The Moral and Spiritual Significance of September 11, 2001

Just two weeks before the towers came down on September 11, I happened to be in New York City walking around the World Trade Center. I traveled from Denver to New York with my music director at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church. We were there to visit Redeemer Presbyterian Church and the Brooklyn Tabernacle. It was a benchmarking trip. We went to five Sunday services in one day just to observe and learn!  On one morning we walked around the base of the World Trade Center never dreaming that in just 3 weeks it would no longer be there.

Our world did change on that day, and here’s my two cents about the moral and spiritual significance of 911. Let’s think beyond the hassles of airport security and every other kind of security that has been stepped up.  Our children will not believe that there was a day before long airport security lines.  One used to be able to walk freely around the nation’s capitol, but that has all changed too.  But let’s think beyond these inconveniences at the broader significance.

First, September 11th was a humbling day for the United States of America. The World Trade Center was symbolic of the West, and particularly the US and its economic leadership in global trade.  To cite Barbara Tuchman’s phrase, the World Trade Center was “the proud tower” of our society.  Tuchman, you may remember, wrote a book about the world before the Great War in 1914. It is a study of society in the West from 1890-1914 and the accelerated change, the unbridled optimism, and the growing belief in progress that characterized Europe at the time.  It had become a proud tower.  Like the tower of Babel itself, it all came crumbling down with the  “guns of August” at the onset of World War 1.  The bubble burst.

Likewise, you might say that on September 11 our proud tower collapsed.  As one observer wrote of the clean up “I never expected I’d see the great World Trade Center pass by me in a dump truck.”  That day reminded me of the words of Revelation 16.19 which speaks of a time when “the cities of the nations collapsed.”  No one could imagine it.  That is, no one could imagine it, until events like September 11.  It was a humbling day for the United States.  Perhaps future historians will reflect upon it as a symbolic turning point in our nation’s history.

Second, September 11th was a day when radical Islam slapped the West in the face and invited us back into history. Remember all the optimism at the end of the Cold War?  Remember all that stuff about it being “the end of history” when the great conflicts are  now over, because we came out on top.   Sorry!  History came back with a vengeance. Take one great conflict away and another is bound to resurface.  Sure enough, it did.  Islam was reasserting itself.

Winston Churchill saw this coming before the advent of Communism.  Way back in 1899, he wrote, No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” Sir Winston Churchill (The River War, first edition, Vol. II, pages 248-50 [London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1899]).

That was then.  But the West has changed. It is giving up its faith and it continually underestimates Islam as a political religion.  Because of our blind commitment to religious pluralism, we refuse to take the  history and beliefs of Islam seriously.   Its violent origins and rapid growth from Arabia to the Middle East, to Constantinople and Southeastern Europe, has not stopped.  Its use of the hard coercion of the sword as well as the suffocating soft coercion of dhimmitude, continue today. This, of course, is not to say that all Muslims are violent or that Islamic civilization has done nothing good.  It is to say that Islam is an aggressive political religion.

With the collapse of Christianity in Europe, and now having no sturdy faith to preserve its soul, Europeans today acquiesce in the face of Islam’s rapid  spread.  As many have said, the great story of the 21st century will be the conflict and encounter between Christianity and Islam.

Third, September 11 was a momentary wake up call for the West.  The great post modern city of New York woke up the next day with newspaper headlines emblazoned with the words “We Saw Evil.”  At last. . . .  a bold admission of a moral absolute in a relativistic age.  But alas, it was not long before our deep commitment in the essential goodness of human nature, and our unwillingness to believe in evil, overtook us.  So now we will not even name the evil we fight against.  We simply fight “terror.”  We are too timid to say anything more.

Fourth, September 11th presented, (and still presents), an extraordinary opportunity to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I am more convinced than ever that we have to think on two different levels when responding to Islam.  On the governmental, Romans 13 level, we have to support a strong defense to protect citizens, stop aggression and punish evil.  This is why I support our military and those who serve our country overseas in this protracted conflict.  But the Christian cannot stop with that. On a personal  and church level, we are called to love our neighbor– including our Muslim neighbor.   We are called to proclaim and live out the gospel as Christians before their eyes.  Nor must we forget that God is at work in the Muslim world.   We regularly hear stories about many Muslims in the world coming to Christ.  Our commitment to Muslim missions is more important than ever.

Perhaps the greatest surprise to me as a pastor on September 11th was when American TV and sports entertainment came to a standstill.  Do you remember?  One of the members of my congregation, a former football player for the Broncos, Jim Ryan, was a DJ for one of Denver’s main sports radio talk shows. On the day after the towers fell, Jim called me after I had just stepped out of teaching a class at Denver seminary.  He called me from the radio station.

Jim said that there were no sports to talk about, instead they were talking theology on sports radio!  He wanted to interview me.  So here I am, the day after the attack, Denver sports radio is talking about God, and I am being interviewed on its main sports radio station.  Who would have imagined?!   I am able to freely talk about God, sin and Christ to our city (which some call “sportstown USA”!)  Jim, a committed Christian, was actually reading from the book of Romans on the air.  It was surreal. . . .  absolutely unusual. . . . .but so are the opportunities that come when the world runs out of answers.  In the wake of 911, not just in that particular news window, but afterwards, opportunities to give reason for the hope that is within us have never been greater.

September 11thopened a door for people to talk about moral and spiritual realities that really matter.  The good news, on this important anniversary, is that people are still talking.

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