I apologize for a long gap between postings in this series on What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? It has been a very challenging couple of months and I am writing these from scratch as we go along. Hopefully from now one I will be able to post a new segment each week until the series is complete.
What impact did Jesus’ teaching and example have on the church? A whole lot, right from the beginning. When reading the New Testament, it is surprising how many women were in leadership from the first. Paul mentions a co-worker named Apphia in the second verse of Philemon. Nympha was the head of one of the churches in Colossia (Col 4:15). Priscilla is not only part of an evangelistic/teaching team (Priscilla and Aquila), she is usually mentioned first before her husband, which in Greek would suggest she was the leader or primary teacher. Phoebe, a deacon (the normal term for that church office, she is not called a “deaconess”), is the one delegated by Paul to deliver and explain his epic letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1). The same letter makes mention of Junia, a female name, who was “renowned among the apostles” (Rom 16:7), so a major figure in the church, whether or not Paul is saying she is an apostle herself (somewhat ambiguous in the Greek—episȇmoi en tois apostolois). Lydia became the leader of the house church in Philippi (Acts 16:40). Euodia and Syntyche are described as “fellow strugglers” (Greek: sunȇblȇsan) with Paul in the preaching of the gospel. One does not have to read far into the attitudes and practices of the Greco-Roman world to realize that this is a dramatic shift at the time.
But the impact of Jesus’ teachings and practice was not limited to the treatment of women. Early Christians would collect and adopt exposed infants, raising them in their own homes. During the time of persecution from the Empire (100 to early 300s AD) this was the only way they could show the value that God places on each person, including unwanted babies. But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, many of the teachings of Jesus became institutionalized by the Christian emperors.
Emperor Constantine the Great (co-ruler from 306-324 AD, sole ruler from 324-337) began to favor Christianity in 312-313. When He was in a position to do so, he followed the implications of Jesus’ teaching by outlawing the branding of slaves and crucifixion. He also encouraged the establishment of orphanages to help care for abandoned children. Constantine’s son Constantius (337-361 AD) ordered the segregation male and female prisoners, ending a practice subject to great abuse of women. Valentinian (364-375), at last, abolished infanticide as an acceptable practice in the Empire. That decree would later on be re-affirmed by Justinian the Great (527-565). While abortion was never practiced by the early church and was condemned by the church fathers Athenagoras (circa 133-190) and Tertullian (circa 155-220), it was not abolished by the Christian emperors until the time of Justinian.
In spite of the influence of Jesus in many aspects of the Empire, another practice that the Christian emperors did not give up for a long time was the cruel sports in the arena, where people fought to the death for the entertainment of the crowds. Then on January 1, 404 AD, the gladiatorial games came screeching to a halt. A Christian monk named Telemachus was visiting Rome and got swept into the Colosseum by the crowd for a gladiatorial spectacle in the presence of the Emperor Honorius (395-423). When he realized the gladiators were fighting to the death, the small man ran out into the arena and attempted to separate the gladiators and convince them to stop fighting. The crowd began to hiss at this interference, so one of the gladiators ran him through with a sword. The audience gazed at the scene in horror and began to leave the arena. This turn in popular sentiment enabled Honorius to abolish the games from that day forward. But it was a single man, inspired by Jesus, who played the key role in ending these cruel spectacles. Would that have happened if Jesus had not been born?
The cross is also the New Testament’s final answer to the problem of suffering we began to address in the previous chapter. The cross is the most powerful response to the question, “How can I believe in God after September 11? How can I believe in a God who allows thousands of innocent people to suffer when He could have done something to stop it? If God exists and He is good, why doesn’t He do something at times like that?”
These questions are directly related to what happened to Jesus on the cross. As Jesus was dying on the cross, His greatest suffering had little to do with physical pain from the spikes through His hands and feet, the thorns piercing his forehead, or the torturous effort to breathe enforced by crucifixion. His greatest suffering arose from the apparent absence of God in the midst of His suffering.
Jesus knows from experience what it is like to suffer undeserved suffering and pain. He did not deserve to be whipped, beaten, slapped and spit upon. He did nothing to deserve a sentence of death, a hateful mob, or the torture of crucifixion. To the victims of September 11 the cross says: “God knows, He understands, He has tasted what it is like to suffer without having caused it in some way.”
Like the book of Job, the cross offers up no definitive answer to the problem of unjust suffering. What it does, however, is offer companionship in suffering. The times when we experience undeserved suffering and pain are like our own Friday in Jerusalem. We feel as if our experience were unique, as if no one has ever been more alone. But Jesus Himself went there in depth on the original Good Friday. He understands what it is like to be totally alone, totally rejected and abused. He’s been there and done that. And in a sense He tasted just a bit of everyone’s experience (1 Pet 2:20-24).
But for Jesus the story didn’t end on that Friday. It seemed to and He Himself seemed to see no hope for the future when He cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” But His suffering and abandonment turned out to be a prelude to the incredible affirmation of Easter Sunday. When He was raised from the dead His acceptance with God was re-affirmed. In some sense the whole human race stands in a new place with God. The cross has turned human suffering into a prelude.
What difference does it make to believe in the cross today? For me it changes everything about suffering. Some have used undeserved suffering as an excuse to disbelieve in the existence of God. But atheism has not lessened human suffering one iota. If anything it makes it worse, because one is all alone in the suffering, the suffering has no meaning, and it offers no future.
But the cross demonstrates several things that make a difference. It tells us that we are not alone, even though it may feel that way. It tells us that suffering doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care, He cares ever so much, but he doesn’t always intervene to avert pain. God’s absence in suffering is not a hostile one or a helpless one, it has a higher purpose. In the light of the cross we have a reason to endure, even though we may not know the particular reason why. When we suffer without deserving it, we share in the experience of Jesus. When we feel the absence of God in our pain, we share in the experience of Jesus. He went there before us and understands how we feel.
Why September 11 and similar tragedies in the course of history? There is no satisfactory answer at this time. Yet it is possible to discern a merciful hand in the events, in spite of their horrific nature. The toll at the World Trade Center could easily have been tens of thousands dead– if the planes had struck a few hours later in the day, if they had struck the towers at a lower level, if the towers had collapsed more quickly, if evacuations hadn’t started so quickly and efficiently in the south tower. As horrible as events were, it could have been, in a sense should have been, much worse.
For those of us who experienced it, September 11 was an unimaginable expression of evil at its worst. It fundamentally altered our perception of the world and our own role in the world. But September 11 was not the most evil act of all time. The Holocaust, as chillingly brutal and unfair as it was, was not the most evil act of all time. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocides of Armenians, Russians, Rwandans, and Cambodians in the 20th Century, the slave trade across the Atlantic, all of these qualify as acts of systematic pre-meditated evil. But none of them qualify as the most evil act of all time.
The cross was the most evil act of all time. When human beings, for temporary and limited political advantage, crucified the God who came down and lived among us, they acted in the most incomprehensible, unfair and evil manner possible. In rejecting Him, they were doing more than just condemning an innocent man to death, they were destroying the source of their own life and rejecting their own place in the universe. The cross of Jesus Christ is an evil act of infinite proportions. If the human race is capable of such an act, no evil action is unimaginable.
But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of human evil. God has turned the cross into a powerful act of reversal. The greatest evil ever done has been transformed by God into the most powerful act of goodness ever performed. By death God brings life. Through defeat comes victory. Through shame, humiliation and rejection come glory, grace and acceptance. Through the cross God has turned the tables on evil and death. The greatest evil has become the basis for the greatest good.
The cross shows us how to live in conflicted times. In the light of the cross there is plenty we can do in the face of terrorism. We can learn to love our neighbors the way God does. We can help to build bridges between groups in our communities. We can make a daily effort to project love and care into the world, and not return evil for evil. We can visit the sick, feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering. We can even learn to love our enemies the way Jesus did! The cross demonstrates that, in the grace and power that come only from God, evil can be transformed into good.
The cross was a day of great terror, and many who saw it ran away dismayed about what was happening. The person who had healed others, who banished disease and hunger wherever he walked, who gave love and hope to downtrodden multitudes, was cruelly and unjustly executed while still a young man. What if those who watched this senseless act of violence had said, “How can we ever trust God again?” What if they had gone home, renounced their belief in God and said, “Either God does not exist, or he is a monster that has a complete disregard for love and justice.” If they had, they would have missed the greatest act of God’s love and justice in human history.
That’s why I believe that God can be trusted after September 11. Evil seems to rule only if we don’t look carefully or wait long enough. God is still going to use people like you and me to change the world in the aftermath of evil. Wars, violence and terrorism are born in the heart. But the cross has exposed the fundamental weakness of evil: it can be overcome with good. So I have become willing to fight evil wherever it is found– among “them” (whoever they are), among “us” (whoever we are), but most of all “in here,” inside of me. I think it’s time to start a new conspiracy in this world, a conspiracy with a world-changing message, evil will be overcome with good. This is our mission.
According to the Bible human beings are not simply imperfect creatures that need improvement, we are rebels who must lay down our arms. The only way out of our human condition is to “lay down our arms,” acknowledge that we are on the wrong track and allow God to work whatever changes are needed in our lives. This is our ultimate jihad, our ultimate struggle to overcome evil.
This “repentance” is not fun. As the chapter on my personal jihad illustrated, accepting the reality of our brokenness is something we naturally shy away from. Acknowledging failure is humiliating and repugnant. But it is the necessary path toward redeeming our lives from the downward spiral of the evil that besets us all. It is the only way to bring our lives into the sunshine of reality. This “repentance” is simply recognizing the truth about ourselves. The day that changed the world can never change us unless we are willing to be changed, unless we recognize that change is needed.
The neat thing about God’s plan is that He understands what this struggle for authenticity is all about. In submitting Himself to the humiliation of the cross, Jesus experienced the kind of surrender we need. In the Garden of Gethsemane He struggled to give Himself up to God’s plan. And the Bible teaches that if we follow Him in His surrender and humiliation, we will also share in His conquest of death and find new life in our present experience (Rom 6:3-6).
September 11 was more than just the work of a few kooks and fanatics, it was a symptom of deeper issues that plague us all. As we have seen, the struggle toward authenticity is not an occasional necessity, it is fundamental to the human condition, whether we acknowledge it or not.
A fundamental need of human beings is to have a sense of personal value, that who we are truly matters. This need is in stark contrast to the reality (described in the jihad chapter) that the more we know about ourselves the more we dislike ourselves and the worse we feel. We need a sense of worth, yet authenticity seems to lower our value. How can we elevate our sense of self-worth without escaping from the dark realities within? That’s where the cross comes in.
How much is a human being worth? It depends on the context. If they were to melt me down into the chemicals of which my body is made, I understand I would be worth about twelve dollars (make that thirteen, I’ve gained a little weight). But the average American is valued by his or her employer at a much higher level than that, something like $50,000 dollars a year. But suppose you were a great basketball player like Michael Jordan. Suddenly the value jumps to tens of millions of dollars a year. And if you were the nerdy designer of the software everyone in the world uses, you would be valued at tens of billions of dollars (Bill Gates)!
You see, we are valued in terms of others. But according to the Bible human value is infinitely higher than the value we assign to each other. According to the Bible, Jesus was worth the whole universe (He made it), yet He knows all about us and loves us as we are. When He died on the cross, He established the value of the human person. When the Creator of the universe and everyone in it (including all the great athletes and movie stars that people often worship) decides to die for you and me, it places an infinite value on our lives. And since the resurrected Jesus will never die again, my value is secure in him as long as I live .
So the cross provides a true and stable sense of value. This is what makes the story of that Friday in Jerusalem so very special. The cross is not just another atrocity. It is about God’s willingness to take on human flesh and reveal Himself where we are. It is about the value that the human race has in the eyes of God. It is about God’s plan to turn the human race away from evil and hatred and violence. The original day that changed the world, therefore, provides hope for a better world in the aftermath of September 11.
It is clear that none of the great faiths have lived up to the ideals of their sacred texts. Followers of each have, at one time or another, succumbed to the temptations of earthly power and wealth. Followers of each have thought so highly of their thoughts as to feel justified in destroying individuals who thought differently. After September 11we must beware our own personal tendency to judge others, to despise those who think differently, to marginalize those who look different, talk different, and pray different.
The best hope for this world after September 11 is an authentic walk with God that not only takes the “terrorist within” seriously but sees in others the value that God sees in them. If every one of us is flawed yet valuable, all other seekers after God become potential allies in the battle to create a kinder and gentler world. Armed with a clear picture of reality and a sense of our value, we can become change agents in the world. And the seeds of that change were planted one Friday in Jerusalem.
Almost two thousand years ago there was a Friday in Jerusalem that changed the world. All the elements of September 11 occurred within the experience of a single person, but that experience had implications that affect every person who ever lived. For followers of Jesus that Friday in Jerusalem was, more than any other, the day that changed the world. Jesus’ death was more than just the execution of an innocent man, it was designed by God to unite the human race and ultimately the entire universe (John 12:32; Col 1:20). According to the Bible, Jesus is much more than a man, much more than a prophet. He is God come to earth, but in disguise, housed in a human body (John 1:1, 14). His mission did not end in a tomb, but continues to change the world today. The relevance of Jesus’ mission to our search for God is directly proportional to the reality of that claim.
This central aspect of Christian faith was perhaps best explained by C. S. Lewis, the great British scholar and novelist. According to his book Mere Christianity, Christians believe that behind events like September 11 is a universal war between the principles of good and evil. It is a civil war and this world is being held hostage by the rebel forces. Evil exists here because the world is enemy-occupied territory. On the other hand, the good we see in the world is evidence that God has not abandoned it to the Enemy. He continues to exert His influence with any who are willing to follow Him.
How did this evil get into the universe? Lewis argues that God created beings with free will. If we are free to be good we are also free to be bad. So free will has made evil possible, even though God did not choose to create evil. Why make people free then? Because the same freedom that makes evil possible is also the only thing that makes love, joy or goodness truly worth having. True happiness can only occur in the context of loving choice. Evidently God thought that the pluses of freedom were well worth the risk.
But what if God’s creatures used their freedom to go the wrong way, what if they used it to turn from Him, what if they used their freedom to produce unspeakable horrors like September 11? What then? Does this mean God Himself is evil, or perhaps powerless? The Bible says no to both options. Evil exists not because God is a tyrant, but because He prefers openness and freedom. Evil exists not because God is powerless, but because He wanted human beings to be powerful in ways that mirrored His own freedom of action.
But what has God done to start overcoming the evil in the world? According to Lewis, God has done several things, and these are outlined in the Bible. 1) He has provided the conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong that few humans are without. 2) He has provided some, from Abraham to Moses to Paul, and perhaps Mohammed and others outside the Christian sphere, with visions and dreams that helped clarify the central issues of good and evil. 3) In the Old Testament He provided the story of a people (Israel, the Jewish nation) and the struggles through which God sought to teach them more clearly about Himself.
But then came something special, something surprising. 4) Among the Jews appeared a man who went around talking as if He were God. He claimed to be able to forgive sins, something only God can do. Jesus could not be simply a good man. If a mere man claimed to be God he could not be a good man. To quote Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
If Jesus is merely another prophet, a man among many, He is a fraud. But if He is what He claimed to be, God Himself taking on human flesh, then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are the greatest events that ever happened in the course of human history. That Friday in Jerusalem would then be the day that changed the world.
The Bible does not leave the issue of tragedy and suffering unaddressed. The biblical story about a man named Job, drawn up in the genre of a Hebrew play, wrestles with the issue of why bad things happen to good people (Psalm 73 addresses the issue of why good things happen to bad people). This story has had such an impact on the world that even in today’s secular environment, nearly everyone has heard of “the patience of Job.”
The story begins in the land of Uz (Job 1). Job was a very wealthy man, perhaps the richest in the world. But his greatest treasure was his children, seven sons and three daughters. Every morning before the sun rose he prayed that God would protect them through the day. But one day, while Job was praying, his case came up in the heavenly court, although he was not aware of it.
Satan, the prince of evil and darkness, sneaks into the heavenly court with a crowd of “the sons of God.” After noting his presence, God offers Satan a challenge, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He worships me faithfully and is careful to do nothing wrong.” Satan counters, “Big deal. He’s into religion for what he can get. You’ve given him everything. No wonder he worships you. But mark my words. Take away all he has and he’ll curse you to your face!” God responds, “OK, we’ll see. . . Everything he has is in your hands, just don’t hurt Job himself.”
The scene moves back to earth, where one disaster after another falls on Job’s estate. Bandits, fire, marauding armies and storms destroy Job’s animals, servants and possessions, and eventually even his children, leaving him destitute and childless in a moment. Job’s response? He falls on the ground, worships God and says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).
After this the scene in the heavenly court reconvenes. God challenges Satan, pointing out that Job’s faithfulness has not diminished, in spite of the great losses he has experienced. But Satan isn’t finished yet. “Big deal,” he exclaims, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” God responds by placing Job in Satan’s control, with only one limitation. Satan must spare Job’s life. So Satan goes out and afflicts Job with loathsome and itchy sores from head to toe. Even his wife turns against him and urges him to “curse God and die.” But Job is not left alone. Three “friends” hear about his troubles and come to console him in his sorrows.
This begins a long section of the story in which Job’s friends try to convince him that God is not arbitrary (Job 4:7-11; 15:17-35). If things have gone wrong for Job, he must somehow be to blame for it (8:1-22; 15:5-6; 22:1-11). God is trying to get his attention (Job 5:17-27). So if Job would just turn to God and humble himself, things would get better (22:21-30), but if he blames God for his troubles he will end up just like the wicked (11:13-20). Great friends!
In response, Job denies the charges, crying out to God to be a friend in his emptiness (Job 7:7-21). He insists that he is an exception to the rules, that he is innocent of anything that would justify his great losses (6:24-30; 13:13-23; 31:1-40). Under harassment from his friends (6:14-23), he begins to accuse God of injustice and oppression (9:13-35; 10:1-22; 27:1-6). Job rails at the silence of God (23:1-9; 29:2-5) and mocks his friends’ theological arguments (12:2-3; 13:4-5,12; 16:1-3). Their theories that good is always rewarded and evil always punished just doesn’t square with reality (24:1-25). In the real world the wicked prosper and the righteous die (21:7-34). And God sits there and watches it all (28:24). He wishes he had never been born (Job 3:1-19).
After a lengthy, and at times tedious, debate covering 29 chapters in the book of Job, the four men fall silent and a fifth appears, named Elihu. He had been listening respectfully, but now he can hold it in no longer (Job 32:6-10, 18-22). Although he is human, he has come to speak in defense of God. Elihu starts out by mocking the failure of Job’s friends to convince him that he is wrong (32:11-17). He then goes after Job directly. Job was wrong to accuse God of being silent, God is not silent, human beings just don’t pay attention (33:14-18). Pain is one way God uses to get people’s attention (33:19-28). God never does the wrong thing, He gives people only what they deserve (34:1-15). Even suffering has a purpose, it is a discipline by which God teaches those He loves (36:22-23). God is far from silent, He is present whenever it rains, whenever the thunder roars or the lightning strikes (Job 36:24-33; 37:1-20)!
As if on cue, a mighty thunderstorm approaches the small group of men. Elihu seems to recognize the presence of God in the storm (Job 37:21-22). And sure enough, God speaks out of the storm and addresses Job and Job alone (38:1 – 42:6). At first God seems to support all that the four companions of Job had said to him. He accuses Job of questioning Him with ignorant, empty words. Then He throws a series of unanswerable questions Job’s way. “Where were you when I made the world? You know so much, tell me about it. Have you ever commanded a day to dawn? Have you ever walked the floor of the ocean? Can you guide the stars from year to year, or change their orbits?” And so on.
After Job admits his ignorance for the first time, God pelts him with another series of unanswerable questions. “Do you gather food for the lions? Did you teach the hawk how to fly? Can you tie up a whale like a pet bird? Are you trying to put Me in the wrong so you can be right?” Job offers the only possible response to overwhelming rightness and power. He offers plaintively, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” God didn’t answer any of Job’s questions, rather He asked Job questions. Nevertheless Job’s attitude has totally changed. Out of his new understanding and relationship with God he is satisfied that God is just. Knowing about God is not the answer to his questions. Knowing God is.
Then a fascinating thing happens. God turns from Job to his three “friends” and declares that he is angry with them because they didn’t tell the truth about Him, as Job had done (Job 42:7-9)! This is startling, of course, since Job has just endured nearly five chapters worth of rebuke himself. The story winds down to a strange and puzzling conclusion (Job 42:10-17).
What was God doing on September 11? On the surface the book of Job offers no answer, only more questions. The arguments of Job and his friends sound familiar, but they do not satisfy (especially when you know they have absolutely nothing to do with what actually happened between God and Satan). Then Elihu comes along and criticizes both Job and his three friends, yet says many of the same things they had said! Finally God comes along and rebukes Job for speaking out of ignorance, only to end up telling his friends that they were wrong and Job was right!
So anyone who comes to this biblical play expecting all the answers to the problem of suffering is likely to be disappointed. Job’s friends are full of answers, many of which are still offered today, but all of the answers get mocked at some point in the book. When God appears, He offers no answers but just a sense of His overpowering greatness.
Perhaps the best news in the book of Job is that undeserved suffering will not last forever. It ended for Job and it will one day end for the human race as a whole. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The earth is like a stage and we are merely players.” One day a much bigger picture will be revealed.
But that is not the end of the story. The book of Job is not the Bible’s last word on the matter of suffering. There is a much more decisive response to the issue in the New Testament. According to the gospels, there was another day that changed the world, a day whose reverberations have continued to travel down the course of time to our own day.
Amanda (not her real name) was a regular at Windows on the World. A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, she had found life and its relationships to be confusing at best and frightening at worst. Windows on the World was a classy restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Floor to ceiling glass provided spectacular views of the city in all four directions. From more than 1300 feet up in the air cars, buses and taxis looked like tiny bugs making their way around a miniature city.
Amanda had three favorite views from the restaurant. The best view was to the east, where the East River bridges loomed in magnificent miniature over the water. The next best was to the north, where the Empire State and Chrysler buildings were pointed counterparts to the hundreds of giant, faceless boxes that make up the midtown Manhattan skyline. And the third view was to the southwest, where the Statue of Liberty was toylike in its tinyness, right in the middle of the bay that marked the outlet of the Hudson River. It was fascinating to watch the movements of boats on the water and helicopters through the air as they made their way to, from, and around the island on which the statue was placed.
The best time to enjoy these views was evening, as the sun went down. The blue sky gradually faded into varying shades of orange and pink. The sun would dip behind the distant landscape of the New Jersey shore. The sharp definition of bridges, buildings and traffic gradually faded into an awe inspiring backdrop of lights: from the red, white and blue glow on the top third of the Empire State Building, to the orange glow of sodium street lamps, to the bright whites of the offices where night owls toiled, keeping the finances of the world flowing in 24/7 continuity. New York City by night is like nowhere else on earth. And there was no better place to see those lights than from the unobstructed view on top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Tourists visiting the observation deck of the South Tower, on the other hand, had the North Tower’s bulk to contend with in their gaze toward midtown.
Amanda spent many an evening at Windows on the World, trying to center her life and cope with the pain of a difficult past. She describes herself as, “Not the most worthy person in town.” Over time the waiters and waitresses came to recognize her and adopted her as though she were one of the staff. They kept an eye on her, warding off the wrong kind of males. If she had had too much to drink as closing time approached, one or more waiters would escort her to the parking lot in the basement, drive her home, and make sure she made it into her apartment safely. The service staff at Windows on the World gradually became “family” to her.
Somewhat surprisingly, Amanda never brought a camera with her to the restaurant. She would describe the massive towers and the incredible views to far-flung family and acquaintances, but she never got around to actually collecting photos. After enduring repeated requests, she finally promised her mother that she would take some daytime pictures the week of September 10. When she heard that waiters were being called in for special preparations on the morning of September 11, she decided to take advantage of her relationships to get some early morning pictures out the restaurant windows. She agreed to be there at 8:30 AM, ten floors above and sixteen minutes before the impact of American Airlines Flight 11. She had no idea that a simple request from her mother was the equivalent of a death warrant. Of the 1432 civilians (not counting police, fire and other building personnel) who died in the North Tower, 1360 were in the upper part from the 92nd through the 110th floor.
On the morning of September 11 Amanda woke with a start at 8:40 AM. She was stunned when she looked at the clock, because she doesn’t normally oversleep. It was a beautiful, sunny day and she was amazed that she hadn’t stirred earlier. Feeling confused as to what to do, since she had already missed her appointment to get into the restaurant, she lay there a while trying to decide her next move. Fifteen minutes later her phone rang, it was a friend from New Jersey.
“Amanda, where are you, where are you?!?” a frantic voice shrilled. “Where am I? I’m right here, where am I supposed to be?” Amanda felt even more confused, wondering what on earth was wrong with her friend. “Where are you?!?” came the shrill voice once again. “I’m right here, in my apartment, in fact I am lying in bed. Why do you want to know?” “Aren’t you supposed to be at the World Trade Center right now?” “Yes, I overslept.” “Thank God, thank God, thank God!” her friend began to sob, “I thought you were dead!” “What do you mean, dead?” Amanda asked. “Are you sure you’re actually in your apartment right now?” “Of course I’m sure, what’s going on?” By now Amanda was starting to get a little upset with her friend. “You don’t know what happened? You’d better turn on your TV. A plane just crashed into your restaurant.” (Actually a few floors below.)
Not really comprehending the impossible, Amanda staggered over to the TV, rubbing a throbbing head and brushing long black hair away from her face. She turned it on just in time to catch the image of the North Tower smoldering as United Airlines flight 175 exploded into the South Tower. As she realized that many of her friends were trapped above the flames in the North Tower she was seized by the same panic that had motivated her friend to call.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, but please hang up, I need to try and get through to the restaurant and see if everyone is OK.”
Her friend hung up and she dialed Windows on the World, but the phone was busy. She dialed another number she knew, but nothing happened. She looked up the cell phones of a couple waiters at the restaurant and called, but the calls didn’t go through. Seized with fear and pain she was transfixed by the images on the screen until one by one the two towers collapsed and her hopes collapsed with them. 23 waiters and waitresses that she knew by name and face never went home that day. It was as if she had lost her whole extended family in a moment.
Amanda has often wondered why she was spared that day, while so many of her friends were lost. She doesn’t think of herself as “the most worthy person.” She has done many things in life that she regrets. On the other hand, the staff of the restaurant was a caring group who treated her as a “worthy person” even though she didn’t feel she deserved such treatment. She told me that they had treated her better than she would have treated them if the roles had been reversed.
Nevertheless, Amanda truly believes that her sleeping in that day was an act of God. It was just not normal for her. She believes that God saved her on September 11 and that it was a call to a new level of commitment to God and to right living. But why her? Why did God go out of His way to preserve her life when so many “worthier” people lost their lives that day? What did that say about God? To be continued.
September 11 was a day when it seemed as if everyone in the world was either in New York or trying to reach someone there. On that day, checking your e-mail became a matter of life and death for many. By 8:45 AM on that day Ron Bruno was sitting in his Manhattan apartment, already dreading the day ahead, stressful and complex, as Manhattan days tend to be. By 8:55 AM the first of many questions about Bruno’s well being arrived in his email inbox. It was from cousin Bev in the New Jersey suburbs. “How far are you from there? Are you at work? Please tell me you are safe.” Bruno started an irritated response about the great divide between midtown, where he lived, and downtown, where the twin towers were. He then erased it and tried again, “I’m fine. Both the apartment and my office are far from the WTC, so no worries. How are you?”
Bruno’s regular band of far-flung correspondents, such as cousin Remo in southern Italy, made up the first wave of messages. On September 11 all he could write in response to dozens of inquiries was a simple “yes” and “hmmm.” By the next day Bruno began hearing from people at an even greater relational distance, and for once he was not irritated. Email was Bruno’s shield against events, protecting his family and friends from worry, and himself from total comprehension of the tragic events ten kilometers away.
After a break to collect some emergency cash, he returned home to another wave of emails, this time from less frequent correspondents: a girl he used to tease in eighth-grade algebra, high school friends he hadn’t seen since the last reunion, professional colleagues. Many of these live far away and weren’t sure if he was even in Manhattan after all these years. Oddly enough, Bruno found catharsis with these email acquaintances, more than with those closer to his life, in town or on the phone.
Email proved to be much more therapeutic than the phone. The typical phone conversation on September 11 was punctuated by long periods of silence and repeated musings along the line of “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was too soon to talk things through. Emails, on the other hand, gave opportunity for reflection on the complexity of Bruno’s sadness and uncertainty. His keystrokes were often hurried, but the words kept pouring out and they helped. After September 11, many of these correspondents would drop out of his email inbox for months or even years, but at the crucial moment they were with him, and that was all that mattered.
As our experience with email teaches us, writing is a marvelous way to develop and maintain relationships even though we may not be physically together. And social scientists have noticed an interesting feature of email. People somehow feel safer with email than they do with any other type of communication. They are willing to say things that they would never put in a formal letter or say to someone’s face. So email has become a major factor in relationships over the last ten years or so.
In the case of Ron Bruno, email was a soothing way to process that which could not be understood or even imagined. Where phone calls offered little solace, emails, even with people he hardly knew, provided an outlet for his feelings and a strong sense of connection to the wider universe, one he probably would not have gotten from those in his immediate circle around New York.
For me, email provides a strong analogy to the way prayer has functioned through the centuries. Prayer helps one to find a center in the midst of the normal chaos of contemporary life, and even more so in times of great tragedy, such as September 11. There comes a strong sense that we are not alone, that no matter what takes place, there is an ultimate purpose to it all, that out there is One who cares deeply about us and whose presence can be felt from time to time.
But how do you have a serious relationship with someone you cannot see, hear or touch? How do you have a relationship with someone who is not physically there? I have wrestled with this concept for many years and the events of September 11 didn’t make it any easier.
A couple of decades ago I observed a social phenomenon that helped me make some sense of these questions. The movie Titanic earned twice as much money from theater admissions as any other movie of all time. What was the reason for this “titanic” excitement? One of the main reasons was that millions of teen-age girls in North America became smitten with the handsome young male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. Many went back to see the movie several times, some claimed to have seen it over forty times! What were they doing? They were developing a relationship with someone they couldn’t see, hear, or touch!
“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “Weren’t they seeing and hearing him in the movie?” Yes, in a sense they were. But watching a movie is not quite the same as meeting Leonardo in person. The movie was only a witness to the reality that is Leonardo. But how do you know Leonardo DiCaprio even exists if you’ve never met him, heard him, or touched him? Well, for starters, the movies he has made testify to his existence. Millions of people testify to his existence. You hear about him on radio or TV, you read about him in magazines and newspapers. No one doubts his existence, even though few have met him.
The existence of God is secure on a similar basis. Where millions will testify to the existence of Leonardo DiCaprio and the influence he may have had in their lives, billions over the centuries have testified to the existence of God, including the testimonies found in sacred texts. The craze over Leonardo DiCaprio testifies how you can have a real relationship with someone you cannot see, hear or touch. You can have a relationship with Leo if you spend time with the various witnesses about his person. You can read about him, talk to people who know him, and sample his own testimony about himself on TV, radio, or in a magazine. For many young women at one point, their relationship with Leonardo was the most significant thing that had ever happened to them, even though they had never met him in person.
So it is with God. If you seeking a real relationship with Him, you can start with the primary witness about Him, the Bible. It contains the record of His impact on people over an extended period. There you will meet Jesus, who is described as the clearest expression of God’s character in the whole history of the human race (John 14:6,9; Heb 1:1-3). There are also other ways to meet the invisible God. You can talk to people who know Him, and hear their testimonies about His impact in their lives. You can experiment with the kinds of actions that have helped others find God.
When you think of all the time and energy that many young women expended to get to know Leo, it is not surprising that in the aftermath of September 11, more and more people have been making the search for God a priority in their lives.
In the previous blog I shared my personal “jihad”, the struggle to be real. I promised to share some steps that have helped me greatly along the way.
1) First, accept by God’s grace that you are significant and valuable in Jesus Christ. Only a person who knows that he or she is valuable would ever dare to examine the darkness within. Human value was defined at the cross. Out of that sense of value comes the drive to be real.
2) Know your true condition. No one can be authentic unless they are willing to face the truth about themselves.
3) Accept the truth about yourself. As you go through the process of self-discovery, accept the results of that process as a true statement of your condition.
4) Take the truth about yourself to God for forgiveness and release. Tell God the truth about yourself no matter how painful that might be. There’s something about bringing the truth about yourself into the open that takes away its power. And since God already knows the truth about you and is committed to receiving you in the light of the cross there is no reason to fear.
5) Seek to continually grow in authenticity. Authenticity is a process not a state. No human being could become totally authentic in a moment. Our nerves could not handle it. So God feeds us the bad news a little bit at a time. And in the courage of our new-found sense of worth, we can face a little bit more each time.
What does all this have to do with my challenge to traditional Christianity in the previous chapter? Simply this. People have used the name of Jesus to slaughter Muslims (Crusades). They have used the name of Jesus to slaughter Christians they didn’t agree with (Inquisition). They have used the name of Jesus to enslave and marginalize Christians of a different skin color (slavery, apartheid). Somehow taking the name of Jesus did not prevent Christians from slaughtering other tribes in Rwanda and other denominations in Yugoslavia, or offering support to Hitler.
Traditional Christianity has too often been a massive exercise in corporate denial. Those taking the name of Jesus have too often been blind to the darkness within. If Jesus is to be the answer in today’s world a lot of people are going to have to find a way to look past Christianity and most Christians if they are to have any hope of finding Him. What a tragedy if some of the very institutions that uplift the name of Jesus should turn out to be the essence of what the Bible calls AntiChrist!
From September 11 on the world has cried out for healing. And there is hope for that healing in Jesus. But business as usual is no longer appropriate in the hallways of faith. I invite people of all faiths to proclaim jihad, not on people we disagree with, not on other faiths, but on ourselves, on our own willingness to tolerate pride, arrogance and self-deception. Any other spiritual quest will fall short of the healing this world so desperately needs. It is only by conquering the terrorist within that we can have any hoping of putting an end to the terrorism without. True authenticity is worth a holy war!
Some thirty years ago I was visiting the Riverside Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan one Sunday with a couple of friends. Riverside Church, along the Hudson River, has one of the five largest classical organs in the world. Being an organist myself I never got enough of it. The organist that day was Frederick Swann. He was internationally famous, with dozens of recordings.
When the worship service was over, I took my friends up on the platform to get a closer look at the organ. And since I knew quite a bit about such things, I began to explain some of the different features of the organ. As I talked about the organ, my audience began to grow. It was fun having a bigger audience. So I began to expand on the story a little. And the audience got even bigger. Then suddenly I began to realize that the people weren’t looking at me anymore. They were looking behind me. I turned looked around and was standing face to face with Frederick Swann himself. He looked me in the eye and said, “You’d better get your facts straight, Sonny, before you open your mouth.” He turned around and walked away.
I began to realize that day that something deep inside of me made it hard for me to be real, to be authentic. Instead of being honest and truthful I had played up to the audience in order to polish up my own image (which turned out to be a stupid way to do that). I felt humiliated, ridiculous and downright ugly! I wasn’t mad at Swann. How could I be? He was right about me! I was mad at myself. I hated whatever it was inside of me that was trying to hide my own ignorance and stupidity behind a facade of brilliant repartee. I didn’t want an incident like that to ever happen again on my account. So on that day I decided to make the struggle for authenticity my own personal jihad.
What does the Islamic idea of jihad have to do with my personal life? Historically, jihad is much less about killing people who disagree with you and much more about the personal struggle toward an authentic faith. In fact, the concept of jihad has at least three meanings within Islam. First, it refers to the struggle of all who believe in God to be faithful to Him and to live good lives. Second, it refers to the struggle to understand and interpret Islam. And third, it refers to the sacred struggle to defend and advance the cause of Islam. The root meaning of the word, however, is closer to the first meaning than the last.
I believe therefore that jihad, rightly understood, moves us away from terrorism and the mass murder of “infidels.” Jihad is about the battle with self to become a better person, not only on the outside, but also on the inside. Read in that light jihad is about battling the evil in one’s self before turning one’s attention to the evil in others. If we can defeat the terrorist within, there is some hope we can defeat the terrorist without.
The Bible addresses this same concept in the striking language of battle: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:3-5). Here we see a clear contrast between the two interpretations of jihad or holy war. The true holy warfare is not about fleshly weapons like AK-47 rifles or M1A1 tanks or F-15 fighters. The true jihad is a battle with self, a battle toward authentic living, a battle to become more loving and kind in service to God and others. I believe that the great of all jihads is the struggle to be real.
Just as there are natural defense mechanisms at the physical level, so there are natural defense mechanisms at the emotional and psychological level. If someone says something hurtful about us, we may react defensively without even being aware that we have done so. At a basic level, these psychological mechanisms of defense are self-deceptions. When things go wrong, when we fail at something important, or when we are under verbal or emotional attack, we move quickly to our own defense and craft an “image,” whether we intend to or not. If knowing the truth will make us feel bad about ourselves, most of us would prefer not to know the truth.
Inauthenticity in relationships means avoiding issues and failing to communicate. But that is a recipe for long-term disaster. When it comes to finances, inauthenticity means not making a budget, not keeping track of expenses, not planning for retirement, and borrowing without knowing where the money is coming from. Few people survive that kind of financial “planning” for long! When it comes to health inauthenticity means eating whatever you want, sitting around all day, ignore all the rules of health and still hoping to live to 100 without a single illness. But that’s not real life. Inauthenticity can kill you and you’ll probably be the last one to know it before you go.
So faking it is not a useful option, whether we’re talking about individuals or nations. But being real is not easy to do. First of all, as we have seen, self-deception comes pretty naturally to human beings (Jer 17:9). Through self-deception we craft an image, not only for others, but even for ourselves. But there is an even deeper issue, I think. The root cause of this “image-building” seems to be a deep inner perception that we are hopeless and worthless. We are afraid to know the truth about ourselves, because then we’ll feel even worse! In the blog to follow I’ll briefly share some steps I have learned to apply in my own personal jihad toward authenticity.
The climax of the Bible’s big picture is found in the last part, the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets pointed forward to a future major act of God. In that act God would send a Messiah to right the wrongs in this world. The Old Testament describes that Messiah as a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15,18), a king like David (Jer 23:5-6), and a conquering hero (Zech 9:9-10). From texts like these, one could easily get the impression that Jesus would be a powerful king who would dominate the political forces in His world (many Christians act as if it were so). But Jesus used these texts for a moral purpose rather than a political or economic one. His kingdom was not like the nations of this world (John 18:36-37). Warfare was not the way to attain spiritual goals (John 18:10-11). Jesus’ kingdom had to do with character development, spiritual growth and enhanced relationships with others and with God (Matt 5:21-48; Luke 17:20-21). While Jesus’ kind of kingdom would change the world, it had nothing to do with the weapons of this world (2 Cor 10:3-5).
I have gained great respect for the Qur’an and the dedication of those who practice its faith with mercy and compassion. There is no doubt in my mind that the Qur’an represents a great advance on the religious sensibilities of the tribal religions it replaced. And while some Christians may disagree, I believe the God portrayed in the Bible “has not left Himself without witness” (Acts 14:17) among those who did not have the Bible. God recognizes the sincere worship of people in every nation as directed to Himself (Mal 1:11).
Nevertheless, the Qur’an still leaves God distant from us. The God of the Qur’an does not speak our language (unless we have learned Arabic). He is not deeply engaged in our existence. He is distant and easily seems uncaring and even vengeful. By way of contrast, the God of the Bible is a practical God that meets us where we are. Unlike the distant God of Mohammed, He is deeply engaged in the human condition. But the Bible goes one step further. It claims that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being born in a stable of Bethlehem, raised in Egypt and Palestine, was none other than the living incarnation of God’s person (Heb 1:1-3). One who was God from the beginning took on human flesh (John 1:1-3,14). Such a God is deeply concerned about our situation. He taught and healed and comforted people in the humblest of circumstances. He was a “humble” God who never commanded His followers to use weapons in His behalf. Instead He commanded them to love their enemies (Matt 5:44), just as He did when He died for the very ones who crucified him (Rom 5:8-10).
I offered a serious challenge to Muslim thinkers a few days ago, but my challenge to traditional Christianity today is even more pointed. After all, Muslims who take up arms in behalf of their faith can at least point to their own sacred texts for justification. But what justification does the Bible offer for the way the West flaunts its power and wealth in the world? Where in the teaching and practice of Jesus is there any basis for advancing the Christian agenda through military, political or economic means? A Muslim could be excused for missing God’s call to mercy and compassion in the violence of the Qur’an, but what excuse can the follower of Jesus offer for missing God’s call to openness, grace, love and peace?
I know, I know. The United States and Europe are no longer truly “Christian” nations. The West today is not pursuing a religious agenda, but a political and economic one. But in the light of Christianity’s past, in the light of the Crusades and the Inquisition, can we really expect the Muslim world to understand the distinction between Western action and Christian faith? When they look at Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel in the light of Christianity’s past, where is the spirit of Jesus?
I believe that traditional Christianity has failed in its own struggle to grasp and demonstrate the teachings and attitude of Jesus, who humbled Himself and stepped down from heavenly wealth, power, and glory (Phil 2:5-8). He demonstrated in human form that the divine answer to violence and terror is found not in power and wealth, but in humility, authenticity, and forgiveness. Traditional Christianity has failed as badly as Islam to provide the solutions to the world’s problems. But in the process it has strayed even further from its roots than Islam has. In the next chapter I explore the fundamental reason for Christianity’s inability to see its own failures and offer a solution that is grounded in both the Bible and the traditions of Islam.
When it comes to knowing the God of the Bible, a little tentativeness is advisable. It was the lack of such tentativeness that killed four ATF agents and led David Koresh and his followers to destruction. It was a lack of such tentativeness that led Mohamed Atta to do the ghastly “work of God” that was September 11 and Osama bin Laden to plan and encourage it. All three men thought they knew exactly what God wanted them to do and exactly how to bring about the result that God had in mind. All three believed that God’s ways and their thoughts were in perfect harmony.
I find this, frankly, amazing. We don’t expect anyone to paint the “final painting,” one so perfect that no more art needs to be produced. We don’t expect “the final and complete discovery” from any scientist. Yet we have the capacity to think we have fully understood God, as if God were far more limited a concept than science or art! Many use religion and God-talk as a tool in behalf of their own agendas. But as the Psalmist says that they have made a basic error, they thought that God was just like them; just as rigid, unbending and at times hateful as they were (Psalm 50:16-21).
But the Bible actually portrays a God who cannot be put into a comfortable human box, who is not predictable. Whenever we think, speak or write about God it is critical to maintain a reverent tentativeness about our conclusions. We must leave God the freedom to be God. While openness, honesty, authenticity and humility are very much part of the philosophical landscape today, a call for these virtues is more than just political correctness. It is mandated by the very words of Scripture, which have in the past been misused for political or economic gain, but upon more careful examination portray a God who is very much unlike ourselves.
In the wake of September 11, it is imperative that we not only combat terrorism with the weapons of this world, it is even more critical that we combat it with the weapons of truth. Hatred, disparagement of other religions, boastful self-confidence in one’s absolute correctness, these are the ultimate roots of terrorism. A faith that exhibits the compassion, mercy, justice and love of God with an appropriate humility and openness will be a major part of our recovery from the event that changed the world.