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|What Hath Terror
by Gene Edward Veith
I had just walked out of my eight o'clock class on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a colleague in the hall said, "You've got to see this!" and pulled me to a television set in the nearby audiovisual center.
As we heard about the airplanes that hit the World Trade Center, and then about another airplane that hit the Pentagon, and then, later, about a fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, the campus community was in a state of shock. Chapel helped.
Then what else was there to do but go on with the day? When I walked into my English Lit class, the students were glued to the classroom TV monitor.
Together we watched the first tower fall. But the demands of ordinary life kept asserting themselves, as they will even in the midst of a great event. We had to finish our unit. We turned off the television and resumed our discussion of Beowulf.
That ancient epic depicts the construction of a great building called "Heorot," the biggest and most magnificent mead hall in the world, in which the tribe of the Shieldings feasted, celebrated and enjoyed their prosperity. But for all of their joy, success and security, they could not keep out the monster Grendel. A descendent of Cain, Grendel intrudes on their cultural complacency, breaks into their great hall and murders scores of innocent citizens as they sleep.
The parallels of Heorot and the World Trade Center, as the class analyzed this ancient poem, were chilling. So was what happened next? Beowulf killed Grendel, but he and the Shieldings became caught up in a blood-bath of revenge and escalating retributions.
Grendel and the rest of the monsters were symbols for the mystery of iniquity that has a way of interrupting every period of happiness and spoiling every civilization. Optimistic Americans tend to forget about the monsters lurking in the dark, something Christians and now the rest of America know are real.
We Americans had been going about our business, pursuing what Francis Schaeffer considered the only values we had left: personal peace and affluence. Suddenly an airplane - and then another - flew into that great monument to American affluence, the World Trade Center in New York City. Soon after, another plane flew into the nerve center that protects American peace, the Pentagon. Before long the economy went into a swoon, and the affluence Americans had taken for granted was shaken. Soon we were at war and the peace Americans had taken for granted was gone.
Not just the lack of war, but personal peace - the old feeling of security - gave way to nervousness, even terror. Everyday activities - a trip to the mall, an afternoon at the ball game, going to work - could be occasions for a suicide bomber setting himself off in a crowd. Even something as mundane as checking the mail now entailed the risk of an anthrax attack.
But it was not completely bad that Americans had their complacency shaken up. It is healthy to confront death and the ever-present possibility of death.
Those who had loved ones killed in the attacks were filled with sorrow, but so were those who did not know anyone who died.
Americans felt other emotions they had not felt for a while: anger, fueled not by selfishness but by righteous indignation, and patriotism, even on the part of those who before had been cynical or dismissive of their country. A country that had been divided - sometimes bitterly and sometimes just by the fact of its own pluralism - came together in a genuine sense of national unity. The vocations that protect our society - police officers, firefighters, the military - callings that had earlier been targets of criticism or condescension, now were seen as heroic.
It was not just the way people felt that was challenged, but the way they thought. What we experience as truth, said our intellectuals, is a construction, whether of the culture or the individual's own choices. The pop culture and even the conversations of ordinary folks reflected this postmodern view: "Truth is relative." "That may be true for you, but it isn't true for me."
But were their hijacked planes that crashed into those buildings - and into the consciousness of every American - mere "constructions"? Were the death and twisted metal truths that were "relative"? Or was this all a traumatic example of objective reality that breaks in, oblivious to our subjectivity?
Moral values, too, had been assumed to be subjective, nothing more than cultural preferences or personal choices. Here, though, was a moral outrage in which the objectivity of right and wrong could be perceived with certain clarity. Those who took so many lives were - and the unfamiliar word was used over and over again - "evil." Conversely, those who gave their lives to rescue others were "good." From the courage of the airplane passengers over Pennsylvania who resisted their hijackers, saving untold lives at the expense of their own, to the perfidy of Osama bin Laden and the treachery of John Walker Lindh - objective moral categories were thrown into high relief. It appeared there were absolutes after all.
Of course, the immediate impact of 9/11 - a date that ironically recalls the telephone number for emergencies - faded, at least somewhat. Lots of things returned to normal. When it happened, there was a spike in church attendance, but after a few weeks the number of churchgoers returned to normal. The entertainment industry shut down the week of the attack, but not for long. The war against the al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan was surprisingly easy, not demanding much sacrifice after all, though Americans would have been glad to give it. A plan to erect a statue to honor the firefighters who raised a flag at ground zero degenerated into the same old divisiveness. The pursuit of personal peace and affluence resumed.
Yet the events of September 11, 2001, remain a watershed moment. They linger. Despite rapid progress in Afghanistan, the war with terrorism continues. Americans are not the way they were. Our history has entered another phase.
Just as the events of 9/11 shook the foundations of intellectual relativism and moral relativism, one would think that they would challenge religious relativism. Surely the religious zeal that motivates the terrorists - who believe that eternal life can be earned by committing suicide in the course of killing innocent people - is not equally valid to a faith that teaches love and forgiveness.
And yet, religious relativism is one characteristic of the contemporary American culture that has not changed. In fact, it has become even more insistent. Many are saying the problem with al Qaeda's religion is not that it is wrong but that it is intolerant of all other religions. They think they are the only ones who are right. Under this thinking, Christians who believe Christ is the only way to salvation are essentially equivalent to the terrorists.
Syndicated columnist Thomas Friedman writes, "World War II and the Cold War were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism." This new world war, he says, is against "religious totalitarianism." He defines religious totalitarianism as "the view that one faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated." Conservative Christians and Jews hold to this view, he says, as well as Muslims. "Can Islam, Christianity and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays, and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their won history, out of the language and cultural heritage?" The war, says Friedman, must be fought not just on the battlefield but in houses of worship. It is urgent that the different religions "reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths" (Thomas Friedman, "The Real War," The New York Times, Nov. 27, 2001, p. 19). Or what? one wonders. Daisy-cutter bombs dropped on churches that teach that Jesus is the only way for salvation?
We members of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod are convulsed in controversy over an LCMS official participating in an interfaith event at Yankee Stadium. But whether we think this an act of syncretism or of evangelism, we need to come together on the realization that, post 9/11, evangelism is precisely what the new religious climate considers anathema. To try to convert someone to a particular faith means that there is something wrong with the other person's religion. Thus, Mr. Friedman's call for religious pluralism, while ostensibly affirming all religions, must be hostile to the religion of the Gospel. Real Christianity is the one faith that the interfaith movement has no room for.
The Lutheran contributions
And yet, however many Lutherans get beaten up by the culture for their insistence that salvation can be found in Christ alone. Lutheran spirituality has never been more relevant. Americans facing suffering and insecurity need the theology of the Cross. Christians trying to sort out the demands of citizenship need the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. The heroism of the firefighters, police officers and military personnel now fighting a war finds spiritual affirmation in the doctrine of vocation, which also helps us find our own role and purpose - in our families, work-place, and nation - in this time of national crisis.
Most crucial of all, though, is the distinction between Law and Gospel.
The terrorists are caught in a radically legalistic religion. Under Islam, salvation is earned by what you do. And yet, our fallen nature is such that not only do human beings fall short of moral perfection, despite their best efforts, there is something about legalism that actually increases sin.
Mohamed Atta, before he commandeered the plane that rammed into the World Trade Center, prepared himself with prayer and ritual. In papers discovered after his death, he counseled his fellow martyrs in the piety with which they should prepare for death.
And yet other evidence discovered after the attack disclosed that Atta and his fellow terrorists spent their last days frequenting Florida bars and strip clubs, getting drunk and paying for lap dances, despite Islam's prohibitions against alcohol, nudity and sexual immorality. When he came to Germany to study, according to one report, he became addicted to pornography. Soon after, he began frequenting the radical Islamic mosques. Perhaps, in the sad psychology of legalism, he decided to become a martyr out of his own guilt, his moral failure before a unforgiving god impelling him to a grand gesture of self-sacrifice, doing a spectacular "good work" for the glory of Islam that would compensate for his inner shame. Perhaps he felt that giving his life to kill the enemies of Islam would be a way for him to atone for his own sin, his only hope of paradise.
Terrorism - whether Islamic or of the secular variety - is intrinsically legalistic and self-righteous. Indeed, all of the world's religions are legalistic, setting forth some "law" by which human beings can save themselves. All, that is , except Christianity, which teaches that salvation is a matter of forgiveness, and is a free gift of God's grace, given through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who on the cross has atoned for the sins of the world.
Sadly, many Christians - even many Lutherans - have so confused the Law and Gospel that the message of grace and forgiveness through Christ has been obscured. Some conservative Christians give the impression that their faith is nothing more than the imposition of morality, mere legalism. The interfaith movement, too, is based on mere legalism. After all, if the issue is being good and working your way to heaven, one path really is as good as another. But if no one has enough good works, if our sinfulness taints even the best of what we do. Then everyone needs a Savior.
What will bring us through the terror - whether the terror caused by armed enemies or by economic uncertainty or by the guilt of our sins - is faith in the work of Christ. Lutherans must stand on this Gospel, despite all pressure, and they must continue to proclaim that Word to a terrorized world.
The author adapted this article for The Lutheran Witness from his book Christianity in an Age of Terrorism, published by Concordia Publishing House.
Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine, September 2002. You can subscribe to The Lutheran Witness by calling 1-800-325-3381
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