This sermon is the second of a 4 week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.
Today is September 11. Fifteen years ago today, a terrorist plot was executed to use planes to attack important American symbols and take American lives. Planes were flown into the Twin Towers—a symbol of American business, the Pentagon—a symbol of American defense, and perhaps the White House was the target of the fourth plane that never reached its destination—the symbol of America’s leadership. Many lives were lost and devastated by this attack—2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, but the damage of that day continues.
Most of us remember where we were when we heard the news. I was in college. I got up early to get breakfast across campus. As I passed through the lobby, I saw several students gathered around the TV. This was an unusual sight, so I stopped to see what was happening. Apparently a plan had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers. This sounded like bad news, but I was hungry so I went into the cafeteria. When I came out, I found that there were a bunch of people crowded around that TV. Everyone was silent, and people were crying. The other plane had just crashed into the other Tower. This terrible accident was now seen to be what it was—an act of terror against America and on American soil.
These kind of things have happened around, but not here. Not on our soil. A war was declared in the days that followed. It was a War on Terror, the focus being on taking the fight to terrorist that sought to come after us. Yet, in the 15 years since, we have continued to lose the war on terror within our own hearts. We are nervous about terrorism, mass shootings, and the global economy. Things only seem to be getting worse.
Let us look, for example, at the staggering numbers related to gun violence in our country. According to an article from NBC News, every year, an average of more than 100,000 people are shot. That means that every day about 289 people are shot. On average, about 86 of them die—30 are murdered and 53 kill themselves. Every day two people die accidentally and one person is shot in a police intervention. The city of Chicago has led the way in shootings. Last year, 424 people were killed with guns. As of August Chicago was already above that, with 90 people killed by guns in August alone.
Between 2000 and 2010, 335,509 people died from guns. For a point of reference, Pittsburgh has 307,484 people. More than the population of Pittsburgh died from guns during that 10-year period. A person is killed by a firearm every 17 minutes, 86 are killed every day, and 609 a week. Three times as many kids (15,576) were injured by firearms in 2010 than the number of US Soldiers wounded in action in the war in Afghanistan (5,247).
And just think about that number—5,247 soldiers wounded in action in 2010. We don’t think of the sacrifices that our armed forces are making around the world right now. After all, there is no war or world war going on. But still, there are conflicts that are costing soldiers their lives and limbs as we sit here today.
We are concerned today, and we should be. We have a loss in our sense of security. Perhaps this is accelerated by access to news and social media, since now that we can constantly be in touch with the bad things going on in our world
This poses some real challenges for Christians. How should we feel about defense? Should Christians be pacifists? If we do believe in war, what limits should be placed on the fighting? What should followers of Christ think about the police? Should Christians be in favor of guns, own guns, or believe in more gun control?
The Old Testament is certainly not a book of pacifism. Israel is told to wipe people out and not even let women, children, or animals live. In fact, Israel gets in trouble throughout the Old Testament for showing mercy to people that they were supposed to kill or remove from the land.
The New Testament is also very violent. Babies are killed. People are beheaded, stoned, beaten with rods, and crucified. But this violence is not commanded by God, and it is not carried out by the people of God. Instead, it is carried out against Jesus and his followers. Jesus had some very strong things to say about turning the other cheek, forgiving people 70 times 7 times. His followers were to love their neighbor as themselves, to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them.
Bible seems paradoxical on the matter of peace. Psalms declares, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” (Ps 29:11) But another Psalm says, “Blessed by the Lord my Rock, who teaches my hands to fight, and who trains my fingers for battle.” (Ps 144:1) Jesus says so much about peace, but also said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mt 10:34)
Shouldn’t we love the terrorists? Forgive shooters in these mass killings? Turn the other cheek to muggers and thieves?
To help us think through these issues, let me tell you the story of one of my heroes—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian whose writings are widely read among Christians. He was a pacifist who opposed war and always looked for peaceful solutions to conflicts. He was a big fan of Gandhi and even had plans to meet with him to talk about his peaceful work in India.
But Bonhoeffer had a problem. He was a German pastor, born in 1906, who was a church leader as Adolf Hitler was coming to power. He had a brother-in-law who was Jewish, and a number of friends who worked very hard to resist Hitler. Bonhoeffer came to America before the war began, and had opportunities to stay here and avoid the conflict. But Bonhoeffer did not think that he could sit aside while his people went through so much. So he returned to Germany.
Bonhoeffer was still travelling to do some preaching and teaching, and so the Gestapo ordered him to be a spy for Germany. At the same time, Bonhoeffer began to feed information to the allies and report false or unimportant language to the Germans. Bonhoeffer became a double agent.
Bonhoeffer saw the cruelty of how people were treated. Jews, Gypsies, gays, the disabled, and anyone who resisted the work of the Nazis were taken off to camps to be tortured and killed. Bonhoeffer watched as the church did little to nothing about it. There were a few heroes, people like Corrie Ten Boom who helped hide and protect the targets of this abuse. But, for the most part, the church did nothing, and even participated in rounding people up and in taking the belongings and businesses of those who were put into camps.
As the war went on, Bonhoeffer moved from pacifist to accomplice. He was actively engaged in a plot to kill Hitler. But the plot did not work, and Bonhoeffer was implicated for his part in the attempted assassination. He was arrested and set to Auschwitz. After two years, just before the end of the war, Hitler sent word to the camps to have his enemies and conspirators against him killed. Bonhoeffer was hung, naked, on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. His final words were reported to be “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but, when faced with the atrocities and evil of Hitler’s Germany, he felt forced to act. Yes, as Christians, we should be about grace, love, and forgiveness. But our scriptures also take seriously the existence and persistence of evil. We may read the Bible and see it as archaic and violent, yet think about what happened in Germany during the lifetimes of people in this room, or the attempted genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur. We have to acknowledge that the Bible is perhaps one of the most realistic books ever written. Evil does exist.
People are capable of truly terrible things, and yes there is always the possibility of grace and forgiveness. But part of the reconciliation process in the Bible is repentance. Repentance is more than saying you’re sorry. It means relenting or turning the other way. It is a term of changing your ways.
Someday there will be peace. The lion will lie down with the lamb. We won’t need guns anymore. But, until that day, there is evil in this world, and sometimes force is necessary to keep it in check. On this side of heaven, there will always be a need for police, for guns, and for armies. There will always be weaker people in society that need protection and advocacy.
Jesus was once asked to sum up the law. He said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Everybody around you. Everything we do needs to be about loving God and loving neighbor.
It is a very high standard to justify war and violence, then, because war is not very loving to the neighbor you are fighting. But, at the same time, there are sometimes when loving your neighbor will mean defending your neighbor from another neighbor. And sometimes loving your neighbor will mean not allowing them to do damage to the neighborhood.
So, how should Christians feel about war and about guns? It is messy. It takes a lot of prayerful consideration. We have a right to bear arms, but can we find out how people are getting these guns and maybe help curb some of these killings? More guns will not stop the issue, and many of these guns are stolen, so I am not sure how legal gun control will help illegal gun sales. I am also not sure that gun control fixes the real problem. If we had less guns, then people would be less sinful, right? We see in the Bible that Cain kills Abel and Judas hangs himself, and they did not have access to guns.
And what of wars? On September 11, we are reminded of the devastation that hatred can cause. We cannot deny on this day that evil exists. We need a defense system and a military in a broken world, but can we also be careful about our foreign policies, work for the betterment of the world, and try to be ethical in how force is used. If we bomb children or attack homes, then we are terrorists. That is not loving our neighbors.
Maybe the best way to love our neighbors and to stop violence is to address the underlying spiritual issues at play. What kind of nation and world do we live in where so many people want to take their own lives and the lives of others? When our neighbors here and abroad are filled with that kind of despair and hatred? What happened to our families that were supposed to give love and care? What happened to our church that were supposed to teach love and forgiveness?
Those are not government issues. The government cannot strengthen families or help people who are lonely. That is the church’s job. And the answers to these problems are ultimately messy and complicated. They involve taking care of people’s real world problems.
But people don’t want the messiness. When we start talking about politics, and especially these issues of defense, we like things that are black and white or right or wrong. Either you are with me or against me. It becomes very adversarial. When we are afraid, we want simple answers. We don’t want nuance. We don’t want deep thinking. We don’t want complexity. We want to survive.
But this insecurity exposes the heart of the issue: where does your trust and your hope truly lie? Listen to these words from Psalm 20:
 Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy
heaven with the saving might of his right hand.
 Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
 They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
 O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call. (Psalm 20:6-9 ESV)
I love that line: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” This is a royal Psalm that the people would sing before King David. It is saying that some other kings and other nations trust in the number of chariot and horses. Those were the tanks, stealth bombers, or nuclear bombs of David’s day. The key question of any battle would have been how many chariots and horses do you have. Chariots and horses could mow down an army on foot. The Psalm says that while some people trust in these things, Israel trust in the name of the Lord their God. Some trust in chariots and some in horses…
Some trust in guns and some in gun control, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in politician and political platforms, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in big government and some trust in smaller government, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in police and some do not trust in police, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in one candidate and some trust in the other candidate. Some trust in neither candidate, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in nuclear weapons and some trust in peaceful negotiations, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in national defense and some don’t go on planes anymore, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Or, as the song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Too many Christians have staked their hope is something way less than their true hope. Maybe, if we can set our anchor back in our true hope, we can stop acting out of terror and start acting in faith. Maybe then we can have the clear-mindedness to make a real difference in our world.
Let us pray,
Lord, on this day, 15 Septembers later, we remember the loss and devastation we felt as we saw America attacked. We remember those that lost lives. We pray for the families—wives, husbands, children, grandparents, extended families, and friends—for whom this day marks a day when someone they loved was stolen from them. Continue to grant peace and healing in their lives.
We remember those that were heroic that day. Those that ran into the buildings, and those that helped others. We thank you for police, for fireman, for political leaders, the coast guard and national guard, for the military, and even for those who just simply acted bravely. We pray your blessing and protection on those, at home and abroad, as they protect and serve.
We remember today those brave souls on Flight 93, who, rather than letting their plane be another tool in the hands of the terrorists, sacrificed themselves to take over that plane and forced it to a crash landing.
Lord, help us to be brave in our world. Help us to wade into the messiness of loving our neighbor. We long for the day when you return and war and violence will be no more. May we honor you while we wait. Be our true hope. Amen.