On 9/11, 2,977 people were killed by terrorists. In response, the American government, after a bipartisan vote, decided to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. As a consequence, a huge number of countless thousands of Middle East civilians have been killed by the Western military, a result that cries for soul searching and serious discussion.
Nevertheless, I am willing to yield to the argument that the proper role of our government is to protect its citizens. This column seeks not to evaluate our federal response, but instead seeks to consider my own individual response, given my Christian beliefs.
Although we think of large terrorist attacks as fairly recent phenomena, we should not forget that individual terrorism, on a smaller scale, can be found throughout human history. In a fictitious account, the classic novelist James Fennimore Cooper, in “The Oak Openings,” described the martyrdom of missionary Parson Amen by a small group of native Indians. Although the missionary had some mistaken ideas and often contaminated the essentials of the Christian faith by combining nonessential components of his European culture, in his dying words he clearly and powerfully proclaimed the Christian ethic of forgiveness through the message of the gospel. His gentle response in the face of this individual terrorist attack led to the conversion of one of the Indians. In the conclusion of the novel, this Christian convert demonstrated his mature faith, one in which he was able to communicate the Christian message in a broader cross-cultural context.
This reminds us of the true story of the Auca/Huaorani people in eastern Ecuador, when they killed Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and three colleagues in 1956. This small scale terrorist attack could have led to revenge. Instead, the situation was used to open opportunities to communicate forgiveness through the message of the gospel, leading to one of the most compelling missionary stories in recent times.
The greatest individual terrorist action of all time occurred when sinful mankind crucified the Son of God. Though sometimes blamed on Jews—as they were the active agents—and used as an excuse for anti-Semitism, these agents were fulfilling my own desires for self-worship. I am every bit as guilty as they were.
Christ’s response provides the ethical standard for all of us to consider. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Cooper wrote, “Such are our Christian laws. When Christ, the Son of God, came on earth to redeem lost men, he commanded his followers to do good to them that did evil to us, and to pray for them that tried to harm us.”
I am called as a Christian to be ready to “turn the other cheek.” Although the government has the role of defending its citizens, my individual role is to proclaim forgiveness through the message of the gospel.
I recognize that the gospel message of forgiveness is much larger and more important than the American value of freedom. Cooper also suggested this comparison in his novel when he wrote, “It is a good thing to possess … qualified freedom, which we term liberty; but it is a grave error to set it up as an idol to be worshiped.” I value my freedom as part of my Western heritage.
It is easy for me to suggest the need for forgiveness, as I was relatively protected from the events of 9/11. Nevertheless, I choose not to ridicule the faith of others, though I strongly disagree with it. I choose not to ridicule the prophets of other religions, though I strongly disagree with their teachings. I choose not to stereotype ethnic groups because of the choices and behaviors of a minority. I choose instead to pray for those who strike us on the cheek and otherwise terrorize us. My human condition is no different from theirs. Instead, I humbly bow before God and ask for his grace and mercy for myself, my countrymen, and the entire human race.
Father, forgive us all for our failure to love you, and to love one another.
Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.