Tragedy turns our hope to shalom

Calvin College Chimes, September 21, 2001
Put 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. 

Back to Home Page
© Copyright 2001 Nathan Bierma