In the valley of the shadow

Reflections on the trauma of 11 September 2001

by Ken Sehested, with Kyle Childress
Written in the days following 11 September 2001


"How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become,
she that was great among the nations! . . . She weeps bitterly in the night. . . ."
Lamentations 1:1

Late yesterday morning—midway through a long car trip to visit my Mom and several mentors—I awoke in the home of a good friend, in the Nacogdoches, Texas, to the news repeatedly described in media accounts as the "horrific" events in New York City and Washington, D.C. Parties yet unnamed and unknown (though suspected) hijacked our own agents of affluence to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, twin symbols of global economic and military dominance.

As the details and graphic visual images flood our ears and eyes, "horrific" seems an understated refrain, and we are left repeating it, over and again, to underscore that which is too terrible for words. Knowing that my first-born and my beloved sister-in-law lived less than a mile from Manhattan's southern shore made the shock all the more poignant.

Here I sit, in the oldest city in Texas, reflecting via ancient Scripture on the archetypal drama of human savagery. The shedding of blood begun by Cain—against his brother Abel, early in Genesis 4—was geometrically escalated, by chapter's end, in Lamech's threat to avenge his personal honor seventy-times-seven. God's refusal of revenge—indeed, the Divine prohibition again human vengeance—was ignored with impunity then no less than now. It is an old story. But there is another story, indeed a counter-story, which can and must be told by the believing community.

What may we say, dare we say, in the face of such horror? Is there any hope, any healing, any harvest of mercy to be had?

There are, of course, reminders both of pastoral insight and prophetic challenge demanding our attention.

Pastoral insight

At a moment like this, the first engagement of the Body of Christ is to engage in the ministry of grieving—grieving for the yet-uncounted individuals and families whose lives have been crushed or crumbled by this catastrophe. We weep with those who weep.

Holy grief, the practice of lament, is not a form of self-centered pity but the willingness to crouch with those forced to their knees in the face of devastation. The billowing grief rising from this trauma is very real and will not be disposed of with the power of positive thinking. We have no quick answers or explanations—or even plans of action.

Among other things, the ministry of grieving is important because it implies that the community of faith has not lost touch with the pulse of God's intent in creation, an intent confirmed in the rainbow promise of Genesis 6 (following the flood), ratified in cruciform career of Jesus and dramatically broadcast in John's concluding Revelation promising the new heaven and the new earth, when all tears will be dried and death itself shall be defeated (21:1-4).

Furthermore, the ministry of grieving reminds us that we are not engineers of the coming Reign of Peace, but witnesses, pointing to where this Promise is breaking out even in our midst (and, conversely, where it is being opposed). Grieving is also a powerful antidote to the arrogance of self-sufficiency, to confidence in wishful thinking and human control. There is a sustaining force in the universe that we can trust, which is available but not manageable.

The second engagement for the Body of Christ is to intercede in prayer for the casualties of this catastrophe. Intercessory prayer is not a form of spiritual hocus-pocus; we have no magical wand to wave, to make the hurt go away. "The effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous availeth much," according to the King James rendering (James 5:16). We may debate exactly how this is so, but this much is clear: intercessory prayer keeps us in a heightened state of readiness to intervene with compassion when the moment arises, which is the third call to the Body of Christ.

The third engagement for the church in the face of this catastrophe—and surely this moment feels like an apocalypse to those of us in the U.S.—is to remind our congregations that the root meaning of "apocalypse" is not the advent of destruction but the occasion for uncovering. While God is certainly not the author of this pain, there is the possibility that, out of the grief, an unveiling may occur; and we must prepare to ask and respond to the question, "What is God saying to us?"

Left: "Tribute in Light" is an ephemeral light sculpture comprised of 88 searchlights placed at near the World Trade Center, projecting two beams of light that echo what was once the twin towers. Photo by Vivalapenler, Getty Images

Prophetic challenge

Grieving and intercession make us available for the ministry of mercy and comfort. This, of course, is what U.S. President George W. Bush attempted in his speech to the nation Tuesday evening when he referenced the psalmist's affirmation of hard-won hope: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (Psalm 23:4). It is very appropriate for the nation's leader to speak words of succor to the people. And the believing community should stand ready and willing to echo and amplify those words whenever possible.

Nevertheless, the Body of Christ must remain alert when Caesar quotes Scripture. The text of Holy Writ is forever threatened with being co-opted, is always in danger of being robed in the garments of empire, of being mobilized to endorse injustice, of being segregated from intended conclusion. And in Tuesday night's episode, President Bush neglected to note that the text he quoted pushes forward to the point of table fellowship with enemies.

Which brings me to the parallel, if less comfortable, work of prophetic challenge to which the Body of Christ has been ordained. An essential work of Gospel proclamation is theological interrogation of political propaganda. In short, the Body of Christ is called to ask the questions currently being disguised by newspaper headlines.

For instance: Not so long ago, following the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, state authorities, news media and common mobs alike began harassing people of Arab descent living in the U.S., only to discover that responsibility actually lay with one of our own decorated war veterans of European lineage.

Even if someone the caliber of Osama bin Laden, whose name has frequently been mentioned as a suspect behind the simultaneous, bloody attacks on the market-military monuments, is found to be responsible, the believing community needs to recall an embarrassing bit of history. It was the U.S. who originally recruited, trained and supplied bin Laden and his colleagues for guerilla warfare. Back then, his services were as a "hot" proxy agent in our "cold" war with the Soviet Union. He has since found a more lucrative offer on the "free market" of global political violence.

And of course there's the recent demonization of Saddam Hussein, whose original chemical weapons arsenal was supplied by the U.S. back when he was still our ally against the Iranian Ayatollah.

To our shame, and our peril, we have little knowledge of a millennium of Western meddling in Arab affairs, deposing this ruler, propping up that one, with no criteria other than cost/benefit calculations. Few in the U.S. realize that our nation, aided by Great Britain, has waged the longest bombing campaign in human history against Iraq. Since the formal end of the Gulf War—and without even the semblance of United Nations' authority—we have over the past decade, on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, continued to rain death from the skies.

UNICEF, the U.N.'s own child-welfare agency, has indicated that at least a half-million Iraqi children have died since the end of Desert Storm from causes directly related to the international economic sanctions. When former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright was asked point-blank on national television if the death of half a million children was worth the price of opposing Hussein, she said yes. We say no. The competition of loyalty is that stark. Choose this day whom you will serve.

Elisha's transforming initiative

There is another way, an option other than flight (in the face of genuine evil) or fight (violent resistance to injustice). It is a common, though grossly unattended, melody in Gospels—repeatedly echoed by Paul—the most insistent note of which is the stress on loving enemies. For the Body of Christ, the failure to love enemies is to hedge on Jesus.

Yet this theme is woven into the fabric of Scripture. Take for example the story of the Prophet Elisha's transforming initiative recorded in 2 Kings (6:11-23).

In the sixth chapter we are told that the King of Aram (Syria) is menacing Israel, sending raiding parties across the border to steal crops, livestock, even young people for sale as slaves. It was a conscious policy designed to effect Israel's submission to Aramean political, economic and military control, to make it a "client" state.

Political intrigue enters the story when the King of Aram notices that Israel seems to know in advance of all the King's military strategies. He suspects a "mole" in his security and intelligence apparatus. After extensive investigation, his trusted aides return with this shocking news: No, there's no spy in our camp. The problem is that Israelite prophet, Elisha, who somehow divines the King's most highly-guarded orders.

Left: Grieving at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Photo by Mark Kauzlarich for The Wall Street Journal

So the King of Aram orders that Elisha be "neutralized." Troops are assembled; they undertake a cross-border raid on the prophet's home; and under the stealth of night, surround Elisha's headquarters.

As dawn breaks, the prophet's student intern arises to fetch the newspaper. When he steps outside in the cool morning air, the sight of an Aramean army startles the residual slumber from his eyes. Panicked, he rouses his mentor.

When Elisha finally calms his protégé enough to get a coherent story, the prophet seems curiously unimpressed. "But we're surrounded by an army!" the intern exclaims. Elisha then initiates a prayer meeting. "Oh, Lord, please open his eyes that he may see." After the "amen," Elisha urges the young man to take another peak out the window. And he was dumbfounded by what he saw. The Aramean army was still there, armed and eager; yet surrounding their ranks was an even larger, encircling army of angels astride flaming chariots and horses.

At that moment the Aramean army advanced on the prophet. Elisha prayed again: "Close their eyes so they cannot see." And the entire army of Aram is struck blind. As the chaos ensues, Elisha steps out of the house, calls to the commanding general, saying, "I hear you're looking for the Prophet Elisha?" "Yes," comes the stuttered response from a confused and frightened voice.

"Well, he's not here," Elisha nonchalantly responds. "But I can take you to where he is." So this massive army, in comical, stumbling formation, meekly fall in line behind Elisha. Whereupon they are led straight to Israel's capital, to the king of Israel, inside the walled city—delivered into the waiting hands of their enemies!

The Israelite king is overjoyed and immediately sets about to order a slaughter. But Elisha has something else in mind. He prays again, this time to have the Aramean soldiers' eyesight restored. All present are then further confounded by Elisha's next directive. "There will be no killing here today. Put away your weapons; gather food and drink. Today we feast!"

And the mortal enemies sit down at common tables for a grand meal. When everyone is satisfied, Elisha instructs the Arameans to return to their home. And the story ends with these brief words, "And the Arameans no longer troubled the land of Israel" (6:8-23).

Part of our prophetic calling is to insist that there are rival, realistic and spiritually-informed political strategies which suggest an alternative to those policies which depend on superior fire-power and assume the need for political domination. We lift them up and, together with all who share this common vision, recommend them to our nation's leaders.

The Lamb of God

For the Body of Christ, the pivot point of the vision sustaining such political alternatives is portrayed in the symbolically-elaborate narrative of John's Revelation. In the fifth chapter, there is a picture of the end of history, the ultimate horizon. As the sacred book of life is revealed, an angel asks, "Who is worthy to open the scroll?" The text concludes that none is able, no one in heaven or on earth. Neither kings nor presidents, generals nor multinational magnates is able. And the narrator weeps at this admission.

Yet a member of the heavenly hosts exclaims that there is one and only one capable of opening the scroll: the conquering Lion of Judah.

But suddenly, without warning, explanation or transition, the image shifts and the text turns. Instead of a lion standing ready between the throne and heavenly hosts, the narrator identifies a lamb: "I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. . . ." Indeed, the Lion of Judah has been transposed as the Lamb of God. The Lion of Judah has conquered by being the Lamb slain. And as the Lamb opens the book, countless creatures and angels sing hymns of praise. "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing . . . for ever and ever!"

Overcoming the world's enmity will indeed come at the cost of much blood. But in the end only the power to relinquish life, rather than require it or remand it, results in a reconciled, restored community.

It is possible to fearlessly traverse the valley of the shadow of death; but not because we are the meanest S.O.B. in sight. No, because we have learned, as Jesus taught, that only those willing to lose life, for his sake—that is to say, for the sake of the promised Peaceable Reign of God—will find it.

P.S. (especially to pastoral leaders): Facing this tragedy will obviously require a season rather than a Sunday. There are multiple layers to this trauma, including the festering question, "Why do these people hate us so much?" When the time comes for this latter question, I urge you to have this dialogue, at least in part, in conversation with those who will likely become targets for racial/religious violence. They may very well need us to help fend off sporadic or calculated acts of vengeance. We also need them to help us comprehend the history that has prompted such hatred.

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Kyle Childress is pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church, Nacogdoches, Texas.

©Ken Sehested @