The tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001 now simply referred to as “9/11” happened 3 months after I graduated from high school. I could never have known while walking across the stage to receive my diploma that I would be beginning my young adult life in a world that was about to change forever. I still remember the morning of September 11, 2001 as I arrived fashionably late for work only to encounter one of my coworkers sitting outside smoking a cigarette and looking as dejected as a pig in a slaughterhouse. When I asked him, why he looked so sad; he looked up at me as though I had arrived from another planet and said “you didn’t hear? They got us.” Admittedly, thinking first about myself I thought, “damn, we must be getting laid off.” Then I asked the obvious question, “Who got us?” And I shall never forget his response, “the fucking terrorist. They attacked the towers,” he retorted.
At that moment I could never have imagined how the label “terrorist” and “terrorism” would define the next decade of life in the United States of America. Nor could I have imagined how much American treasure would be spent and how many lives would be lost in the name of defeating America’s new #1 enemy, “the terrorist.”
Days later, I sat with my coworkers as we watched American’s preacher, 83 year old evangelist Billy Graham, try to provide sermonic comfort from the pulpit of the National Cathedral to a country in collective bereavement. I didn't retain much of what Evangelist Graham had to say that day. I just distinctly remember at the conclusion of his message one of my co-workers asking the question with dissatisfaction, “yeah, but why did God let this happen?” At the time I took my co-workers query to be an indication of Graham’s failure to deal directly with the issue of why God would allow so many seemingly innocent people to die in such a way. Now, over a decade later I feel quite differently about the meaning of Graham’s words on that day.
Since Graham delivered his September 14, 2001 message I’ve had the opportunity to read his words carefully and I’ve come to understand that Graham, in his own way, did offer an answer to the question why would God allow such a tragedy to occur? He said,
“I have been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I do not know the answer. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and that He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.”
With these humble words, Graham directly answered my coworker’s question in the best way he knew how. The only problem was that my co-worker didn’t like his answer. In fairness to Graham, the question of why bad things happen to so-called good people has been debated for centuries and will continue to be debated. And certainly no reasonable person could have expected Graham to answer a question of the ages in a short sermon intended to speak to the collective pain of a searching nation. Graham, to his credit, provided the most honest answer he could by confessing that “…..I do not know the answer.” Perhaps truer words have never been spoken to a nation by an evangelical preacher of Graham’s ilk.
Normally the posture of conservative evangelical preachers and thinkers is theological certainty but Graham understanding the magnitude of the moment embraces wise theological humility. However, Graham’s words don’t only display humility they also reveal his characteristic refusal to speak honestly about the reality of social sin and injustice in American life.
A case can be made that Evangelicals of Billy Graham’s kind have routinely been on the wrong side of history when it comes to grappling with the major social issues that our country has faced over time. Consider the fact that most southern evangelicals opposed the abolition of slavery, the advancement of science, the right of women to vote, the civil rights movement, the desegregation of US society and the rights of women to choose. It’s documented that Graham himself refused to publically oppose racial segregation even after the appeal of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1957. In fact, according to the historian Talyor Branch, Graham, "broke King's heart" repeatedly by refusing to speak against segregation and then by publically suggesting that King's non-violent resistance course of action was not wise.
Therefore, taking Graham’s history into account I argue that the real issue with Graham’s 9/11 message was not that he didn't answer the question of evil; it was that he chose, once again, not to name the sins and evils at the core of the problem. In so doing Graham committed the conservative evangelical crime of forsaking the whole truth in order to protect the interest of the powerful in the nation. In my assessment this is the great shortfall of the conservative evangelical intellectual movement. Though they have a sincere commitment to the person and work of Christ and a fervent desire to share the good news of God as they understand it; sadly, too many evangelical intellectuals and scholars ignore obvious social evils due to a blind allegiance to the ungodly trinity of nationalism, privilege, and theological provincialism.
In my assessment, Graham’s unconscious commitment to this ungodly trinity would not allow him to tell and/or see the hard truth about the September 11 attacks. I consider this hard truth to be the reality that human sin and evil in us (as US citizens) and others are responsible for the tragedy that occurred. This acknowledgement should have led Graham to say that the mass killing of approximately 3,000 people on that day was tragic,unjustified, unnecessary, and the result of men with hearts filled with religiously inspired hate and vengeance. But it’s also the result of a country that occasionally acts with arrogance, global disrespect, and pride. One can only speculate how such an acknowledgement could have changed the course of the last decade. Very possibly a prophetic statement of this nature could have spurred a debate about the proper use of American power. And perhaps we could have saved the lives of some of our service men and women, not to mention saving the lives of countless Iraqis.
Today, some 12 years later, we have arrived at this moment in history treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered. As such it is important that we pause to remember those who lost their lives on that tragically sad day. But it’s also a time to send out a clarion call for progressive religious intellectuals to rise up and begin to speak loudly again. It’s time for pastors, theologians, and religious scholars who are committed to compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination and environmental issue to stand up and be heard. With the looming threat of war with Syria our willingness to join our voices with others of goodwill might be the only thing that causes our country to walk and not run into another war.
Finally, it might do us good to remember the words of our country’s most beloved progressive religious intellectual Dr. Martin Luther King in his 1967 Riverside church address concerning the Vietnam War. Indeed, as we pause to remember, perhaps, we should also pause to repent. Compassionately and critically yours, Bill Michael Honor