9-11-01—- Ten Years After

9-11—    Ten Years After

I was reading the latest issue of CT (Christianity Today) which naturally enough had quotes from various Christian leaders about the impact of 9-11.  The one that hit me the hardest and was most revealing was the one by my friend the good bishop Will Willimon.    Here is what he said:

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.   The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back on our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the non-violent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.  September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit  that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on their own terms by crucifying the Son of God.”


There is an old Swedish proverb that says ‘we are too soon old, and too late smart’.    How true.   The question for us today, is are we any smarter, or for that matter wiser, ten years down the road from the disaster of  9-11-01.   On the one hand, it does not appear we are.  We are still poking sticks in hornet’s nests in Muslim countries both those who have not really been our allies (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan) and those who have (e.g. Pakistan).   And then of course we act surprised when we are not thanked for our unilateral interventions (by which I mean we went without an invitation) in those places.

It remains to be seen whether we have learned anything from ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ with its experiences in Afghanistan.    When will we realize that if you spend billions on bombs, but next to nothing on desperately needed aid to countries we have blown up, we may have won the war, but we have lost the peace?   I never thought I’d be saying this, but Ron Paul is sounding more and more sensible when it comes to our involvement in these places.   Why should we view ourselves as the self-appointed policemen of the world?    It’s a question we should definitely ask ourselves ten years on from the Trade towers burning to the ground.

Let’s think for a moment what we could have done domestically with the trillions we have spent in the last decade on these wars.   For one thing, we could have completely rebuilt the infra-structure of this country— roads, bridges, major highways, the works.   About now, half of New England needs such rebuilding.  For another thing, we could have had full employment through various sorts of incentives and co-operative initiatives between business and governmental aide.   Perhaps you older readers also remember the G I bill?  We could have sent all our children to college or technical school— all of them, with the money we have wasted on those wars.   Oddly, the smartest move we’ve made recently on the military front was just assisting with the Libya situation and not throwing a bunch of our boys in harm’s way on the ground.

But 9-11 was the beginning of something else as well.  It sounded the alarm to those on Wall Street to ‘carpe diem’, and so in due course we had a financial meltdown as well with ridiculous profit taking, and shark like bond sales, not to mention completely unethical house loans being offered to people we knew couldn’t pay.   So what 9-11 did to our economy is only increase the urgency of the most acquisitive and selfish (namely the uber-rich) to ‘seize the moment’ and make as much money as possible, knowing a crash and a rainy day was coming.

I think they must have been reading Ayn Rand’s manifesto entitled ‘the Virtues of Selfishness’.   This word just in, there is no virtue in selfishness. It’s a good way to ruin our country.  The scary thing is, the very nonsense of Ayn Rand we all rejected after reading all her novels and manifestos in high school, has resurfaced in the offices of politicians like Paul Ryan.  Frightening.   BTW, did you know Ayn Rand was virulently anti-Christian?   Yep.   My point is, she is no solution at all to our current economic woes.

A famous man once said those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.   I agree with that, and we are trying hard to do a déjà vu without any good deja to view.   It is no wonder acts of desperation like the Tea Party movement have arisen.  Those folks know the house is burning down.  Unfortunately, what they are proposing as solutions will only make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and in fact will just hasten the house burning to the ground, if by house we mean the country as a collective entity, as ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice and opportunity for all’. Frankly, one of the few things between us and the country deteriorating into a bunch of radically independent individuals and separated states is oddly enough the U.S. government and its regulations and their enforcement.

Were it not for the U.S. government and the EPA the beautiful state of Kentucky would be one huge pollution cloud of coal dust and other pollutants.  Shame on the current Kentucky candidate whose ad, I kid you not, runs ‘man of faith, he will fight the EPA to save our coal jobs and fight Obamacare’.  What a platform!  What do the latter two have to do with being a Christian???   Nothing!  Indeed, creation care and care for the health of the elderly and the poor are part of the Gospel sir!  Get with the program or stop posturing as a man of Christian faith.

The problem in America is not too many taxes on the middle class or the rich.  It is not ‘too many darn government regulations.  It is that the ‘center cannot hold’.   With the gradual abandonment of our Judaeo-Christian roots we have no spiritual or religious glue to hold us together, and a fuzzy commitment to tolerance, freedom, and free market capitalism is no substitute for some sort of credo that could actually bind us together.    Shopping until we drop and malls are not the source of our salvation— ‘yea verily’.

What can we actually do to chart a better course that learns the lessons of 9-11 and our subsequent decline?  Firstly, you will not be surprised to hear me say that the root of the problem is spiritual not economic or military or more generally political.  This country needs a massive revival of its Judaeo-Christian heritage.   Without it, we are only left with the vague notion of faith in faith or faith in ourselves, rather than faith in the one true God.  And frankly neither of those two former ‘faithful’ dogs will hunt,  because both are examples of narcissism and self-centered behavior.   That’s not just the dog chasing its tail, it’s the snake eating its own tail and calling it tasty!

We have all seen the alternative to real faith-based thinking of the Biblical sort in the last ten years. It’s not generic faith-based thinking but rather fear-based thinking.  Our country has been running on fear-based thinking for the last decade.   Take for example the point of terrorism.  Terrorism is the action of a minority that cannot win an open battle with a much bigger foe.  So instead, its ploy is to strike fear into the heart of the enemy so they will colossally over-react and waste zillions trying to protect ourselves from what might happen. And guess what? They succeeded.

If you don’t think we have wasted trillions in the last decade colossally over-reacting, you haven’t been going through security at the Chittlin Switch airport recently.   Even in Chittlin Switch we are spending millions ‘to keep us safe’.   Shoot, we need more protection from our gun totting selves than from terrorists in Chittlin Switch.   You catch my drift.  Word Up!  We have wasted trillions on so-called security, and in the process given up a ton of our precious freedoms.   This is what fear-based decision-making does to a country—- how does that snake’s tail taste?  Would you like a little more barbecue sauce with that ya’ll?

Oh yes, there are other things we could do to pull ourselves out of this malaise besides pray for revival.   For a start we could stop buying things on credit.  Yes, you heard me, stop shopping until we drop.  Buy things when you have money to buy things.   You want to get out of debt—live a simpler life.   Stop living the life of conspicuous consumption.  Stop thinking you are entitled to the life of Riley!  You are not.  You have to work hard for it.  No one owes it to you.

Take a few moments to read my book Jesus and Money. It’s short, and direct and to the point.   The nation will not get out of debt, until each of its citizens figure out how to get themselves personally out of debt.  This problem is not primarily a problem with what is happening in Washington, it’s a problem with what is happening in our selfish little ole acquisitive hearts.  And we for sure can do something about the latter.   Washington is not the primary cause of our demise.  We need to look in the mirror.  As Pogo once said— ‘I’ve seen the enemy, and the enemy is me.’

There is an old 60s band named Ten Years After.  They had lots of good songs which are apropos to our situation ‘ten years after’.    One of them is entitled ‘I’d Love to Change the World’.  In essence it says,  ‘I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.  So I will start by changing myself, rather than trying to change you.’    It’s still good advice.    Get your own house in order, before you go marching on the House and the Senate and blaming high taxes for your problems when you live in the country with the lowest tax rate in any large Western democratic nation.   Otherwise  9-11 will be the beginning of the end of a great democracy and no 911 call will rescue us.

  • JohnWill-at80

    Well said Ben, and Bishop Willimon. It is hard for me to watch the multitude of 10th anniversary programs because they are only reminders of the road we should have taken, but didn’t. We had so collosally over-spent on national defense/national security that it became the only tool we had. We wanted revenge but we also had power designs. We started wars against two countries when the attackers were only a criminal aberration of a minority within Islam and we chose not to pay for these wars. The president at the time could have rescinded his tax cuts for at least a minimal shared sacrifice so that everyone would be somewhat involved. But no, he doubled down on them, which became primary cause to our present debt, which we did not need to have. Even the daring assassination raid on bin Laden does not bring us honor. The new WTC, while an amazing architectural achievement if taken out of context, is a kind of in-your-face, 3+ billion dollar statement that we are still number one. We’re on the road not to be.

  • Michael Flowers

    This is a masterpiece

  • Greendoc34

    Thought provoking! Thank you for giving me a refreshing point of view.

  • Katoikei

    Thanks Ben, your insights are always welcome. Peace, Blue.

  • JM Smith

    Glad to see you give props to the foreign policy of Ron Paul. He’s the only candidate I’ve ever openly supported in a political election…and I hope others will get on board. :) http://jmsmith.org/blog/ron-paul

  • Mark Haines

    Thank you! I told a friend not long ago that I’m tired of our nation running on fear and greed. Politicians, the media and even preachers use fear to motivate people to agree with them. And we’ve all been far to quick to believe that throwing money at problems – both public and private – will solve them. I’m praying for revival and another Great Awakening. I’m also pleading for God to raise up leaders whose true motivations are faith and compassion.

  • David

    I agree with what you said regarding how the money could have been spent. The sad truth is that the expenditures were made on a “credit card” but not paid for with government revenues. The deficit everyone is crying about is made up mostly of the cost of the two wars and the tax cut we inexplicably enacted at the same time. Now our kids are on the hook. The portion added by the current administration is a third of these other two components and it had a purpose – to offset, at least, the spending shortfall of state governments as their revenues fell in the recent recession. Some argue that the stimulus funds should not have been spent – but had they not govt revenues would have fallen still farther making the deficit bigger – but I digress… Bottom line: our economy is out of balance – the tax cut saddled us with an ongoing structural deficit and shifted the income distribution to the upper tiers. Do I hear the prophet Amos calling?

  • Jarrett Cooper

    Prof. Witherington,

    There are things I agree with you on.

    As far as Rep. Ron Paul. The U.S. just can’t back its bags and suddenly become isolationists all of a sudden. Too late for that. We’ve made our bed…

    Do you have any specifics in which Paul Ryan adopts Randian (i.e., Ayn Rand) views? (I don’t know too much about Ryan, but I’m curious about his views being Randian.)

    With regards to the Tea Party. I don’t know how getting one’s financial orders straighten out will so lead, more so, to the destruction of our nation. (Though, I myself, don’t like these strong libertarians [their views that is].)

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jarrett: Paul Ryan handed out copies of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to his staff and suggested they all read it and get on board.


  • Anonymous

    My view of the Tea Party is based on their major speakers they have at their meetings, all of which are for more decentralizing of government and much less taxes, both of which will cripple our central government. Farewell many things we need, including a postal service.

  • Dfowler

    This letter is so good that it could be added as an epistle to the next Bible for Contemporary Readers! We are blest to have a man of God who will speak straightforward words (even though some will respond with fury) that draw us to Christ rather than to our community’s subtle substitutions to a Christocentric world view. Thanks Ben!!

  • David

    Thanks for the article. I believe you are right. However, my experience as a pastor makes me pessimistic that anyone will see the light. My denomination (UMC) is more interested in the numbers reported for our churches (which Willimon has been instrumental in), than lives truly changed and transformed. Until we, as the church, choose to live the values of God’s kingdom, we will continue to respond out of our selfishness and self-preservation (which is where the UMC is currently).

    What is ironic to me is that we continue down the road of selfishness, fear, falling further and further into debt, all the time believing that we are being good Christians and fulfilling the Gospel of Jesus that we are to be happy.

    Where is John Wesley in this (Without holiness, there is no happiness)? Each week my concern grows because those inside the church don’t seem to be interested in knowing Jesus’ values, or living them out.

    Thanks for being a voice of hope and challenge!

  • Jarrett Cooper

    Thank you, Prof. Witherington,

    Indeed he does! I’ll have to read more about him and his Randian views.

  • Jarrett Cooper

    Prof. Witherington,

    I certainly believe there is a role for the federal government. Maintaining safety and infrastructure. (I also believe government should have a role in the moral arena.)

    However, one can easily make the case the the postal service should be privatized. The USPS is facing a $9 billion deficit by the end of this fiscal year. It’s actually illegal to compete against USPS with regards to first and third class mail. Without competition one will never get a the true price of a stamp, for example.

  • Michael De Master

    Prof. Witherington – Why do we assume that a more decentralized national government would necessarily result in a farwell of many things we need? How are we to determine what is a need and what is a want? It is interesting that you cite the postal service as a need provided by the national government. While many would question the need for a postal service given the alternatives available and the financial disaster that is the USPO, it is one of only a handful of federal responsibilites specifically provided for in our constitution. If Christian moral responsabilities are to start with us, the individual believer, and move out to our collective communities, would it not make more sense to have most government responsabilites be determined at the state and local level?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Michael:

    Thanks for your comment. the U.S. is a large complex, multi-cultural salad bowl of a country. Obviously it needs a variety of central things, beyond just a national defense to keep the nation together, to keep it one nation, under God. I would disagree with your premise that things start with the Christian individual’s responsibility and move out from there. To the contrary, the NT says responsibility starts with the collective entity known today as the church and the individual is just a part of that larger corporate responsibility of the body of Christ.

    Shall we talk about roads and bridges and the interstate high way system and the corp of engineers instead of the postal system? They and FEMA have been busy and been a blessing lately. In fact there are so many aspects of our country that need more centralized direction, not less, that I hardly know where to begin. There needs to be a balance between state and federal roles and responsibilities, and the attempt to decentralize things to an extreme degree will not work. For example it does not work well with law enforcement. Polarized and bad governing in Washington is not solved by devolving most everything to the states. They are broke as well. The alternative to bad government in Washington is better government in Washington, not devolution.



  • Michael De Master

    Prof. Witherington

    Thank you for your reply to my comments. I appreciate vary much the thoughtful and respectful comments on this blog.

    With all due respect, it seems that to even question the wisdom of an ever larger federal government today is to be labeled extreme and polarizing. I realize your point is that it is not the size of federal government, but it is the quality of government that is the issue. I respectfully disagree.

    I would like to better understand your comment on the start of Christian moral responsibility. Please forgive my ignorance, I am doing my best to understand what the scriptures say to me and your comments are greatly appreciated. You stated that according to NT, the Christian is to fulfill his moral reponsibilities through the Church, the body of Christ. According to NT then, is there no individual moral reponsibility, outside of the church? What then is the role of the church or the individual relative to the government in fulfilling the Chrisitan’s moral responsibility? Would you be so kind as to point me to readings relative to these questions? Thank you.

    P.S. I have been a reader of your blog for several months. I found it when searching for discussions of the the recent book – Forged. Your chapter by chapter reviews were very helpful to me in sorting out the issues and positions raised in the book. If I am out of line in my comments or violate the spirit and scope of this blog, please let me know.

  • Anonymous

    Michael your comments are just fine. Of course we have individual responsibility, but in the context of the larger responsibility of all of us as a part of the body of Christ. I guess the question is how much central government is too much. I think we have too much waste in government, that is not a size issue, that is a corruption issue. Honestly, I don’t at all think we have too much central government. It needs to be run better. BW3

  • 2cerve

    Good discussion going on! I think Dr. W. you hit the nail right on the head & I even have to agree [painful though it may be for me] with the quote from Willimon.Given my experience, though, I have to agree with David’s remark about the UMC being interested only in numbers [& those primarily youthful ones in spite of the huge mission field of War Babies, Boomers & Gen-X'ers]One of the reasons I was deemed “unefficient” & unsuccessful as pastor was for speaking the very truths you & other mentioned.Church people don’t seem to want to really know Jesus & few Methodists truly care about John Wesley & what he set down that was/is the foundation of Methodism.As for the more “political” issues, I agree that it isn’t so much size of government but the ability to function.Given where I live, government disfunction & disorganization at all levels is very visible.I daily, at work, hear stories about FEMA, insurance companies, various business issues etc. Part of me firmly believes we need to adopt the Shaker idea that you can’t separate any part of your life from your faith life.Everything we do should express our belief, faith in God.Alien concept to most, I guess.

  • Mike Mitchell

    It is very disappointing to see two scholars of such renown as Dr. Willimon and Witherington being so dogmatic on an issue about which equally devoted Christians have very different views. The pacifist view Dr. Witherinton proposes may be the right one, but it is not obviously the right one. The asnwer to the question of the right response to 9/11 is not an easy one to come by. C.S. Lewis was not a pacifist. William Lane Craig has said that Christians should appreciate the fact that justice was done in the killing of Bin Laden.
    I know some of Dr. Witherington’s colleagues at ATS do not share his pacifist views. Are these people just pseuodo-Christians who don’t really know Scripture? Just moral idiots who have capitulated to the cultural mood? One would think so from the comments of Willimon and Witherington.

    Even if it is the case that a complete pacifist approach is the right one, and that we should divert all military spending to infrastructure, it is certainly not unreasonable for Christians to believe that the best way to love our neighbors is to fight to prevent evil people from burning them to death in skyscraper infernos.

    Also, I would like to hear Dr. Witherington elaborate on his comments about airport security. The implication of his lament over the loss of freedom seems to be that even if one or two terrorists a year get through, that’s only a few hundred people that would die horrific deaths in high-jacked planes and burning buildings, and that’s not really worth the extra hour we lose each time we have to arrive early at the airport. I don’t think Dr. Witherington believes that, but I would like to hear him elaborate.

  • Websmythe

    An intelligent statement followed by yet another rant.

  • Dan

    This quote shows where Ben is being snickered by the environmental movement and a wicked socialist idea:

    “Shame on the current Kentucky candidate whose ad, I kid you not, runs ‘man of faith, he will fight the EPA to save our coal jobs and fight Obamacare’. What a platform! What do the latter two have to do with being a Christian??? Nothing! Indeed, creation care and care for the health of the elderly and the poor are part of the Gospel sir!”

    Ben, it is very Christian for a politician to oppose these policies because they espouse wrong philosophies.

    We need the EPA, but we don’t need environmentalism. Environmentalist will say that the creation is more important than humanity and close coal mines for the sake of “Mother Earth”. Environmentalism is a pagan thought that has crept into the church. The Christian worldview tries to find the BEST ways of stewardship of God’s gift of creation and at the same time provide the resources to humanity in the most effective and efficient means. Environmentalists are no friend of the poor.

    We need to improve the business of healthcare, but we don’t need Obamacare: the root of which is socialism, cousin to communism. I am not thoughtlessly throwing terms around. One of the things necessary to instill a socialist / communist state is to control education and healthcare. If they get healthcare, that is a huge control over the lives of people.

    Ben should know these things. Environmentalism and Obamacare are opposed to the sanctity of life and liberty.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Dan: I think you mean snookered, but no matter. Creation care is not merely a good idea, it is a Biblical idea. I am not persuaded at all that has anything to do with secularism or socialism. It is in no way helpful to tar all environmentalists with the same brush. But beyond creation care, the working for cleaner energy should be something every Christian should support, if for no other reason that we want clean air and water. The coal industry has a terrible track record on so many fronts it would take days to list. As for Obamacare my granny said don’t condemn something you’ve never seen, read, or tried. If Obamcare means more healthcare and health insurance for the least, last, and lost of our society, I am all for it. I don’t expect it to be any more perfect than our current system which frankly is a travesty.

    As for pacifism, we have already had this discussion at length on this very blog, and no one is accusing other Christians of not being Christian who take differing views. I am saying however as a NT scholar that the Sermon on the Mount is flatly against their views.



  • David

    I wish you would re-think your opposition to what you call “Obama-care.” The components of that plan did not originate with him – they have been part of health reform proposals going back decades. Some of those ideas were in Nixon’s proposals, some were in the proposals of Senator Dole and other republicans in the early 1990s.

    Basically the problem is: how do we manage risk for health care customers. Health care expenses are large and have a large random component. Consumers generally look to insurance to smooth our their risk. But, in spite of what some say, the causation between behavior and health outcomes is not a sharp as, say, between driving behavior and accident outcomes – i.e., there is much more randomness in health outcomes – except that driven by simple aging.

    So how to manage risk? When we had non-profit Blue Cross risk was managed well – no one who wanted to buy coverage was excluded – no one was dropped. The incentives of non-profit insurance firms was to manage risk – not avoid it. But with the growth of for-profit commercial insurance the incentives run to avoiding risk. The result is more and more people who can’t buy coverage even if they could afford typical premiums.

    The structure provided by the health reform package reestablish the framework that the non-profit insurance system operated with – i.e., to manage, not avoid risk. When it is required to offer insurance to all comers – then it will not do to allow people to sign up on the way home from receiving bad news from their oncologist. Therefore we need universal coverage – so risk can be managed well.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you David. You said it far more clearly than I could. Those who rant and rave about Obamacare appear to know nothing about the changes in health care and health insurance in the last 20 or so years.

  • Rick

    Ben —

    First, I am not sure why you seem to imply that government involvement in creation care or health care or whatever is *the* Christian response. I respect that there are Christians who take a more communist or socialist or interventionist views than I do, and I don’t mean those words pejoratively. They are legitimate Christian views, even if I think they’re philosophical nonsense and dangerously naive about human nature. The Bible is relatively silent on the proper role of government once we leave the physical Israel. I would argue that the New Testament is written from a perspective which simply does not account for Christians being in power one way or the other. So, since the days of the early fathers we have been working out — sometimes with fear and trembling, sometimes with troubling arrogance — our proper role when called upon to govern. And even if you recognize those with whom you disagree as Christian, it troubles me that you seem not to recognize their response as coming from a different philosophical perspective on an area on which the Bible is mostly silent, but equally “Christian.”

    Second, I too am grieved by the blood-lust for vengeance against brown people (particularly if they live under the crescent) espoused by many Christians. But that does not mean that righteous anger is wrong, or that our non-brothers who never asked for our forgiveness are owed the 70 times 7 times. I am angry at the thoughtlessness of our current wars and I am disgusted by the eagerness with which Christians ignored human nature and human rights, but I do not think either war was inherently wrong. They were wrong in their implementation, perhaps, but the liberation of millions of people from savage tyrants is not itself an evil. If you recognize Saddam and the Taliban as legitimate and worthy of staying in power then you must certainly recognize our government in the same light. I just cannot see their removal as inherently un-Christian. But the “kill ‘em all let God sort ‘em out” view has no place in the church, and I think much of that response was a result of the racism endemic to many parts of the country which somehow also host many evangelicals (not a very good testimony, I’ll say).


  • Donaldtjean

    stunningly correct!
    Too bad you weren’t advising GWB Although he probably wouldn’t have listened to you anyway. but you are soo correct.
    You put into words exactly how I feel.