On September 11, 2001, I was shopping in Old Jerusalem with my friend Lyla. I think that might have been the day I bought my little embroidered Middle-Eastern looking purse from Shabaan on Christian Quarter Road. We probably enjoyed some shekel pastries and took a meandering stroll through the Jewish Quarter to take some pictures; we did that often. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had had a very lovely afternoon. We were giggling about something as we entered campus after the hike back up Mount Zion. I remember our laughter dying suddenly as we entered the yard, slammed with a solemn atmosphere of mourning and fear. Not wanting to interrupt the small group of our crying and praying classmates, we tip-toed past them and pushed into the already crammed tiny computer lab. Every computer was on a different news site as the disaster in New York unfolded. 9am in New York was 4pm in Jerusalem. We were stunned as all 36 of us took our dinner plates up to the Koh’s apartment and gathered around the small television showing English CNN. The Pentagon had been hit; Ed’s dad worked there, and Ed couldn’t get a call through to find out if he was okay (he was).
It was a very different experience for us in Jerusalem than it was for everyone else back home. Even in the few short weeks we’d been there we’d grown accustomed to the shellings echoing off the hills at night, the strict security measures taken even when you enter the grocery store, the semi-automatic rifles slung over shoulders of young off-duty soldiers all over town, the need to strategize where you went and when. It had become just enough a way of life for me that, since I didn’t know anyone in New York, 9/11 brought me not so much fear as pause. I was stunned and grieved, but not surprised. I had studied enough history to know that the United States has been extremely blessed and fortunate to have escaped the global spread of terrorism for so long. While I certainly do not wish it on anyone, it has always seemed to me to be not a matter of “if,” but of “when.” I remember returning to the States the following December and laughing outright in the airport. We had been reading in the news about violation of privacy and complaints that security was too invasive . . . but all I had to do was take my shoes off! There were no semi-automatic weapons anywhere, no bag searchings, very few metal detectors . . . all standard procedure for getting in to pray at the Western Wall, but apparently much too invasive for American airports. Yes, my perspective on 9/11 was quite different . . . probably because I was able to see it in a much more global context.
My perspective does not, and never will, minimize the tragedy.
On December 1, 2001, there was only a handful of us at JUC because almost everyone had gone on a 2-week class to Egypt. We spent the day shopping in Jerusalem, and planned to go to a Ben Yehuda Street coffee shop after dinner. At the last minute our Armenian friend, Reuben, invited us to his house on the opposite side of town. I remember all of us sitting around his living room passing around glasses to taste all these interesting forms of alcohol that were generally pretty nasty to me; I fully confirmed that I find beer disgusting, and there was some kind of liquor that tasted alarmingly like black licorice. We moved up to his half-finished upstairs area where about half of us sat around his houka sipping fancy wine and the rest of us (my half) looked out over the city and chatted. Around 11:15pm, the city SHOOK and sirens started blaring. The odd thing is, I realize as I look over my journals, none of us freaked out about it. It was a 15-minute ride back to school, we didn’t get back until about 12:30, and we didn’t find out what happened until we were on the drive back. That’s how accustomed we had become.
What had happened was one of the worst suicide bombings in Jerusalem to that date by the Intifada. Two bombers had synchronized their detonation to go off at opposite ends of Ben Yehuda Street, and later a car bomb detonated in the middle of all the rescue efforts. At least 13 people were killed at the last count I know of, and more than 180 were injured. One of the bombs went off right outside the coffee shop we were planning to visit. God spared my life that night.
The next day was Sunday, and we were allowed to go to church as long as we were back by dark. I vividly remember climbing up a high hill toward the beautiful Jerusalem YMCA building where the church met. As I huffed and puffed along I listened to my companions discussing the bombing. When repeating the death count one of them said, “I think 12 were killed. Well, and the bombers, but they don’t count.” I understood what he meant. Whenever casualties were described in the newspaper, the bombers were listed separately from the death count (“4 killed, and 2 bombers”). The bombers were not casualties. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem right to think that they don’t count. As we continued walking, my classmates began to debate who to blame for this event. It had hit us so much closer to home than the Twin Tower bombings had. There was much verbal abuse of both the Intifada and the Israeli government for their constant tit-for-tat violence. There was much praise of President George W. Bush for his war on terrorism. And as I pondered this need to find someone to blame I so clearly heard the voice of God in my mind saying, “The blame is Mine.”
God is not, and never will be, responsible for the evil in the world. But Jesus took the blame for all of the evil when He died on the cross for us. The blame was not God’s, but He took it anyway. I understood in a new way that night the full weight that comes with paying the debt for all the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
All the sins of the world.
Not the sins of the really bad people who need extra credit in the forgiveness department. Not the sins of the generally good people who just need a little loan to get them through a rough patch. Not the sins of the people who are going to actually appreciate it. Not the sins of the people who had lived and died up until that time and probably didn’t know any better.
All the sins of all the people in all the world for all time.
Wikipedia says there’s a general consensus that Adam was created around 5000BC, give or take a few hundred years. That means that for about 3 hours Jesus bore upon himself the weight of, at the very least, SEVEN THOUSAND YEARS of sin. Not 7,000 years of one person’s sin, either. Seven thousand years of every sin of every person who was ever born. And that’s not counting all the years to come. No wonder the sky turned black! No wonder God had to look away!
And yet, Jesus took the blame. He took the blame for me the day that I wrote all my spelling words on my desk in 3rd grade so I could cheat on my test. He took the blame for those two men who blew up a street in an honest attempt to sacrifice their lives for a faith that had claimed all their passionate devotion. Jesus took the blame.
God showed me something beautiful that night. I have always thought of salvation and Jesus’ sacrifice as something personal and individual, just between Him and me. It is. However, there is another kind of freedom in the cross: the freedom to forgive. By taking the blame on Himself, Jesus eliminated my need to find someone to blame for the things that anger me. It will never be Jesus’ fault, but if He can forgive . . . who am I to remain angry? Because He took the blame, I don’t have to spend the time and energy necessary to stay angry and resentful, to be vengeful, to store up the darkness of unforgiveness in my own spirit and mind. God calls us to love others as He does. Fortunately, He already did the hard part. I only need to pray that God would give me the grace and compassion necessary to see others through the lens of His forgiveness. In this way salvation is, I suppose, communal.
Osama Bin Ladin was killed yesterday. I’m not sorry. I have no problem with capital punishment, so long as we’re really sure that the person on the receiving end is guilty; no question with Mr. Bin Ladin. God is a God of justice, and justice was served. And yet . . .
As I scanned Facebook last night I ran across this status update: “SO HAPPY that Bin Ladin is with Hitler now burning in Hades, but who did Trump fire?”
I have been praying lately that God would break my heart for what breaks His, and this sentence brought tears to my eyes. Not only does it reflect an attitude of vengeance, but also our skewed priorities. There is joy in the accomplishment of a seemingly impossible goal, in the completion of this phase in our national history, in a renewed sense of hope among the American people . . . but joy that another human being is condemned to Hell? God is not partial to sin; Jesus died for all sins alike (1 Peter 1:1-19). If Osama Bin Ladin, in all of his violent tendencies, was the only human to ever live . . . Jesus would have died for him, too. Jesus would have died only for Osama even if it wasn’t for sure that he would accept the gift of salvation . . . Jesus would have died just so that Osama Bin Ladin would have had the chance. And yet, there are those of us who rejoice in our attitude of vengeance and care more about who got fired on The Apprentice, since the news cut into the show’s time slot.
On December 2, 2001, I wrote in my journal:
“We seek someone to blame, but God says, ‘Why? I have taken their blame upon myself. I already carried out those boys’ punishments because I love them.’ God grieves for the hurting, but I think he grieves more for the deceived. These boys have given their lives for a lie.”
Our government places a hierarchy on the “badness” of behavior. Sin is not a behavior. Sin is sin, blackest black, and there are no shades of gray. We are all equally forgiven; yes, I am in the same category as the terrorists. To think otherwise is simply more sin (I Peter 1:17-19). God wants Osama in Heaven just as much as He wants me there, and if Osama had repented and accepted Christ 30 seconds before he was killed he still would have gotten a mansion in Heaven (Romans 10:9-13). I know this because Jesus made an example out of His own cross-mate (Luke 23:39-43), probably just to reassure all the really “bad” sinners out there that He loves and wants them no matter what any dumb old humans say. That is God’s love and God’s logic, not ours. Sometimes God’s love and logic are so much higher, and ours really just doesn’t matter. May we always strive to not only accept the gift of forgiveness for ourselves, but to love others through the forgiveness God has also extended to them . . . regardless of what we think about His decision and desire to include them in The Kingdom.