I was a senior in high school when the terrorist-driven airplanes hit the World Trade Towers. I will never forget the shock I felt as the news continued to go from bad to worse. One plane. Two planes. Another hit the Pentagon. One more in Pennsylvania, saved from their destination in the nation’s Capitol by the last-ditch heroics of the passengers. We all remember the broad sweep of emotions. What I remember most was the overwhelming sadness of what we had lost. Anger, too, was building up as we could not process such an unprovoked act of violence.

Amidst all the sadness, there is one prayer by a man from Germany that I will never forget. It was not Luther, Niemoller or even Bonhoeffer who prayed. It was an exchange student named Stephan.

Stephan was living with our pastor and his family, who had a son about our age. My brother and I would give the pastor’s son and Stephan a lift to school in our dad’s ’88 Bronco II. We had started to get into the blues at the time, and we had gotten our hands on a George Thorogood disc. Now, George is known for his drinking songs and that is about it. Stephan, having been brought up on Hefeweizen, would join in the family band, belting out lines like, If you don’t start drinking, I’m gonna leave. I have to be honest, most of the fun was drowning out the pious protests of the fourth passenger.

It was the day after the terrorist attacks that our schoolmates gathered at the flagpole to pray. Some prayed for justice to be done. Others prayed for a swift end to any conflict to come. Still others prayed for the families of the victims. For a collection of teenage theologians, we were doing a pretty good job. Then it was Stephan’s turn to lift up his voice. His words stick with me today.

Lord, I pray for those responsible for the attacks. I pray you would be merciful to them. I pray you would forgive them. I pray you would make them your own.

This was a different kind of love. This was something beyond the normal scope of our concern. This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer laid it out:

To the natural man, the very notion of loving his enemies is an intolerable offense, and quite beyond his capacity: it cuts clean across his ideas of good and evil. More importantly still, to man, under the law, the idea of loving his enemies is clean contrary to the law of God, which requires men to sever all convection with their enemies and to pass judgment on them. Jesus, however, takes the law of God in his own hands and expounds its true meaning. The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.

Sure, that sounds very spiritual and all, but what if your enemy is really bad, like Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin? Is there a point that our love for our enemies comes to an end? To represent my favorite non-biblical teacher in the right light, we should note Bonhoeffer was not executed for being a good citizen; he was executed for trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Can we hear Jesus tell us: love (our) enemies and pray for those who persecute (us) and reinterpret that to mean: hate your enemies and those who persecute you? Can we call ourselves followers of Jesus and take a starkly contrary position to Him on such an important matter?

Just a few months ago President Obama told us the man behind the tragedies of 9/11 had been killed. “Justice has been done.” We all watched as the crowds around the White House lawn celebrated in familiar chants of “USA, USA!” The past 10 years of our men and women—my generation—searching for this rogue had finally come to a conclusion. We can all understand the jubilant, proud chants of victory that seemed to spring up like water from a well of emotion. The word “closure” has been used in nearly every interview from basketball coaches to civic leaders.

But these reactions are disturbing as they are natural.

We serve a God who loves His enemies. Yes, hell is a real place. Yes, Jesus said at the end of time that He would lock away anybody who refuses to follow Him into hell and throw away the key. Yes, justice is important in the economy of God. We cannot minimize or overlook the real suffering that Osama bin Laden has wreaked on God’s own image-bearers. God will get blood for his evil—either from the cross (we do not know bin Laden’s final thoughts) or on his own head. That same standard applies for all of us. We serve a God who destroys His enemies…

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