Psalm 61:1-5 September 16, 2001

Romans 12:14-21 Byron C. Bangert

In many respects I feel that we are gathered here this morning for a memorial service, a memorial service for those who have died as a result of the four airplane crashes that took place this past Tuesday morning. I do not know whether any of you had any family or friends who were lost or injured in those enormous tragedies. If so, the rest of us would want to extend to you our condolences and share your sorrow. So far as I know, I did not have any family or friends who were lost or injured. But there is only so much that we now know. What we know, however, is simply awful. Words are not adequate to express the horror, the grief, and the suffering that visited so many people just five long days ago.

For several hours each day I have listened to and watched the reports that keep coming in, and scoured the newspapers, to learn as much as possible about what happened, and what is happening, to our people and our country. There have been so many poignant and heart-rending stories, so many stories of hope and faith and courage, so many stories of grief and pain. Most of us can only begin to imagine what it had to have been like for those trapped in the upper stories of the World Trade Center, or in some corner of the Pentagon, before the flames and heat and smoke had done their worst. And we can only begin to imagine the strength and energy and fortitude with which some were able to help others, and to make their own way, to safety--or, in some cases, as apparently on United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, to risk and sacrifice their own lives to avert a greater disaster.

But we are called under these horrendous circumstances to begin to imagine. Imagination is a gift. It is a gift that enables us to share in the experiences of others, to see things as they may see them, to feel what they may feel, to perceive and understand from a perspective other than our own. Imagination is a gift that also enables us to envision how our world might be different, how we might change our world, and how we ourselves might change.

In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul gives a series of fairly specific instructions about how the people of God, the people of the Christian church at Rome, are to live together and to treat one another. Let us try to imagine what it would mean to live as Paul commands. Some of the things that he says are very difficult to hear and accept in light of what took place this past Tuesday. "Bless those who persecute you," he says. How can we possibly do that?! How can anyone who lost a loved one this past week in lower Manhattan, or the Pentagon, or in that plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, do that? In fact, some of what Paul says is difficult to do under any circumstances. But there are some other things he says that make more immediate sense to us.

Paul says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." As we have heard the stories of those caught up in the events of this past week, surely we have rejoiced with those who have rejoiced at the reunion with loved ones, at the good fortune of making it out on time, at the heroic efforts that enabled a woman on crutches, or a disabled janitor, or a secretary in a wheelchair, to be delivered to safety. And just as surely we have wept with those who had much sadder and more tragic stories to tell.

Paul also says, "Do not claim to be wiser than you are." There is the temptation in a situation of such enormity as we are going through to jump to conclusions. We want answers about what happened, who did it, for what reason, and what is to be done about it. Of course we want answers to these questions. It would be unthinkable to endure such an assault upon our citizens, our institutions, our society, without doing anything about it. Justice demands that we do something to make things right. And love demands that we do something to make things good. But before we act we need answers that are based in reality, not rumor or prejudice or wishful thinking. We needs answers that will help us to know how to respond with intelligence, with imagination, and with love. We need answers that will enable us to go on to make this world better, not worse.

There has been some lashing out in Bloomington and all across the country against people of Arab or Muslim identity. That does not make sense. It is not just. It is a reflection of ignorance, not wisdom, of hate, not love. We want answers so that we know what to do, but in some cases, we must also admit, there may be no complete answers and certainly no simple ones. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "we know only in part." Our knowledge is never so complete to make us wise in all things. Things are never so simple that we can clearly circumscribe the evil and separate it from the good. So Paul says to the Romans, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."

But then Paul says, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God." And, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Evil is one of the words that most comes to mind when we think about what TIME Magazine has called "Ash Tuesday." It was a horrendous evil. And there has been much talk of revenge. The problem with revenge is not simply that it fails the law of love. The problem with revenge is that it is not an adequate answer to evil. It does not destroy evil, it perpetuates it. Here is where our imaginations need to be fully engaged. We need to ask ourselves, Why do people like those who attacked us this past Tuesday seem to have such hatred for America? Why are they willing to kill unsuspecting human beings, men, women, and children? What possible reasons might they have?

To try to understand why our country was attacked in this way is not to excuse in any way. But it is to try to make sense from the point of view of others who, at least in this respect, are very different from ourselves. Without understanding, how do we know that our reactions will not do more harm than good?

What happened on Tuesday was clearly well-planned, well-coordinated, and very effective. It was not an act of craziness. And, as evil as it was, it was not pure evil. It was probably based on a belief in God. It was probably executed by people of religious faith. And it would hardly be the first time that people of religious faith have been willing to kill in the name of God. The question we must ask ourselves is this: What evil did they think that they were trying to assault and destroy? We can see that they were so fixed upon their mission that they were willing to sacrifice their own lives, and to do great evil in the process. But we must begin to imagine why they thought they were doing something good. We must see that they were probably engaged in their own act of revenge against a nation that seemed evil to them.

Acts of revenge against evil may only bring more evil and more revenge. Our nation and all the world's nations need to do what can be done to protect ourselves from acts of terrorism and destruction. That may require military action. It may require the taking of life. But it may also require other very different responses. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton was speaking as a statesman and political leader this week when he noted the extraordinary difficulty of identifying the locations of terrorists in those countries where they may be harbored. "Indiscriminate bombing or even discriminate bombing of those countries will have profound consequences," he said. "You do not remove religious fanaticism with bombs. And you can very well create enemies" [THE HERALD-TIMES]. The Dalai Lama was speaking as a world religious leader when he wrote to the President of the United States, "I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence" [Sept. 12 email]. Surely something must be done to diminish the threats of terrorism in our world. It would be folly, however, to think that we can root out all such evil in the world. And it is dangerous to act out of revenge. Jesus said to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us [Matt. 6:27]. And Paul says, "Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good."

I happen to believe that the teaching of Jesus and Paul and the Christian Church about such things, however difficult and demanding, is not entirely idealistic and impractical. There are in fact real reasons why violence and revenge may not accomplish much good in the fight against evil and terror. Just as evil is no way to conquer evil, destruction is no way to defeat destruction. Just as evil must be overcome by good, so destruction must be overcome by new creation.

Consider this story, which perhaps you have heard before:

There was a very wise old man, who lived in ancient Greece. His reputation as a man of knowledge and wisdom extended into the remotest villages of the land.

A very cynical fellow decided to test the wisdom of this respected sage. He would come to the old man with a small, live bird held between his cupped hands, hidden from view. If the venerable old man should say the bird is alive, he would crush the bird between his palms. If the old man should say that the bird is dead, however, he would allow the bird to fly free from his hands.

When they met, the cynic asked the aged philosopher, "Old man, I have a bird in my hands. Tell me, is it alive, or is it dead?" The discerning old man answered, "The decision is yours."

We are faced today with a question of how to exercise power--power to destroy and power to create. The decision is ours. Power, as it is typically understood by the world--as force, as strength, as control--is chiefly the power to limit and to destroy. Such power is coercive. It operates externally to that which it acts upon--without consent, without negotiation. It is imposed. On the other hand, there is also a power to create in the world, but it is qualitatively different from the power to destroy. And unlike the power to destroy, it is not so immediately or so predictably within our control.

Before I continue, let me confess that my definition of worldly power as the power to limit and destroy is an oversimplification. Worldly power is also the power to regulate, to persist, to obstruct, to displace, to contain, to counter, to compel, and so on. There are some goods that worldly power may help us to sustain. There are some evils that worldly power can help us to avoid. Force has its uses in human affairs. There are evils that often need to be checked, controlled, or contained, and some that need to be destroyed. At its best it is a protective or preventive sort of power, a power to counter other power, a power of self-perpetuation. But it does not appear that worldly power is capable of any positive advances or gains.

It seems that no amount of worldly power can actually elevate or enrich our existence. It cannot innovate, or create, or give life. As Harry Emerson Fosdick once observed, "We cannot make living things grow with a sledge hammer, no matter how hard we pound" [A GREAT TIME TO BE ALIVE, 183]. And no worldly power can long exist without confronting other worldly power. The exercise of worldly power invariably occasions tension and conflict with other worldly power, resulting in discord and some measure of destruction. So that while worldly power is much more than the power to destroy, the most vivid manifestations of worldly power are those of greatest destruction. And the outcome of the exercise of worldly power alone can only be eventual destruction.

Let us return to the story of the young cynic and the old sage. The young cynic does not hold in his hands the power to create. He only holds in his hands the power to destroy, or not to destroy, to crush or to set free. He cannot give life to the bird, though he can allow it freedom to live. The bird is already alive. If it were dead he would have no power even to set it free.

The power to destroy is easy to come by. Anyone who possesses a car, anyone who owns a gun, anyone who can lift a rock or wield a knife or swing a baseball bat, has the power to destroy. Anyone who can hurl an insult, anyone who can threaten a child, anyone who can bear false witness against a neighbor, anyone who can refuse to take notice or treat another person with respect as a human being, has the power to destroy. Humankind possesses all kinds of power to destroy. It is no great accomplishment to destroy. One of the essential requirements for human beings to continue to live together is quite simply to refuse to exercise their powers to destroy. We all have the power to destroy. Where is the power to create?

As Christians we are called to view all things in the light of God's revelation in Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, there is no greater demonstration of the power of God than the in cross of Jesus Christ. The power by which Jesus was crucified was the power of Caesar, a worldly power. But in that crucifixion the power of God has been revealed as a power of forgiveness, redemption, and love. God's power is the power of a new creation. In the world there is chaos; out of the chaos God works to bring order. In the world there is conflict; out of the conflict God works to bring harmony and peace. In the world there is destruction; out of the destruction God works to create anew. Here is the recognition of a power that is greater than all our worldly powers. Here is a power that works through relationship, persuasion, negotiation, example. It is a power that requires discernment, reconciliation, and voluntary, self-giving sacrifice. It is a responsive, unifying power that is manifest in ways that the world tends to regard as weakness, even folly.

In our own nation's history, what greater destruction, what more senseless loss, what more tragic waste, than the Civil War? At the height of the war, when feeling was most bitter, one day at a White House reception Abraham Lincoln dropped a hopeful remark about the South. An elderly woman flared up at him, wanting to know how he could speak kindly of his enemies when he should wish above all else to destroy them. The record reports that Lincoln answered, "What, madam? do I not destroy them when I make them my friends?" [cited by Fosdick, op. cit., 187].

More often the most basic, the most elementary lessons of human life seem to get lost in the realms of worldly power. Which is greater, the power to create or the power to destroy? Which does more to elevate human existence, the power to coerce and control, or the power to attract and inspire? Which is more essential for the preservation of human life, the power to contain and punish, or the power to reconcile and forgive? Which is more conducive to life and health, the power to limit and command, or the power to nurture and enjoy? We seem to be more impressed by power that coerces and controls, power that contains and punishes, power that limits and commands, power that destroys. But there would be no life at all without the other kind of power, the power that creates, the power that inspires and nurtures and gives, the power that is revealed in the human spirit at its best, the power that is love. "It is one of the ironies of human history," writes theologian Bernard Meland, "that vast power structures have acquired the connotation of strength; yet they rest precariously upon the delicate balancing of relationships for their very survival" [THE REALITIES OF FAITH 232].

We are witnesses in our day to the precariousness of the vast structures of worldly power. These structures alone are powerless to make our world secure. They alone cannot dissolve or eradicate the hatred of our enemies, nor can they make our enemies our friends. They alone cannot guarantee us the means of our existence, nor can they provide us the purpose and meaning that we crave. They alone cannot insure our happiness, nor can they teach us how to be people of greater integrity and kindness and charity. For all these things a greater power is required. Call it a power of sympathetic imagination. It is the power we have seen at work in the heroic efforts of New York City firemen, of co-workers who risked their lives to carry someone to safety, of vast armies of doctors and nurses and police, of ironworkers and blood donors and counselors and all kinds of volunteers who have spent themselves to exhaustion in hopes of alleviating the suffering of others. It is a power of goodness, a power of compassion, a power of love. It is the power that inheres in relationships. It is this kind of power, and only this kind of power, that will ultimately make our world a place where we want to be. It is this power that must be employed not just to clear the rubble, find the bodies, save what can be saved, not just to rebuild a city, but to refashion a whole world. It is the power of creation. It is the power of God--which "reaches deeper, takes hold harder, and lasts longer" [Fosdick, op. cit., 191] than any other power in heaven or upon the earth. AMEN.