A Statement of Our Situation and Need
By J. Ligon Duncan
In the wake of the Terrorist Attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
As we gather for prayer and to hear God's word tonight, our thoughts are cloudy and our emotions raw. We are still reeling from an unprecedented attack upon our country, and indeed upon the free world. The phrase comes to mind: "a day that will live in infamy." Except that doesn't do it justice.
My father-in-law, a decorated veteran of WWII in the European theater and member of the famed U.S. Third Army, who served in two D-Days and saw the gore of Anzio, said to me this morning. "You know, I feel worse today than after Pearl Harbor." I knew what he meant, though I was not born until almost twenty years after December 7, 1941. You see, we knew, within moments of that fateful attack in Hawaii all those years ago, who had assaulted us and where to find them. Such is not the case today. The events of Tuesday morning have left us all befuddled, fearful, angry, longing for justice, but blindly flailing at a faceless, nameless adversary.
Shortly before 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles. It was hijacked within thirty minutes and at 8:45 a.m. slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Eighteen minutes later the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 which was also to be en route from Boston to Los Angeles, crashed into the south tower.
About 9:43 a.m., a similarly hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 (a Boeing 757, operating from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles) dove into the Pentagon in Washington. Part of one side of the venerable old structure collapsed, thick clouds of smoke drifted over our nation's capital. Its true target had been the White House itself. Ten or so minutes later, at about 10:00 a.m., United Airlines Flight 93, from Newark to San Francisco, crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh (only 85 miles northwest of Camp David). A bare five minutes later, at 10:05 a.m., the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. At around 10:30 a.m., eastern time, the other World Trade Center tower collapsed. What terrorists had longed to do before, they had now completed. And then some.
Federal government buildings around the country were shut down and evacuated, including the Capitol and the White House. The FAA grounded all air traffic in the country, international flights were diverted to Canada, soon Canadian air space was cleared, the U.S.-Mexican border was sealed in California, the UN closed down, and our President was whisked from Florida to Louisiana to the HQ of our 8th Airforce, and from there on to security bunkers in Nebraska. Our major government figures were moved to safe quarters. In New York, the tunnels and bridges were closed. In Washington, travel was in gridlock. In London, major centers closed down and security was heightened. Across the heartland of America, there were hearts of heaviness, hearts of weeping, hearts of confusion, hearts of vengeance, and hearts of bafflement. Thousands are dead. Thousands more are wounded. Thousands are homeless in Manhattan. Tens of thousands are touched directly across our land - mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, grandparents, cousins, friends.
What shall we say to such things? Needless to say, our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones. Nothing can quench the pangs of their pain, and nothing can give them back their loss. We marvel at the bravery of rescue workers. Hundreds have died doing their duty. We seethe at the wickedness of the perpetrators of such inhuman acts of violence. We contemplate what ought to be the strategic response of our nation and its allies. We speculate as to what will happen next and whether we will see justice done. And we ask hard questions like, how did our nation's intelligence system fail to see this coming? Yes, I know, we think all those things. But I meant something a little different. What do we, as Christians, say to all this? How do we process this biblically?
Well, the first thing is this - we run to the sovereignty of God. What a kind providence that here at First Presbyterian Church, God has had our hearts meditating, Lord's Day after Lord's Day, in Romans 8 and 9 over these past few months. No passage in all of the Bible could be more important for us to grasp at such a time as this. The truth of his sovereignty rings clearly in moments of crisis like these; and when it is heard, even "when the strife is fierce, the warfare long," our "hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong." Thank God that he is Lord. He sits in heaven and laughs his enemies to scorn. He is the God of Hosts and mighty in battle. Don't ever let anyone tell you that Scripture is irrelevant. We know, now better than ever, from experience even, just how timely it is. Praise God for his sovereignty and Word.
Second, we remember the brevity of life and the final accounting. The words of Moses "Lord, teach us to number our days" beckon us to this reckoning. Thousands of people went to work in New York and Washington on Tuesday who will never go home to their families again. Perhaps they thought of it as a day like any other day. But it wasn't. Are we ready to meet our Maker? Now. Right now. Or do we presume that life will just go on?
Thirdly, we acknowledge the depravity of human nature. You see, all over this story, there's the matter of the human heart. We live in a society and culture where the sense of sin has been lost. The educational elite of our land work hard to assure their students that "people are basically good" and that there's no such thing as ultimate truth, or right and wrong. But such a philosophy is as foolish as it looks in light of the unspeakable tragedy of September 11, 2001. People are (apart from grace) deep down, evil. We have seen, now, a picture of this evil which will never be erased from our seared memories. But we are, all of us, capable of cosmic treason. We need the Lord and his mercy and forgiveness. Pray that some will learn that lesson even in this crisis - that God would use the wrath of men as a maneuver of grace. This is a time for Gospel thinking and Gospel praying.
Finally, my dear Christian friends, we must remember that we are simultaneously citizens of two kingdoms. We are called in this hour to be both disciples and patriots, to love God and serve our country. But in this we must keep our priorities straight and our duties clear. As citizens and residents of this great land, first, let me solemnly say that we may have just entered into a new era. Make no mistake. We are at war and the war has been brought to us. We must resolve now never to give up. We must let these cowards know that we shall not cease to strive until we prevail and harry them from this earth. Second, let me add that now is the time to consider our national character, to recognize our societal sin, and to realize that no one is willing to die in the pursuit of wanton pleasure. Only those with higher standards and ends and goals can lay down their lives in the cause of freedom. But our Islamic neighbors view us as decadent and as international purveyors of moral perversion. And, sad to say, we are. If we will not do what is necessary to restore America's rule of law, to amend public and private morality, and to revive the first principles upon which this land was founded, then we shall not be the equal to this challenge. Third, to you as Christians, in your capacities as disciples of a kingdom which is not of this world, let us remember the prime directives of our master and savior. Let us see that his truth has been vindicated in the plight spread before us. Only his truth can set us free, he said. And let us remember that it was the surprising stratagem of the incarnation that God employed to display his limitless power in the veiling of weakness. Robert Southwell expressed this mystery in these lines.
This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The Angels' trumps alarum sound.
My soul with Christ join thou in fight,
Stick to the tents that he hath dight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little Babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from the heavenly boy.
The Gospel may seem foolishness to men, but it is the power of God. So let us purpose to use this crisis of providence as a Gospel opportunity to make known the matchless name of the savior of the world to the ends of the earth, until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord and of his Christ, as the waters cover the sea. May God comfort and strengthen and favor you all.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He is a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Theological Seminary. He recently completed doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh and is currently serving as co-editor of The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, a multi-volume set of essays in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the publication of the confession.