C-R is for Crossed Rescuers
Crossings is the disciplined asking, "What has the Good News of Christ's death and resurrection for us got to do with that?" - "that" being almost anything: a biblical passage, a doctrinal claim or ethical prescription, someone's daily job (we specialize in this one). "That" could be a piece of popular culture (movie, song) or something in the news, like accounting scandals.
Now, since The Anniversary is upon us: What has Jesus Christ got to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001?
Many things. But the most important part of the answer is also the easiest part. Jesus always has to do with death, as the only One who Eastered death into eternal life. There were thousands of deaths because of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania plane crash. Those who died believing that Jesus was the Son of God, the Savior, died into the resurrection. Therefore the burning sorrow of their families and communities was nevertheless full of God's own hope. Jesus Christ has everything to do with his believers' deaths.
But good as that is, more answer is called for. The fatalities were violent and intended. Unnatural deaths. There was an intricately planned, spookily successful attack against American bodies and buildings. The attack also aimed at and hit American self-understanding, pride and comfort, and even American theology. What has Jesus Christ to do with the attack? Or with the nation's shocked reappraisal of itself? Or with the valiant rescue efforts?
Concerning the last, the rescue, ELCA Bishop Steve Bouman of New York City tells moving stories of the Church in NY responding to the need. One is how someone found a vial of oil for one of the firehouse chaplains so that as the firefighters were running into the burning World Trade Center to save people, they could be marked on their foreheads with Jesus' cross. People reported that through the dust, smoke and sporadic light they could glimpse at times those glistening marks.
(Was it superstitious of the firefighters to bear that sign? It is possible, though I doubt that anyone's superstition would stand up under that kind of fire. Besides, it is the sign of a cross: not the sign of a shortcut to glory and ease, but a sign of personal sacrifice for others' gain. Call their bearing of that mark rather hope, even if for some of them it was only the weak and trembling hope, "maybe Jesus Christ really will help me.")
Another of Bishop Bouman's stories is very much the same, but has a punch line that gives understanding. A church member, arriving at her apartment, told herself that she could not just go inside and be alone, so she brought candles out to the side- walk, lit them, and began praying and singing. Others joined her, many others. Then some people passed them on the way to lower Manhattan to help, one of whom said, "Keep doin' that. If you keep doin' what you're doin', we can keep doin' what we're doin'."
That comment reveals that those rescuers needed God on their side. They deeply felt their need to have the Almighty with them. Without that, their work would seem hopeless, ridiculous even.
But couldn't they just assume God was with them? Not that day, not that week. Even seeing on TV - let alone hearing or smelling - those storms of orange flames, black smoke, gray dust and collapse: how would anyone assume God was with them? In destruction of such mythic scope, of course the anointed firefighters and all rescuers needed some assurance that God was with, not against them.
Obvious as that is, there is an odd aspect to it. Engaged in heroism as the rescue workers were ("no one has greater love than this, that they lay down their lives for their friends"), couldn't they, at least, of all people, assume that God was with them? They were exhibiting the greatest possible love, and God favors love. If any humans ever had a right to God's love, wouldn't it be these greatest-loving, life-on-the-line for strangers, loyal fulfillers of their duties? Such simultaneous virtues! Yet they themselves felt otherwise; knew better. As the one signaled, the necessary God-connection would have to be made by someone else.
Here, then, is a second answer to, What has this Gospel to do with that? Evil tearing of families and communities, horrible destruction of architecture and with it our sense of security - these cancelled the assumption of God's favor. This was immediately evident in popular life as "God bless America," which had usually been said as a no-brainer, a given (or, dare we say, even as an imperative?) immediately became a genuine plea: "God, [please>] bless America."
And it is good for us that the assumption that we have a right to God's favor is cancelled, because the Almighty offers something far better than that faith-less, grace-less, Christ-less assumption. The better that He offers us is the life of His own Son as the purchase of His favor and the Son's Easter overcoming as the promise of it. As the man on the sidewalk rightly implied, we indeed have the need for someone else to make the God-connection good for us. What is splendid in the Christian Gospel is that this is not done by just anyone, someone interceding against God's disfavor, so to speak praying against God, but it is God Himself as the fatherly Sender of the Son and God Himself as the sent Son Who makes once for all a securely good connection. As Paul says, then who can be [effectively] against us?
So the Gospel has to do with death and with rescues. In rescue the Body of Christ itself plunges into selfless action because its Head, as Bishop Bouman said, loves all the wounded, dead, bereaved and worried. But also, the rescuers needed Christ, they needed the knowledge of God being for them.
But two other difficult questions yet need response. What has the Gospel to do with 1) the attack itself and 2) America's reappraisal of itself?
These questions again raise the matter of God's favor. Is the attack itself theological? Is it like the countless OT stories and prophesies in which God uses political and military forces to "chastise" a nation; sometimes a beloved nation, sometimes not? Or was the September 11th concert of attacks without God, merely human, only geo-political, no more than Islamistic terrorism against western culture? It would be easier if that is all, for then there would be small need for national self-examination or change.
But even the possibility that the strangely successful attacks were more than human, where there is faith-based courage enough to entertain the question, comes back to the question of America's self-appraisal. That America even could be the object of God's disfavor seems as incomprehensible as when Jeremiah tried to make the same point to Judah and Jerusalem. Who, us? Can't be: we are God's favorites. For Judah it was the promise to David that was thought to make self-examination pointless; for Americans it is as if our political process as a constitutional republic somehow guaranteed God-pleasing results.
But if God does bless America, then He can do the opposite. And the story of the OT, the Revelation to John, the hope of the prophets and the promise of the psalms is indeed that the Lord controls the fate of nations, bringing low and raising up, making both weal and woe. So, even though the attack is not proof of God's disfavor against the USA, we would be guilty of the broadest obtuseness and biblical ignorance if we do not at least ask ourselves whether God may have specific cause to be against us. Can you think of any? Given the centers of attack, we could begin looking at our role in world trade and in military affairs. Again, to ask the question is not to have a prejudice in favor of a positive answer. But if we suspect that the answer may be positive, then it would be first of all up to those who believe that God wants to turn His judgment into mercy to begin the repenting, inviting others to join in.