Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith
Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D.
President & Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics
Gordon-Conwell joins the global community in mourning and praying for the victims and families of the terrible tragedy that took place in Orlando this past Sunday. The following is a seven-part series Courtesy of the C.S. Lewis Institute, www.cslewisinstitute.org, Knowing & Doing, Winter 2001.
Part 1 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: An Introduction
The events of September 11, 2001 triggered a paradigm shift that brought terrorism to the dinner table. Within all of us, this shift produced a broad array of conflicting emotions that had to be dealt with. Since 2001 and through today, terrorism continues to sadly make its mark. We still struggle to know how to think, feel and respond to these attacks.
Of course as Christians it should not come as a total surprise, we know the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. The words of CS Lewis at the outbreak of World War II are applicable to the current situation: “The war [attack] creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice….. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal” (The Weight of Glory, p. 23). But as Christians, despite a world view that predisposes us to understand such evil, we are still left reeling within ourselves.
As we think about our responses to the continued threat and impact of terrorism, it is helpful to recall that our emotions and cognitive processes are ultimately good gifts of God to help us navigate our way in the face of danger, evil and uncertainty within the world. But of course there’s a problem. We are fallen creatures, and thus our emotions and cognitive responses aren’t as God intended. While they are still fundamentally good gifts of God, they are twisted, distorted, and miss the mark of their original intention. As those redeemed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we need to allow our emotions and thinking to also be transformed. Thus, terrorism through the eyes of faith needs a clear understanding of our natural emotions and thinking, in contrast to the redeemed perspective. Yes indeed, terrorism now battles for a seat at our dinner tables. In the coming days in this series, we will explore this reality together.
Part 2 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Righteous Indignation, not Unbridled Anger
Likely, one of our immediate reactions to terrorism is anger. When attacked physically or psychologically, resentment and belligerence often arise within us. Anger is a good gift, as it enables us to deal emotionally with violations, injustices, and evil that threatens our life and integrity. But anger is also fallen, and hence it can turn to unbridled anger that will eventually control us. In its fallen state, unbridled anger tends to build a pattern that imprisons us, one that won’t let go and perpetuates disgust, disrespect, and eventually violence. As Horace, the Roman poet put it, “Anger is a short madness.”
It’s because of the safeguard against the brutal impact of anger upon both the victim and the offender that the Bible provides this wise direction, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,” (Ephesians 4:26). Thus our natural unbridled anger needs to be transformed into righteous indignation, a holy wrath with strong feelings directed towards the evil, sin and injustice perpetrated. Righteous indignation moves us beyond the uncontrollable outrage directed against individuals to a more principled anger focusing on the evil done. Such redeemed anger is perhaps akin to God’s own holy wrath, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Such anger arises from
God’s own holiness, sin and evil are direct contradictions to God’s own nature and actions.
Part 3 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Hope, Not Fear
But fear also has great dangers. Most visibly – its sinister ability to immobilize and cause paralysis of action. It often prevents us from performing responsibilities and engaging new opportunities in life. Thus, there are parts of fear that need to be redeemed.
We might think that the antidote to fear is courage, since it is a classical cardinal virtue. But the more appropriate Christian response to fear is actually hope. While courage tends to reside within our own natural proclivities and self-discipline, hope is supernatural in its source and nature. For Christians, hope in perilous times is not ultimately in nation, military power, or our own ability to cope. Our hope is in a God who is ultimately in control. In the midst of terror and evil, Christians have hope because we believe God is nonetheless there turning human desecration into good. This is illustrated in Romans 8:28 which says, “We know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to his purposes.” Hope is a true reality because we can have confidence in the One beyond the immediate, finite and sinful realities of this world. Therefore, in a troubled dangerous world, it is that ultimate hope that motivates and sustains us.
Part 4 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Justice, Not Revenge
Following the emotions of anger and fear, terrorism tends to breed an emotional response of revenge. This is a natural response, wanting to hit back, get even, and take out vengeance on the evildoers. Revenge is the innate desire to make the wrong right. It has roots in our created being. But as fallen creatures, that deep impulse becomes twisted, excessive and misguided. On the basis of emotional outrage, revenge often wants to strike back without principle or limitation. Largely originally triggered by the events of September 11, 2001, we’ve often heard the language of revenge in the form of contempt towards Muslims, Arabs, and people of middle-eastern descent. Even Arab Christians in the United States have had to fear for their lives. This is not helpful.
Alternatively, it would be more helpful to replace revenge with a need for justice. Even as Christians are called to a spirit of forgiveness that ultimately seeks restoration, it is appropriate that life in a fallen world calls for justice. A voice for justice in a world that seeks unrestrained vengeance is a voice for fairness, not just emotional outrage. Justice seeks to limit our passions and feelings and respond from principle and wisdom rather than just internal sentiments. Justice does not belong in personal hands and should be supported by evidence. The blindfold on “lady justice” has often symbolized the importance of ensuring that justice, not revenge, is our response to evil.
Day 5 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Mortality, Not Invincibility
Up until September 11, 2001 the United States mostly thought we were invincible. Thus, one of our first responses was, “How can this happen to us?” Since the industrial revolution, the Western modern world has mastered nature, natural resources, reproduction, the human genome, life, death and much in between. As moderns we assumed that we could solve all problems, set things right, and determine good outcomes according to desired ends. We had become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as all powerful and in control.
Then came the terrorism on September 11, 2001. Amazingly the terrorists used our own instruments of control, our technology, back against us. With a handful of people and a few hundred thousand dollars, the terrorists were able to do what no other nation or army on earth could do. This forced us to realize– we were not invincible.
If there is anything we have learned from tragic terrorist attacks around the world, it is awareness of our own mortality. This is the biblical perspective. God is Creator; we are creatures. God is infinite; we are finite. God is eternal; we are temporal. As C.S. Lewis noted, events such as war or terror in the past made death real to humans, for,
they thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Not the stupidest of us knows…. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon (The Weight of Glory, p. 32).
Part 6 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Global, Not Parochial
By nature we seek to preserve ourselves, our own group, and our own nation. Particularly in time of crisis, when our very existence is threatened, we turn to that which is safe and familiar. Our natural tendencies are in one sense good, as we strive for familiarity which eases discord. Thus it makes sense that our natural response to terrorism is often to be parochial, and to shrink into being self-focused. Though a self-focused stance can be viewed negatively, there’s also good reason to believe that moral responsibility always begins at home.
But as we know too well, parochialism (the restriction of concerns to the narrow and limited– to those like me) stifles humanity through prejudice, ethnocentrism and racism. Parochialism teaches a mindset of only “my group” and “my nation” as the center of reality and the bearer of good. With this all else is deemed to be evil.
In stark contrast, God calls us to be global Christians. Globally-focused Christians know that while national, racial, and ethnic identities are important, they are not the defining marks of a Christian. It is important that factors such as these are always viewed secondary to both our humanness and our identity as members of the universal Church, the Body of Christ. World-focused Christians recognize that we have brothers and sisters in Christ in almost every nation and tribe. Thus, we can never look out just for ourselves. Therefore, being a global Christian reminds us that we must be concerned for terrorism not only on our own turf, but all over the world. Because of this we become painfully aware of the global terrorism that has relentlessly ensued. Global faith always keeps Christ’s Great Commission central, recognizing that some national (national as in what? Nations? Government? Individual responses from a nation?) responses can have dire consequences upon our attempts to invite men and women across the globe to experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Part 7 | Terrorism Through the Eyes of Faith: Mystery, Not Certainty
…If God is good and all powerful, then why are there terrorist acts within the world? All humans have wrestled in some fashion with that question, and a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it– Job.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 many have yearned for certainty regarding God’s actions on that day. Where was God and what was God up to? It’s only natural to seek certainty in the divine realm. It brings consolation in the face of threats of and evil which has now become normalized in our world. As a result some believers have felt the need to make pronouncements regarding God’s involvement in this terrorist act, and with certitude assert judgment, causality or other kinds of divine action. These difficult questions have been constant struggling companion to faith amidst the world’s growing familiarity with terrorism.
Clearly there are many things about God’s actions and character we know with confidence. For example, we know that God is personal, triune, and simultaneously transcendent and immanent. We know that He is a God of mercy who wants to redeem us and who has taken the initiative to reveal himself to us in the written word, the Bible, and the incarnate word, Jesus Christ.
But clearly there are some things about divine actions we just do not know. This is especially true in attempting to understand God’s ways in human history– his judgments, actions and permissions within the world. As Isaiah the prophet put it, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9). Thus, we need to affirm some degree of divine mystery that we will never fully comprehend and capture within the limits of finitude. Let’s explore three such mysteries that are pertinent for our times.
First, there is mystery regarding human suffering and evil within the world. If God is good and all powerful, then why are there terrorist acts within the world? All humans have wrestled in some fashion with that question, and a whole book of the Bible is devoted to it– Job. Interestingly in the biblical drama after all of Job’s loss, suffering, and anguish from his “friends,” he never gets an answer to his question. God never answers the philosophical, theological or practical life questions surrounding suffering and evil. What Job receives is a new vision of God: “I had heard of you, now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5). The reality of evil, suffering and terrorism in our world cannot be attributed to God, but clearly God has the power to intervene. Thus, the why’s and wherefore’s of God’s action in the face of the evil of September 11 and all terrorism today remain a mystery.
Second, there is mystery in God’s judgments in history. Some were of course quite certain that the terrorist acts were divine judgment against America and thought they knew the reason for them. It is quite clear that God’s judgment comes in history; it is less clear how it comes. For one thing, the judgment of God is always at work against human sin and injustice, as there are continual reverberations from actions and character that fly in the face of God. And likely the list of why God is judging us is more extensive and closer home than we think. Moreover, it is hard for us to comprehend what is clear in the biblical story, that judgment and redemption are sometimes mingled in ways that defy human imagination.
Third, there is mystery to God’s work of redemption in the midst of evil situations. God’s ways of awakening, of vindicating justice and righteousness, and of drawing humans to himself are always beyond our limited perceptions. If redemption was limited to our preconceived notions of how God can or must work, such redemption would hardly be worth the time.
A sense of mystery in our understanding of and relationship to God is significant for deep spirituality. After all would we really want to entrust our lives to one we’d figured out? We would be trusting in the finite. Would we really seek to glorify one we fully understood? G.K. Chesterton with great insight once wrote: “We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear” (Orthodoxy, p. 160).