In the wake of Jerry Falwell’s controversial statements on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and after a conversation with a pastor who told me one of his congregants asked him whether “God still reaches down and zaps people,” I think it’s time for a voice of reason.
First, an introduction. I’m 26 years old. I’m not a pastor. I am schooled and trained as a journalist. Theology was my best subject in grade school and high school, but I have no formal schooling in religious studies or theology besides that. I approach the Bible the same way a journalist would approach a source, or a good academic would approach a piece of literature. I am a Protestant. I do not buy the Catholic argument that all one has to do is listen to the bishops. That kind of thinking led us to the sale of the forgiveness of sins in order to finance the building of massive cathedrals in Europe half a millenium ago. One schooled in the Biblical languages can make a better interpretation of scripture than I can, yes, for the same reason that someone schooled in Russian can make a better interpretation of Tolstoy. But that doesn’t mean someone can’t read a good English rendering (or better yet, several good English renderings) and understand. I believe it is the duty of every Christian to spend at least a little bit of time in the book that gave rise to the religion; it helps keep people like Jerry Falwell and the Catholic bishops of the 1500s in check.
Enough of that. On to the issue at hand. Many evangelicals, and I’ll lump Falwell into that category, operate under the impression that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation. But nowhere in scripture is the renunciation of Israel’s status as God’s chosen nation. God’s chosen people today are those who believe in Jesus Christ. But that’s not the same as a chosen nation. It extends beyond political and racial boundaries.
God is interested in nations only because nations contain people, and God is much more interested in the people that make up that nation than He is about the nation itself. Governments exist to preserve order and to serve out justice. I don’t think it’s a drastic oversimplification to say government’s job is to protect its citizens from thugs. I believe the only real difference between conservative and liberal and democratic and totalitarian is a disagreement over just who thugs comprise.
Is God disciplining the United States Government? Absolutely. Is that His only purpose? Absolutely not.
We the people of the United States of America have sinned. There is no question of that. Is God disciplining us? Yes, along with many other peoples–it wasn’t just Americans who died in this tragedy. Is this punishment for specific sins, or an indication that God has turned His back on us? Absolutely not.
God woke us up. He got our attention. God does that, or tries to, just about every day. It can take many forms: something someone says, a close call in the parking lot, a feeling in the pit of your stomach, or the destruction of a building. If we paid attention to the little things, would the big things happen? Maybe not. But maybe so.
So why did God let this happen?
The simple answer is we don’t know. We have to remember that God’s priorities aren’t the same as ours. Our priority in the United States right now seems to be to maximize profit and pleasure. Profit and pleasure are fine things, and I think even Jerry Falwell will agree with that. But we run into problems when we let them control our lives. So, yes, the United States would do well to take the hint and realize that there’s more to life than profit and pleasure.
God’s priority is to get as many people into heaven as possible. Pure and simple. Prosperity and pleasure in human terms are entirely secondary to that.
There are numerous examples in the Bible of God letting nations go their own way, in order to punish other nations. God let Egypt run wild over the children of Israel. Then He punished Egypt for what they did. The Old Testament is full of these kinds of stories.
Is the now-provoked United States about to become an instrument of God, raining down God’s discipline in the form of bombs and warheads? That’s an awfully self-righteous thought. But I do believe God is now going to go use the United States to get someone else’s attention, yes.
And what of vengeance? It’s not up to the citizens of the United States of America to seek vengeance. The hate crimes taking place in the United States now are completely unjustified. But what about war? The job of governments is to protect its citizens. That includes waging war when the other side refuses to be reasonable. And if the government calls on its citizens, it’s their duty to take up arms and serve.
So why did God let 5,000+ people die?
Simple answer: Damage control. Believe me, seeing those deaths and the pain it caused hurt God more than it hurt all of us, combined.
I was talking about sin with one of the elders of my church the other day. I observed that the sin hurts the participants, much worse than they know. And it hurts the people around them. Making matters worse, the process of stopping the sin can hurt people. Sometimes stopping hurts more people in a single day than continuing the practice for a single day would. It’s a vicious mess with no good, easy cure. No wonder God hates it.
God feels the pain and anguish of the congregation that lost its priest. God feels the pain and anguish of the people who suddenly found themselves widows and widowers. God feels the pain of the children left without mothers or fathers. God feels the pain of the terrorists’ family members who are asking why and how their good little boy could have done such a thing. God feels it all, all at once, and more deeply than we’re capable.
But these kinds of things happen all the time. I had a Canadian reader write in, expressing his well-wishes. He said he understood totally. He left South Africa to try to get away from these kinds of senseless atrocities. They didn’t follow him to Canada, but now one has happened next door.
And let’s look at what’s happened since this tragedy. Yasser Arafat has told his men not to shoot Israelis, even if the Israelis shoot first. If the ceasefire lasts 48 hours, they’re going to sit down and talk. It probably wouldn’t have happened without this.
Russia is sharing intelligence with the United States. And it’s looking like Russia might get us the use of some former Soviet military bases. This is unprecedented. French author Alexis de Tocqueville saw the rivalry between the Russian Bear and the American Eagle in the mid-1800s.
Military experts expected our next war to be with China. But for now, China and the United States face the common enemy of terrorism. Terrorists hate us because we’re the biggest kid on the block, but China has attributes the terrorists would hate as well. China knows this. God may yet get China’s attention.
I haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in Northern Ireland, but if nothing else, this tragedy has people on both sides of the conflict there thinking too.
And one thing we seem to forget is that it was only 5,000 deaths. There was a fourth plane that could have killed thousands more, depending on its target. God didn’t allow that plane to reach its destination. He also didn’t allow any other planes to be hijacked. There’s plenty of evidence that it wouldn’t have ended with those four planes.
And what of our 5,000+ innocent casualties? Their fate rests in the hands of a just and loving God. As hard as it may be to do, we have to trust that God knows what He’s doing and that this could have been much worse.