Today is September 12th here in Sydney, which means that in the USA it is September 11th – around 4.30pm in the afternoon if you live on the West Coast and 7.30pm if you live on the East Coast, and somewhere in between those times if you live somewhere in between.
And you’ll have to excuse me from departing from my normal format of simply focusing on one of our scheduled readings for today, as you’ll have to forgive me for focusing on the anniversary of an event that took place nine years ago on the other side of the world and hence, some might suppose, had nothing to do with us then and even less to do with us now. But the truth is that the attack upon the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th 2001, despite the fact that it happened a long way away and quite a long time ago, is an event that continues to play a determining role in the lives (and deaths) of millions of people across the globe, and which certainly has had a direct impact on all of us here.
I’m sure you remember the events of 9/11 (as it’s become known) well enough, but let me nonetheless give you a brief summary once again:
On the morning of September 11, 2001, four passenger jets were hijacked, two of which ultimately collided with the enormous sky-scrapers in New York known as the ‘Twin Towers’. In the two hours that followed the collision both buildings somehow collapsed completely, as did other buildings, even blocks away. More significantly, nearly 3000 people were killed – most of them being office workers who were trapped in the burning and collapsing buildings, while others were caught up in the mayhem on the streets below.
People perished tragically while fire-fighters fought bravely while so many of us around the world stood aghast, with mouths open, wondering what had happened and wondering what would be the aftermath of this tragic event.
Questions still abound nine years later about what really happened on that day. There continue to be multiple conspiracy theories about possible CIA involvement and explosives that might have been laid in the buildings, and some of these conspiracy theories are not easily dismissed. Indeed, one in three Americans still believe there was Federal involvement in 9/11, including prominent academics, journalists, architects and former intelligence officers.
Even so, putting to one side the conspiracy theories regarding what really happened, what is unambiguous is what did happen in the aftermath of the tragedy. Osama Bin Laden was officially blamed for the attack and seemed to be happy to take full credit for it. Bin Laden was hence declared public enemy no.1 of the entire civilised world and a ‘war on terror’ was declared.
This ‘war on terror’ then took us into Afghanistan and into Iraq, even though Bin Laden had no connection at all with Iraq, and this has cost the lives of not thousands but quite possibly millions of human beings, all of whom seem to be paying the price for what happened on 9/11!
It is a remarkable history when one reads it now in hindsight. How was it that the world became so quickly convinced that Sadam Hussein had something to do with the Twin Towers attack? The connection was never explicitly made at an official level of course, but surveys showed clearly that most American at the time believed it to be true nonetheless. And even if we credit that there were other seemingly good reasons brought forward to justify an invasion of Iraq, it is impossible to imagine that such an invasion could have been staged if 9/11had never happened.
And we in Sydney, Australia have been entirely caught up in this! Despite the fact that the Twin Towers attack happened on the other side of the world and that none of us were actually there, we nonetheless took this all very personally, and have hence been involved in the retaliatory strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan, and Australian troops, along with their American allies, continue to die in these countries.
And so we find ourselves trying to extract ourselves from the quagmire of the now-devastated country of Iraq, as we find ourselves wondering what we are now doing in Afghanistan, as we dread the possibility of new hostilities opening up against the nation of Iran (God forbid) – a conflict that we pray will not happen but which we fear, if it did, we would get caught up in too.
And behind this grim picture of global military violence and political manipulation lies what I consider to be a darker reality still – namely, a growing tension that crosses national boundaries – a looming war between two of the world’s greatest religions: Christianity and Islam.
Who would have thought nine years ago that we today in Sydney, Australia, would be living in ever-increasing suspicion of our Muslim neighbours – not only in neighbouring Indonesia but within our own cities and suburbs!
Nine years ago my paranoia was still tied up with the ghosts of Communism! How could I have anticipated that within such a short space of time the fears and prejudices of the entire Western world would have shifted their focus from the red menace to an entirely new enemy – an enemy that had apparently been lying dormant for all this time (or at least since the Crusades) – an enemy that, at the time, I knew almost nothing about!
But whether by bizarre coincidence or whether by very well-constructed design, here we find ourselves nine years after 9/11in a world that is now polarized between the ‘Christian West’ and the ‘Muslim East’. The fact that we Australians live in the South and are not really a Christian country by any stretch of the imagination is entirely irrelevant of course. We have taken our stand alongside our Christian sisters and brothers, or so it seems.
I’m not sure how the politicians and the media managed to shifted the focus of responsibility for the Twin Towers attack from it being the work of one man and a few of his fanatical extremist colleagues to it being the responsibility of every Muslim across the globe or at what point people began to accept that, but there is no mistaking the point we are at now.
And so I have watched in horror the ‘‘ground zero mosque’ controversy this week – a battle that makes clear that the attack on the Twin Towers is seen as an attack by Islam itself! Those who proposed building the mosque have tried to suggest of course that it was not Islam as a religion that made the attack, and that in fact there were a significant number of Muslim people amongst those killed on 9/11, but this obvious piece of obvious good sense seems to have been entirely lost, as all Muslims seem to be held up for blame – the people, the religion itself, and their book!
And so I have simultaneously monitored with dread the proposed Quran-burning scheduled for today by Pastor Terry Jones of the (inaptly named) ‘Dove World Outreach Centre’ in Florida, as I have likewise watched in horror the angry reaction of numerous Muslims in Afghanistan, burning American flags and calling for ‘death to all Christians’.
And I have heard the pleas of Christians in Gaza who find themselves being targeted by angry Muslim neighbours, as more and more people buy in to this manufactured conflict and take their sides on each side of the growing divide.
And I sat in our local Islamic Centre last Friday morning and listened to my friend Sheikh Mansour, speaking live via Skype linkup from Iran, appealing to Muslims in Sydney not to get caught up in any cycle of violence should this book-burning take place, and not to start burning Christian Bibles in response, and not to do anything of the sort, but to react with dignity and restraint.
And I joined in the celebratory Eid breakfast (celebrating the end of Ramadan), laughing and joking with the two Muslim Sheikhs there – them telling me that they had only invited me in order to try and convert me and me telling them that of course I had only accepted the invitation in order to convert them!
And as we engaged in respectful debate and dialogue over breakfast, taking place in the context of genuine friendship and mutual respect, I was very conscious of the fact this, sadly, was not the norm, but that in so many cases the barriers of suspicion, prejudice and fear are so great that such simple realities as the sharing of a meal between Christian and Muslim neighbours never takes place.
And it all goes back to 9/11! Maybe not in the minds of the politicians who were looking for an excuse to invade some of the greater oil-producing countries of the Middle East, and maybe not in the minds of any number of Christian and Muslim clerics who were looking for ways to increase their own influence by whipping up hostility towards an easily-identifiable enemy, but for most of us, and for most of the Western world, the process of alienation and suspicion and the cycle of ever-increasing violence began then, 9 years ago.
And what are we supposed to do about it today – we Christian people, in Sydney , Australia, and elsewhere – who recognise that it does not have to be this way. How are we supposed to respond, as Christian people, and how are we supposed to convince our Christian sisters and brothers that going to war against Islam is not the will of God.
Ironically perhaps, I found some inspiration from our Old Testament reading scheduled for today – the reading from Exodus 32, where God in His anger was preparing to unleash death and destruction on the whole people of Israel, but where Moses talked Him out of it!
And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.'”
And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:9-14)
It is a curious scene depicted for us in this ancient book – Moses, God’s servant, haggling with God over the fate of His people. God is angry, and justifiably angry, over the wanton disobedience of the people of Israel, and like some all-powerful President with his armies on stand-by and his missiles all ready to fire, He seems to be entirely prepared to give the executive order to unleash hell on the hapless Israelites & make them pay for their misdeeds
But Moses appeals to God. He asks God to consider what this will do to His reputation! He tries to arouse nostalgic feeling in God towards the more God-fearing ancestors of this great people, and He reminds God of His promises to them. And so God thinks better of His initial response and decides to give the people another go.
It is, as I say, a very curious scene, and I’m not sure how malleable your theology is but I personally find it hard to embrace the idea that God needed Moses to snap Him out of His rage or to remind Him of His responsibilities. I prefer to see this as Moses’ angle on the conversation, or to see it as God’s testing of Moses perhaps. Either way though, the over-all message of the encounter here is clear. Allowing your anger to control your decisions is not a good idea – even for God!
There may be very good reasons for being angry at an individual or at an entire nation, but acting out that anger in violence is not God’s way and, despite all appearances to the contrary, it has never been God’s way!
What we see here is a God who deeply engages with His people, who feels deeply hurt by their crazy and destructive actions but who will not get caught up in any retaliatory cycle and who refuses to return violence for violence.
The God we see depicted in Exodus is, of course, the God we see much more fully in our Lord Jesus, who likewise refuses to get caught up in any cycle of violence but who instead, when his enemies persecute and even torture Him prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34)
If only the Spirit of Christ had been allowed to play a more significant role in the initial response to the 9/11 tragedy nine years ago. How many lives might have been saved?
I did in fact write a draft speech for the President of the USA shortly after 9/11. You can still find it on my website. My speech grieved the tragic loss of life in the collapse of the Twin Towers but also recognised that, as a Christian man, I knew that giving in to the temptation to respond to violence with more violence was not the way forward. I submitted my proposed speech to email@example.com. Unfortunately he chose to use a different one.
And so we find ourselves where we are today. The original wreckage of the Twin Towers has long been cleared up and the dead have been buried, yet buildings continue to topple and people continue to die in the 9/11 aftermath, and we Christians who refuse to get caught up in the ever-swelling tide of Islamophobia find ourselves to be an increasingly isolated minority.
Where will it end? I do not know, but I do believe that our responsibilities as Christian people, are clear. We must stand up for truth. We must reach out in love to those who are being victimised and prejudiced against, and we must stand beside them and share their suffering, as Christ would have us do.
As I was writing this sermon I had a call on my mobile from a number I did not recognise. I don’t always answer such calls when I am in the middle of writing but I’m glad I answered this one. It was a guy from the Islamic Centre who had noticed that when I had been there last Friday I had been slightly burnt by someone who had carelessly spilled some hot water from their cup of tea on me. It really hadn’t done me any serious injury and I had tried not to make a fuss, and I really didn’t think that anybody had noticed. But evidently this guy (who I don’t really know) had noticed, and it was still concerning him more than a day later, and so he had tracked down my number (somehow) and called me to check that I was ok!
I was deeply touched. It was a tiny but significant reminder that in this increasingly polarized world where East faces off against West, Christian against Muslim, and neighbour against neighbour, it doesn’t have to be this way!
And I don’t know what we’ll have to do to beat this thing and I don’t know when and where it will end, but I know full-well the way forward for all of us now, and it is entirely straightforward. It is to let the Spirit of Christ control us, and so to live in love, for perfect love, as we know, casts out all fear! (1 John 4:18)
First preached by Rev. David B. Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2010.