In only a few weeks, America and the world will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the infamous day in which airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, triggering a global war against terrorist organizations and their supporters, real or imagined. Many American Christians will no doubt remember the event in the context of worship, wrapping the day and its aftermath in the language of the gospel and the trappings of the church’s worship.
How should we do so? Given the power of ritual to transform minds and hearts, to unite or separate, to heal or harm, how should we Christians commemorate such a day?
For many evangelicals, in particular, the temptation to merge the claims of the nation-state with those of the ecclesia will be all but irresistible. Flags will fill worship space, patriotic anthems will ring from congregation and choir, and the solemn words of remembrance will merge almost seamlessly the words of Scripture with the words of American exceptionalism.
Such events will no doubt occur. That they will occur, however, can only be a continuation of the tragedy of 9/11, for one of the casualties of the event, besides the nation’s all but lost capacity for self-criticism, has been the church’s ability to see itself as a counter-culture free of the impulses of the state. For some Christians, the demands of patriotism are almost indistinguishable from those of the gospel. In many cases, therefore, our worship services commemorating 9/11 may be less about Christianity than about civil religion. And so for those who take the gap between the impulses of culture and the call of faith in Jesus Christ, the “worship” that day will be nothing less than a sacrilege.
How do we avoid such an outcome? Surely our desire to remember the day in a Christian way makes more sense than simply ignoring it or pretending that the anniversary is not upon us. How can we proceed? Perhaps there is a way forward.
First, worship for the church always means taking the cross seriously. Taking the cross seriously means several things. (1) It means remembering that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There are no righteous groups and unrighteous groups in our world. Such distinctions are God’s business, not ours, and they will not be clear until the end of the world (Matthew 13:24-30). (2) It also means acknowledging that we in the church have sinned, just as our culture has sinned (Isaiah 6:5). Commemoration in our case must not only acknowledge the horror of planes used as missiles, but also the horror of unmanned drones lobbed at civilians (as well as their named targets), of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, and all the rest. The cross was necessary because evil has penetrated every aspect of human existence, not just some parts.
But (3) taking the cross seriously also means that we need to be very clear about how God goes about redeeming the world. We should be scandalized by prayers or sermons that attribute the blessings of religious liberty to military might. Such claims directly contradict the teaching of Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:14-20; Psalm 20:7; John 18:36). They argue that power and wealth demonstrate virtue, and that God is on our side, subject to our political agendas, amenable to our prejudices and desires for power. Such conflation of political pragmatism with the transcendental call of the gospel fundamentally compromises the message that has been entrusted to us. The radical nature of the Christian faith becomes very clear here as we contrast it with the claims of political entities, no matter how benign, familiar, or even treasured they seem.
Second, however, Christian worship also looks for the ways in which God works to redeem the world. The cross stands next to the empty tomb, so to speak. As resurrection people, we worship God in order to reflect the ways in which the Almighty acts to redeem every human being. Thus our prayers bring the concerns of suffering people before the Almighty, who wishes all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-7). Our hymns extol the ongoing work of God, past, present, and future and so introduce those who join in singing into the story of God (Psalm 78). The Lord’s Supper re-enacts the mighty deed of God in raising Jesus from the dead, so vindicating the righteous (Acts 2:24-28). It also creates a community before God. As the apostle Paul puts it, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). By reading and interpreting Scripture together, we recall that the story of God is one of generous gift-giving to the creation, culminating in the final resolution of all things in the new creation (Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 22). Our worship reflects the splendor of God’s actions working in the lives of people. The God who transcends time and space works in ways far more complex and beautiful than the mere politics of nations.
Finally, then, what would a Christian worship service commemorating 9/11 look like? Let me propose specific elements it should have:
- Confession of sin
- Statements of repentance
- Commemoration of, and intercession for, all who have suffered, not just Americans but all who have lost family members throughout the world, as well as acknowledgement of those who have returned from war broken in mind or body
- Readings of biblical texts calling us to peace and justice
- Truth-telling about what has really happened in the past decade, including the truth about our own complicity in the problems of the world
- Commitments to renewal of our focus on the Gospel’s call to all to receive Christ’s invitation to bring our burdens to him (Matthew 11:28-30) and to live trusting in God’s ultimate triumph over evil (Revelation 22:17)
As we head toward the anniversary of a real human tragedy and all the tragedies that have flowed from it, let us keep our heads and hearts about us. We Christians have something to say that differs from the dominant culture’s celebration of violence and self-gratification. We serve a living God who calls us to lives of peace and justice. We live, we worship in anticipation of the day when all things will be made new and terror and wars will be distant memories. Until then, let us so act that on that day we will be found faithful to its true nature.