But my biggest disillusionment was with mainstream U.S. churches–whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or liberal or centrist. I saw major theologians and pastors get swept up in the urge for revenge. I saw prominent Christian voices demonize all Muslims–and criticize their hero, Pres. George W. Bush, for calling Islam a “religion of peace.” (Around the world, people saw most that Bush’s actions belied his words that he was not engaged in a “war on Islam,” but at home, Christians, especially Bush’s base of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, were angry that he did not join them in demonizing Islam and VERBALLY equating Islam and terrorism.) This wasn’t universal, I know: Both the late John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict XVI condemned the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq–but most U.S. Catholics completely ignored this (if they were even aware of it) and some even dismissed John Paul II’s opposition to senility. President Bush’s denomination, the United Methodist Church, opposed the invasion of Iraq (and raised warnings about the invasion of Afghanistan), but when Bush ignored the UMC Bishops, they did nothing in response and most UMC laity assumed their leaders were completely behind the “war on terror.” Evangelical groups were even more militant and the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm even started printing “military Bibles!” My description and comments on that idolatry can be found here and here.
To be sure, some were more faithful in resisting this militaristic distortion of Christianity and even renewed and deepened their commitment to gospel peacemaking. The “historic peace churches,” Mennonites, Friends/Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren, have been steadfast in their peace witness and have renewed efforts to share that witness. Methodist pacifist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas spoke out more on the gospel commitment to nonviolence. I joined the staff of Every Church a Peace Church and worked with others to try to get congregations, parishes, synods, denominations, to declare themselves peace churches and take concrete steps to make that a reality. When I was introduced to theological blogging in 2004, I created a “Christian Peace Bloggers” ring that worked to publicize the gospel of peace in diverse settings. Denominational Peace Fellowships experienced growth in numbers, dedication, and creative programs with most of them adopting or strengthening already existing programs to activate the message of gospel nonviolence at the level of the local congregation/parish. Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice was formed and is working to reclaim the radical gospel nonviolence that was at the heart of the Pentecostal movement in its earliest days. Christian Peacemaker Teams continued their work of nonviolent interference with war in Iraq at the risk of their lives (a delegation was captured by insurgents and one member lost his life) and, along with others, stepped up work for a just peace in Palestine-Israel, which remains a major obstacle to overccoming terrorism. Princeton theologian George Hunsinger organized the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT) in response to the revelation of the horrors of Abu- Ghraib and of Guantanemo Bay. As part of that NRCAT coalition, evangelical Christian ethicist, David Gushee, while not embracing pacifism (yet, I have hopes) gave up defending Just War Theory and put his full efforts into work for peace, including founding Evangelicals for Human Rights, and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Other efforts abound. But, for the most part, these voices are drowned out in the U.S. by the voices of “militaristic Christians” who do not want to take up their crosses and follow the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace, but take up their guns and march into battle behind a bloodthirsty false god using Jesus’ name in vain.
The great Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the first Christians in Germany to realize Hitler’s threat, not just to world peace, but to the gospel, and one of the earliest resistance leaders, wrote an essay, “After Ten Years,” in which he asked whether or not the resisters were still
“of any use” to the cause of Christ. Ten years after 9/11 and the U.S. response of total violence, it is worth asking if we U.S. Christians remain “of any use” to the cause of Christ or to the cause of peace. Are we engaged in interfaith dialogue with Muslims and working for better interfaith understanding–not out of a commitment to liberal “tolerance,” but because without such we are bearing false witness against our Muslim neighbors? We need to ask it of ourselves individually, of our local congregations/parishes, of our denominational and ecumenical leaders, of our theologians .
As for my local house of worship, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, I doubt that I could have survived this decade with my sanity intact, without it. Long before 9/11, we were already a congregation with a long history of working for peace and justice. After 9/11, even before the invasion of Afghanistan, we began lighting a peace candle during each worship service. By 2003, we had declared ourselves a “peace church” and joined the network of congregations in Every Church a Peace Church and deepened our connections to the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and to the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation. It is quite a contrast with others where I know people are not even free to PRAY for peace!
Tomorrow, on the 10th anniversary of that day of terror, when many congregations are stoking more fears of Muslims, or promoting more militarism in the name of the Prince of Peace(!), one of our youth, Jesse Weber-Owens, will be baptized at Deem Lake. He is dying to the violence of the world system and rising to follow the unarmed Lamb who conquers with defenseless love! He will be joining the army that sheds no blood, as Tertullian called the church of God.
My congregation is far from perfect and our following of Jesus is full of stumbling. But I rejoice in God’s gifting of it to this section of downtown Louisville. It grounds my own resistance to greed, consumerism, violence, war, and empire. May such communities of grace and resistance abound, enabling a global dance of resurrection in the Dragon’s jaws.