Matt and I had been married one whole month on the morning of September 11, 2001. We were comfortably installed in a little townhouse in Virginia and were late for our first class. We weren’t very good, and have never become so, at getting out the door without bickering and casting recriminations around about who has hidden the keys, and forgotten to put gas in the car.
We trundled off down the freeway in a blissful married media blackout and only thought to turn on the radio when we were pushed off the freeway a half mile before the Pentagon. We circled back to our seminary and watched tv for the rest of the day, united to the rest of the country in our horror and amazement over what was happening.
It seems to me, looking back, that the church–especially the one that we were then part of–being already weakened and sick at its core, took a serious stumbling fall that morning. I might even go so far as to say that the whole country tripped and shuddered and has been trying to pick itself up ever since, to no real purpose, other than that it is always better to live, if possible, than to die.
The attacks that day exposed a core cultural weakness in the American spirit–we don’t corporately know what to do about evil. Having for decades become confused about good–thinking that one thing might or might not lead to another but who knows–evil, in any form, showed itself that day to be incomprehensible.
In the days and weeks that followed that bright devastating morning, I felt a great chasm grow up between me and the ethos of our seminary. We had friends, and we went to class, and carried on and wrote papers, but nobody in the school–and the upper echelons of our denomination–had been able to say anything about this great sad thing that has happened. Three thousand people had died and smoke was still rising up off the rubble and our biggest religious concern was the length of the pause at the asterisk in the psalms during morning prayer.
Historically, Christianity has had. something unifying to say when the worst happens. When the Tower of Siloam fell and the people around Jesus asked him why, what had those people done to deserve death, or, to put it another way, ‘Why do bad things happen,’ to which we might add, ‘to good people’, he didn’t tell them to not worry about it, or to pray more, or to puzzle it out. He said that all of us, every single one, deserve to die. The people in the tower hadn’t done anything in particular to merit that tragedy, except for being part of a broken, fallen, sinful world. Bad things happen because all of us are bad. Every bad evil thing that has ever happened is a great spinning consequence of Adam’s bad choice. Therefore, said Jesus, Repent.
Being able to say that we are bad, that we have done the wrong thing, is useful and clarifying because, having faced our own evil, it doesn’t make facing everyone else’s evil quite so devastating. If you know yourself to be a sinner it is not as emotionally upending to see that someone else is a sinner also. Every human person is united perfectly by sin, by sharing Adam’s stolen fruit. Knowing and repenting of your own evil is the first step to forgiving others of theirs.
Being unable to say that what happened that day was wrong was a great halting stumble for my church. Not saying it meant that Jesus couldn’t come into the picture. We corporately, being ‘good’, could not realistically face something clearly falling short of our great goodness. We didn’t need saving, and it would have been embarrassing to say that anybody else did either. This last decade and a half Jesus has been pushed to the margins, blamed for everything that is our fault, redefined to be someone unrecognizable. His great answer to the problem of evil–that he completely and totally absorbs it in himself on the cross, and that if you turn to him and trust him you will never be everlastingly overcome by the tidal wave of death that envelopes humanity generation by generation–has not been considered. Not being evil ourselves, we don’t need to be saved. We are stuck in sin, dooming ourselves and everybody else to answer unanswerable questions and do what only God can do.
But it’s not too late. When you see a tower fall, said Jesus, repent. Turn around. Run back to the God who desires not the death of the wicked, but that we should turn to him and live. His name is a strong tower. The sane one runs into it and is kept safe. The foolish one is washed away in the flood of his own ethereal, wrong headed “goodness”. Fifteen years on, we can still fling ourselves on the mercy of a God who tasted the bitterness of death to give life to the world.