For those who remember time in the days immediately following, September 11, 2001, I want you go back with me in your mind's eye as you hear I Corinthians 7: 29-31 in the words of Eugene Peterson in The Message:
"I do want to point out my friends that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste. Don't complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things - your daily routines of shopping and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things of this world thrust on you. This world as you see it is on its way out."
In the face of what he believes to be the imminent second coming of Christ, Paul advises the Corinthian Church to simplify life. In the seventh chapter of I Corinthians, Paul focuses on simplifying our approach to marriage. For those already married, questions abound about how to behave in marriage with the end coming immediately. Should couples modify their behaviors and the demands of marriage? Meanwhile, the unmarried wonder if they should enter new relationships that possibly would divert their attention from the coming Parousia.
Broadly speaking, Paul's advice is to remain as you are, whatever your marital status. In the unsettling times and conditions expected to precede the Eschaton, Paul points out that "There is no time to waste. Don't complicate your lives unnecessarily," (vs. 29) and "This world as you see it is on its way out." (vs. 31).
In times that seem to indicate the end of the world is near, meaning and purpose shift, and domestic priorities and human emotions are no longer absolute. In Paul's words: "Those who mourn should live as though they were not mourning. Those who enjoy life should live as though they did not enjoy it" (vs. 30).
Paul's advice is not strange for anyone here who lived through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On the morning of September 11, 2001 we, living on this isolated "island" of the mainland USA, witnessed the collapse of life as we had known it to be. There was a collective experience of the end coming. If nothing else, on that day, our world changed in four crashes and in a flash before our eyes.
Many of us have had personal experiences of our world changing before our eyes in a moment of time. Your child is struck with a mystifying paralysis - your world changes. There is a life threatening illness, a life changing condition, or your child or one beloved to you dies and all of your daily routines halt. All your previous engagements are postponed. What seemed so urgent an hour before and certainly 24 hours before, has lost all its importance.
In the five days following 9/11, First Church had a wedding, a funeral, and the commissioning of Dorinda White as our Minister of Christian Education. In each case, the conversation turned to, "should we proceed at this time?" In each case, we decided to do so. The wedding and commissioning brought hope in troubled times. But, I will never forget the words of Dr. Morris Battles following the death of June - his wife of 60+ years. As we planned her memorial service, he said, "this seems so unimportant in the face of all the tragic losses from the terror attacks." It upset me then and still does, that terrorists robbed this great man of his grief. Now gone to eternal rest, Morris felt guilty saying goodbye to the love of his life in the aftermath of hate.
In the face of the eschaton, Paul is right. Everything seems to lose its ultimate meaning. But, now 2000 years after his writing, we see things differently. In fact, we live in an opposite sort of way. We live as though purchasing power is greater than eternal power. We live as if the "stuff" we do and say is more important than anything God delivers to us. As a result of this approach, we lose faith more easily and trust God less readily. We would do well to embrace more of Paul's vision of ultimate meaning and less of our own.
In her book, Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Neiman writes a brilliant reflection on history through the eyes of a post-Holocaust German philosopher. Speaking to aftershocks of 9/11 she writes:
The suddenness and speed of the attack resembled a natural catastrophe. There was no warning. There was also no message. The absence of both created the kind of fear that made most of us know that we had not, until then, understood the meaning of the word terror. Like earthquakes: terrorists strike at random: who lives and who does not depend on contingencies that cannot be deserved or prevented. Thinkers like Voltaire raged at God for His failure to uphold the elementary moral rules human beings try to follow. Children should not be suddenly and brutally tormented; something as big as life and death should not depend on something as small as chance. Natural disaster is blind to moral distinctions that even crude justice draws. Terrorism deliberately defies them. In underscoring contingency, September 11, underscores our infinite fragility. Even in New York, many people knew no one who was in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but everyone seemed to know someone who sleeping off a hangover or taking a child to kindergarten. Where failure to get to work becomes a way of saving one's life, our sense of powerlessness becomes overwhelming. The terrorists chose targets sure to increase it. Wall Street and the Pentagon are at once symbol and reality of Western force, and it is unclear which is more frightening: the collapse of the glaringly conspicuous twin towers or the assault on the impenetrable recesses of military might. Neither visibility nor invisibility provided protection. Watching both shatter so quickly, no one could possibly feel safe. Ordinary people everywhere echoed (Hannah) Arendt: the impossible became true. (Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2002, p. 282).
What do we do when "the impossible becomes true?" How do we respond as people of faith and as Americans to terror such as this? For .05%, the response has been to pick-up the weapons of war and head off our island to fight back. For the remaining 99.5% of the American population, the response has been mixed. All 99.5% of us pray for, support, and love the brave men and women who have gone forth to fight the terribly elusive insurgents in this war on terror. Speaking for myself, and I imagine everyone in this room, we support the brave troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Through the ensuing years, the struggle for the 99.5% has surfaced in relation to disagreements and tensions with government leaders and war policies, the techniques of war and the use of torture, and with the lack of openness in communication related to the decisions surrounding this war on terror. In other words, the internal struggles we have experienced as American citizens and people of faith have come in relation to the preemptive war strike on Iraq and the sustained conflict there; the material support of our troops, the use of our national guard in a far away land, the treatment of prisoners in this war on terror, the escalating cost of this war (which according to the Government Office of Budget and Finance) has reached $7 billion dollars a month and will rise to $1-2 trillion dollars by 2010. At home, debate has arisen around the homeland establishment of the Patriot Act and its effect of our freedoms and civil liberties. All these ideological and theological debates and discussions have arisen in relation to these areas of our common life.
Do you see what terror does to a nation? Terror is meant to strike us dumb and divide us in ways we couldn't have imagined. I agree with Dr. Neiman who says, "With terror we face new forms of danger" But this terror has not presented a new form of evil. The people who planned and executed the mass murders of thousands of innocents on 9/11 embodied a form of evil so old-fashioned and cruel that its reappearance is part of our shock.
Those who carried out this "jihad" or "holy war" attack are not touched by modern scruples and ethics. They see a god who rewards those who destroy life and they believe that such a god will grant them entrance to paradise. I believe they are in for the shock of their eternal lives when they face the God of Mohammed, Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Buddha and find God to also be the God of Jesus - the Prince of Peace. Eternal damnation will not include the virgins they had been promised prior to their murderous acts of suicide. Like the planning of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the planning of the suicidal commercial jet attacks on 9/11, this evil is awesomely intentional. It is an old evil. It is an evil that produces what morality tries to prevent: death and fear. And fear, according to Rousseau is worse than death, because fear threatens our freedom and poisons our lives. In the acts of terror on 9/11, malice and forethought, the classic components of evil intention have rarely been so well combined (Nieman, p. 284).
In the words of the apostle Paul to the Christians in the heart of the once great Roman Empire: "What then are we to say about all these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" (Romans 8:31). God is for us. And I don't mean this as a simplistic "our nation right or wrong" battle cry. God is for us because (as Paul continues) "God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us. (And by all of us - I understand the Greek to mean all of humanity) Will God not with him, also give us everything else?" (Rms. 8:32). Because God is for us, we don't need to become what our enemies want us to become. Our God - the God of Love, Justice, Mercy and Peace wants us to create systems and lifestyles of love, justice, mercy, and peace. Our God wants us not to become terrorists, too. God does not want us to destroy life indiscriminately. God does not want us to strike back at innocent men, women, and children the way Islamic terrorists struck at men, women and children on 9/11 and have done so in the years ever since.
The prisons we run at Abu Ghraib should not look as bad or worse than the prisons Saddam Hussein ran there years ago. We should not hold, and torture boys of 12-18 years old (as we are doing) and hold in custody more than 10,000 people who have been charged with no crimes. If we fight terrorist oppressors in these ways, we "become" the very enemy we seek to uproot and destroy. As such, we will never know victory in a war fought like this. Instead, we will become oppressors ourselves. Paul tells us (also in Romans) that we "overcome evil with good." Such an act happened in post- WWII with the Marshall Plan. The economic infusion of resources and hope which came from America to our devastated European and Japanese brothers and sisters ultimately served as real medicine to cure the suffering of war.
Going forward from the depths of pain in terror to the peace that will pass understanding, we need to promote human rights across the globe, support an ever-increasing religiously pluralistic nation (and world) - while remaining clear about our own beliefs about Jesus Christ in the heart of this new world of pluralism. We need to support the rebuilding of devastated nations - not with a few American companies which get rich quick - but with a global economic effort that yields long term results for the global economy. The time has come to promote peace with justice and to live a faith and life which embrace normalcy and trust in the Lord of Life.
Never again do I want to find myself faced with someone as beautiful as Morris Battles apologizing for grieving the love of his life. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church