“Life will never be the same again.” That is what many Americans have been saying in the aftermath of last week’s “Attack on America,” the suicide hijackings that brought down four airplanes, two of the world’s tallest buildings, and a large section of the Pentagon. The terrorist attack was the deadliest ever to take place on American soil, with more than six thousand Americans and others perishing.
The loss has touched us all with horror, rage, compassion, and a deep, deep sadness. During this difficult time of national sorrow, there are three relationships some Christians have had trouble keeping straight. These are the relationship between our church and our nation, between divine judgment and human evil, and between forgiveness and justice. Tonight I want to give some guidance in these areas.
First, we need to distinguish between our church and our nation. Christians ought to be patriotic. God has called us to be good citizens of this great nation. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to have a strong sense of solidarity with our fellow Americans, to mourn our common losses, and to praise our uncommon heroes.
However, we must never confuse our commitment to our country with our even more fundamental commitment to Christ and his church. In particular, it is a mistake to think that we have the kind of spiritual connection with other Americans that enables us all to worship together. The public services held in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere have been characterized by an unholy mixture of Christianity with Judaism, Islam, and the good old U. S. of A. To do this is to mistake our civil union for a spiritual unity that we do not share.
It is right and good for us to have public gatherings to show our love for our country, and also to express our grief for the loss we share. But this should not take place in the context of public worship. The result can only be a lack of clarity about the one true gospel. This is why our founding fathers advocated a separation between church and state—not because the church would corrupt our society, but because the true ministry of God’s Word needs to be protected from the secular state.
As Christians, we also need to distinguish between divine judgment and human evil. Nearly everyone recognizes that last week’s attacks were the actions of wicked men—“evildoers,” as the President called them. This means that God is not to blame. The terrorist attacks were not acts of God, but acts of men in rebellion against God. However, some Christians have been saying that God permitted these attacks in order to judge our country for its many sins. One well-known pastor said, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’ ” (the minister has since apologized).
There are many problems with viewing terrorist activity as a form of divine judgment. One is that judgment begins with the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17), so that if God intends to judge America, we can expect him to start with the American church. Besides, we have no way of knowing God’s purpose. Was the attack intended to serve as a spiritual wake-up call? Was it God’s way of punishing us for our greed? Who knows? God’s purpose has not been revealed, and therefore it is useless for us to speculate.
One thing we can say for certain is that the current crisis calls us all to repentance. Consider the question that Jesus asked his disciples: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:4-5). Jesus was talking about a calamity from his own time—the collapse of a great building, with the sudden loss of human life. His point was that people should stop trying to guess why God allowed such a tragedy. Our guesses are bound to be wrong anyway. What we ought to do instead is ponder our own relationship to God, and in the light of the coming judgment, to repent and not to perish.
The last thing Christians have trouble keeping straight is the relationship between justice and forgiveness. Most Americans are justifiably outraged by these acts of terror, and desperately hope that everyone who conspired against our country will be brought to justice. In their zeal for retaliation, some Christians err on the side of vengeance. God says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Rom. 12:19), but frankly, some of us wouldn’t mind getting in on the action. Instead, we must be content to wait for justice to be carried out by the authorities that God has established as agents of his wrath “to bring punishment” on those who do wrong (Rom. 13:4b).
Other Christians oppose the very idea of seeking justice. They are quick to quote the words of Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Certainly it is good for us to pray for our personal enemies, and especially to ask God to save them by his grace. It is also important to forgive our enemies, so that we do not strike out in an unholy rage. However, at the same time that we are praying for and (God help us!) forgiving our enemies, we must also seek to bring them to justice, especially if they have committed acts of public violence against innocent victims. There is no contradiction between forgiveness, which offers grace to those who sin, and justice, which brings their sin to account.
In the aftermath of the attack, as we wrestle with many profound spiritual questions, I am reminded of a letter Dorothy L. Sayers wrote to a friend. Her friend had experienced great suffering, and she wanted to know “Why does everything go wrong?” and “What is the meaning of all this suffering?” When Sayers wrote back, she was able to answer both questions in only three words. Why does everything go wrong? Sin. What is the meaning of all this suffering? Christ crucified. The reason there is such great trouble in the world is because of the terrible things that people do to one another. But there is real meaning in all this suffering, because the very Son of God has entered into it and ultimately redeemed it through his own sufferings and death on the cross.
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