Post 9/11 Trauma and Transformation for Evangelicals

Post 9/11 Trauma and Transformation for Evangelicals September 11, 2019
National Park Service, September 11, 2001, September 11 Attacks in New York City

By Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead: Today marks eighteen years since the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks of 9/11. In this post on this anniversary, we will explore how it has affected Evangelical Protestant Christians negatively and how we might respond positively. The trauma of 9/11 produced fear and anger in the days and months immediately after the events, but these many years later, how has it continued to shape us psychologically, and in turn, theologically? After some discussion on certain elements of the traumatic impact of 9/11, we will share some thoughts on how we may move forward in healthier ways for the future.

It likely comes as no surprise to hear that 9/11 was traumatic, not only on those closest to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but also for the nation as a whole. However, it may be surprising to consider the possibility that the specter of 9/11 continues to negatively impact our individual and collective national psychology. This is as true for Evangelicals as it is for other Americans.

In order to understand the ways in which the events of 9/11 impacted us, and how it continues to shape the way we feel and think, we will consider briefly ideas from a few books on the topic. In one study titled In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, social psychologists Tom Psyzczynski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg describe how the attacks provide us with a grim reminder of our mortality. The ways we respond psychologically to the fear of death is explored under the label “terror management theory.” The idea is that human beings have an existential fear of death. We cope with this fear by surrounding ourselves with various things to ease our anxieties. This can include politics and religion, both of which provide a way for people to become involved in a meaningful cause and community that moves them beyond fixation on self and that has a lifespan as a movement after the individuals in question die.

Speaking of religious associations in light of terror management theory, one of the ways we cope in the face of death relates to an emphasis on competing worldviews. Social psychologists have noted that terror management often results in using derogation and denunciation as a defense mechanism. Psyzczynski, Solomon and Greenberg write about this In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror:

It is much simpler and more common to defend against such alternative worldviews. To do so, people respond to others having different worldviews with a series of psychological and behavioral reactions that serve to bolster confidence in their own worldviews. The first line of defense is to belittle people who are different… By disparaging those with different beliefs, the threat posed by those beliefs is diffused and no longer challenges the received wisdom of one’s own cultural worldview.

The authors also state that another result of terror management theory is bigotry. This seems to follow naturally from the idea of belittling people who hold to a worldview with which we strongly disagree. At this point we ask: has disparagement and belittlement of Islam been a facet of American Evangelicalism since 9/11? Various surveys, such as those from the Pew Forum, reveal that Evangelicals feel far less warmth toward Muslims (and a few other religions) than do other segments of the American population. A great many Evangelicals have also been supportive of President Trump’s ban on immigrants from Muslim majority countries. It may be that our fears of 9/11, periodically reinforced by subsequent attacks by Islamist groups, has uniquely shaped our psychology as Evangelicals that results in negative attitudes and actions against Muslims across the board.

The 9/11 attacks also seem to have become the latest expression of Evangelicalism’s battle for identity in the contemporary world, just as conflicts over biblical higher criticism and evolution often did in the past. This is the argument Walter Ratliff makes in his book Christians and Muslims at the Epicenter: How the Sept. 11th Attacks Shook and Transformed American Evangelicalism. In his words,

At the turn of the millennium, the Sept. 11th attacks forced the Christian world to not only deal with the pressures of modernity, but also a host of new theological, political and cultural challenges. Whereas theologically-conservative Christianity once primarily identified itself against secularism and theologically-liberal movements, the postmodern world presents challenges from other religions, alongside a variety of systems competing for legitimacy and adherents.

In light of these reflections, how might we respond in a manner that leads us through trauma and reactionary impulses to proactive engagement? The emphasis noted above on the role of political and religious communities in coping with the fear of death certainly has its place. Still, we need to ask what kind of political and religious associations do we cultivate? For those of us who are Evangelicals, are they the kind of communities that focus primarily or exclusively on boundary maintenance and protection from competing worldviews like Islam? Boundary maintenance and protection are appropriate at some level for the preservation and cultivation of a faith tradition. At the very least, such impulses and trajectories result from our biological and sociological wiring, as Jonathan Haidt maintains in his moral foundations theory. But how far do we take it? In addition to rightful concerns for Haidt’s categories of loyalty and sanctity, the categories of care and fairness that Haidt describes should also receive significant emphasis.

How might we show caring consideration and demonstrate care and fairness toward Muslims? Let’s take care for starters. Evangelical faith communities like Northwood Church in Keller, Texas and RiverCity Christian Church in Sacramento, California practice genuine hospitality and neighborliness toward and with Muslims in their communities. We need to make sure as Evangelicals with our particular emphasis on doctrinal purity that we also account for Christian Scripture’s significant emphasis on hospitality. These churches are leading the way in exemplifying significant forms of hospitality and neighborliness.

As we get to know our Muslim neighbors with genuine care, it also helps us grow in fairness as we engage their particular worldviews. Instead of pigeon-holing and treating Islam in simplistic and derogatory terms, we will embed beliefs in the faces and stories of the Muslims we meet and befriend. We will realize as well that Christian history is very messy, just like Muslim history. No faith tradition is immune to violent impulses and triumphalist trajectories. All too often, we are victims of amnesia as we forget to account for troubling narratives and events in the Christian past while pointing out the abuses of other communities and traditions, as in the case of Islam. Moreover, we need to account for how Jesus modeled cruciform love of all people, including his enemies. Certainly, Evangelicalism’s historic emphasis on the sacrificial love of Christ or crucicentrism, as David Bebbington articulated it in his Evangelical quadrilateral, should be featured prominently in our engagement of Islam.

Moreover, we need to account for the fact that any movement will have greater staying power to the extent that it is fueled by positive pro-action over against negative reaction. Do we want Muslims and people in society at large to know Evangelicals for what we are against rather than what we are for? What are we known for outside our movement? We can blame the media all we wish for casting a dark cloud over our heads, but how are we as Evangelicals doing in explicitly challenging sweeping, negative religious and ideological stereotypes and political policies that prove inhospitable to Muslims? Do we speak out or remain silent in the face of immigration and refugee policies that target Muslims?

In terms of the importance of positive pro-action taking pride of place over negative reaction, it is worth taking a page out of history at this point. After World War I, the Allies punished Germany with the Treaty of Versailles rather than rebuild it. As a result of crippling and humiliating policies, they contributed to the formation of a vacuum in which National Socialism could arise and gain incredible power. After World War II, the US determined with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany. No equivalent vacuum was created in which a similar menace like Hitler and his forces could emerge. How do American Evangelicals approach Islam? While of course, the particulars of history vary from context to context, and in a variety of ways, do exclusionary and derogatory practices and perspectives help or hinder us in fostering a peaceful and safe America and world at large? Do we aim to win the hearts and souls of our Muslim neighbors and fellow world travelers—whether they ever accept Christ as Savior and Lord or not—or do we turn them into enemies, where extremist groups win their hearts and souls with our help?

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