National Tragedies and Spiritual Truths

September 5th, 2011

A month ago my wife and I were in New York City and went to the World Trade Center site. Standing there and contemplating what happened made the hair on my neck and arms stand up. America will never forget the trauma of the 9/11 tragedy, nor should we. Ten years later people still remember where they were when they heard the news. I was badgering my son to turn off the television and get to school. He said that something really bad was happening on CNN.

Why did Al-Qaeda attack America? How should Christians respond? Ten years is a long time, but it still might not be long enough to understand the tragedy. Preaching at the National Cathedral after the event, Billy Graham observed that no one really knows why such catastrophic evils happen. What follows, then, are a range of reflections more than an adequate explanation.

Asking Why

The attackers were partly motivated by their hatred of western values — secular democracy that separates church and state, religious pluralism, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, the privacy of the individual, and toleration of dissent. For Muslim extremists and conservative Americans this tends to be a black-and-white view of the world with little middle ground or ambiguity. Nations are "either for us or against us," Bush famously said. On one side there's an "axis of evil" that wills us harm, and on the other side enlightened people who champion the true, the good, and the just. I don't find this view helpful; the "Arab Spring" shows that many Muslims aspire to some western values.

Other people point to American foreign policy. A 1998 fatwa by Osama bin Laden and others objected not to our values but to three specific "crimes and sins"—our support for the United Nations sanctions against Iraq (1990–2003) that hastened the deaths of a million citizens (UNICEF says that 500,000 children died as a result of the sanctions), our biased support for Israel to the detriment of Palestinians, and the presence of our numerous military bases in their sacred Muslim lands. The fatwa also mentioned America's plundering of Arab resources, support for abusive regimes, and undermining self-determination by dictating policy.

In this view, the 9/11 attacks were a classic case of "blowback." Blowback, said Chalmers Johnson, is "another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows." What many people "hate" about America, Johnson argued, is our global militarism and predatory economic policies that virtually assure retaliations against us for decades to come. Instead of acting prudently, we have acted with what has become predictable condescension towards other nations and with myopia about the consequences.

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

The Christian Response

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.

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 (Philippians 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.

Forgiving Terrorists

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 (2007). Eva and her twin sister Miriam spent ten months in Auschwitz. Along with many other twins, 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 to Terre Haute, Indiana in 1960 and raised a family.

Eva returned to Auschwitz for the first time in 1995 for the 50th 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." Through the act of "forgiving your worst enemy" Eva said that she experienced "the feeling of complete freedom from pain." Many Jews were outraged by her act.

In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus, "how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Forgiving someone seven times is generous in the extreme, but Jesus upped the ante and expanded the arithmetic of forgiveness.

Jesus told an outlandish parable about an "unmerciful servant" who received forgiveness for his own enormous debt, but then instead of extending forgiveness for a tiny debt that he was owed, he imprisoned his debtor. In the kingdom of God that Jesus announced, he instructed us to forgive not merely seven times, but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. The forgiveness that characterizes his kingdom is beyond calculation or comprehension.

Jesus linked receiving forgiveness to offering forgiveness. He established a law of proportionality. We can expect divine forgiveness in the measure that we extend human forgiveness: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart." Similarly, in the Lord's Prayer we ask God to "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Our own sense of the need of forgiveness is the basis upon which we freely forgive others. We can only long for ourselves what we lavish upon others.

Forgiveness of this magnitude finds its basis not only in our own sense of need but, even more sure and certain, in the character of God himself as a fundamentally forgiving God. Paul writes, "be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).

Frederic Luskin, co-founder of Stanford University's "Forgiveness Project," says that forgiveness "reduces anger, hurt, depression and stress and leads to greater feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self confidence." In his book Forgive for Good, Luskin elucidates what Eva Kor experienced and what Joseph and Jesus taught, that in forgiving we can become "heroes instead of victims in the stories we tell."


This article is excerpted from the author’s essay on, where you can read the essay in its entirety.

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