Please understand that I could not write this on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday, let alone Tuesday. My heart aches over the tragedy of this past week; as I think about the terrible loss of life, and the despicable, cowardly acts that caused it, grief and anger simultaneously grip my soul. But a word is necessary, and I must write now.
There are few national tragedies that have caused the American people to come to a screeching halt. Few tragedies that rock our way of life, wake us from a fairy tale existence and cause us to come to grips with reality, depravity, mortality. Few tragedies that remind us of our own vulnerability and finitude—and stir up our faith in God. In my parents’ generation, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the defining moment—their “day that will live in infamy.” They know where they were when the news of the attack came, and can recite the details with near-perfect recollection. When I was a child, the assassination of President Kennedy had that function in my life. I was in elementary school, learning Spanish via television. Our class got the news within minutes. Like the proverbial chicken little, I thought the sky was falling. Up until Tuesday morning, I had thought that the Gulf War would have been that defining moment in my children’s lives.
The horrific events of September 11, 2001, will forever be etched in our minds. A few minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, my wife called me and said, “Turn on the TV now!” To my horror, I saw live the second plane hit the other tower. While the events were unfolding, I called my parents to tell them the news. Since they’re on the west coast, they were just waking up. For them, it must have seemed like Pearl Harbor all over again.
You all have read the newspapers, seen news clips, heard pundits and commentators on TV and radio. There is no need to rehearse the terrifying details here. Instead, I wish to offer a perspective on this crisis in the form of Q & A. In the last four days, I have encountered a plethora of Christian attitudes. Some of them are right on target, but some are irresponsible, calloused, or naïve.
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord taught the principle of non-retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matt 5.38-39, NET).
I must admit that I deeply appreciate the piety of those folks who think that this text applies to the current situation. They are Bible-believing Christians who want to obey the Lord—no matter the cost. I side with them in this desire. My family discussed this very text yesterday morning. I reminded them of our commitment to the scriptures, that we must not give in to our emotions nor to what we think is right, but must obey the Lord in all matters. Someone asked, “Does this mean that you think we should turn the other cheek to the terrorists?” I responded, “If that’s what the text means, yes.” My wife asked, “But is that what the text means?” And there’s the rub. We dare not take verses out of context—especially at a time like this when doing so could have disastrous results. And every American Christian can surely see, in this present crisis, the nonsense of the glib line, “That’s just your interpretation.”
Now, I could offer an exegesis of Matt 5.38-39 in its context. But some might suspect that my interpretation is slanted in light of the current situation. Instead, in this case I think it is prudent to quote from various commentators and expositors who represent different schools of thought on how to interpret the Sermon on the Mount. They represent four different nationalities, too. One thing they all agree on, however, is this: Cheek-turning is on an individual, not a societal level. Listen to their words:
Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992): “ ‘Do not resist the evil person’ does not mean that we should let evil triumph throughout our communities. Jesus is referring to private retaliation, not to public order…” (126-27).
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vol 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959): “Our Lord’s teaching here does not mean that we should be unconcerned about the defence of law and order. To turn the other cheek does not mean that it does not matter at all what happens in national affairs, whether there is order or chaos. … That is a complete travesty of the teaching. What our Lord says is that I am not to be concerned about myself, my own personal honour and so on. But that is a very different thing from being unconcerned about the maintenance of law and order, or about the defence of the weak and unprotected. … I assert on biblical authority that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God,’ that the magistrate is a necessary power, that evil and sin must be restrained and restricted, and that I, as a citizen, am to be concerned about that” (282-83).
In a carefully done, massive and scholarly volume by Professor Betz,1 we read the following:
“Because every word in this apodictic prohibition is controversial, our analysis can proceed only with a careful examination of each element” (280).
“If ‘resist’ is the correct rendering, does it imply that the Christian exclude any form of self-defense or self-protection? Are all forms of prevention, avoidance, or other means of combating evil prohibited? If so, does Christian ethics demand that one allow evil to take its course? And how can one distinguish such nonresistance from compliance and collusion with evil, or at the least, with outright submission to evil?” (ibid.)
The interpretation that is ultra-pacifistic, even on a societal level, is “an unrealistic and sentimental romanticism” (281).
“… the ‘idealist’ interpretation by liberal Christian theologians has led to a thoroughly negative reading; but one must not confuse this interpretation with the meaning of the SM” (282).
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Dallas: Word, 1993): “Jesus again expounds the ethics of the kingdom. What he presents is ethics directed more to conduct at the personal, rather than the societal, level. These directives are for the recipients of the kingdom, not for governmental legislation” (131).
Along these lines, it should be noted that the apostle Paul argued in Romans 13.4, “if you are doing wrong, then you will have cause to fear [governmental authority]; it is not for nothing that they hold the power of the sword, for they are God’s agents of punishment bringing retribution on the offender” (REB). God establishes governments to protect their own people—both from themselves and from others who would do them harm. When Paul says that ‘they hold the power of the sword,’ he is saying that they have the right, as ministers of God, to exact corporal punishment—even capital punishment. Although Paul did not know the Lord while he was on earth, he did learn of his words and ways. In several places in Paul’s letters there are echoes of dominical sayings—hints and even explicit statements that the apostle knew the Lord’s teaching. He even alludes to the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, Paul would have been in agreement with the Lord and was indirectly instructed by him. Even Hans Dieter Betz, whose view of scripture is lower than that of evangelicals, argues that “Paul’s own ideas certainly differ from those of the SM, but he approves of these maxims, which he probably received from tradition” (285).
Further, we need to point out that both in the Old Testament and the New, corporate or national punitive acts are endorsed when done as an act of self-defense. The book of Joshua is filled with such examples. And in the NT, we must never forget that the Lamb of God who suffered and died in our place is also the Lion from the tribe of Judah who will rule the nations with a rod of iron. And he will take out his vengeance on the wicked (Rev 2.27; 19.2). True, he is God incarnate, but the same Lord who instructed us to turn the other cheek will also rule righteously and banish all evil from the earth. However we think about the non-retaliation statement must be weighed with the rest of scripture—and specifically the other statements made by our Lord himself.
Sometimes it is argued that “ ‘vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12.19, quoting from Deut 32.35). The implication is that we should not retaliate at all. But again, this is to ignore the context. Paul is speaking about individual believers in response to others; he is not speaking about society as a whole. This must be the case, for otherwise how could he say, in the very next chapter, that government authorities wield the sword as ministers of God?
In sum, it is the duty of both the United States and the entire civilized world to respond with all necessary force to these outrageous acts of terrorism. What much of the rest of the civilized world has endured for many years has finally come home to these shores. This was our wake-up call.
Some people overreact: they want their pound of flesh, and they want it now. Because of the certainty that these brutal acts were committed by Arab Muslims, the assumption of some folks is that we must take out vengeance on all Muslims and all Arabs. Sometimes scripture is even introduced into the mix: In Genesis 12.3 the Lord says to Abraham, “Those who bless you, I will bless; those who curse you, I will curse.” He is speaking not only about Abraham but his descendants—specifically, his descendants through the promised son, Isaac. And that means Israel. In some respect, there is thus national blessing to those who bless Israel and national cursing for those who oppose her. However, this does not mean that Israel has a blank check from God to do whatever it pleases! The history of the nation recorded in the Old Testament reveals that God’s blessing depended on obedience.
Further, it is a perversion of the scriptures to say that Arabs or Muslims should be attacked. This is not only a perversion of scripture; it is also a perversion of justice. And it makes us no better than the hijackers because they attacked innocent people without provocation. Mosques have been bombed, and at least one murder of a Muslim man has purportedly occurred this weekend in America. Even Netanyahu decried such an indiscriminate response, noting that millions of Muslims—the vast majority—are peace-loving people.
Permit me three illustrations. First, my car was worked on this week at a local dealership. When I went to pick it up on Friday, a man was walking in front of me to his car. Our two vehicles were parked next to each other. When he noticed me behind him, he jumped! He was obviously rattled by the possibility that I intended to do him bodily harm. When he turned around, I noticed that he had dark skin and looked to be of Arab descent. Then, I noticed his license plate: it was a vanity plate with an Arab word. I felt sorry for the man, because he was as innocent as you or I of these recent atrocities. That he would be so startled by my approach seemed to be due to some precedent. My guess was that earlier in the week he had been a victim of at least verbal abuse.
Second, two or three years ago I was privileged to help lead a Muslim lady to Jesus Christ. She’s from the Middle East. A year later, I baptized her. She is now at a Christian college, studying scripture. I shudder to think of the mindless atrocities that some gung-ho Americans could fling her way!
Third, we must learn our lessons from history: In World War II, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated hundreds of miles from their homes. Their liberties, their jobs, and their dignity were all stripped bare by a government that overreacted. Finally, nearly fifty years after these injustices, the American government decided to begin paying reparations.
My grandfather, a college professor in southern California, spoke out strongly against such prejudicial treatment of these Japanese Americans. He was scorned and condemned for his views, but he continued to speak. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after the firestorm of Tuesday was that we may well repeat history. I was praying, and still am praying, that that does not happen. Yesterday (Saturday, 15 September), there appeared an article by Associated Press writer Jon Sarche entitled, “Internees Hope US Won’t Punish Arabs.” Apparently others are thinking about this as well. The problem is that not only were those terrorists who attacked NY and DC Arabs; they were radical Muslims too. Thus, thousands of Americans who are both Arabs and Muslims—and are thus more easily identifiable than the Japanese Americans sixty years ago—have become targets of irrational Americans. Not only should Christians not participate in such abuses; they should also seek to defend these Arab Muslims from others. The story of the Good Samaritan confirms this point: regardless of race or religion, the Christian’s attitude toward his fellowman must be one of compassion and love.
Some prominent Christian leaders have actually uttered this point of view this past week. In so doing, they have become the caricature that the American press often paints of the evangelical community. There are several problems with this view. First, it presupposes that America is a Christian nation. Although many would like to think so, this country has never really been a Christian nation. Sometimes Christians assume this viewpoint, then try to bring the nation back to Christ through legislation. But if the premise is false, the remedy is wrong-headed. On a broader level, however, we must clearly see that the ensuing war will be a battle of good vs. evil. On the side of good will be Christians—as well as Jews, Muslims, and atheists. On the side of evil are radical Muslims, a very small minority who do not speak for the whole. Thus, although it is a religious war on their side, I’m not so sure we should make it such on ours.
Further, to assume that these terrorist acts are the judgment of God seems to lack a certain logic. I’m not arguing that God does not use unholy instruments to perform surgery on souls. Not at all. God has done this in the past, and he will do it again in the future. Rather, if this was the judgment of God, why were the World Trade Center and the Pentagon attacked? There may well be more Christians in the military than almost any other ‘industry’ in America—perhaps even more than the clergy! And although we probably could not make such a pronouncement about the WTC, it nevertheless represents much that is good in this country. Indeed, it is a symbol of our prosperity—a prosperity which often spills over to the church. Frankly, if September 11 represented the judgment of God, one could think of better targets to underscore that point. (I’ll leave that to your imagination.) Or why did it occur on that date—the date of the Camp David Accord when, in 1978, Egypt and Israel found peace with one another? That some Christian leaders would view this in such terms is both narrow-minded and cold-hearted.
At the same time, I have been deeply encouraged by this nation’s response to the gospel this week. One report suggested that 9 out of 10 Americans have been praying because of this crisis! We are turning to God in record numbers. One of my students told of a friend, a pastor in New York City. This pastor has prayer meetings every Thursday night. On average, 30-50 people come to these meetings. This past Thursday, over 3000 people showed up!
There really are two issues at stake here. First, the deeds committed against this nation constitute an act of war on the United States. As Americans and as citizens of the world, we must speak out against such evil. All nations with any sense of decency and order should rise up against terrorism. Second, there is sin in this country, and it is growing. But it is not just ‘out there’—it’s in the church, too. Indeed, on many fronts statistically there seems to be little or no moral difference between believers and unbelievers. I would hope and pray that as we wage a just war against terrorism, Americans will find the real answers to their deepest questions. One issue is societal, the other is spiritual. Let’s not confuse the two. I think Chuck Swindoll said it best when he prayed this morning at Stonebriar Community Church, “Lord, in the process of bringing us to victory, I pray that you will purge our nation.”
This is more the attitude of a coward than a person of principle. As such, it has no place among the Christian community. We dare not be paralyzed by fear. Not only this, but such an attitude is a Chamberlain-like response. We know where that got him with Germany.
It is also the attitude of the naïve—those who have no understanding of human nature. Make no mistake about it: Humanity displays its sinfulness as fully as it can. Only when it is restrained by government or conscience or the like is it reined in. As Paul said, “it is necessary to be in subjection [to government authorities], not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience” (Rom 13.5, NET). But if one’s conscience has become shipwrecked—as in the case of these terrorists—then the only thing left to keep their sin natures in check is external control. And that means governments and militia. If we do nothing, the full fury of their insanity will be unleashed.
Yesterday morning, when Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s former Prime Minister) was interviewed on FOX TV, he made the troubling comment: “Terrorism has to be eliminated or we will be facing nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist states very soon.” He went on to say that some of these terrorist-harboring countries are working at a feverish pace to become nuclear.
We must understand that the motive of these terrorists is nothing short of wiping the United States and Israel off the map. Doing nothing will only assist them in that goal.
I won’t spend much time on this topic, as it is a paper (or book!) in itself. But briefly, I do wish to make two points. One is theological, and the other is behavioral.
First, on a theological plane, there are two temptations that Christians can have when it comes to thinking about God. (1) We can emphasize his sovereignty to the neglect of his goodness. Or (2) we can emphasize his goodness to the neglect of his sovereignty. If God is sovereign but not good, then he is a tyrant. And the only reason we should worship him is because he’s the biggest kid on the block and will beat the stuffin’ out of us if we don’t! That’s not my God. But if God is good but not sovereign, then he is an impotent God who is sitting on his eternal throne, twittling his not-so-almighty thumbs, fretting over what’s happening on earth down below.
The Bible will not allow us either view of God. The reason is simply that the Bible affirms both attributes, and the Bible also affirms the simplicity of God. This means that we cannot compartmentalize his attributes. He is good in his sovereignty and sovereign in his goodness. If we cannot see either his sovereignty or his goodness in the events of this past week, it is because we are only looking at the physical and temporal horizon. But as one of my seminary professors, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., was fond of saying, “There is an ‘until.’ ” There is more to life than what we can grasp with our senses, or imagine with our minds. And we are finite creatures who simply cannot fathom God, nor can we give him counsel.
An excellent illustration of the proper attitude can be found in that great section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9 through 11. It focuses on the sovereignty of God in relation to Israel. To the unobservant reader, these chapters can look cold-hearted. Paul concludes his thought by exalting his Lord as follows:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” (Rom 11.33-36, NET)
The context for this benediction on the sovereignty of God is Paul’s agony over his Jewish countrymen who remain unrepentant. He begins his ‘sermon on sovereignty’ with a prayer: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites” (Rom 9.2-4a, NET). In other words, Paul was deeply troubled over the spiritual state of his fellow Jews—so much so that he would have given up his own soul if it would have brought some of them to Christ. That is profound concern and profound pain. And through it all, Paul admits the greatness and goodness of God. He does not understand all things; he knows that no one can be God’s advisor! In the midst of his own torment, Paul acknowledges God’s sovereignty. I submit that the future that Paul’s unsaved Jewish friends were facing was far worse than mere physical death. Thus, if Paul can both be in agony over their potential state, and also affirm God’s sovereignty and goodness, then should we not be able to do the same? Paul could do this without having to understand—let alone explain—all the apparent discrepancies. We should follow his example.
Second, on a behavioral level, Paul also serves as a model. “Weep with those who weep,” he told the Corinthians. The last thing that friends and family members of victims need right is a Bible verse given at arm’s length! Frankly, they don’t need words at all. They need our love, our compassion, our strong arm that holds them up in this time of trouble. I have wept this past week—a lot. To think of the thousands of lives lost because of some mindless bastards on a twisted religious vendetta! I can appreciate the imprecatory psalms more now than I ever have before. I am angry, sad, and moved to action. To sit back in my easy chair and simply pontificate is not adequate.
One course of action that some of us may choose to take is to help with disaster aid. My church set up a special offering to go to the Red Cross today. We were delighted to contribute to this—without neglecting our weekly gift to the church. And we expect to give more.
As much as we must wage war against these monsters, I think it is naïve of some officials who say that we can ever eradicate terrorism entirely. The reason is simply that the world is full of sinners. We cannot establish heaven on earth, though we must do our level best to keep evil in check. But we must be wary of placing our greatest hopes in our government; it is not the government that will ultimately save us, nor are we ultimately responsible to the government. I long for the day when Christ will reign in his earthly kingdom. Then and only then will all evil be held in check.
Finally, I would like to make a pragmatic suggestion—a way to help our nation beyond what was mentioned above. Not all of you can do this, but some can. Tomorrow morning Wall Street will be back in business. Many are worried about what will happen to the stock market. Last Tuesday, I contemplated selling off what little stock I have! On Wednesday, I had a change of heart (through some good counsel). Many advisors are pointing out that only if people panic and sell off their stock will this dastardly act of Tuesday last become a financial disaster as well. I, for one, do not want to be a part of that problem. So, instead of selling any stock tomorrow, I plan to buy some. I’ll even tell you which stocks I am going to buy: AMR and UAL—better known as American Airlines and United Airlines. I realize that they will most likely plummet. The airline industry is the most worried of any sector in this country right now. I would hope that other Americans would see that we’re in this thing together and do their part to act courageously—even if it costs them something. Some analysts have suggested that each American buy just one share of something tomorrow to show our loyalty and patriotism. Perhaps you will be able to do so.
1 Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), a book of over 700 pages.