The 9/11 Effect

I was in the car line at Bruno Montessori Academy in Birmingham, Alabama. As the car idled and my five year old daughter gleefully kicked her legs in her car seat, eager for her kindergarten day to begin, I heard a snippet on NPR, saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Of course, there is no need for me to recount how that day unfolded, and the many days thereafter. All of them can be characterized with one word – fear.

Terrorism thrives in its ability to engender fear, because the terrorists know that fearful people are easier to manipulate, easier to bend toward the mindset of the terrorists themselves, a mindset characterized not by concern for neighbor, but only self-preservation. 9/11 was an attempt to terrorize America into a fearful society.

Marilynne Robinson, in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, says that the terrorists largely succeeded. She writes, “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful for me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

I was taken aback by her words, even as I saw the truth of them immediately, in the life of the nation, in the life of the church, and in my own life as well. How easy it is to let fear and anxiety take root; how hard it is to cultivate Christian habits of mind!

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is from Mark 8, where Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. After they give him a range of answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets), he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who responds immediately, “You are the Messiah.”

When Jesus begins teaching that the Messiah will suffer and die, it is Peter again who takes him aside and scolds him like a child, telling him these things will not happen. Jesus turns and looks at his disciples and says, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Then he gathers all the people around and teaches the difference between human and divine things. “Those who want to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save them. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their life?”

Setting our mind on divine things. Cultivating a Christian habit of mind.

It is a word our anxious nation needs to hear, especially in a political season when both sides will not hesitate to stoke fear for political gain.

It is a word our anxious churches need to hear, especially in my denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA), which is easily overcome with fear of decline, loss of influence, and the steady drumbeat of voices who would have us believe division is preferable to unity, and that communities of the like-minded are preferable to diversity.

It is a word I need to hear as a pastor who too easily succumbs to the siren song of self-sufficiency, who forgets too readily that Christ is the Head of the Church and that the church already has a Savior and a future of hope that I am called to join, not create.

And it is a word I need to hear as a husband and parent and son in a season of life of much change in our household, with all the anxieties and fears that attend those changes.

Robinson says in her essay, “As children we learn to say, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

Amen. I intend to cultivate that Christian habit of mind.

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