How the tragic legacy of 9/11 calls the Church beyond Just War and Pacifism

How the tragic legacy of 9/11 calls the Church beyond Just War and Pacifism September 13, 2019
Photo Credit: ( dropiso ) Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

If memory serves me correctly, it was John Wesley who once said, “The world is my parish.” That’s quite a legacy to leave behind.

Wesley was a circuit preacher during the first Great Awakening who founded the Methodist church in America. I think what he meant by that statement was that ministers had an obligation to preach the Gospel wherever they could, whether that was in a church building or not.

I like to go a bit beyond Wesley’s context and apply his sentiment to the way I relate to the world in general.

Somewhere at the heart of the Christian faith is a belief that humanity is one big family. Ultimately, every nation, tribe, and tongue belong to one another. Despite the broken legacy left to us by Cain, in reality it is true that we are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

This is one reason I feel such conflict surrounding days like September 11th. The events of 9/11 have gone down in history as one of the greatest tragedies to befall the collective American psyche, and for good reason. What happened that day was horrendous. The innocent people whose lives were lost deserve to be remembered, and the heroic sacrifices of those who tried to save them – many of whom died in the attempt – should be honored. That is very much a part of the legacy of that day.

But for all the insistence we see on social media to “never forget,” I have to wonder what it is we’re being asked to remember, and how much else we are leaving out.

The shocking death toll of the War on Terror

According to the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, over 500,000 people have died since the United States launched its “War on Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11. Researchers estimate that nearly half of those people are civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers.

In other words, as a result of U.S.-led military efforts to root out and destroy terrorist cells around the world, over half a million people have been killed in response to the deaths of 2,977 people who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Half a million people. Most of them “innocent” in terms of their relationship to the hijacking of American planes on 9/11. All casualties of the myth of redemptive violence.

And that number is still on the rise, because at present there is no end in sight to the War on Terror. This, too, is part of the legacy of that day.

Why should love stop at the border?

From what I can tell, American Christians are caught in a sticky situation when it comes to their divided allegiance to God and country. The ancient vision of a single “Christian” nation composed of people from every nation under heaven — a Kingdom without borders — seems to be lost on us. In its place has been substituted a strange “two kingdom” theology that allows us to compartmentalize those uncomfortable aspects of the faith which might call into question our loyalty to the State.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with remembering innocent lives lost or the heroic sacrifices of first responders. It doesn’t take Christian faith or any form of faith at all to do that, just basic human decency.

No, what troubles me is all of the other stuff that comes out around this and other similarly memorialized dates in American history. Including that big gaping blind spot where we seem so intent on “never forgetting” American lives lost to terror while holding little, if any, space for non-American lives lost to the war on terror.

As Pablo Casals said, “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing, but why should love stop at the border?”

When will enough be enough?

There’s also the issue of vengeance, which Christians profess to believe should be left to God (Romans 12:19). When will enough be enough? Half a million lives? A million? Or more?

Of course, they will say it’s not about vengeance, but about justice and about protecting innocent lives in the future. Regardless of how you want to frame it, though, these nagging questions and horrible statistics still remain. Are we really willing to trade 500,000 lives for 3,000? And how many new terrorists are we making in the process? Can we not see how the cycle of redemptive violence can never be complete, but will continue expanding in ever-widening circles until the entire world goes up in a blaze of human glory?

As it was in the days of Noah, I suppose. The human legacy of violent retribution continues to roll on unabated.

Beyond Just War and Pacifism

There’s got to be a better way out there somewhere. Personally, I believe there is. Christianity claims to possess it, but very few churches ever come close to embodying it.

And by “it,” I mean the way of Christ. The way of peace. The way of nonviolent resistance to evil.

I came across a passage from Walter Wink the other day that expresses what I believe to be the clarion call of God to the church today. It goes like this:

Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations. His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence. Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is a way–the only way possible–of not becoming what we hate. “Do not counter evil in kind”–this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the meaning of the cross. It is time the church stops limping between just war theory and nonresistant pacifism and follows Jesus on his nonviolent way. (Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way)

That’s just it, as far as I can tell. We desperately need to open a dialogue in America about the “third way” of Jesus. This “way” is the stone that was rejected by the builders of this world, which has become the one and only cornerstone of a new humanity (Acts 4:11).

And before you get all fussy with me, I say “one and only” not in an exclusive religious sense — as if you have to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus or else you’ll burn in hell forever — but in the sense that it is the only way forward for humanity if we don’t want to end up destroying ourselves entirely in homage to the myth of redemptive violence.

Never forget. The world is full of 9/11’s. Some of them are American, but many of them are not. And they will continue to happen with ever-increasing intensity until we as a people learn to lay down our arms and beat our swords into plowshares. When the day finally comes that we teach our children how to wage peace instead of war, we will know that the Kingdom of God has come to Earth.

About Joshua Lawson
Josh Lawson is a pastor, writer, and small business owner. He lives in southern Ohio with his wife and kids and their cat Gryffin, which is short for Gryffindor. He loves strong coffee and good books. If you'd like, you can support his work at You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • PhillipWynn

    Please, sir, what do you mean by “beyond pacifism” (I’m personally all for discarding the “just war” nonsense)? How is the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount not pacifist? Truly asking; I myself am not sure whether He is or isn’t. In any case, it is true that pacifism has an “image problem,” partly due to the fact that it is a moniker imposed on anti-war folks by warmongers. “Pacifism” is an example of terminologically “ghetto-izing” an idea so as to render it seemingly marginal and weird. Is that what you’re getting at?

  • “Beyond pacifism” in the sense that Jesus did not advocate passive non-resistance to evil. Rather, he taught and embodied active nonviolent resistance, as illustrated in the “turn the other cheek” passage of Matthew 5. Read the essay by Walter Wink that I linked in this article to get a better understanding of what he means.

  • PhillipWynn

    Thank you and have a blessed Sunday.

  • Andrew Wehrheim

    John Wesley was alive during the first great awakening but was not directly involved. The first great awakening happened in America and Wesley’s ministry was in England. He did spend time in America but that was before his conversion. He was friends with George Whitefield who was a Calvinist Methodist, who, along with Jonathan Edwards, were the two ministers most influential in the first great awakening.

  • Andrew Wehrheim

    John Wesley did not found the Methodist Church in America. He founded Methodist societies in England. But they were still technically tied to the Church of England. And one of the reasons Methodism finally split from the Church of England, after Wesley’s death, was because Charles and John started ordaining Methodist preachers in the United States to administer the sacraments because of the shortage of Anglo-Methodist Priests.

  • Andrew Wehrheim

    Also, ISIS did not exist prior to the invasion of Iraq which created a power vacuum that led to a civil war and the rise of ISIS. So the war on terror is directly responsible for giving birth to one of the most heinous terrorist organizations in the world.