It might seem like a strange thing to say, but my adult life has been consistently marked by the terrorist attacks of our era. I was out of college and in my second year at Princeton Theological Seminary when the World Trade Center was attacked just an hour’s train ride away.
As a St Andrews doctoral student living and working in Cambridge, England, I experienced the trauma and heartache from the environs of London during the 7/7 bombings of 2005. Ten years later, I was in Paris on a research trip when the 2015 terrorist attack took hold of the city.
Sadly, these devastating milestones of senseless violence have far from passed us by. Most recently, we have been watching the Taliban’s rapid takeover in Afghanistan, as it brings the country to the brink of economic collapse and certain widespread starvation.
Billions of funds have been frozen by the international community in order to force the Taliban to improve human rights and particularly women’s rights. The Taliban’s abusive treatment of Afghan women, as well as the violence against children, may leave us at a loss as we consider the magnitude of these problems.
What can we say and do in the face of terrorism as Christians? How do we find the words at such unspeakable moments?
As the sounds of Christmas carols ring in our ears, delicious smells waft through our kitchens, and the bright decor of Christmas fills our homes, it’s easy to forget that terror also punctuates the story of the nativity.
At the heart of that first Christmas story is God incarnate breaking into the terror-filled catastrophe of the human condition. The womb of a humble, young virgin girl was joyfully adopted as suitable for his coming. Rather than seeking refuge in the dignity of a palace fit for royalty, Christ joined the company of the stable. Instead of a military guard, God sent angelic warnings to a carpenter in his dreams.
Joseph fled to Egypt in the middle of the night with wife and child, newly made refugees, at his side. Herod’s horrifying call to genocide against “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matt. 2:16, NRSV) reminds us of the mass terror that was unleashed upon the innocents in response to the birth of Jesus.
The advent of Christ’s peace was not a peaceable affair from cradle to cross.
To grapple with the terror that surrounds the nativity story is to take seriously the season of Advent, that period before Christmas when Christians long for the intervention of God in the midst of suffering. As Fleming Rutledge describes, the Scripture of Advent is “infused with the language of darkness, tribulation, and apocalypse.” We wait in the dark for the coming of the light.
My own experience of terror has powerfully taught me that truth firsthand.
Weeks before the assault on Paris in 2015, I had managed to secure an apartment for my family. We had a cheerful time together filled with French cuisine, history, and gardens. A walk across the Tuileries Garden near the Louvre each morning took me to the Library for the Society of the History of French Protestantism, where I was researching French Bibles. In the evening and on weekends, we broke bread with dear old friends and their children. No one imagined that high alert, closed borders, and lockdowns awaited us.
On the morning of November 13, I headed to my usual archive, located on a quiet, unassuming street. Inside, the research room is illumined by the light of a grand, vaulted glass ceiling. The walls are lined with portraits of Huguenot leaders known for navigating the complexity of their French Protestant faith convictions in the tumult of the Reformation.
The charm of archival research is that you never know what you will find. In my research, I have turned through every single page of every French Bible that I have studied, because each one has the potential to offer a window into the past and a connection to those authors and readers. On that day, my window was Romans 8.
A heavy-handed annotator pointed me to the importance of verses 37–39:
For I am assured that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which he has shown to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. (author’s translation)
For the persecuted Huguenots, as well as for countless other suffering Christians through the centuries, this passage has offered profound comfort. In John Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 44, he draws upon Romans 8 as a simple confirmation of the role of suffering for the church in every age. We must “always be ready to bear the cross with [Jesus].” At a time when 56 percent of Christians in the US believe that “God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith,” this is a hard truth to accept.
In this passage, the apostle Paul declares to the suffering reader that God’s transformative love is greater than death itself. This promise comes from the pen of a man who, because of his commitment to Jesus, knew shipwreck, prison, flogging, starvation, slander, and ultimately capital punishment. Paul reminds the reader that nothing can diminish God’s life-giving, resurrecting love. This is the promise of Jesus Christ in a nutshell, and it is for you and for me.
After I left the research library that evening, I reflected on this truth as I made my way back to our rented flat. My walk home at sunset every day had become a time for prayers of gratitude and petition to God. That particular night, I felt a burden to pray the Lord’s Prayer with every step I took.
Slowly and deliberately, I began to focus on each word and phrase with careful intention. I remembered the words of a New Testament scholar friend who described the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer of defiance against a world that seeks to starve and condemn. The petition to “deliver us from evil” weighed on my spirit and lodged in my throat inexplicably.
A few hours later, a coordinated terrorist attack of suicide bombings and shootings began throughout the city, with one of the targeted areas only two miles away from our apartment. Some friends of ours in the city lost a childhood best friend who had been dining at a café when it came under attack. We wept and prayed with them at the news. Our family at home in America was distraught, since phone calls couldn’t get through.
We were spared from witnessing the violence, but the air was thick with fear and grief. We holed up in our apartment as the city grew quiet and tense. Paris had known terror before, but this felt like a tipping point.
On Sunday morning, churches were noticeably full, despite the city’s cautioning against leaving home. We had been faithful attendees of the American Church and were drawn to worship with the global community of believers gathered that Sunday. Security guards greeted us at the doors of the church, and we were ushered to a pew. As the pastor climbed to the pulpit, I wondered what message he would bring.
He opened his Bible, and then he read tenderly and confidently the very words that I had encountered in the archive—the words that have provided comfort to generations of readers and believers: “For I am convinced …”
I was stunned by the scriptural echo I was hearing.
On that bleak morning after one of the darkest nights in Paris, Romans 8 was still the place to turn—just as it had been for the Huguenots in their time. I found myself praying the Lord’s Prayer again, this time with the whole gathering of believers and in light of what had just happened.
While Romans 8 provided the comfort and promise we needed to calm our widespread heartache, the Lord’s Prayer rooted our grief and longing in the hope of Christ and his return to a world of terror. “Deliver us from evil, oh Lord,” we fervently prayed.
I have spoken those very words many times before and since, but in that moment, I felt their meaning with a profound urgency.
That bleak Sunday morning in 2015, the spirit of the Advent season was at work. It taught me that to wait and long for the coming of Christ is not only a faithful posture for the Christmas season but also for every day of our lives as we look to his return.
This is what it means for Advent to be apocalyptic: When we cultivate a habit of waiting for what Christ has already done in the Christmas season, it helps us to cultivate a habit of waiting for all that awaits us. Advent turns our hearts to the start—the great breach of God into our world—just as it turns our hearts to both the telos and new beginning of all that’s been promised.
Our world faces ongoing terrorism, a pandemic, the refugee crisis, climate change, and tense political division. One of the most beautiful and powerful aspects of the Christian faith is that it does not gaslight its followers about the true, bodily suffering that we experience as human beings in this world. The pain is real, and it hurts.
Romans 8 challenges us to grapple with the fact that Christianity is not a faith that promises the hardships of the world will disappear in the day-to-day if we merely believe enough or act good enough. Instead, we are promised the arrival of the one who enters into our suffering, displacement, and terror not through mere words but as the Word. This good news comes in the bodily birth, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human in one person. Advent leads us to the truth that there is no other hope apart from Emmanuel, who has come and is to come. Hallelujah!
Jennifer Powell McNutt is the Franklin S. Dyrness Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College; parish associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois; and copresident of McNuttshell Ministries Inc.