“Turn on your TV.”
That was the beginning of September 11, 2001 for me, when I answered an unexpected call from a relative back east. I hit a button on the remote, and there was smoke boiling out of what quickly became known, by all Americans and for the rest of our history, as “the first tower.”
Shortly afterward, the second plane hit – and surprise turned to cold horror and that deep-punch-in-the-gut realization shared simultaneously by countless millions of us, the world over. The bad news and bewildered reactions poured in all day, along with the news from the Pentagon, and a lonely, charred field in Pennsylvania. Planes were grounded, and with them friends and loved ones and co-workers all over the country. Overwhelmed email systems ground to a crawl.
Like many parents, my wife and I picked up our children from school, and tried to explain what was happening in a way that wouldn’t frighten them. That night, we listened to the president’s address to the nation, and like everyone else, followed developments closely over the next few days and weeks. Out of all the horror, and all the tales of rare courage and sacrifice, came the quiet, clear realization that a new era was upon us … that, in many ways, nothing could be so safe and secure and the same in our country again.
Among the memories I carry from those days – from the non-stop cable news debates and discussions between journalists, soldiers, government spokesmen, Middle East experts, and other authorities – is the question one commentator asked, in genuine bafflement:
“What,” he asked, “are these people – these terrorists – trying to communicate?”
“They’re not trying to communicate,” a weary expert sighed. “They’re trying to kill you.”
Some assaults are so blunt and direct that it’s hard to get a handle on them. To this day, many in the media and the academic and political worlds are trying to offer explanations that would clarify, quantify, even justify what happened that Tuesday morning. They want to rewrite history, if need be, to make it fit their world view. They want to believe these things don’t happen to nice people – so, if they happened, America must not have been nice.
But underneath all the political agendas – underneath all the unchangeable histories and religious differences – lies the simple, cold determination of one group of people to destroy another.
To look at the faces from the planes, the young people and the business men, the elderly couples and the schoolchildren … the office workers from the towers … the firefighters and police officers … is to realize how ordinary these people were. They weren’t soldiers. They weren’t haters, bent on grinding anyone beneath their racial or cultural prejudices. They asked only the grace to enjoy their own small, fleeting measure of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It would be easier, if the efforts to destroy America all came from outside our society, outside our borders. It would be helpful, if those wanting to bring us down always came wearing masks, brandishing knives and guns, hurling grenades, hijacking planes. It would be so much more convenient, if those targeted were only those we all agree are the “mean” people among us – the rude, the chauvinistic, the haters.
Then we in the churches could relax. We could just be nice. We could go about our lives like everyone else, knowing nothing will ever really threaten or change our existence … our easygoing church culture … our complacency. It’s America, right? What can happen?
What can happen is happening. We tell you about it, day after day, week after week. We show you the faces, we tell you the stories of the young people and business men, the elderly couples and the children in their classrooms, who are falling victim to those with a simple, cold determination to destroy our religious freedom.
The people we defend in courtrooms coast to coast aren’t haters. They’re not trying to grind anyone under their prejudices. They ask only to live out their faith, to love their neighbors, to be free to follow their God. For that, they are being run out of business, driven from their schools, intimidated by a culture and a mass media and – increasingly – a government that no longer has any interest in communicating with them … but only in destroying their devotion to a God Whose truth has become unpalatable.
It would mean a lot, for these fighting their lonely fights for life and freedom, if their fellow believers – the pastors and the churches – would stand beside them. Would raise their voices. Would find the courage to storm the cockpits where those so focused on their own agendas are determinedly steering us all toward destruction.
But the Christians – so very, very many of the Christians – don’t want to think about these things. They don’t want to know that America is not what it has always been. They need freedom to be cheap and undemanding. They need faith to come easy, without courage or sacrifice. They need reality to be quiet … to sit back down … to make way for a Christianity devoid of crosses.
Last week, on an Oregon beach, a group of people pushed over a local landmark – a longstanding rock formation beloved by the surrounding community. The pushers had their reasons. They told witnesses that the rock had made a friend of theirs break his leg. Rocks can do that, you know … force you to break your leg.
Video showed the incident. The young people laughed and yelled obscenities … enjoying their ability to destroy something that meant so much to other people who had never harmed them.
The witnesses who videotaped the incident challenged the vandals … but not untilafter the rock toppled and shattered. Before that, the observers said nothing. “I didn’t think anything would happen,” one explained. “It’s a big rock.”