A Christian Reflection on 9/11

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 [email protected].    

8 comments for “A Christian Reflection on 9/11

  1. mark costanzo
    September 19, 2011 at 14:09

    Rev. Bess’s article is straightforward, articulte, & right on. By and large the world wil never understand the idea of christian non-violence, and intelectual arguments usually generate more heat than light. Violence, retribution, “kickin’ ass’ are as American as apple pie,Nascar, road rage & Dirty Harry. To adhere to non-violence is counter-cultural.

  2. Ray Helm
    September 18, 2011 at 17:08

    I appreciate the fact that Rev. Bess did not lower himself to the level that some so called prominent religious leaders have done by mentioning any political party. Rev. Bess wrote about Christianity and how Christians have strayed from the teachings of Jesus Christ and have done so primarily by letting their desire for power over ride their desire for salvation. It is sad that we allowed a simple minded man like Osama bin Laden, in his quest for revenge against us, bring our country to the brink of financial ruin simply because of our quest for revenge against him.

    The so called religious right has been a factor in politics for a long time and that has nothing to do with 9/11, but the fact that so many of its members cheered when Rick Perry was accused of being responsible for so many executions in the State of Texas during the Republican primary debate tells us a lot about how far we have strayed from the teachings of Christ.

  3. docfloss
    September 18, 2011 at 09:50

    I think we would all be better off if religion were dropped from the equation entirely. What is going on in this country right now is political and economic. When religion becomes part of the goings-on, there is sure to be a muddying of the issues and a heating up of feelings and rhetoric. Logic and reason fly right out the window because fundamentalist religion–of any kind, not just Christian–is predicated on following set ideas that resist all attempts at thinking, doubting, reasoning, or questioning. Behind much of the carnage in the world’s history is very often strict adherence to some kind of religious principles. Religion isn’t going to solve our problems; it will only exacerbate them. We need clear thinking and plenty of questioning to hold our leaders accountable and bring our country back to being a union of states dedicated to serving the people and promoting the general welfare. Religion should have nothing to do with it. We are not “a Christian nation.” We never were a Christian nation; most of the Founders were Deists, not Christians. Furthermore, we are not a democracy; we never were. We are a Republic founded on democratic principles so that we might have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

  4. love your neighbor
    September 18, 2011 at 02:29

    It’s a little like keeping a cat for a pet. I have this cat that is a mutt, but anybody who knows cats would recognize him as an Egyptian Mau, the oldest “domestic” breed. He is big, muscular, and walks with a gait that can only be described as, “Lionesque”. He is one mean SumBitch, and he is not the least bit affectionate. But my wife and I rescued him, and we love him. We keep him at bay by feeding him as much as he wants, and his appetite never diminishes.

    He is one mean little bastard. He doesn’t really purr, he snores. It is actually dangerous to pet him. He bites. When his mouth is closed, his canine teeth still stick out. Someone might say, “He’s a throw-back,” a reference to a genetic anomaly which displays primitive characteristics. My daughter named him for a philosopher with red hair, because he is orange. That name got manipulated, and we call him, “Tykey”.

    God only knows what Tykey went through before we got him. It couldn’t have been good. He is a paranoid little shit. But after he has had a good meal and has gone to sleep, my wife sometimes picks him up and lays him at the foot of our bed. I can only say that listening to Tykey snore at my feet is among the most peaceful sensations I have experienced. It’s like rain on a tin roof.

    Tykey would hurt me in a “heartbeat”. But I still love him. Isn’t this what Jesus taught us? Love thine enemy?

  5. Jym Allyn
    September 17, 2011 at 10:12

    My comment about the first 300 years of Christianity was not totally accurate, but very close (and done from memory before I went back and found the actual quote).
    It came from Max Dimont’s “Jews, God, and History” page 148 (Signet paperback) where he states, “Gibbons estimates that the Christians killed more of their own number in the first hundred years after coming into power than did the Romans during the previous three hundred years.”

    • Conchobhar
      September 17, 2011 at 16:04

      No, Jym, your comment about the first three hundred years wasn’t “close” at all. You said that, “there were more Christians killed by other Christians in the first 300 years of the religion than were killed by the Romans.” False.
      The Gibbons quote you cited actually reinforces Rev. Bess’s point that Christianity became corrupted by power when adopted by the Roman State, and that Christians in power were three times (at least) as bloody-minded toward other Christians as the pagans had been, pre-Constantine.

    • bobzz
      September 18, 2011 at 22:04

      Pagans criticized Christians roundly for not participating in the military. As Celsus (180) wrote, paraphrasing, if all men did as the Christrians, Rome would be defenseless. Prior to Constantine, Christians were 4-6 million strong; They could have become a political force but did not participate, e.g., hold public office or join in the state sacrificial festivals. Celsus would be happy with the Christian Right today. Before Constantine, the most quoted part of the Scripture was the Sermon on the Mount. After Constantine the most quoted part of the Scripture was the Old Testament. No, the church veered away from Christ with Constantine, and went off the rails under the Theodosians. Religious differences prior to Constantine were not settled in blood. I think Gibbon’s major contribution was that once religion and government formed a nexus, religion gave government a philosophy that generated a self-righteousness and intolerance, and government supplied the muscle the church grew to desire.

  6. Jym Allyn
    September 17, 2011 at 09:50

    The proper response to the attacks of 9/11 should have nothing to do with religion but more to do with practicality and responsibility. Instead of reaction to the lies that “justified” the 9/11 attacks we responded with lies of our own and military actions that were both inept and self-serving. We “won” the war in Iraq against a relatively poorly trained and equipped army that had totally lost “command and control” because of their own paranoia. That ephemeral victory resulted in our then “losing the peace” because of our ineptitude and lack of understanding of what is needed to restore a viable culture and economy after 20 years of corruption and despotism. What we did was to take the problems that Saddam created and make them worse.

    This is practicality rather than religion.

    And Christianity is NOT a good metaphor since there were more Christians killed by other Christians in the first 300 years of the religion than were killed by the Romans.

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