In America, we debate our wars not just with heated speeches but also with dueling banjos. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the radio dial seemed to lurch between the children of Woodstock and the heirs of the Grand Ole Opry. Besides visiting the expected themes of war and peace, post-9/11 popular music plucked at an issue we are now revisiting a decade later: whether television networks ought to broadcast the fiery images of the collapsing Twin Towers.
"You took all the footage off my TV, said it's too disturbing for you and me," country musician Darryl Worley sang. "It'll just breed anger, that's what the experts say; / if it was up to me I'd show it every day. / Some say this country's just out lookin' for a fight; / well after 9/11 man, I'd have to say that's right."
Down the radio dial, pop guitarist John Mayer sang about waiting for a world where neighbors were home from war, where "they would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door." Like the hawks in the cowboy hats, Mayer blamed broadcast imagery: "When you trust your television, what you get is what you got, / 'cause when they own the information, oh they can bend it all they want."
On the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we see a revival of the debates over whether news programs should show footage from that day. Some argue that to do so is needlessly traumatizing and inflammatory, and will provoke vengeance and a sense of cowboy justice. Others respond that to censor the footage is to deny reality, a politically correct avoidance of the truth that we live in a dangerous world, where enemies wish to see us buried beneath the rubble of our national monuments.
The controversy won't be resolved before this anniversary. It likely won't be resolved before the 20th or 200th, because the questions are older and more persistent than the current issue. They hit at the nub of what it means to be human in the face of inhumanity.
But the controversy is worth carefully listening to as we Christians think about our own witness and mission. After all, though we often forget, the Christian story is awfully traumatic, too.
It's easy to roll our eyes at what some would call prissy, coddling, and hyper-scrupulous types who want to keep the September 11 images off the public airwaves. But most of us sense the need to balance horror and denial. Few Americans want a 4-year-old to see a close-up image of a man, aflame with jet fuel, leaping a hundred stories to his death. And most of us would affirm the keen difference between taking a child to a loved one's funeral and taking her on a tour of an autopsy room.
Moreover, the possible unintended consequences of exposing ourselves to relived horror can be complex. On the one hand, there's the possibility of inciting fear. We see the images so often that we begin to think of every building as a potential target, every plane as a potential weapon of mass destruction. That, of course, is the very aim of terrorism. On the other hand, there's the possibility of growing numb to the horror. Might seeing those images of falling towers hourly on the video clips of the talking-head cable programs make them seem commonplace, much like the White House explosion from Independence Day, or the Statue of Liberty buried up to her neck at the close of Planet of the Apes? Might repeated viewings deaden the shock we felt 10 years ago, when the towers collapsed before our eyes?
These are weighty questions. But it's hard to agree that censoring the 9/11 images will solve the potential problems. Yes, the images provoke fear. But we already know we've been attacked. We already know there is something out there seeking to kill us. The images crystallize this reality, diffusing the fog of abstraction created by hazy terms like "war on terror."
Criminal networks in faraway countries? Rogue nations with deadly weapons? These are terrifyingly concrete threats. But the language of "terror" conjures up a ghostly and omnipresent pseudo-enemy. How do you fight against fear itself?
Without the blood, the bones, and the explosions, September 11 becomes an abstraction, a symbolic backdrop to debates about "troop presence" in Afghanistan, "diplomatic initiatives" with Pakistan, and the limits of "airport security." When advanced technology makes warfare seem as bloodless as a video game, images of carnage can remind us of what's really at stake. In the right balance, a full-frontal engagement with evil can remind us of its realness, as well as the limits of its reach.
Where the Wild Things Are
Does denying unpleasant realities really protect us from emotional trauma? Perhaps not. A generation ago, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim warned that our kinder, gentler children's stories weren't really an advance over the often dark, violent fairy tales of ages past. The children don't have nightmares because of the stories, he suggested. Rather, we tell dark fairy tales because of children's nightmares.
That's because children know at a primal, intuitive level that there's something wild out there. Stories can help children make sense of a chaotic world and of their often-chaotic selves. When we merely present "good role models"—happy youngsters in safe places making wise choices—our children will soon wonder whether we are telling the truth, or they will come to see themselves as freakishly fearful.
The full force of the trauma from events like September 11 doesn't come from contemplating the violence done to strangers or even "the nation." Only when we envision ourselves and our loved ones on the scene, as children transplant themselves into nightmare stories, does the severity hit home. We imagine hearing those jihadists screaming prayers as the plane plummets from the sky, or being trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell, or leaping from a window in terror. The phenomenon here is precisely what causes us to flinch when we see blood on the pavement after a car accident. We are reminded of what scares us, of what could happen to us, too.
And so it is with the gospel. The story of Jesus records a persistent strain of denial in the life of Simon Peter. Virtually every time Jesus speaks of his impending execution, Peter insists that such trauma will never happen on his watch (Matt. 16:22; John 13:37). Of course, this not only suggests Peter's empathy with his teacher. It also demonstrates the apostle's refusal to face up to his fear that he might be tempted to protect his own skin.
Though he doesn't unveil it all at once, Jesus refuses to shield Peter from the awful truth. In one of the Bible's most pitiful narratives (John 13:36-38), Peter ostentatiously promises to protect the Messiah from harm. "I will lay down my life for you," he blusters.
Jesus responds: "Really? You're going to fight for me? Before the rooster crows, you will deny you even know me—not once but three times."
Jesus revisits the trauma on Peter. When the rooster crows, Jesus happens to be passing by, and he looks at his friend, prompting Peter to cry bitterly (Luke 22:60-62). Even in the famous restoration of Peter, after Jesus' resurrection, Jesus seems eager to remind Peter of his previous denial. He questions his disciple's love three times. He meets with him around a charcoal fire (John 21:9), precisely the setting of the denial itself (John 18:18).
Then Jesus presses the trauma further. What Peter fears most—the shame and torture of crucifixion—is exactly what Jesus assures him will happen. He will stretch out his hands and be led where he doesn't want to go (John 21:18). Peter will have the kingdom he so longs for—with all of its glory and peace—but his immediate future is skull-shaped.
The ugly reality of crucifixion looms over the lives of Christ's followers today, as it did Peter's life. In the gospel, we are confronted with the unvarnished horror of ourselves—damned and cursed and exiled. We find ourselves ensnared in the curse itself—in Jesus, writhing in torture on a stake (John 3:14).
Gathering each week, we reenact the horror of Jesus' sacrificial death. In baptism, we see the flood of God's judgment against sin (1 Pet. 3:20-21). At the Lord's Table, we swallow and digest the sign of our Lord's torn skin and spattered blood.
The preaching of sin and judgment is traumatic, to be sure. There's some danger of presenting the gospel as mere condemnation—exactly what Jesus says it's not (John 3:17). And an overwhelming emphasis on sin can breed a morbid obsession with one's own wickedness. This, of course, leads not to repentance but to despair, which is exactly where the satanic powers want us.
At the same time, censoring the gospel's painful realities doesn't lead to tranquility. Like our children with the wild things out there, we know intuitively that a Day of Judgment is coming, even as we try to keep the fear submerged. The Scriptures tell of an unholy spirit who accuses our consciences, and whose accusations resonate with us because they are accurate (Rev. 12:10). The Devil holds us in captivity through our innate fear of death and judgment (Heb. 2:14-15). That pretty well sums up the classic definition of "terrorism." And the only thing that can free us from our enslavement to Satan, and to our sin, is blood (Rev. 12:11).
In the word of the Cross, God tells us he knows all our traumas, our insurgencies, our secrets—and that he has already executed them at Golgotha. We need not fear hell, then, not because there isn't one, but because—if we are found in Christ—we have already been through all of that. We are free. And whenever our consciences accuse, the gospel takes us away from denial or preoccupation and right back to Ground Zero—to the Cross.
Fighting the Right War
The debate over the September 11 images is not simply about trauma to our psyches but to our body politic as well. Reliving these experiences, some say, will only reignite simmering tensions. At some level, it's hard to argue with this. Traumatic images can indeed provoke outrage, and often justly. Think about pictures of lynched African American citizens, of burning ships at Pearl Harbor, of corpse-filled ditches in Nazi death camps, of napalmed children in Vietnam, of stacked skulls in Cambodia.
Might the pictures from September 11 create the kind of bloodlust in the American citizenry that could lead to bigotry or even violence toward Muslims in our neighborhoods and around the world? Certainly that's possible. Some awful things were said to and about our Muslim neighbors in the weeks, months, and years after September 11. For the most part, though, the country seemed to differentiate jihadists from law-abiding citizens. President Bush reiterated constantly that the nation was not at war with Islam, and virtually every memorial service included an imam as a symbolic reminder of that fact.
And it's not as though tensions cool during intervals when the images aren't seen. We have had fiery debates over proposed mosques near Ground Zero and elsewhere. We have seen paranoid conspiracy theories that the current President himself is a Muslim, with the implication that maybe he's not really on the side of this country after all.
Concealing the horror of September 11, whatever its effect on contemporary hatreds, threatens to obscure a horror much greater than Islamic terrorism: the ongoing reality of spiritual warfare. Unalloyed evil of the sort portrayed in 9/11 footage reminds us of forces running deeper than the doctrines or practitioners of any one religion. After witnessing the enormity of the attacks, how can we fail to distinguish the real enemy from our law-abiding Muslim neighbors?
As Christians, we feel a certain squeamishness with our gospel. The Scriptures present a picture of the universe as a war zone, with the present age a satanic empire being invaded by the rival kingdom of Jesus. Talk of such demonic realities rises and falls through the history of the church, oscillating between preoccupation and embarrassment.
The church around the world—especially in what sociologist Philip Jenkins calls the Global South—grasps the kind of demon-haunted universe pictured in the Scriptures. But many American Christians wince at the "spiritual warfare" novels of the previous generation, with invisible angels and demons duking it out over small-town America. We cringe at the latest television faith healer describing the demons that were persecuting him around the time he was caught with the cocaine and prostitutes.
Many mainline Protestant churches excised "Onward Christian Soldiers" from their hymnals years ago. But when was the last time you heard an evangelical praise chorus speaking of the war against the satanic powers?
The softening of apocalyptic language hasn't led to a more "peaceful" church. Listen to Christian talk radio or attend a "faith and values" rally, and you'll hear plenty of warfare speech. Unlike past "crusades," however, such language is directed primarily at people perceived to be cultural and political enemies.
If we are too afraid of seeming Pentecostal to talk about the Devil, we will find ourselves declaring war against mere concepts, like "evil" or "sin." Where there are no demons, we demonize. And without a clear vision of the concrete forces we as the church are supposed to be aligned against, we find it very difficult to differentiate between enemy combatants and their hostages.
The Scriptures command us to be gentle and kind to unbelievers, not because we are not at war, but because we're not at war with them (2 Tim. 2:26). When we see that we are warring against principalities and powers in the heavenly places, we can see that we're not wrestling against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12). The path to peace isn't through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20).
Let's join the rest of the world in remembering September 11. Let's not flinch from the trauma, but let's not be paralyzed by it either. And along the way, let's remember to have sympathy for those who flinch at the trauma of our gospel, who wince when the light of God's judgment exposes their dark places. Let's remember that the hands we are reaching out with are scabbed over with Roman spike holes, and the cross we are holding out is caked in blood.
Let's remember, too, that the gospel brings peace and reconciliation to every Ground Zero in the cosmos. On the day when graves are opened, even those accidental tombs beneath the rubble of terror, we will see just how good this news is, even better than our shiny churches and happy choruses can convey.
But between now and then, it can be scary as hell.
Russell D. Moore is dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author most recently of Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Crossway).
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other Christianity Today articles from our September issue on 9/11 include:
How Leaders Have Changed Since 9/11 | Christian leaders describe how that fateful day shaped how they see the world. (September 7, 2011)
Flames of Love | How a terrorist attack reshaped efforts to reach Muslims. (September 8, 2011)
Believers on the MOVE | A suburban Chicago church ministers to Muslims at home and abroad. (September 8, 2011)
Saving the Superheroes | Portland-based ministry Responder Life sees police officers, firefighters, and dispatchers as an unreached people group. (September 8, 2011)
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