The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks stirred up some powerful and painful memories of that day and the 3,000 victims. But the Rev. Howard Bess says his Christian faith has compelled him to think also about the carnage that followed – and whether any war is “just.”
By the Rev. Howard Bess
I too looked at the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011, with horror. No one needs to remind me of what happened on that day.
We received a phone call from our daughter about the plane that crashed into the first tower of the Trade Center. Quickly I turned on the television in time to watch in live time another plane assaulting the second tower. I could not believe what my eyes were reporting.
Over the next few hours the magnitude of the terrorist attack unfolded. The Pentagon! Yet another plane, apparently headed for the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania. The estimates of the people killed kept climbing, taking several days for the count to become accurate.
I live more than 3,000 miles from the crime scenes. There is no way that I can claim to understand fully the pain and anger of those who lived near the crime scenes and who had family members, loved ones and neighbors who were killed.
However, I and every other American who loves our country were horrified, angered, bewildered, and left wondering what might and should come next.
My religious convictions kicked into gear. Jesus from Nazareth, the one I call Lord and the Christ of God, made some very plain and clear statements:
“You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you ‘do not resist an evil doer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.’ ”
Jesus also said we are to love our enemies.
This standard became embedded in the early Christian churches. Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you. Bless them and do not curse them. … repay no one evil for evil.”
While dying on the cross, Jesus made a simple request of God, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
The words that Jesus spoke about vengeance and his plea while being murdered are so plain that the follower of Jesus cannot sidestep them or deny them. Does the person who identifies himself/herself as Christian set aside the plain teachings of Jesus when placed in a difficult and trying position?
In response to the 9/11 attacks, the leadership of the United States made decisions about who was responsible and what action should be taken. Now ten years later the United States armed forces have killed far more than were killed by terrorists on 9/11.
The 9/11 attacks left a small section of New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC in shambles. The United States armed forces have left two whole nations in the Middle East in destructive chaos.
At the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I sorrowed once again for the 3,000 lives lost and the destruction that was vented on my country. I sorrowed both as an American and as a Christian.
Then I reflected on the past 10 years and the path that my country chose. Through my American eyes, I saw poor decisions and unwise actions. Through my eyes as a devout Christian, I saw the disaster of returning evil for evil.
Christians have faced this dilemma for centuries. For the first three centuries of Christian church history, our path was reasonably clear. Christians, for the most part, chose the clear teachings of Jesus about war and violence.
Then Christians found favor with the Roman Emperor, Constantine in the Fourth Century A.D. The embrace of Constantine produced a different kind of Christian and Christians found the corruption of power.
For 1,700 years, Christians have scandalized the Gospel of Christ with a love affair with power. Christians have pursued the role of ruler rather than the role of servant.
Christians have rationalized their involvement with violence, war and destruction. They exchanged return no one evil for evil for a mess of pottage called evil must be stopped.
The most sophisticated rationalization was the Just War Theory developed by Augustine, who died in 430 A.D. For a period of time I embraced Augustine’s rules that replaced clear teaching by Jesus. But I have observed that Augustine’s Just War rules have been used to justify every war that Christians have decided to pursue for centuries.
As a matter of conscience, I have parted ways with Augustine. I do not believe there is such a thing as a just war.
My reflections on 9/11 have intensified my commitment to Jesus Christ as my unquestioned first commitment. I am a follower of Jesus first. I am an American second. That does not mean that I seek to make America a Christian nation. But I do embrace my responsibility to be a witness about a better way to my beloved country.
Every person killed on 9/11, every American soldier who has died or been wounded in the Middle East, every terrorist, every combatant in this long war, and every innocent person who has died as collateral damage are equally loved and valued by the God I seek to serve.
My heart aches for the victims of 9/11, but the ache extends much further.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.