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Our Greatest Christological Defeat

There have been many words flying around this week leading up to today’s tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, and there will undoubtedly be many more throughout the day today. I have not read many better than these, by Bishop William Willimon, from an article in Christianity Today about how evangelical leaders have changed since 9/11:

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back on our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the non-violent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on their own terms by crucifying the Son of God.”

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #


    1. The implication that the United States deserved these attacks

    2. The idea that these nations were destroyed and that the United States has not been working spending lives of its own citizens and money trying to make these countries whole. Afghanistan and Iraq were dysfunctional on many levels before they were invaded. I do not agree with these wars or support the ongoing efforts there but I disagree with this interpretation of events.

    3. This interpretation of Christ doesn’t square with a particularly violent God in the Old Testament(Hebrew Bible) and Revelation. Ananias and Sapphira get smote for lying about money in Acts, Jericho gets more shock and awe then Donald Rumsfeld could ever dream of, not to mention the eternal torment of non-believers that modern Christians are so eager to shrug off as of late.

    September 11, 2011
    • 1. I don’t see anything in Willimon’s comments that would lead to this conclusion. To say that the USA is not innocent is very different from saying that they deserved what happened on September 11. Willimon names the acts of terror for what they are: criminal.

      2. The USA is undoubtedly making efforts to rebuild the nations that they attacked. I think it is very much an open question whether either Afghanistan or Iraq are better off now, after a decade of brutal warfare and millions of dollars of investment, than they were pre-9/11. Whatever improvements have come tend to be isolated and sporadic in nature and seem rather meagre relative to the devastation of the wars endured—wars that were only tangentially (at best) related to the events of 9/11.

      3. Are you suggesting that Willimon is incorrect in implying that Jesus advocated the path of nonviolence? Of course, the question of how to reconcile parts of the Hebrew Bible with the words of Jesus is difficult. There are hermeneutical strategies and understandings of the nature of revelation that can make parts of the Hebrew Bible more palatable, but at the end of the day, the texts are there, and, taken at face value, they are difficult to reconcile with what I understand the commands of Christ to be. So, I cast my lot with Jesus and interpret him as the fullest and clearest representation of the character of God (Col. 1). It’s not a perfectly airtight argument, but, well, there just aren’t many of those around when it comes to ultimate questions.

      (FYI, I came across an interesting article on this issue at the NYT philosophy blog the other day, for those who are interested. It can be accessed here.)

      September 11, 2011
    • Tyler #

      On points one and two, are they really so off? If there is a greater terrorist organization in existence than the US gov then I am unaware of it.

      September 12, 2011
  2. I wasn’t really sure where to post this, but I suppose it’s somewhat related to the topic here. I read these words from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (referring to the bombing of Nagasaki) before my head hit the pillow last night, September 11:

    Hell is falling from the skies. A reporter from the Times rode in the plane as a witness, wondering at zero hour whether he should feel sad for “the poor devils about to die.” He decided no, it was a fair exchange for Pearl Harbor. The army’s plan was to drop this bomb on a different Japanese city that morning, a different set of men and dogs and schoolchildren and mothers, but the thick clouds over that city refused to part. Growing tired of circling and waiting, the bomber pilots flew southward down the channel and chose Nagasaki, thanks to its clear skies.

    For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a cloud, the world was lost.

    Your blood for mine. If not these, then those. War is the supreme mathematics problem. It strains our skulls, yet we work out the sums, believing we have pressed the most monstrous qualities into a balanced equation.

    Not really sure what my point in posting this quote is… just found Kingsolver’s words very jarring. The mathematics of war does, indeed, strain the skull….

    September 12, 2011
  3. Thanks for this article Ryan. This has been a bit of a tricky issue for me down south. Our senior pastor was out of town this weekend and so I found myself having to figure out how to appropriately acknowledge this anniversary of 9/11. Our congregation is very politically divided and have very different views on a lot of social issues. One church down the road did a 21 gun salute and the whole patriotic thing. To me this is an example of the dangerous blurring of the kingdom of God and the United States that Willimon reacts against.

    I came across this litany of remembrance from the United Methodist Church that seemed to strike a good tone. I thought it and captured an appropriate response to this issue.

    God, tender and just, we come together today to remember the events of September 11, 2001 and the aftermath that resulted from those events over the past 10 years. We come to mourn and be comforted; to reflect and to be challenged; to look toward the future and to offer our labor to your reign of peace. God of life and prince of peace, hear our prayers as we turn our hearts toward you.

    One: We pray for the innocent, both here and abroad, whose lives were lost swiftly and in violence.
    All. May they forever find shelter with you.

    One: We pray for the faithful, whose lives were lost in service to others.
    All: May they forever find shelter with you.

    One: We pray for the wounded, whose lives are damaged in body and spirit.
    All: Comfort and heal them, and give them strength.

    One: We pray for the young, whose lives are marred by anxiety and loss.
    All: Comfort and heal them, and give them strength.

    One: We pray for the fearful, whose lives are truncated by worry and confusion.
    All: Comfort them, and give them peace.

    One: We pray for the angry, whose lives are fueled by hatred.
    All: Show them your way of love.

    One: We pray for the poor, whose lives are ruled by hungers of body and mind.
    All: Fill their emptiness with abundance.

    One: We pray for the powerful, whose choices signal life or death for others.
    All: Grant them wisdom and compassion.

    One: We pray for the peacemakers, whose lives are daily in harm’s way.
    All: Protect them, and grant them mercy in time of trial.

    One: These things and all things we ask in the name of the One who came to offer us life, and life abundant, even Jesus Christ our Savior.
    All: Amen

    September 12, 2011
    • Wow, that’s quite a Sunday to be on your own, Phil! I can imagine it must have been quite complex given your context and the makeup of your congregation. There’s not really any course on that in grad school, is there :)?

      Thanks for the fantastic litany. I wish I would have found that one a few days ago as I was thinking about our own service here! I especially appreciated the line about the “innocent, both here and abroad”… The litany very sensitively covers the full spectrum of emotions and responses that are bound up with September 11, but in a way that keeps clear the difference between nation and kingdom. Well chosen words are truly a gift. Thanks for sharing these here.

      September 12, 2011

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