We all remember what we were doing thirteen years ago today. Where we were. What city, what building, what room. What was going on when we first heard the news. I had arrived on-campus for seminary classes just after the first plane struck Tower 1 and walked into the commons to find myself standing with masses of motionless students, staff, and faculty staring blankly at hanging television screens. All in silence. Bewildered by freak accidents. I remember the piercing gasps as pixels composed before us that second plane. Situation clarified. Fear intensified. Eyes struggling to hold back tears.
I recall the events that followed, those of rescue and consolation. Days of frustration, anxiety, and panic, of declarations, vengeance, and war, those of grieving, cleaning, rebuilding. Days of mixed emotions, tainted assumptions, and sobered-up dreams.
And I remember what I was doing just three years ago on this day. A couple days ago, I was reminded of a tenth anniversary commemoration that I had participated in. This was back when I was still pastoring in Westmont, Illinois and was invited to take part in a Chicago-area memorial event, recognizing the horrors that still affected us so deeply ten years later.
I was invited to lead those assembled in a prayer. The program’s multiple prayer segments included a “prayer for families who lost loved ones,” a “prayer for rescue workers and citizens facing health issues,” and a “prayer for members of the armed forces.”
But I was asked to lead in something else. I was asked to offer a “Prayer for the Terrorists.”
Yes, I was invited to stand up before a whole community of Americans gathered together on Patriot Day and to lead them in a prayer on behalf of those that had part in attacking the United States of America on September 11, 2001. I was asked to shift prayers from those for our soldiers to those for whom our soldiers were fighting against.
And I accepted.
I was a little unnerved about the idea. But honestly, I thought it to be a good one, one rooted in Matthew 5’s command of Jesus to pray for our enemies. So even as a group from our church managed the refreshment buffet and kept hot coffee flowing to the gathered community, I took my place before the people. I began by stating the obvious elephant, that the idea of praying God’s blessing upon terrorists was truly a discomforting concept. I then read Jesus’ command aloud from Matthew 5 and commended the event’s organizers for taking the Bible’s instruction so seriously.
And then I prayed. I prayed the carefully selected words just as I had written them out and saved them to my hard drive a few days prior:
Dear Heavenly Father,
Your Son and our Lord Jesus taught us to pray even for our enemies. And so as we mark this day of tragedy, we pray for those who have carried out such acts of terror against us.
We pray that just as you very practically and tangibly send sun and rain for the crops of those both evil and good, both just and unjust, so Father we pray your tangible and practical blessing on those who have committed evil and unjust acts against us and our nation.
We pray for those individuals who acted against us on September 11, 2001 as well as for those others acting across years and decades and generations. We pray for those terrorists both international and those homegrown. We pray for those members of al Qaida and for any and all others who crave our nation’s destruction.
Though this is not an easy prayer, we pray that you use it to make us more like Jesus even now as we utter these words with great difficulty.
We pray your blessing on our enemies. We pray for them clothing and food and shelter and daily provisions, for health and long life, for rich relationships and true community, for their joy and their peace.
God, we confess even now how crazy it seems that we would pray such things for those who have inflicted terror upon our land and murdered our loved ones. We confess how conflicted we feel praying such prayers even alongside those for our own troops and our own military victories and successes. But yet we do pray these things and acknowledge that, though paradoxical, these two prayers are not contradictory.
And so we pray for our enemies. That you would bless them. And that your blessings would be so profound and your generosity on their lives so overwhelming that your presence would be unmistakable and your grace unavoidable.
O God, we pray your blessing on our enemies… Not to reward their actions, but to make evident the pointlessness of their actions. Not to bolster their hatred, but to silence it. Not to intensify their terror, but to bring it to an end. Not to further their cause, but to transform it.
And we pray that all this would come not by our own actions of destruction but by our generosity.
We pray your blessing, your joy, your peace, even on our enemies–especially on our enemies because only then can we truly pray your blessing, joy, and peace for the entire world.
Saturate this world in your love and forgiveness, we pray.
Now I’m not exactly sure why my thoughts were brought here earlier this week, but brought to this prayer, they were. And now that I am no longer a pastor and no longer a Christian, I’ve been introspecting on how much my essential attitude has changed since I offered this prayer just three years ago. And I still can’t believe it’s only been three years. Feels like an eternity…
I suppose it should be expected that absolutely everything has changed now. That as an atheist I must now be bitter and angry at the world, that I hate everyone without mercy. Especially fundamentalist Muslim religionists. Or I suppose others might expect me to now hold a worldview where all sense of morality and ethics have been lost. Maybe they would suspect I’ve now misplaced all justification for any kind of Right & Wrong. That I must now support jihadists’ freedom to do and rampage and destroy whatever they feel like. And I would be a hypocrite to force a sense of morality on them when I have personally left it all behind.
People seem to have lots of expectations on what atheists are supposed to think and feel. Blame it on the Straw Man, I guess. I’m not sure what my position is supposed to be. But I can tell you that, honestly, not much has changed.
Or at least the underlying sentiment hasn’t really changed. I mean, I wouldn’t form these thoughts as a prayer, per se. And I wouldn’t look to a supernatural being to bring my sentiments to fruition. And I suppose my attitudes toward government-sponsored prayer rallies have evolved a bit as well. But my feelings toward the actual terrorists haven’t really changed.
I want a better world for all of us. Even as ISIL works to threaten so much of the Middle East and unto the edge of the world… Even as President Obama has now issued airstrikes over Syria and sought to rally our nation in last night’s speech… Even as some of our very own Americans have left our homeland to join the cause of our enemies… Truly wanting a better world means wanting a better one for everybody. Is it naive to really think that such an ideal is possible? Maybe. But even if it’s not exactly realistic, is it not a worthy goal to strive for?
And so, yes, I do wish goodwill toward the terrorists. Not to–How did the prayer word it?–Not to reward their actions or further their cause, but to render their actions pointless and transform their cause. I’m not saying we shouldn’t punish criminals, nor do I think we should let monsters run free. But if what I’ve read is true that potential terrorists are angry and bitter at the West, if they feel betrayed, and that this anger, bitterness, and disenchantment makes them easy recruits… And if what I’ve read is true that the better fed and clothed and cared for, the less likely human beings are to willingly fall in line before subjugators, then yes, for the good of the Middle East right along with that of the whole world, I desire food and shelter and clothing and joy and peace and internet for our enemies–even for our enemies. Especially for our enemies. Not because I want their abuses to continue unchecked. But because I want the abuses themselves to ultimately run out of fuel and motivation. I want the sons and daughters of terrorists to grow up to be doctors and lawyers and grocery clerks that love life and peace and the freedom of religion.
So yes, my sentiment remains. I still love mercy. I still love my neighbor. And I don’t need religion to maintain my ideals. I love the United States of America, and I will fight for her as best I am able. And though I might not spend this Patriot’s Day in prayer for our enemies, I certainly look for ways to advance peace in hope of a day when terrorism will be no more. I dare to dream a dream where terrorism’s ambition is laid aside as all humanity finds a freedom to believe or not believe as they themselves feel led, one that is no longer compelled by sword, legislation, or public pressure.
I love my nation, one that guarantees me and all my fellow citizens the freedom of life and love and the pursuit of happiness. The freedom of religion, be it Christian religion, Muslim religion, Buddhist religion, or no religion as all. To even be an “infidel” as Jefferson put it. I am thankful for the freedom of religion we have, and I desire that freedom for the whole of the world. I’m not exactly sure how all this intersects with fundamentalist terrorism, but I hope that one day their warriors are able to see an end to their pointless destruction and that one day they may taste the sweetness of peace and freedom. Sounds like a job too big for Superman. And I’m not expecting Zeus to step down from the clouds in a rush for relief. But hopefully over the course of time and the development of reason, we will find a new day over the horizon. One where we no longer need to pray for terrorists. Because the word itself has become obsolete.