9/11/2002: Preaching to anxious times

How a pastor can be more effective in addressing heightened anxiety in the congregation.

Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

In the 12 months past, we (you and I, preachers of the gospel) have addressed the events of 9/11/2001 in our sermons. We have preached, as we must, to the times.

While the horror of September 11, now dubbed "9-11," have been the particular stuff of the American scene, people around the world have been shocked by the force of its implications. Now that a year has passed, we need to take a moment to reexamine four of our most frequently-preached related themes, and consider whether or not we have addressed them well and accurately.

The nature of our enemy

I have felt less fondness for New York City than any other place in America a city rude, crude, dangerous, expensive, and seemingly inaccessible to those of us who operate by the rules that work in much of the rest of America and the world. Yet on the evening of September 11, 2001, New York almost seemed like my hometown; its people, my people. I and many others true blue, honest, upstanding citizens of the U.S.A. and the world suddenly found ourselves bonded to New Yorkers because they had been attacked by a strange and frightening enemy.

It turned out that the attackers were part of a group whose reputation had preceded them. Most of us didn't know any Moslems. What Americans saw on the 6:30 p.m. TV news were strangely-dressed people who seemed to live in a state of anger against one another and the rest of the world. After 9/11, we actually found it a bit of a relief that our enemy was someone whose alienness, whose sheer otherness, saved us the trouble of having to understand them.

Yet remembering that as a Christian I am to love my enemy (instruction I suspect we all felt unusually challenging) I became more attentive to what I heard of Moslems in the weeks following 9/11. In television interviews Moslem experts disclaimed Moslem militancy, declaring it incompatible with their faith. Moslems in America suggested they were the real victims and in some instances they were right.

Some Christian leaders rushed to Islam's defense. Yet I also received an email written by a clergyman, that was just short of Hitlerian in its bigotry and willful misinterpretation of the theology and social system of Islam. It advised us not to believe a word we heard from moderate Islamic leaders or their Christian defenders. In this man's assessment, Islam was fundamentally hateful, its whole agenda the destruction of Western civilization.

Let us admit it is probably impossible for us to understand the Islamic faith from the out side with much accuracy. I can make a few assumptions, though, based on what I know about human beings. I can assume that some Moslems are liars, others honest. Some are angry, some peace-loving. Some bigoted, some thoughtful. Some sincerely wrong, others angrily right. In short, they are quite like us.

I also know from looking at my own faith tradition that it is possible for insecure people to edit their faith to justify hatred, vengeance, and domination. (A historical event called the Inquisition is something in our own history that we who follow gentle Jesus, meek and mild, would prefer not to be reminded of.)

Yet it is not our task to either defend or damn the Moslem faith, but to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that gospel identifies all sin as the work of an enemy, one who is not Moslem, nor even human. And though human beings may act as agents of that enemy, we are all victims of sin.

Following 9/11, commentators observed that normally brusque New Yorkers had briefly begun behaving toward one another with some courtesy. Sharing a common enemy was a bonding experience. Yet sinfulness is our real enemy, and we hold that enemy in common with thoughtful people of all faiths, including Islam and Christianity. Rather than trying to analyze Islam, we might do well to show how all human beings are victimized by sin, and so make the end of violence and bigotry our common cause.

Actively loving Osama bin Laden is, I suspect, still some spiritual growth beyond us. Yet we must love our human enemies at least enough that we do not let hatred swell. Of vengeance there is no natural end; someone must choose to end it. And He whom we follow has asked us to be those who do so.

Understanding war

I confess I am puzzled, particularly in the light of what happened to America on 9/11, by those Christian pastors who use pulpits, (either parish or electronic) to glorify war. That countries may have to fight to prevent terrorism is clear. That we ought to honor and encourage soldiers who risk their lives in such a cause is also clear.

Yet it is equally clear that we should find the entire enterprise of war thoroughly regrettable.

Judeo-Christian theology has long wrestled with the question of war. Under theocratic government, God occasionally appeared to be a merciless commander (Deut. 20:10-20). But today's Christian attitudes toward war come primarily from Jesus' teaching that we should be, as far as possible, non-aggressive, preferring peaceful to violent means.

Knowing, however, that there are times when truth must be fought for, Augustine and others have proposed the theology of "just war": War should only be fought to preserve peace or to ensure justice. Yet scholars say Augustine's writings on the topic are gloomy and resigned, for in his heart he knew war to be irreducibly evil.

Let us be painfully, startlingly aware of one thing: War will always result in someone's suffering. When faced with war, the best we can do is to choose the slightly better of bad options, which will result in nothing more than the slightly better of bad outcomes. So let us be sure that we do not spend a moment engaging in a sentimental glorification of war or of our fighting capabilities.

Let us not fly the flag at the pulpit or in it, spouting self-justifying cliches that imply God has confined His interests to our side. Let Christians not use words like "revenge," for even when fighting is necessary, vengeance is precisely what Jesus intended us not to seek. Let us never gloat over our victories or our enemies' losses, nor take joy in making war, because there is nothing even remotely joyful about it.

The only thing that makes it possible for a fully-aware Christian to fight in a war is the hope that the sum total of tears that will be shed because of fighting the war will be fewer than the sum total of tears that would have been shed had we not fought. And those are sums that, short of heaven, we shall never possess the ability to calculate accurately.

Calming fears

Even on 9/11, the average American was not in immediate danger from terrorism. Even on 9/11, the terrorist threat to our lives diminished beside the overall statistical threat of death in an auto accident.

Yet there need be no actual danger in order for us to feel afraid. Supposing ourselves in danger will suffice.

One of the fascinating reactions after 9/11 was the increase in the sale of guns in America. And these sales took place despite the fact that there was nothing whatsoever in the entire 9/11 episode that could have been addressed by the average person carrying a gun. Did people suppose a recognizable terrorist would knock on the front door during dinner some evening? Given the prevalence of gun-related accidents and heat-of-the-moment gun use, its more likely that the arming of America against terror ism, though it nabbed not a single terrorist, led to more ordinary people dying of gunshots than would have otherwise.

The firearming of America has always been one of the nation's most counterproductive reactions to social stress. Yet in this case, it had one "redeeming" value: guns apparently comforted not a few anxious hearts!

The proper pastoral response to such widespread anxiety, it seems to me, is to offer our people not external, but internal comfort. Not comfort they must purchase, or man age by their own judgment, strength and reflexes, but comfort that comes from gaining a deeply spiritual perspective on how one handles the matter of living on a troubled earth resting in the hand of God Himself.

Let us begin with the proposition that God still answers prayers that plead for His comforting presence. "Let not your hearts be troubled" still applies. As does the rest of the pas sage: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).

Note that the burden Jesus has been carrying (and that He offers to us) is a light burden! Clearly, Jesus is not as worried about the future (or, for that matter, war, the stock market, or the time of the end) as we are! That is because Jesus knows that by the mercy of His Father all things will ultimately redound to the good of those who love God. After all, Jesus Himself lived with the knowledge that He was going to die a violent death and trusted His Father to carry Him through.

An old gospel song says, "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." Jesus prayed that His disciples, though they were "in the world" would not be "of the world"; they would be, in a manner of speaking, resident aliens.

It is extraordinarily difficult to live in the world, but not be attached to it or adopt its ideas of what makes for ultimate safety and security. So much of us is invested here! Yet this very real though transcendent perspective is the one that we must offer in our sermons and our ministry as a whole. In the end it is this that brings us and our people real comfort and security. We can never be entirely at home with things as they presently are on our planet.

The joys here never totally delight us, nor do the tragedies take us entire ly by surprise, for we live in expectation of something better. And all of this applies not only to 9/11 but to any and every aspect of the struggle we and our people face as a part of living where and when we do.

A truthful eschatology

Following 9/11, the need for pas tors to address the world situation eschatologically was clear. Yes, I need God personally, and so do you. But these dramatic events reminded us that not just individuals, but all human institutions, all societies, all governments, all families, need God's intervention. In Paul's words, the whole creation is groaning as it awaits deliverance (Rom. 8:22).

Shortly after last September I heard a radio preacher explain a passage in Revelation that he supposed specifi cally fitted the World Trade Center disaster into Bible prophecy. He spoke with great assurance, and I suspect some listeners found immediate com fort in his words. Whether or not he is right is something we'll only be able to evaluate in the future (though it is unlikely that we will, for by then we'll all have moved on to a new crisis and 9/11 will dull into history).

Yet I was concerned about his presentation. He was interpreting complex Bible passages in order to predict the details of world events and politics. By extending himself so far from the text and being so specific, he was indulging in the kind of imaginative speculation with God's Word that others do with Nostradamus or tarot cards.

Second, he was making judgments about others that he was unqualified to make. Like the now-infamous Falwell/Robertson interview, he pre tended to know which sinners God was punishing on 9/11, and why. This is biblically unsupportable on several counts, not the least of which is that God reserves the right of judgment for Himself and punishes sinners in His own time and way, all without consulting us.

Third, beyond knowing the preacher's thoughts on the matter, what could listeners do with the information? Like having a gun under the mattress, did they suppose that specific knowledge of world affairs would give them a measure of personal control? And what if his predictions turn out to be inaccurate, as they no doubt will? Would he dam age more faith than he could build?

Lost in the details was the foundational message of all eschatology: that God is in charge of the ultimate fate of this earth. An honest eschatology assures of God's jurisdiction over earthly and political affairs, without taking liberties with God's Word.

Eschatology succeeds if it teaches people to trust our Lord to keep His eyes on world events, while we "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12:2) There is little in this broken world, and even less in its political and social structures, that we can repair ourselves.

The most helpful principle I have found for interpreting prophecy is derived from the words of Jesus in John 16:4 when He warned His disciples about the future troubles they could expect to come to them: "'I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you'" (NIV).

This passage reminds me that eschatology was meant not to provide us with a means of predicting the future and managing world events, but as a means of confirming our faith in God's management when we most need to have it confirmed. We are not in control. But we must assure our parishioners that God is in control, whether or not we understand His methods or his Chronology.

Our preaching to anxious times is hardly over. Terrorism (which is nothing more than another of Satan's ways to distribute pain) will be with us as long as war is until Jesus makes all things new. Let us, until then, trust in Him thoughtfully and implicitly, who no terror can threaten.

Loren Seibold's new book, A God We Can Trust addresses theological questions that Christians have asked in the wake of 9/11. To order, visit <adventistbookcenter.com>

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Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

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