So today is the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’ll leave learned reflections on the interim to better commentators. In particular, I’ll point you to Will Willimon’s challenging reflection.
But I remembered something I wrote at the time. 9/11 (or 11/9 in British English) was a Tuesday. At that time, I wrote a regular Christian column in the local newspaper where I lived, the Medway Messenger. The Messenger was published on a Friday, and I had to have my copy in a couple of days ahead. That week I had written something, but the magnitude of the terrorist attacks meant I needed to write something fresh and email it in.
I’m going to reproduce below what I actually wrote. All copy for newspapers risks being edited, and mine was. Savagely. It was cut only to leave the parts about the terrorists deserving the judgement of God. I think it ended with the paragraph that concludes, ‘there is no forgiveness for the terrorists’.
Why? There are two possible explanations. One is that my piece was published in a week when the paper was celebrating a relaunch, and they were keen to devote many trees to praising their own success. Some of that appeared on the same page as my article.
The other possibility is that they didn’t like the tenor of my piece. As you will see, it concludes that every single one of us needs mercy, and that God’s mercy can scandalously extend to the most evil of human beings. They may have been offended by the Gospel.
Would I change anything now? Certainly not the emphasis on mercy! We have a scandalous gospel, and it needs celebrating. In the following fortnight, I preached two sermons to help my congregations come to terms with what had happened. In the second one, I preached from Isaiah 30, with its message of woe to those who trusted in horses and went down to Egypt. Might there be a word of judgement from God on the West in what happened? I preached that sermon twice, and in one of them a worshipper publicly argued with me in the middle of the sermon about that. She then refused to share The Peace with me.
I might say different things about President Bush, and pick up on his offensive remark at the time that the way for Americans to respond to terrorists was to go shopping.
But see what you think. My full, unedited script follows below the asterisks.
Where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot? That was the question of my parents’ generation. I don’t know: I was only three years old at the time, and my family would not own a television set for another two years.
Where were you when you learned that Princess Diana had died? That’s easier: I had just moved into Medway, was living in temporary accommodation in Lordswood, and was due to start work here the next day.
Now the new question for our generation is, where were you when you heard of the plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? I was sitting here at my desk, when my wife came in from work. I had not long emailed my regular column to the paper. “Isn’t it terrible, these terrorist attacks in America?” she called out.
“What attacks?” I asked. We turned on the TV and found ourselves affixed with a morbid glue to ITN. If only it were a Bruce Willis movie.
That original column seems less important now. Maybe it will be printed one day – who knows? I just had to write something different. My thoughts are all over the shop; perhaps yours are, too. But here goes.
Before anything else, let me plead with you not to assume that your Muslim neighbours are all secret terrorists. Whatever my own (quite fundamental) disagreements with the Muslim faith, I know enough to realise that many Muslims share the same abhorrence of terrorism. Do not stereotype them, do not stigmatise them, and do not take out your anger on them.
But then let me move on to the questions I am often asked as a Christian about justice, punishment, and forgiveness. In the Church we are often caricatured as being weak and namby-pamby when we speak up for forgiveness. The Bible speaks of justice as well as forgiveness. Criminals must be brought to book. But it is for justice, not revenge.
President Bush was right to say in one of his early addresses to the American people that there should be no distinction between the actual terrorists and those who harboured them. To the Christian, motive and attitude of heart are just as crucial as outward action. Jesus said that those who harbour anger are as liable to judgement as murderers, and those who lust in their hearts are as much sinners as adulterers.
But one distinction can be drawn between the terrorists and others involved in the planning of these unspeakably evil acts. Let me put it in a provocative way for a Christian: there is no forgiveness for the terrorists.
Why do I say that? We presume that the terrorists all perished on the hijacked planes. Unless there was a last-minute repentance, they will face the judgement of God. The Bible teaches that ‘it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement’.
But their co-conspirators are still alive, we assume. They still have opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. Whether they do so is another matter, but there have been some remarkable precedents in history.
Take the end of World War Two. Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide, and as far as we know there was not an ounce of repentance from the evil man himself. I may be wrong, but I do not expect to see him in Heaven.
But at the Nuremberg war trials, something remarkable happened. An American Army padre named Henry Gerrick was appointed to be a chaplain to those accused of war crimes. The Nazis had killed his only two sons: imagine how he felt in having to minister to them.
Of the twenty-one prisoners, sixteen requested his services. He gathered them together and told them of a God of mercy, whose Son Jesus Christ had died for their sins. Some, like Goering, sneered, despite the pleas of his own daughter. But others, including von Ribbentrop, Keitel, and Frick, went to the gallows, accepting their earthly punishment but saying their confidence was placed in the mercy of God and the death of Christ.
It is in that mercy that we all find our only hope in eternity.