Tragedy turns our hope to shalom
Calvin College Chimes,
September 21, 2001
no faith in “national security.” Hope only for the coming restoration of
shalom. Do not wonder if you will ever feel safe walking around in this
world again. Rejoice that you will peacefully walk around in the next one
forever. Do not regret the shattering of American confidence. Lament
the devouring of human life.
In times of earth-shattering
destruction, we are urged not only to weep, but to consider our destiny
as, in the words of our leaders, “a civilized people.” Directly or
indirectly, we are led to reflect on the narrative of our nation, a people
progressing towards prosperity and prestige. With attacks on our monuments
to money and might, we are to believe our destiny has been challenged and
must now be imagined anew.
What is less bold and plain
to us is that American destiny and Christian destiny often diverge. America’s
strong, steady march towards its own perfection through technology, medicine,
and wealth, its own triumph over the evil it defines (four months ago,
the U.S. gave money to the Taliban), is a different path from the Christian
duty to suffer, to stick out, and to hope solely for the New City.
American Christians at times
confuse their dual identities, mistaking one destiny for the other. Years
ago we first called the nation in which we reside “a city upon a hill.”
Our Congress gathered on the Capitol steps last week to sing “God Bless
America,” a song that has always born the expectation of unique divine
response. Our president, our broadcasters, our fellow citizens, challenging
the notion that America is awash in religious pluralism, talk openly of
prayer. Yes, we have a civil religion.
The problem is not our nation’s
heartfelt spiritual anguish and outreach, but its subsequent triumphalism,
that distracts Christians from our destiny of eternal shalom in another
City. Becoming self-righteous in our vengeance, declaring nothing
less than a war of “good” against “evil,” recommitting to our march toward
perfection and prosperity, we commit the sin of trying to create our own
heaven on our continent, an eternal peace in the present.
Were the World Trade Center
twin towers in some ways temples of our pride, flirtations with neglect
of the story of the Tower of Babel? Make no mistake: no one deserved
to die, and that is the tragedy, the agony. But it is sobering to
note that our civil religion usually has its limits; Americans have never
built a 110-story church. From our infancy, when a few colonial settlers
sailed for religious freedom and the rest for economic opportunity, we
have been one nation, under Commerce.
Commerce is not a holy master,
and cannot be a refuge, a perfecter of shalom, no matter its façade.
I remember sitting this summer by the beautiful fountain in the plaza between
the World Trade Center twin towers and looking up, following the sleek,
steel columns as they climbed into the sky. I distinctly remember thinking
to myself, almost in a half-whisper, as I sat with mouth jarred agape,
that these buildings would stand for centuries.
Now I find myself living
near another monument and potential terrorist target, the Sears Tower in
Chicago. The night of the attacks sight of this black behemoth resolutely
standing against the wind, its white tusks poking the sky, was deeply reassuring.
On one level, welcoming the soaring familiarity on a day of chaos is understandable.
On another, how dare I find comfort in monuments to human might at a time
like this? How dare I not fall to my knees and plead for the Lord to return?
Consumed by the vision of
national destiny, our first reaction is to avenge. Our leaders
vow to “punish,” to win a “war” against “evil.” Elusive is whether such
a fight is truly winnable, let alone declarable, when the enemy has no
flag, no soldiers, no hierarchy, and will only ambush, not attack.
Also elusive is whether satisfaction can come from our bombs, whether war
can fill our aching hearts. Will anything make the awfulness of this week
somehow right again? A nation must act to answer attacks and eliminate
threats, certainly, but when I hear about “sending a message” and “scaring
them,” I can imagine no horror a “civilized” people would stoop to that
would impress the demons who did this.
Christian destiny realizes
that only Christ can eradicate evil at the end of time. National destiny
tries to do it ourselves. The task looks ill-fated. We may build what our
president calls a “missile shield.” We may adopt what our leaders call
“higher safety standards.” We may increase our spying on other countries.
And yet someday soon, someone will drop a test tube on a subway platform,
or lob a baseball-sized nuclear device onto the steps of the Capitol. How
can our own handiwork ever be our salvation from such evil?
There is no self-designed
salvation, no earthly refuge from the physical or psychological terror
of the evil humans in a fallen world visit on each other. There is
no holy nation-state, and no certain shelter from the storm.
There is only the promise
of the new heavens and new earth, our true home, when evil will be banished.
That is our destiny. We are strangers in a world invaded by evil. Until
our day comes, we will not set ourselves apart by being American, while
others are un-American, or by calling ourselves good, while others are
evil (for indeed, while warriors are made of those who search for evil
around the world, saints are made of those who search for evil within themselves).
No, our Christian destiny is that we will love while others hate. We will
seek shalom in caring, while others indulge in destruction.
So despair less that we have
been attacked on “American soil,” than that humans have been violated in
God’s creation. Hope not that we might ever live in “security,” but
that we will someday live in shalom.
Let us renew our prayers
for the thousands of suffering families, and for God to usher in the new
earth, where there will be no more tears. Where there will again be shalom.
Where we belong.
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