Ten Things We Should Have Learned Since September 11, 2001

We can't turn a blind eye to Islam, evangelism, heroism, and our Christian calling
Ten Things We Should Have Learned Since September 11, 2001
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S eptember 11, 2001, will be among those dates that mark the end of one era and the beginning of a new era. Our culture has not undergone dramatic shifts, but it has changed. Only time will tell the long-term results of the attacks on us as a people and on the history of our nation and the world. Yet even one short year after the event, some lessons and new directions are clear. Ten is, admittedly, an arbitrary number. Think of these as a beginning as you consider the results of the world-changing events on that September morning.

1. We live in a very dangerous world.
On September 11 Americans learned what most people across the world already knew: the world is a very dangerous place. The United States has, in the past, been safe territory. Two broad oceans guard us, and our neighbors to the north and south are unlikely to invade.

Globalization has made global communication and global travel an everyday part of life. Globalization has also created a whole class of what Thomas Friedman calls "super-empowered angry men," who through global communication and global travel have easy access to our country. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 constituted successful acts of war perpetrated in two of our major cities using our own commercial airliners. The violence "over there somewhere" came in the front door.

Because this is a very dangerous world, and because globalization makes the United States vulnerable to super-empowered angry men, we must pay attention to the world. Americans can no longer afford the luxury of not knowing or caring about what goes on beyond our borders. Our lives depend on paying attention to our very dangerous world.

2. The "clash of civilizations" is a fact of life.
There is a naïve and dangerous assumption that other people are just like us. This assumption is wrong. The culture of the West, while no longer Christian, nonetheless springs from the Christian civilization of Europe and still maintains certain values from that civilization. The culture of the Muslim world is radically different and, in fact, opposes the Christian-inspired culture of the West. Muslims take this clash of civilization for granted; we in the West do not.

In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel Huntington writes:

Whatever their political or religious opinions, Muslims agree that basic differences exist between their culture and the Western culture. "The bottom line," as Sheik Ghanoushi put it, "is that our societies are based on values other than those of the West."

For example, we in the West take religious and political freedom for granted. The core of Islamic civilization does not. The very word Islam means submission. Islam is submission to Allah and submission to Allah's law as revealed to humanity through the prophet Muhammad. While Muslim scholars disagree on particulars, Islam is founded on the notion that God has an unchanging will expressed in laws that govern human life. Those laws include stipulations about government and politics and make religion the prominent voice in those areas.

Similarly, that parents approve of their child's choice to be a suicide bomber is not an indication that the parents are unbalanced or immoral. Rather it is an indication that ideas have consequences. The ideas that gave rise to the West are in opposition to those that gave rise to Islamic civilization—we should expect vastly different consequences. A vague cultural ecumenism will not meet the challenge. In the clash of civilizations, we must take sides.

3. We must develop a Christian worldview in order to survive.
In writing about the differences between the Western and Islamic cultures and worldviews, it is very tempting to assume that the Western worldview, derived from Christendom, is synonymous with a Christian worldview. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chuck Colson and other Christian worldview thinkers regularly critique the prevailing secularized and postmodern Western culture and worldview.

Our embrace of multiculturalism and the simultaneous denigration of the structures and values of our own national, political, and religious life will leave us without the intellectual tools and the corporate will to fend off threats like Islam. The often-rapacious commercial culture that feeds our consumerism will continue to make us the enemy of people who, at the same time, feel used by and envious of our way of life. And our willingness to tolerate dictators and gross human-rights violations in order to maintain trade will continue to plague us internationally.

The responsibility of the Christian is to be salt and light to the Islamic world and to the Western world that, while it still maintains vestiges of the Christian past that shaped it, continues to devolve into barbarism. A critical part of being salt and light is our worldview. Christians must develop biblically informed structures of thought and use those to critique and transform Western culture in such a way that it can meet the challenge of Islam.

4. Evil is real.
Following the attacks of 9/11, the morality of the attacks was debated at a major American university. One professor talked about being uncomfortable calling the terrorists evil. "After all," she reasoned, "we've sinned too." A student asked the professor whether the Nazis were evil. She responded, "That's a difficult question."

We in the West have done our best to move "beyond good and evil." Deconstructionism encourages us to believe that there is no good or evil, only power. The therapeutic mindset says that there is only health or disease. Even in the church we refrain from using the word evil, have softened the meaning of sin, and shy away from calling people to repentance.

For most Americans, the terrorist attacks were evil. The moral relativism that was comfortable on September 10 was shown on September 11 to be a sham. Christianity has a theology of evil that explains events like 9/11 and gives the solution for it. Opening eyes to the reality of evil is the Holy Spirit's prelude to opening eyes to the reality of the gospel.

5. Christianity and Islam are not alike.
September 11 sent thousands of pastors running for their files to recover yellowing notes from seminary courses in world missions that explained what Muslims believe. In spite of public assurances to the contrary, Islam and Christianity are not alike.

As Timothy George points out in his book Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?, Islam and Christianity differ in our doctrine of God (Trinity vs. absolute unity), the incarnation (Jesus as God the Son vs. Jesus as the prophet of Allah), and salvation (by grace through faith vs. by obeying the law).

About salvation, Imam Sa'dullah Khan has written,

Nor do Muslims believe that another person can die to atone for the sins of human beings. Atonement for sins comes from sincere repentance of one's wrongdoings, and salvation lies in submission to the commands of Allah and doing righteous deeds. Islam does not espouse the idea of original sin. Instead, each human being is born free of sin and is individually accountable for the sins he or she commits. Therefore, there was no need for anyone (including Christ) to die on the cross as atonement.

These are not superficial differences that can be easily glossed over in a show of good fellowship and cultural sensitivity. As Lawrence Adams of the University of Virginia and the Center for Christian Study comments, "There is very little common theology between Islam and Christianity, with the exception of God the Creator." This must be kept in mind as we interact with Islam.

6. Islam is more than a religion; it is also a political ideology.
Islam's worldview is utopian. As Imam Sa'dullah Khan said, Muslims do not believe in original sin. Timothy George points out that while the Qu'ran and the Bible agree that there was a fall from the original state of the world in Eden, they mean something different by the fall. The Bible teaches that Adam's sin was rebellion. Knowing perfectly well what was right, Adam chose to do wrong. As a result, Adam's entire race shares a natural distaste for God and his ways. Sin is always rebellion against God, the King whose authority we reject.

By contrast, writes George,

The Qur'an says Adam forgot to walk the right way. Sin is forgetfulness, heedlessness, a failure to remember. This forgetting to obey is the result of inherent weakness, not active rebellion against God. It is a serious breach of the primordial covenant God made with humans, but it need not do any permanent damage. Once Adam repents, as he does, God quickly forgives.

Christians believe rebels need redemption. Muslims believe the forgetful need guidance. They believe that non-Islamic society and non-Muslim religions corrupt humans who, in the right environment, are able to live a good life that is pleasing to Allah. That good life (coupled with fate—even good Muslims have no assurance of Allah's favor) is required for entry into Paradise.

The best way to live a good life is to live in a good society defined as one governed by Shari'ah, the divine Islamic Law. This is an all-encompassing system that controls every aspect of everyday life and it applies to the economic, political, and legal structures of society as well as to everyone's personal life. It is appropriate—one could even say loving—to impose Shari'ah on a society for the temporal and eternal good of its citizens. This ideology is more obvious in radical expressions like the Taliban, but is inherent in all Islam.

7. Christian prison evangelism is vital to homeland security.
Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber," and Jose Padilla, the "dirty bomber," both discovered radical Islam in prison.

Prisons are filled with the angry and disaffected of the society. Because Islam has a strong ideological component, prisons in the United States and in Great Britain are fertile fields for radical, militant Islam. Moderate Muslims have complained that radicals are taking over Islamic prison ministry, replacing moderate literature with calls for Islamic militancy.

As Chuck Colson wrote in the June 24, 2002, Wall Street Journal,

This [radical] understanding of the Qur'an, mixed with inmate resentment, is a lethal combination—and Islam's evangelists for evil know it. Al Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be "disenchanted with their country's policies." Terrorism experts fear these angry young recruits will become the next wave of terrorists. As U.S. citizens, they will combine a desire for "payback" with an ability to blend easily into American culture.

Prison officials have a responsibility to protect prisoners and the society and must take steps to exclude radical Imams from prison. Christians must view prison evangelism with a renewed sense of urgency. It is an issue of homeland security.

8. There are still heroes in the world.
The words hero and heroism fell into disfavor in the 1960s. As a college student in the '70s, I remember the pleasure the professor took and we shared when the great heroes of history were, one by one, debunked.

Then, on a beautiful September morning, four teams of terrorists commandeered passenger planes, turning them into weapons. "Ordinary" men and women sprang into action and the most unlikely (from our point of view) heroes emerged. To our credit, once we got over our surprise, we recognized them.

Harvard professor Peter Gibbon defines heroes using three criteria: they accomplish something extraordinary, show moral valor (especially in adversity), and are "great souls" who lift us up through noble example. "Moving away from September 11," says Gibbon, "we understand that our society has been modified, not revolutionized. Celebrities are still with us, politicians are back to squabbling, and disdain for our history persists."

At the same time, we noticed the heroes and that is a positive sign. Small modifications in our thinking eventually add up to real change. A life without heroes is an impoverished life and our new recognition of heroes and heroism is a step in the right direction.

9. We are at war with militant Islam.
Eliot Cohen wrote in the November 20, 2001, Wall Street Journal, "The enemy in this war is not 'terrorism' … but militant Islam." Salman Rushdie similarly countered the oft-repeated claim that, "This isn't about Islam" in The New York Times shortly after the attacks: "Of course this is 'about Islam,'"—a paranoid Islam "which blames outsiders, 'infidels,' for all the ills of Muslim societies."

The same minds that send children into hotels in Jerusalem to serve as incendiary devices to kill grandmas and grandpas at a Seder will not hesitate to do the same thing at a birthday party or bar mitzvah at the local Holiday Inn.

We protest that we have nothing against these people. We would rather not fight them. Yet the glaring fact remains: proponents of radical Islam have declared war against us. As a Holocaust survivor is reported to have said, "If somebody tells you he's going to kill you, it's best to believe him." Like it or not, we are at war with an enemy who wants to kill us and must be defeated.

10. We are still called to love our enemies.
Roger Scruton, in his book The West and the Rest, argues correctly that regardless of what someone believes about the historicity of Jesus or the veracity of Christian theology, Christianity holds forgiveness as one of its moral values. "One must recognize," he writes, "that the idea of forgiveness, symbolized in the Cross, distinguishes the Christian from the Muslim inheritance." Forgiveness springs from love and breaks the endless cycle of violence that explodes out of revenge. Christians are called to love and forgive as we have been loved and forgiven. God loved us and sent his Son to die for us when we were his enemies. We are called to the same attitude.

Love and forgiveness even apply to war. The aim of a just war—the only sort of war a Christian may wage—is saving the lives of the innocent victims of future attacks and bringing peace. This is a vision of war developed by Christians, and it is significant that when Thomas Aquinas discussed just war in the Summa Theologica, he did not do so in the section about justice. Instead, it is in the section about love, specifically the love of God. Darrell Cole, visiting instructor in religion at the College of William and Mary, wrote in the October 2001 issue of First Things, "Just soldiering … is something Christians ought to do out of love for God and neighbor, and thus it is the most 'human' thing we can do in certain circumstances." When struck, we are commanded to turn the other cheek, but when an innocent is struck, we must never turn the innocent's other cheek. We are bound by love to defend the innocent, even if that requires us to resort to deadly force.

At the same time, our conduct of war and the way we comport ourselves in victory can reflect care, concern, mercy, and grace—a love—for our enemies. This is the Christian ideal in the face of our adversaries.

Jim Tonkowich is managing editor of Prison Fellowship's Breakpoint. Opinions expressed in Speaking Out do not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.

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