On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is hard to imagine talking about anything else, but it is also not obvious what to say about it in church. How do we understand a violent and deadly act of terrorism in terms of the kingdom of God?
There are significant points of correspondence between 9/11 and Good Friday. Both involved the unjust killing of the innocent by angry people. The terrorist tries to conquer people through fear. This is precisely why the Romans crucified people. They nailed their enemies to a cross and put them on display by the roadside so that all would see–and be afraid. History turned when the Romans nailed to a cross a particular Jewish man, who also happened to be the Son of God. Jesus seemed to be but another hapless victim among thousands–crucified, dead and buried. Yet, we are here in church precisely because “the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Good Friday and Easter are the definitive pattern for the Christian life. We are, as St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10). Easter teaches us that God can take malice, injustice and murder and turn them into the means of salvation. Easter teaches us that God can take the senseless, the brutal, the horrific and the tragic and use them as the raw material for his will and purpose. The same God who created the world in the beginning, is now bringing the order and beauty of his new creation our of the chaos and evil of this fallen world.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus were characterized by being unafraid to die. Jesus promised, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The early Christians believed him and faced death accordingly. Rome attempted to crush the church by killing, threatening and torturing Christians. However, the threat of death caused the church to grow. The pagans were drawn to Christ because they saw that his followers were willing to die for him. The word martyr means “witness” in the Greek. Faithful death was, and is, a powerful witness to the fact the Christ is risen, and we will rise.
Martyrdom is not a thing of the past. Today, Christians around the world are being persecuted for their faith–particularly in countries where there is a militant Islamic presence. There have probably been more Christian martyrs in the last century than in all of the previous history of the church.
We tend to read stories of heroic response to persecutions as exotic tales of foreign adventure. In America, we’ve never been discouraged from believing by the threat of death. However, on 9/11, Americans were killed in America in part because they were identified with Christianity.
Christianity has been historically comfortable in American. This has changed. The terrorist, the currently accepted pubic morality and the goals and values of the consumer culture are all hostile to genuine Christian faith. This means that being a Christian in America now a challenge. This means that heroic Christian response to danger and opposition is no longer only for saints who lived long ago or far away. It is something to which each of us is increasingly called.
Heroism was one of the good things that came out of 9/11. The men who attacked the terrorists in the cockpit; the firefighters who ran back up the stairway while others were running out; the chaplain who died giving last rites to a victim. It is no surprise that many, if not most, were Christians.
The men were heroes because they were faithful to fulfill their ordinary calling in extraordinary circumstances. Men ought to band together and fight the enemy. Firefighters are called to risk their lives to save people. Priests are called to ministry. These men became heroes on 9/11 because they continued to do these ordinary and faithful things when their lives were at risk.
Christian heroism has always had this component. The Christian saint does not go out of his way to perform some dangerous stunt for its own sake or for mere glory. He does not seek martyrdom. The Christian saint simply lives out the implications of his or her faith in the ordinary circumstances of life. Sometimes sanctity is exhibited when a person faithfully fulfills ordinary but challenging duties for decades without notice or fanfare. Sometimes sanctity is shown by doing ordinary things in an extraordinary circumstance. For example, all Christians ordinarily profess that Jesus is Lord. The martyrs just continued to this ordinary thing after they were arrested and threatened with death.
Two movies recently refreshed this meditation for me. The other night I watched the closing scenes of “Titanic.” These scenes showed how, as the ship began to sink, some people acted like cowards while others acted courageously, exhibiting honor and integrity in extraordinary circumstances. I recently watched another film entitled, “Of Gods and Men,” a true story of an order monks who lived in Algeria. Militant Islamists began to operate in their region, placing them in peril of death. Their first impulse was to leave, to flee to safety. Before deciding what to do, they committed to pray about it for a time. Through prayer, they all came to the conclusion that God called them to stay and be faithful where they were. Most of them were killed as a result. The movie did not portray these men as naturally heroic. Their first impulse was to run. However, through prayer, they were given the grace they needed to continue to fulfill their ordinary duty in a new extraordinary circumstance.
The fact is that we all we live under the threat of death. Terrorism simply highlights and magnifies this aspect of the human condition. We are all going to die. We hope to live to ripe old age, but there is always some chance that death might come unexpectedly; that we might be in the wrong building or on the wrong plane. Life “in Christ” is preparation for death. The modern world wants to avoid death. The terrorist wants to scare us with the threat of death. Jesus conquered death so that we can live heroically and without fear. For we know that every death in Christ is a Good Friday that looks forward to Easter. We know that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us rom the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
As we look back on 9/11 in the light of the kingdom of God, we can remember three things. First, God continually brings his new creation out of the chaos and evil of this world. Second death can come unexpectedly so that we must always be ready. Third, we ought to live heroically for Christ in the time we have left. As Jesus said, “Blessed is that servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.” (Matthew 24:46).