In recognition of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, I wanted to post an excerpt from the sermon I preached on the Sunday just after. Reading through it again reminded me what it was like to look out the window of my office at First Baptist, DC, on that day and see smoke rising from the Pentagon on the other side of the river. It was terrifying. By the time I wrote the sermon a few days later I was grappling with the deeper issues of what fear does to us as a people and called the sermon “Fear Itself.”
Nine years later I’m distressed by how our lives, policies, and public discourse continue to be shaped by fear, and how a terrorist attack orchestrated by a few Muslim extremists has resulted in something called “Islamophobia,” where we regard the entire Muslim world with suspicion. Maybe in reading through this excerpt you will be led to reconsider your own relationship to fear, your relationship to God, and the way one can cancel out the other.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t speaking on Tuesday morning of last week, when hijacked airliners were bearing down on New York and Washington at full throttle. He wasn’t one of the 266 passengers or crew aboard those doomed planes, or any of the thousands in the World Trade Center who would soon be praying for their lives. When he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he didn’t know what we know. In the past few days we have come to believe that there is plenty to fear, and if the truth be told many of us are still afraid.
You know the facts:
At about 8:45 a.m. on September 11 an airplane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. We thought it was an accident: a malfunction in a navigational computer that had resulted in the unthinkable. But then, twenty minutes later and while many of us were watching it live on television, a second airplane slammed into the South Tower, erupting in a ball of flame. At that moment we realized it couldn’t be an accident. We realized that this was a deliberate act of aggression, an attack on the United States. Thirty-five minutes later we heard that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just across the river, and then the rumors began to fly. The telephone in my office rang with a report that smoke was pouring out of the Old Executive Office Building. In the hallway someone said that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department. One of the teachers in our Child Development Center asked, “Is it true that the Washington Monument is . . . gone?” It seemed that the whole city, the whole nation, was under violent attack.
When things got a little quieter we opened the church to those who might want to pray and watched as streams of people headed up 16th Street from downtown. Traffic was snarled, the Metro was jammed, and so they walked. Some stopped in to say a brief prayer but most of them hurried by with their heads down, determined to get home to their families and to get away from the threat of danger. By 3:00 Washington looked like a ghost town. We closed the doors and started home on empty streets, in eerie silence.
In the days since then we have been trying to assess the damage, both physical and emotional. We know that the Pentagon has a gaping hole in its side and the World Trade Center is gone forever. We know that thousands of people have died in this attack, most of them horribly. And we know that we feel shaky and scared, straining our ears for the sounds of airplanes, jumping at every strange or sudden noise.
It is an evil thing that has happened, and it is a particular kind of evil.
Theologians speak of the suffering that human beings experience as a result of earthquake, famine, fire, and flood as natural evil. The other kind, which Daniel Migliore describes as “the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit,” is called moral evil.[i] The evil we have experienced in this attack on America is of that latter, darker kind. It has been inflicted upon us. As much as we might suffer from natural evil this other kind of evil is worse, because it comes not from the violent yet innocent forces of nature, but from the evil intentions of the human heart.
Some people have asked me how God could allow such a thing to happen. Why did he not divert those planes at the last moment? It is the same sort of question people ask when a hurricane pounds the coast but the answer is different. In cases such as those we say that we live in a world where hurricanes happen, and that sometimes populated coastlines get in the way. It doesn’t mean that the hurricane itself is evil but only that the meeting between high winds and fragile buildings can produce tragic results. Houses can be flattened. Lives can be lost. When people ask why God didn’t divert the hurricane God might well ask why they built their houses in its path.
But in cases like this one from last Tuesday we have to say that we live in a world where God has given people freedom. The same freedom that allows us to choose God and serve God allows others to hijack planes and bring down buildings. The freedom itself is good. The use some make of that freedom is evil. So, why didn’t God intervene? Why didn’t God divert those airplanes and save those lives? Because freedom itself was at stake, and God cannot take away our freedom to choose evil without also taking away our freedom to choose good. He would end up with a world of grinning puppets, dancing dumbly at the end of their strings, capable of neither love nor hate. God doesn’t want children like that any more than you do. And so—like a mother who sobs as her son is convicted of murder—he watches buildings collapse while his own heart breaks, and wraps his arms around a broken nation.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but he wasn’t talking about what happened last Tuesday. He wasn’t talking about what happens when people use their God-given freedom to rain down horror on others. And yet there is a sense in which he was right. Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear but it is the most formidable of the weapons that have been turned against us in recent days. While a terrorist might use an airplane or a bomb to accomplish his purpose, his purpose, ultimately, is to terrify, to bring a nation to its knees by means of fear itself. And to the extent that we are terrified, he has succeeded.
I don’t know who is behind last Tuesday’s attacks, but I picture him rubbing his hands together, cackling with glee, hoping you and I will become too afraid to function. He wants us to tremble with fear every time an airplane passes overhead. He wants us to jump at every strange or sudden noise we hear. He wants to bring us to that place where we will not go to work in the morning or send our children to school. That is why I doubt that the attack on America is over. The nature of terrorism is to keep us off balance, to make us think that death could be waiting for us around the next corner or behind the next tree. The goal of terrorism is to overthrow a nation by paralyzing its people with fear. When we reach that point the terrorist has won and I, for one, don’t intend to give him that satisfaction.
I refuse to be afraid.
The writer of Psalm 23 claims that even as he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil. Not natural evil. Not moral evil. Why? Because God is with him. In these familiar, well-worn words we have the antidote to fear. God’s presence is what will make it possible for us to walk through this shadowy valley without being afraid. That doesn’t mean we won’t listen for the sound of airplanes passing overhead. It doesn’t mean we won’t jump when we hear a strange of sudden noise. It only means that we will hold tight to God’s hand and go on with our lives—that we will refuse to be afraid.
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 101.