By Daniel C. Houston
Three Baylor professors of religion discussed weighty theological issues pertaining to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks Monday, struggling with how the Christian ought to respond to injustices and whether the Scriptures allow for supporting retribution.
Dozens of people, both students and professors attended the discussion panel, which was held in Miller Chapel and sponsored by the Baylor Religion Club. Dr. Bill Bellinger, chair of the religion department, and professors of religion Dr. Natalie Carnes and Dr. Reggie Williams served as members of the panel.
Williams said while the acts of the al-Qaida terrorist group ten- years ago were deplorable, they were driven by a fundamental belief that certain groups should be excluded from society, a belief Williams warned Christians can be susceptible to and should avoid.
“It is important to qualify that fact: [The terrorists] were human, too,” Williams said. “That recognition alone does something important. It’s far too easy after 9/11 to create groups of innocent and non-innocent which look human and non-human. We then seek to exclude the non-humans from our company; but if we recognize them as human, we can then see something of ourselves there, too. How do we practice exclusion?”
Carnes warned of another danger Christians face when their attention is drawn toward injustices overseas and away from human needs at home.
“Sometimes caring for the world and seeking justice for the world can be a way of ignoring our neighbors,” Carnes said. “So we sometimes get involved in international causes as ways of avoiding dealing with the fact that Waco has twice the poverty rate as a normal city of its size. So this is not to say don’t seek justice anywhere injustice is found; definitely do. But don’t let abstractions substitute for the people who are here who are part of the community.”
Dolly Hubbard, an audience member who served in the United States Army from 1994 until 2004, said she and her son, who signed up for the infantry after the Sept. 11 attacks, had trouble at times reconciling their belief in God with their dedication to U.S. war efforts.
“I started studying theology in undergrad,” Williams told Hubbard, “and the question that you’re asking reminds me of some of the questions that I still wrestle with in regards to pacifism, the question about whether or not a follower of Christ should be pacifist or is it okay for a follower of Christ to take up arms and kill the enemy. … If my allegiance is to the kingdom of God, what does that mean for me in war?”
Hubbard said she and her son came to a belief that the U.S. exists under the authority of God, and therefore their service to one was also serving the interests of the other.
“The only way I could ever come to any kind of peace about it was to assume that God had the plan and he had placed leaders in place that were the leaders he wanted there,” Hubbard said. “There are a lot of young men and women that I’ve known who are constantly battling this. It’s an internal war.”
Among other topics, Carnes emphasized the “profound sense of disorientation” many Christians and non-Christians felt in the days following the attacks, and said Christians should take care not to let their anger at the injustice become hatred.
“This disorientation,” Carnes said, “was compounded by a sense of ourselves as exposed, our sense of invulnerability temporarily shattered. Those very institutions that had seemed to assure our invulnerability now seemed to make us targets.”
Bellinger said Christians, in the midst of this disorientation and uncertainty, could take comfort in the passages of Scripture responding to the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C., passages which focused on what the Hebrews saw as the greater sovereignty of God above that of kingdoms of men.
“The basic message is: fear not,” Bellinger said “for I am with you. That is to say that the prophet [Isaiah] understood that the experience had to do with fear and that the way of dealing with fear has to do with the encounter with the divine presence.”
Dr. Jonathan Tran, professor of ethics and religion who moderated the discussion panel, said he thought the event was a success because it prompted a debate on Christian theology that is absent in mainstream coverage of the Sept. 11 anniversary.
“What I liked most was the interaction afterwards,” Tran said. “It was an honest, confessional but also still theological back-and-forth, so I thought it was great.”