Truth, Forgiveness, and the Tragedy of 9/11

These are reasonable explanations, but they're not a valid excuse. There's no excuse for Al-Qaeda's global terrorism.

Some Christians appealed to God's providential intervention. Jerry Falwell infamously construed the 9/11 attacks as divine punishment for the wickedness of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU, and People for the American Way. "I point the finger in their face," said Falwell, "and say, 'you helped this happen.'" Pat Robertson, a guest on the show, nodded in agreement, saying, "well, I totally concur." In their view, America's policies aren't wrong because they're politically imprudent as a matter of practice. Rather, they're morally wrong as a matter of principle because they violate God's standards.

The remarks of Falwell and Robertson are reckless and hateful. I'm uncomfortable with linking divine judgment and national disaster, whether for America or for any nation. It's one thing to affirm that God acts in the history of nations, but quite another to claim to know exactly how, when, where, or why. And yet, having said that, no lesser person than Abraham Lincoln once described the Civil War as God's judgment on American slavery.

Christians face particular difficulties in deconstructing the attacks. The kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are different. Personal spiritual truths in the Bible do not translate into national public policies for a country. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this dilemma during the Nazi horrors. In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr he said that "German Christians faced a terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization." The good of the gospel and the glory of a nation often collide, for if Jesus is Lord, then all the pharaohs and caesars of the world are not lord.

Maybe America is somehow exceptional in the world? Yes and no.

In terms of economic, political, military, scientific, and cultural influence, America is unrivaled. In that sense, it's accurate to say that America is "exceptional," although there's no reason to think this will last forever, or that all our influence is good. But since Christian identity is ultimately spiritual and not political or national (Phil. 3:20), from a Christian point of view America is no more or less "exceptional" in God's eyes than Iceland, India, or Iraq. The historian Rebecca Lyman observes that the early gospel developed in the context of Greek, Roman, and Jewish "exceptionalisms," and has ever since been tempted to mimic rather than subvert them.

It's natural to love and take pride in your own country. But when it comes to geography, culture, nation, and ethnicity, Christians are egalitarians rather than exceptionalists. We reject any and all forms of narcissistic nationalism. For us there's no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God lavishly loves all the world, each person, and every place, the gospel does not privilege any country as exceptional. An Iranian Muslim is no further from God's love than an American Christian. A Honduran Pentecostal is no closer to God's love than an Oxford atheist. This Christian egalitarianism subverts all geo-political nationalisms.

Should Americans forgive the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks? I've been wondering about a possible parallel scenario.

Could you or should you forgive Dr. Mengele, the Nazi "angel of death"? That question haunted Eva Kor, who tells her remarkable story in the documentary film Forgiving Dr. Mengele. Eva and her twin sister Miriam spent ten months in Auschwitz. Like many other twins in the concentration camps, they were separated from their families and subjected to Mengele's horrific "medical" experiments. After liberation by the Soviets when she was ten years old, and then ten years in Israel, Eva relocated in 1960 to Terre Haute, Indiana, and raised a family.

Eva returned to Auschwitz for the first time in 1995 for the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps, and on that occasion she did the unthinkable. She read aloud her personal "official declaration of amnesty" to Mengele and the Nazis. To be liberated from the Nazis was not enough, she said; she needed to be released from the pain of the past. To extend forgiveness without any prerequisites required of the perpetrators, said Eva, was an "act of self-healing." Many Jews were outraged. Through the act of "forgiving your worst enemy," however, Eva said she experienced "the feeling of complete freedom from pain."

In the lectionary readings this week, Jesus and Joseph commend the healing power of forgiveness.

9/10/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • 9/11
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