Gerry O’Brien on the American tragedy

As I write, the unbelievable horror of television pictures from Manhattan are fresh in my mind. At first sight, airliners crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had the appearance of computer simulation effects such as one encounters in James Bond movies. But then the realization slowly dawned that this was for real. The smoke, the flames and the heat drove those below downward and those above upward. Unbelievably people jumped to their certain deaths from the upper floors. Fire crews and rescuers rushed to the damaged building.

Then, each tower in turn collapsed in a cloud of dust and smoke, hurling huge lumps of masonry into the streets below. Four thousand, maybe more, people lay dead in a pile of rubble a hundred feet high. Death had come in the morning to people who came to work an hour or two before, little suspecting what the day would bring. Across America people returned home that evening to find harrowing messages on their answering machines saying, ‘I love you.’ These, indeed, are voices from the grave.


It is hard indeed to understand the mind of a human being who buys a first class ticket and boards an aircraft with fifty or a hundred others. Then, with callous disregard for his own life and the lives of others, he uses the aircraft as a Cruise missile to crash into a building where 25,000 other human beings are at work.

Someone said to me that you have to admire the supreme dedication to a cause that leads someone to undertake a suicide mission. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘Christians do that sort of thing too.’ I thought of the priest who took the place of a Jew who was destined for the gas chamber. I thought of Christian martyrs down the centuries. I thought of Jesus himself, hanging on a cross. And then I thought of the selflessness that marked such Christians who died for the sake of others and contrasted it with the blood-lust of those who merely craved casualties on an unbelievable scale.

Where was God?

Another plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Hundreds more died, and people will ask their Christian friends, ‘Where was your God on 11th September?’

As I looked at newspaper photographs of all that remained of the World Trade Centre – the half a million tons of rubble and what looked like an army of ants trying to clear the debris, I asked myself what this scene of devastation was saying to those of us over here. That is not just a theoretical question because upwards of 200 of the victims were British. How should members of General Synod reflect on such scenes of atrocity?

I suppose we could say that the casualties are but a fraction of the numbers who died in the massacres in Rwanda a few years ago, and we didn’t do an awful lot about them. I suppose we could say that this tragedy pales into insignificance compared with the exploits of the infamous Pol Pot in Cambodia, or of Hitler’s Germany, or of the Japanese war machine.

On the other hand, are we not faced with the outworkings of human autonomy, free will that is not informed by a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?

It must surely be true that if the nineteen men, named by the FBI as the hijackers of the four aircraft, had given their allegiance to Jesus Christ – or even if a proportion of them had done so – then the events of Tuesday 11th September would not have happened or would have happened on a lesser scale.


If ever there was a stark reminder of the consequences of evangelism not taking place, this was it. How often do we hear people say that they like to keep their faith to themselves and how anxious they are not to press their faith on anybody else. Yet hundreds, thousands even might not be grieving and mourning today if only someone, or lots of someones, had taken Jesus seriously and gone into all the world to make disciples. Who knows, the passion of a zealot might have been redirected to serve the purposes of God. After all, that is the biography of the Apostle Paul, and who is to say that God is now so enfeebled that such a transformation could not happen today?

So has the General Synod a contribution to make? Could we perhaps turn aside from authorizing additional collects and fixing the remuneration of Diocesan Registrars? Could we transform the Church of England with its 10,000+ full time employees into an organization which could transform our society?

The point is that all the security checks in the world will not ultimately thwart the determined terrorist. Already there is talk of the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in further acts of terror – truly ushering in hell on earth. Only God’s Holy Spirit can change the human heart. Only the risen Lord Jesus can stop a man with hatred in his heart, like Saul, in his tracks and turn him into ‘a chosen instrument of mine’.


Perhaps the time has come to set aside our concerns about banns of marriage, standing orders, and all the other business we contrive to discuss and ask ourselves about our priorities. Should we be dusting down that venerable report of over fifty years standing, Towards the Conversion of England? Should we re-read it, or perhaps read it for the first time, and ask ourselves whether it may not have tried to set an agenda which is far more important in God’s economy than most of what we have discussed since it was published.

What comfort will a new collect be to a grieving widow and her children? If we love the people God has called us to serve, should we not regard the dreadful events of 11th September as a rallying cry to share our most precious treasure with people throughout this land and indeed throughout the world, those of all creeds and none? For all have hearts that the Lord Jesus longs to redeem – and every penitent who bows the knee to the Lord Jesus is a contribution to making the world a better place. This surely would be a worthy inheritance to leave to our children, far better than a world in which men rail against God and vent their hatred on innocents all around.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.