How September 12 Destroyed my Faith

Ekklesia Project Online, September 10, 2002
Copyright 2002, Telford Work

The world's history is full of atrocities. Modernity sought to end them in the name of reason, but that only brought new justifications. We are all familiar with the near annihilation of native America, the Reign of Terror, slavery, the Soviet terror famines, the Holocaust and cognate genocides so numerous that we can no longer remember them offhand, the Cultural Revolution, the killing fields. These events are facts from history classes.

September 11 is different. Not because it was worse; in fact, a death toll of thousands is nothing compared to the millions in each of these. It is different because you and I witnessed it, along with just about everyone else in the world.

Instant worldwide exposure precipitated reactions even more shocking than the event itself. September 11 shattered my sensibilities, but September 12 scarred my conscience and destroyed my faith. Many today quite properly are remembering the anniversary of the event. I want to remember the aftermath.

Two reactions have predominated since the event, on all sides of the war it proclaimed. One is rough justice. The other is cheap grace.

Practitioners of rough justice have preferred retaliation to reconciliation. Practitioners of "cheap grace" have preferred forgetting to forgiving. Both camps of false prophets have gathered strength all over the world, and on both sides of the war now underway between militant Islamism and global democratic capitalism.

Muslim rough justice revels (privately or publicly) in the atrocity as a sign of God's coming victory over enemies and infidels. Muslim cheap grace disowns Al Qaeda, indulges in exonerative conspiracy theories, and pretends that nothing is really wrong in Islam.

Western rough justice mocks pacifism and shrugs off just war theory for the more traditional American morality of cold utilitarian survivalism. Western cheap grace (out of naivete, corruption, or cynicism) appeases rather than confronts the sworn opponents of its own politics.

Christian discipleship refuses to condone these reactions, so it makes a lot of enemies. Well it should: It proclaims the reign of the King of all kings, caliphs, and presidents.

I wish I could honestly say that I have been faithful to my king in the last twelve months. But this year has been a journey of growing to appreciate the power of these temptations. As others surrendered to them, responding in kind became all the more appealing. By January 2002, my resolve against them already needed strengthening. Now that September has returned, today's prayer is one of confession rather than mere petition.

Muslim surrenders. On September 14, I wrote to a student who was on a semester in the UK:

I'm sure it's hard to be far from home in a time like this. But the UK is obviously going out of its way to console and support Americans — we heard about the Star Spangled Banner being played today at the changing of the guard. Please tell those you meet that we in the States appreciate their sympathy. And give a smile to London's Muslims, whose American brothers and sisters are feeling mighty uncomfortable right now. Muslims everywhere have been in Westmont's prayers this week. We so want to communicate Christ's heart for them by our actions.

That was then, when my most vivid memories of Muslims were the people with whom I studied Muslim history and theology at Duke. They were and are fabulous people: brilliant, loving, faithful. After a year, I am still stunned by the thought of so-called Muslims hijacking airplanes full of innocents to turn them on skyscrapers full of innocents. But I remain in even greater disbelief that some others celebrated. And the reports of Muslim cheap grace and rough justice had only begun to pour in. In the past year they have sent my opinion of contemporary Islam in steep decline. Because I have formal exposure to Muslim history since the sixth century, my opinion of classical Islam suffered with it. I am not proud of this, but I refuse to be a hypocrite about it. I want confessing it to encourage truthtelling in others, and to deliver me from the rage and resignation that silence reinforces.

Muslim defensiveness is altogether understandable, but in the weeks and months after the attacks I waited for signs that Muslims were moving beyond simply embracing or disowning Al Qaeda. That wait seems to have been largely in vain. Official Middle Eastern newspapers, sheikhs, imams and ulama, American Islamic councils, student associations, and popular chatrooms and weblogs have all been alarming and saddening. In responding to an event that will forever mar Islam's image, they display insecurity, narrow partisanship, and deliberate silence that remind me of the most craven Christian accounts of our own historical blasphemies. With the exception of Adil Farooq and to a lesser extent Irfan Husain, I have seen hardly any serious soul-searching about where "real Islam," not just Muslim heresy, might shoulder some of the responsibility. (If readers can point me to some, I would be very grateful.)

Far from making me smug about being a Christian, this just makes me more sensitive to theological cowardice of all kinds and less patient with divine spin doctors. Worse, it makes me wonder how a God of truth can put up with so much slander.

Western surrenders. Enough exposure to Islamist (and more broadly Muslim) pathologies, resurgent European and leftist anti-Judaism, and unrepentant moral equivalence has driven a lot of people to rage. The comments on Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs can be even more chilling than the outrages to which they are responding. Ann Coulter's stupid comment that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" nonetheless spoke for many (except that many hawks don't think the move from Islam to Christianity would be all that much of an improvement). Reactions like these will not go away as long as Islam's purported spokespeople in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Europe, and America are well-paid fascists. Lectures from prophets of cheap grace only aggravate them.

One way to handle rage is to redirect it toward one's own people in cultural self-hatred. Even though as an academic my larger guild is a sea of sixties radicalism, I have found this pretty easy to resist. On September 16, I wrote to a student who had just authored a student newspaper article wondering whether the attacks were a sign of judgment against America:

I am not one of those who criticize America as the author of all kinds of evils in the world. I think we (Americans) try to do a lot of good, and often we succeed. I concur with the measured assessment of Andrew Sullivan in yesterday's Sunday Times of London: America "is at its heart a peaceful [nation]. It has done more to help the world than any other actor in world history. It saved the world from the two greatest evils of the last century in Nazism and Soviet Communism. It responded to its victories in the last war by pouring aid into Europe and Japan. In the Middle East, America alone has ensured that the last hope of the Jewish people is not extinguished and has given more aid to Egypt than to any other country. It risked its own people to save the Middle East from the pseudo-Hitler in Baghdad. America need not have done any of this. Its world hegemony has been less violent and less imperial than any other comparable power in history."

I think that last sentence says it all. In my opinion, America's evil-to-power ratio is pretty small compared with other empires. America's tragic flaw is the pride wrought by our own self-perception as the world's brightest light. I think the world would be a much worse place without the USA. But the glory of America is still far dimmer than the glory of the Kingdom [of God]; and the (relative) brightness of America leads too many of us, at home and around the world, into idolatry. The end of bringing democratic capitalism to the world has led us to justify means that, well, aren't justified even if the ends are relatively good.

That assessment is still entirely compatible with the prospect of the attacks being a divine judgment on America, so I think your argument (my argument?) applies even if America is not "the great Satan." Maybe God is telling us that he, not she, is the world's savior.

A year later, I have not changed my mind that runaway Americanism threatens Christian well-being, but anti-Americanism still leaves me cold. Moderate American conservatism has been on a well deserved roll. I am a rarity who still finds Christian pacifism and American patriotism compatible even as I broadly support the war.

The trick has been to keep my sympathy with America's self-defense against Al Qaeda and admiration of its restraint and moral idealism from blinding me to America's pride. I have to confess that often I have let my joy and relief at American successes in fighting this war fall into enthusiasm for American rough justice. Face it: Most of us would rather be strong in America than weak in Christ.

By the way, one response that continues to amaze me is the grace of the world's Jews. They, who have such compelling cause for both rage and despair, have rarely surrendered to either. Augustine was right: Faith is a gift.

Christian surrenders. My first Christian instinct that Tuesday morning, like that of my students and fellow faculty, was repentance. This was not a manifestation of liberal guilt, but a turn from old ways back onto the narrow Way. It was a healthy instinct to follow, and an impromptu chapel service at our school directed it wonderfully. But repentance is much more than we evangelicals often make it to be. Since then I have grown to appreciate how difficult it is to maintain penitance. Forces everywhere tempt us to give in to either the despair of rage, or the despair of apathy. At first I did not realize just how appealing these would become not only to others, but to me.

In the week following the attacks, some of us Westmont faculty members suggested ways we could show love to Muslims. One faculty member suggested crescents in the dorm windows of our evangelical college. I suggested that as some Christians wore yellow stars to show solidarity with Jews in World War II, women might consider wearing headscarves in solidarity with women too terrified to go out in public. For days I wore a green necktie. (Scoff all you like. Muslim men need not dress distinctively, and they were not fearing for their lives as their wives were. And as tokenistic as it was, some around me knew what I was doing, and the little symbol constantly reminded me to check my fear and anger and turn the other cheek.) Our suggestions were not expressions of cheap grace, political correctness, or self-hatred. They are the kind of thing one does when following the crucified God of love.

A year later, it is much harder for me to raise such sympathy. Watching brothers and sisters killed, imprisoned, and forcibly converted in Sudan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere has sapped my strength.

My fullest early response to 9/11 is an essay I wrote over the first week that followed, "Wars and Rumors of Wars." It drew its inspiration from the wisdom of one of Westmont's English professors, John Sider. In my usual wordy and pretentious way, I contended there that the Church's responsibility was simply to be the Church. Since often we have failed to do this, 9/11 is a wake-up call, not an excuse for business as usual.

A year later, I have not changed my mind about that (though I do better appreciate that Al Qaeda targets Christianity too, not just global democratic capitalism). Therefore the most common Christian response to 9/11 has been demoralizing: business as usual, only longer hours. Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's famous comments expressed with extraordinary foolishness an ordinary Christian reaction: September 11 vindicates our agenda of September 10. ("So can we count on you for a higher contribution this year?")

Likewise, right after the attacks our generally conservative campus still rightly resisted the urge to wrap our worries in American flags. Today this too is harder. On the airport bus a few days ago a fellow passenger noted the Azusa Pacific University logo on my carrying case. With its caption, "Excellence Honors God," it stuck out like Peter's Galilean accent in the high priest's courtyard. The passenger asked me what subject I taught. When I told him "theology," I expected the usual response: end the conversation as quickly as possible. Instead, he threw Falwell and Robertson in my face, then asked me whether I thought the real war was between secularism and all the world's religious fundamentalisms. (He must have had a middle seat on his plane.) He was wearing an "Operation Enduring Freedom" baseball cap, and made it quite clear that he was on the side of secularism. I replied that the war is a desperate campaign by militant Islamists whose vision of the good life cannot survive in a context of global democratic capitalism, against all those (religious or not) whose visions can. But my heart wasn't really in it. The man knows what needs to be done, and he has seen that Christians outside the American command structure will not be a lot of help. This is America's war to win, and America will win it — with or without Europe, with or without me, with or without God. My kind is a distraction, an irritant, a parasite, perhaps even an enemy. As the man got off the bus, I could only mumble a "bless you." What a pathetic echo of James 2:14-17:

What does it profit, my brothers and sisters, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

The irony is that this warrior was clothed, or thought he was. So the peace I offered was as unwelcome as the clothing I didn't. It is times like that when a flag by my head or heart would promote more pleasant travel than a cross on my baggage.

My surrenders. Since 9/11 our world has been dying from its own hopelessness. Muslims are more insecure than ever, and more determined to prove their victory is certain. Americans are still terrified about the future, and still ready and able to do whatever is necessary to keep themselves safe. We will long grieve the three thousand murdered on September 11, even the many who were not Americans, and we have much to do to keep more innocent people from joining them. But our reactions to this horror threaten to consign the living to an end worse than that of the dead. "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28).

I've been dying too. I talk quite a bit about Jesus, but a big shift in the past year has actually been my growing sympathy for his enemies. Who am I to blame them? Judas Iscariot wanted a winner. Simon Peter, rebuking Jesus for the blasphemy of predicting his own suffering, anticipated the Christology of worldly success that predominates among Muslims. The Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate, and the crowds wanted things not to change. At crunch time, the nameless man who ran away naked into the darkness wanted to save his own skin, and Peter wanted to forget that he had a part in any of it. The guards who beat and mocked the man of sorrows just wanted blood. Even after everything was joy again, Thomas wanted not to trust anyone but himself. These are my people. I too am a defeatist, a triumphalist, an adversary.

Sympathy for Jesus' enemies means more sympathy for Jesus. Nowadays we tend to think of him as insufferably nice. He gently wakes the sleeping disciples at Gethsemane. He discusses philosophy with Pilate. He smiles back at his torturers. He smothers friendship on the repentant thief. Like a good liberal Protestant, he vents only at God. But what makes us think Jesus liked the people he loved? What makes us think forgiving his killers and restoring his pathetic disciples was easy, or pleasant, or fulfilling? I have a newfound appreciation for the pain of Jesus' life as well as the pain of his death. He had an impossible task.

You heard me right. After a year of struggle, I have finally surrendered to the conclusion that saving a world so bent on destruction and self-preservation is impossible. The last shreds of that fond dream dissipated for me over this past summer. As an agent of earthly holiness, peace, justice, dignity, sacrificial love, joy, and compassion, the Church of Jesus Christ stands on the edge of extinction. No disciple has the strength or self-control to resist the forces September 11 reflected and unleashed, let alone to overcome them. September 12 crucified my faith.

Yet Jesus did the impossible, finding the power to forgive and restore his enemies. The Father did the impossible, raising him from the dead and seating him above every enemy in eternal lordship. The Holy Spirit did the impossible, coming upon the disciples and giving them the strength to bring peace to the very Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and ends of the earth that had conspired against it. With God all things are possible.

So my confession ends in thanksgiving. God defeated us adversaries with friendship, set us free with his own blood, convicted us with his example, deputized us with his Holy Spirit. He has made the impossible not only possible, but assured. Praise God for Jesus' enemies. We are why he came.

There is strength to persevere and conquer evil with good after all. Not in human reason or human spirit or human brotherhood, not in the United States or European Union or United Nations, not in global democratic capitalism or transnational progressivism or the glory days of Islam, not in the world's strongest military or richest economy, not in the American dream of a free society or the sentimental fantasy of multiculturalism or the Islamist imposition of shariah, not in the nostalgia that remembers tragedies to cultivate national grudges, but only the dead and risen and anointed communion of saints whose head is Jesus Christ. "Worthy are you," the saints sing before Jesus' throne, "for you were slain and by your blood ransomed people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth" (Rev. 5:9-10). He is the hope of the world.

The Church is constantly on the edge of extinction because we bear God's peace. Times of stress tempt us to trade God's peace for a separate peace with God's adversaries. We will quit attacking hell's gates if hell will quit attacking ours. But Jesus did not predict that hell would not prevail against the gates of the Church. He predicted that the Church would prevail over the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18). That can only happen if the Church is outside its own gates. He commanded us to play offense, not defense. He told us to go in pursuit of peace (Matt. 5:23-24, Matt. 18:15). The edge of total extinction is also the edge of eternal life.

September 12 slowly and subtly shifted me to defense, back behind the gates. Playing that way slowly and subtly killed me. I had abandoned the strategy that sent Jesus to the cross and so secured his victory for the strategy that scattered Jesus' disciples and sent them scurrying away from him to the worst three days of their lives. I sought self-preservation, and discovered there the greatest vulnerability. "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:25-26).

As my doubts and objections festered, I realized I was refusing to give them the respect of a fair hearing. Finally I found a question that needed answering anyway — "How could a good God let such evil be done in his name?" — and went looking for an answer. To my mild surprise, I found that it was there after all. In fact it arose quite naturally, like a gift rather than an achievement. After that small mercy decided just to start taking every one of my issues to the gospel of God, not trying to force answers old or new out of it, not trying to believe or not to believe, but just seeing if they were there. They were. After my faith died and was buried, his grace — this time in the form of intellectual honesty — brought me out of hiding and raised my faith to new life. Let it never again appeal to any other power or wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-30) but take up the cross and follow the one God alone defended (Matt. 16:24).

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the ultimate power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies (2 Cor. 4:7-10).

However September 11 or September 12 have traumatized you, whatever they have tempted or led you to do, if you take your eyes off the world's sins and your own survival and set your eyes on him, he can raise you too. Then he will put you to work with him achieving the impossible.

By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are guarded through faith for a salvation redy to be revealed in the last time. Rejoice in this, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-7).

Whoever you are, peace be with you this September 11.