January 26, 2021

9/11 — The Last Word…for Now

By Chaplain Mike

I was going to attempt to come up with a brilliant piece to close this week of 9/11 posts, but why I should I try, when I will never be able to top what what Will Willimon wrote as one of a number of evangelical leaders who reflected on 9/11 for Christianity Today?

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.

Will Willimon
Presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church


  1. Amen. Today we had a priest from South Sudan visit our church and preach the necessity of forgiveness and love of enemies. I believed him, an old man who had lived through the decades of civil war and genocide, whose own sister had been killed by Muslims. He had no choice, he told us, but to bring the message of God’s love and forgiveness to the people who had devastated his country. He expressed sympathy and sorrow for our own loss — there was no competitive bitterness or victimhood on his part. We were part of the same family, and what hurt any of us hurt all of us. He was a thoroughly Christlike man.

    • The reading from Sirach in the Roman Catholic lectionary and from Genesis for the LCMS lectionary were particulary appropriate. I assume no changes to this year’s readings occurred to make them appropriate for the 9/11 observance. The applicability was absolutely chilling.

      • “Forgive thy neighbour the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest. One man beareth hatred against another, and doth he seek pardon from the Lord?”
        – from Sirach 28:2-3.

        Tough words. The allusions to the Lords prayer are uncanny.

      • I wondered if those were the readings that just came up in the cycle, too, or if they had been changed. I don’t think they were. Uncanny, for sure, but necessary to hear.

  2. There’s some pretty politically loaded language in the piece. I understand why someone from an anabaptist or other pacifist Christian perspective might take this point of view and be uncomfortable with Christians “wrapping themselves in the flag”, but to stand in moral judgement of the nation as a whole and equate a belief that the terror attacks were unjustified (ie, we were innocent victims) with a deadly militaristic mindset is needlessly provocative on a day like today. I am profoundly tired of both sides of our political schism of using the cross to justify a particular political point of view; it is just as obnoxious when it comes from either side. The question of personal versus state uses of force is complex and not amenable to simplistic reductionism. Patriotism is not always sinister, but can be a heartfelt love of country that stops short of idolatry. Must we endlessly bicker about Iraq or Afganistan, or try to use 9/11 to score political points on the issue of war? Must this 9/11 be a day for preachers to draw theological conclusions, either for or against specific American policies?
    Why can’t we leave this all to the side for 24 hours and simply take a day to mourn?

    • Bill, with all due respect, we have taken an entire week to mourn here at IM. Our final word today is not a word about politics or about mourning, but about Christ. Those of us who have been called to the ministry of the Gospel must call all allegiances to submit to that One allegiance and to focus on the only ultimate answer to the problems of our world — Christ himself.

      • Then perhaps we should have started a day later? As the daughter of a soldier and the wife of a soldier become law enforcement officer, it always feels like a slap in the face to say that protecting ourselves is to deny Christ. Today is not the time for more salt in the 9/11 wound. We can argue pacifism tomorrow.

  3. Bill, I agree whole heartedly. I get caught up in it and post things I wish I had not. I love this country for what it gave our family, two legal immigrants, but I love God more for the gift of His Son.

  4. Thank you.

    I consider myself a reluctant agnostic at this point, but I desperately want there to be something salvagable about Christianity for me to come back to if I’m ever able to believe again. Most of what I read makes me shudder and never want to come back, this made me cry because this is what I miss.

    • I see little to come back to as well. I have no problem with the Afghanistan war. I do have a problem with the Iraq war. But people need to understand that it’s the policymakers in Washington, D.C. making the decisions. The members of the military are just following orders like they have been taught.

      I think 9-11 could have shown Christians how to respond. Many did be endorsing Bush being in office or claiming that “Bush was born for such a time like this?” (quoting Esther) Do you guys remember that? How some people talked about how blessed the country was to have a Christian as President leading us during that time.

      Likewise I remember when many Christians (myself included when I took the Kool aide by mouth, IV and cathetor) thought it was THEIR Christian duty to support Bush in 2004. If there was ever an argument for separation of chruch and state how Christians have responded under the Bush presidency is it.

  5. David Cornwell says

    Willimon pretty much sums it up when he says “It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God.”

    And the Church still hasn’t found its way back. But there are prophetic voices who still cry out.

    • Unfortunately it seems as if the most strident and best known “prophetic voices” come from the dominionist movement, from places like Kansas City’s IHOP and Elijah’s List. And they’re pretty much locked into the idea that the United States will be restored so it can usher in the kingdom of God.

  6. Today’s Liturgy of the word had this as the Gospel:


    I’ve changed, and reflecting back on our post 9/11 world, I would make very different decisions today than 10 years ago. I remember arguing with a friend on the way home from work about Iraq and why we needed to go in, I’m pretty sure given the same situation I would think and act differently.

    Forgiveness is hard and painful, and today’s message and it’s implications on the ten year anniversary of 9/11 forces me to re-think my positions. Being raised in this country, we are taught that we don’t lay down for anything, or anyone. We stand, we fight, we win. Because we are right, and we are blessed.

    But are we?, have we forgotten the need to forgive as a nation?

    The scary part for me is just how ignorant some people can be about anything that’s not part of our western culture, even in my own family and my own life, I’ve seen this sublime form of racism. It’s insidious and sinful.

    I’m not abdicating no war, no one could rightly argue that we should have let Germany run amok. But when men who claim to be pastors, leaders, shepherds of the flock, run to war. Have to completely missed the meaning of the Gospels, and can we even claim to be truly Christian anymore?

    Powerful stuff, and a powerful week CM. I hated it, as much as I learned from it.

    Thank you.


  7. “The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat.”

    This, to me, was the worst part of the whole thing. I remember thinking, even ten years ago, that we had missed a golden opportunity to preach Christ when we jumped on the patriotic bandwagon.

    I remember seeing and hearing about huge jumps in church attendance right after 9/11. But within 2-3 months things were back to normal. Why? In my not-so-very humble opinion it was because the “comfort” we offered was no different from the rampant patriotism going on outside our doors. So why go to church when all I need to do is wave a flag and put a “God Bless America” bumper sticker on my car?

    So many of us have lost sight of Jesus in the vaguely theistic civil religion of “God and Country.” And that is what disturbs me the most about evangelicalism’s reaction to 9/11, both then and now.

    • Tom Huguenot says

      On the other hand, I do not see WHY anybody should expect the USA (or, for that matter, Belgium or Tanzania) to act in a Christ-like manner in their foreign policy. As Nietzche said “States are cold monsters”, and I see some naïveté in Wilimon’s point of view.

      The real problem occurs when, indeed, the Church (or some churches) allow by their teachings the confusion between a nation and the Kingdom of God…We’ve had that in Europe for centuries, and we see the results today.

      • +1

      • But I haven’t advocated that the USA should act in a Christ-like manner. I’ve simply stated that the church should continue to be the church, regardless of the fanatical patriotism and militarism going on around us. In response to 9/11 shouldn’t we be preaching Christ, and Him crucified? After all, our comfort, our ultimate security, is in Christ. So why, both then and now, are we so willing to run out our flags and continue to beat the war drums of patriotism?

        We blew it ten years ago by allowing our voices to be merged with those around us. And from everything I’m hearing on 2 Christian radio stations we’re continuing to do the same thing today (and no, I didn’t go to church this morning – it was bad enough watching the idolatry of a recent 4th of July sermon. no way I was going to subject myself to that again).

        • David Cornwell says

          When the voice of the State and the voice of the Church are basically saying the same things, then something is wrong big time. We serve another King, and that may at times be awfully hard for the State to hear. Or hard for a lot of people, but that’s the way it is. We pray in Church every Sunday that His Kingdom come. And there’s a lot more in that prayer also.

  8. It’s 4:58 in the afternoon as I type this. So far today there has been no other attack. There has not been what we all feared would happen after the 9/11 attacks, more and more attacks on US soil. It is b/c we took the fight to the terrorist. Will they at some point wiggle thru and again attack us? Probably. Would it have been worse had we just sat back as a country and did nothing? I think all but the most stubborn would admit yet.

    I find it at little ironic and frankly disingenous sp? that a lot of the same people who post on this blog that this is not a Christain country and never has been and that any attempt to claim so or insist so is fallacious now when it fits their agenda insist that this country they at one point say and insist is not Christian should now act as they think a Christian should react to 3000 of it’s fellow citizens being killed in an attack by an oraganized pan-national movt.

    As I said before and have always said. Iraq was an overreach. It was drummed up by the neocons, but hunting down Al-Quida sp? and removing the Taliban that allowed them to exist and flourish was right.

    • Ah, but you’re missing the distinction between the church and our country. As a citizen I would agree that Afganistan was probably necessary, but that there was no real reason (other than W. wanting to finish daddy’s war) to go into Iraq.

      However, as a follower of Christ I see no reason for the church to have abrogated it’s responsibility to preach Jesus, and Him crucified, in response to 9/11. Our comfort is in Christ, not in patriotism and militarism.

      So why, in all too many churches, did we fail to preach that. Why did we allow our voices to be drowned out by parroting the cacaphony of patriotism and militarism around us?

      We as a people have, in all too many cases, lost the distinction between who we are as Christians and who we are as Americans. We have so merged the two that one has gotten lost in the other. As I said in an earlier response, many of us now follow a “vaguely theistic civil religion” that we call Christianity, or perhaps, more specifically, evangelicalism. And nowhere is this more evident than in our continued responses to 9/11, or in some of the totally idolatrous July 4th weekend services I’ve seen.

      • No reason to go to war with Iraq? I suppose you preferred our previous policy of starving Iraqi children to death, then? Clinton racked up a nice death count of 1.5 million by the U.N.’s estimate. It was because of the war that the monstrous policy was ended. I only wish we had “finished daddy’s war” decades ago. You seem to have forgotten why we went there (and no, it wasn’t simply WMDs). I would suggest going to Youtube and looking up “Saddam Hussein crimes.”

        • Saddam Hussein caused the damage to his nation. His decisions resulted in the Iraqi children being without health care (though I don’t know that they ever actually starved) and in Shiite citizens being murdered by his security apparatus and military.

          Had Saddam responded in a humane way toward the sanctions, they wouldn’t have bit his people so hard.

          Living under a tyrant is hard, but that fight was not the States’ fight to fight. The point of Gulf War I was simply to chase him back out of Kuwait.

          The US simply had no national interest in attacking Saddam at that time. I’m glad the Iraqis are rid of him, but I’m not sure if they wouldn’t have preferred a different way.

          One of my moments of great cynicism is when I discovered during the runup to Gulf War II that the babies being tossed out of incubators by Saddam’s forced in Kuwait during Gulf War I never happened. It has been enough for me to distrust every other bit of information regarding our national enemies that doesn’t actually have real evidence attached to it. If it sounds horrible and atrocious, it’s probably propaganda.

      • Christians live in the US. They are a majority here, and live and breathe the culture, in some cases even creating it. They simply can’t separate their religious selves and their American selves. This is truer of those Christian denominations without a real, lasting worldwide presence.

      • I got the impression that some fundys wanted to invade Iraq to bring about the End Times. Am I the only one that got that feeling?

    • ‘So far today there has been no other attack. There has not been what we all feared would happen after the 9/11 attacks, more and more attacks on US soil….’

      Yes but there have been consequences for those countries that fell in line with the US I live in but one of these. Please remember this. The consequences have been worse for others. Terrorist attacks are inevitable. given an infinite time frame anything is possible. How novel would it have been to respond in a restorative manner to the pain of 9/11?

    • Dear goodness, I think I just lost my monacle in shock. I agree with Austin! I also supported taking out the Taliban who were providing safe haven for Al Qaeda (and blew up the Buddhas, I think that was a worldwide casus belli right there!). I also support currently the drone strikes in Pakistan. The Pakistani government and the ISI has tried to play both sides of the fence for way too long. They’ve left the Islamists alone to plot and plan and fight both the States in Afghanistan and India, taken our funds to fight them, and now that they are getting the instability they were happy to export to other areas they are whining. Tough! They’ve had as much time as India to create a functioning democracy and economy.

      • cermark

        let us mark this day my friend, we did agree on something:)

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Of course many–perhaps most–on the American Left supported the war in Afghanistan. It was the war in Iraq they opposed. Some disingenuous elements since have worked to erase this distinction.

  9. The strongest point of Willimon’s piece is I think the point that the church in large part lost the ability to distinguish the kingdom of God from American interests.

    More than anything else, the inability to clearly see and follow the Kingdom of God has I think at once both caused the church to stray and alienated many who would could have been won over had there been a singular focus on the message and kingdom of Jesus above all else (I’m one of them — it’s part of the reason I consider myself in the wilderness). Doing so would have made the church wildly unpopular in the short term but far more appealing in the long term, for those who pin their ultimate hopes on the nations of this world are always eventually disappointed and end up looking for something more real and solid and genuine.

  10. “For the most powerful nation in the world to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly.”
    Willimon is good, and his conclusion is a winner. But is he insinuating that the attacks were deserved and justified?

    • This is a false dichotomy. There is a middle ground between a completely innocent victim and a justified attack.

      I’m pretty sure he is saying that the attacks were horrible and wrong, but don’t pretend America hasn’t participated in its fair share of unjustified violence or that those who carried out the attacks didn’t have any real grievances whatsoever. There has been a lot of hand-wringing and “why us, what did we ever do to you?” since the attacks, which is only something someone who doesn’t fully grasp the history of U.S. actions overseas would say. And let’s remember he’s talking about U.S. as a state, not about the individuals who died in the attacks, nobody has ever insinuated that those people were anything but innocent victims.

    • I don’t think so. I saw this more as pointing to the danger of oversimplifying things rather than considering in the aftermath and the response the rather complex causes and circumstances that allow and perhaps even foster terrorism.

  11. After a much appreciated and much needed period of mourning, reflection and remembrance here at imonk and across the globe, maybe its time to look forward, to the good things that God has for america and the rest of the world in the years to come. after a decade filled with the hurt and legacy of the attacks, maybe the next decade can be one of healing and redemption. There’s a famine still happening in the horn of africa, lets end it. Let’s do what we can to help the countries where democracy has recently been born, and those where it still has not. Let’s end the destruction of planet through pollution and global warming

  12. “It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid.”


  13. I have nothing to add except my personal feelings~watching the footage while reading about Paul;s conversion~bring a needed reminder that just like everyone in those towers, I will face inevitable death at some moment.

    I may have or may not be aware that it is coming, but I need to be ready for my REAL life to begin when this one ends.

  14. Thanks for sharing this, I’m pretty sure I would not have otherwise. It expresses how I feel in my heart of hearts.

  15. Mike, unlike you I wasn’t going to attempt to “come up with a brilliant piece” to close the week. But I did post the Willimon piece just now, without comment. Can’t improve on that.

    BTW, my copy of CT got buried and I had forgotten about it without reading it. Thanks for getting me to dig it out of the pile.

  16. I understand what he is saying about reaching for the flag instead of the cross. I have preached sermons from the pulpit (and posted them on my blog) about the misguided notion that the United States is today the Israel of the Old Testament. I agree that preaching Christ crucified is our highest calling.

    If the crucified Christ is what the world needs, then is that day the worst in history? It was a dark day, literally and figuratively. It was certainly the worst day of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we glory in the power of the cross. Jesus on the cross is the contact point between earth and heaven. He demonstrated living the gospel one final time as he prayed for those crucifying him. His final words “It is finished” are why any of us will be with him in heaven. And it be the worst day in history and the best thing that ever happened? It is foolishness for them that perish, but to those of us being saved it is the power of God.

    I’m not disagreeing with Willimon, just thinking out loud. I feel very strongly both ways.

  17. If you want a really good perspective, at least historicaly, find George Will’s latest article about 9-11. I will not post the link to go by the rules, but just google it. Very good as always.

  18. Today I sat in Church while the readings and my parish priest during the homily spoke of forgiveness. And ideally I agree… but this is a hard day for me. My wife wanted to go to Shanksville today, but all roads were clogged and I knew another day would be better….

    Forgiveness… I can agree – but in this instance it is not mine to give. I can’t forgive someone for actions perpetrated against someone else. It’s like saying “I forgive you for raping my neighbor’s daughter”….

    My wife was watching s special on CBS about a film crew that followed around a particular fire company in New York from several months before, to up through the tragedy. I could only watch parts, it was painful to see what the victims and the firefighters that rushed to their aide had to endure. God bless those brave men and women who risk themselves to save others.

    Over the past few days we talked past the real…. and crossed into the land of ideology. What would you have done had you been there? How would you have felt knowing there were loved ones never coming back? What kind of compassion at that moment would you have for the people who were flying the airplane? Watch that documentary and ask yourselves those questions.

    I am done with remembering for a time…but I will pray for those that still suffer because of this tragedy….

  19. I usually try to avoid simply quoting part of a post to declare my support for it, but I love his final line.

    “I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.”

    I tried to write something else to add to that, but I can’t. It’s something that people need to hear on a regular basis, even if they are not Christians, as it helps to put things back in perspective.

  20. Pastor Willimon has written a American addendum to the 1930’s Barmen Confession ,Outstanding!

  21. I’m a non-American but a very interested spectator, as so many people are around the world, in the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. I posted an article about this on a site called evolver recently, trying to stimulate a deeper understanding, and looking at the spiritual side of the tragedy with reference to the ‘Son of Man’. I hope to put this article up on my own website soon, Light on the Page. If anyone cares to take a look I’d be delighted to see you there. I’m very interested to meet people of all shades of faith.

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