The big difference as the anniversary rolls around this year is that Osama bin Laden is dead, the Freedom Tower is up and the War in Afghanistan is finally winding down. For more than a decade now we have lived with the reverberations of that devastating Tuesday morning. We are different because of what happened that day; changed in some dramatic and fundamental ways. Anybody who flies knows just how different the world has become because of the events of 9/11. But it goes deeper than that. It involves more than just intrusive questions, invasive searches and the inconvenience of taking off our shoes and belts and traveling without fluids and pocket knives. It involves our souls.
Thomas a’ Kempis, the man who usually gets credit for writing the Christian masterpiece of devotion The Imitation of Christ, said that having enemies are good for us spiritually. There is nothing that plumbs the depths of our spiritual maturity more accurately than does having enemies. Christ’s instructions are certainly clear concerning enemies –
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expectingnothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the MostHigh, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
And you can hear an echo of Christ’s voice in what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans –
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own vengeance, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:18-21)
Now, there is a legitimate interpretive debate to be had about these teachings. There is a real question about whether they are intended to be taken by us as a statement about personal ethics – what we are to do as individual Christians in the face of the opposition and the attack of an enemy; or as a statement of social ethics – what we are to do collectively as official public policy. My pacifist friends read them one way, I read them another. But we all agree that peace – “shalom” – is God’s intention for the world that He created, and the goal of His redemptive work. The story that the Bible tells opens and closes with a picture of perfect peace, and in-between, God’s people struggle with its embodiment in both their lives and in the world, which brings us back around to Thomas a’ Kempis’ observation about how having enemies is the litmus test of what’s going on deep in our souls.
The death of Osama bin Laden is instructive. In light of what Jesus said, how am I as one of His followers supposed to react to the death of one of our country’s arch-enemies, the mastermind behind the horror of 9/11? Is this a cause for celebration? An opportunity to gloat? An occasion to wave the flag, beat our chests and dance in the streets?
Francis Schaeffer, the Christian thinker I cut my theological teeth on, coined the phrase “fighting grievingly” to describe what he believed was the only proper attitude of a Christian in times of armed conflict. If a war is “just” – and the determination of this is another conversation for another time – then the participation of a Christian is deemed – by the majority opinion of the church – to be morally warranted. But the way that a Christian participates in that conflict, no matter how just, must still be governed by the love of God in Jesus Christ in his or her heart, and this means that he or she can only “fight grievingly,” with real regret and anguish.
In the traditional wedding service, the presiding minister directly addresses the bride and groom early in the service, telling them that the holy estate of matrimony is “not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.” And I believe that the same thing needs to be said out loud to every soldier at enlistment, to every President at inauguration, to every Congress with a war act on their docket, and to every citizen of any nation that is caught up in the swirl of circumstances that could result in a violent confrontation. Should a military action ever become necessary, and be justified, as a Christian who is a citizen, while I believe that I am under some obligation to be supportive, I must never become enthusiastic. When fighting becomes a tragic necessity, as a Christian, I can only “fight grievingly.” And this means that the death of Osama bin Laden should not be a cause for celebration. It is the tragic outcome to a tragic sequence of events that have their origins in hated and evil. It is not a cause for celebration; it is a cause for grief. Somewhere I’ve read that Robert Louis Stevenson fell to the floor and wept when he heard the news that another war had broken out involving his native land, and it seems to me that this is always the Christian response. Even in the effort to defeat an enemy, as Christians we cannot allow the struggle to become tainted with a hatred for the enemy because that will wind up destroying our souls. I am not convinced that what Jesus said about loving our enemies means that there is never a time for entering into the struggle to defeat our enemies. In fact, I am convinced that justice – “love distributed” – sometimes demands it. But I am also fully convinced that what Jesus said about loving our enemies dictates how that conflict, when it becomes tragically necessary, gets prosecuted, and what the inner disposition of a Christian must be throughout its course, and in its aftermath.
As Christians we are never excused from our duty to love our enemies. Even when in the course of human events it becomes necessary to defeat an enemy, we cannot suspend our spiritual obligation to love our enemies. This is the paradox with which we struggle as Christians who are in the world but not of the world. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t comfortable. It would just be so much easier to release the tension and fly to one pole of the paradox or the other, to either become a pacifist or a crusader, to never ever try to stop an aggressor under any circumstance, or to try to so totally vanquish an enemy that they are removed forever from the face of the earth by any means necessary. But I find that Jesus won’t let me go to either of these extremes. Instead, He puts me in the middle, and He tells me to hang on with all my might. And the voice I hear in this crucible most clearly is that of Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican Bishop of Iran in the 1970’s, whose son, Bahram, was murdered in the days of the Islamic Revolution. Exiled to Cyprus and therefore unable to attend his son’s funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti wrote a prayer and read it over the phone to the congregation that gathered in his church to bury Bahram. And now, whenever I think about what it means for me to love my enemies in a morally confusing and politically charged atmosphere where soldiers are fighting, and bleeding, and dying, it is this prayer that narrates the struggle that is going on in my soul –
O God, we remember not only Bahram but his murderers, not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow, not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world: but because through their crime we now follow more closely thy footsteps in the way of sacrifice. The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us: its flame reveals the depth of depravity, meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature. It makes plain to us as never before our need to trust in thy love as shown in the Cross of Jesus and his Resurrection, love that makes us free from all hatred towards our persecutors: love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity and greatness of heart, love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and thy eternal designs for the Church and for the world: love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death. O God, Bahram’s blood multiplies the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls: so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.
It’s been eleven years, but the wound to my soul, and the struggle that it has created there for me as a Christian, is as fresh as that Tuesday morning when the world as I knew it was forever changed. DBS+