Violence in the Houses of Grace, 9/11 and Moravian History

Central Moravian – September 11, 2011

Amos 6:4-7, Luke 16:19-31; Psalm 146

Introduction                When Pastor Carol asked me to preach this morning, I immediately agreed. I find it hard to say “no” to her, especially now that I am a member of the church. Then she reminded me that today would be the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and I was tempted to change my mind. This is a hard day for many of us, and I know that your thoughts are filled with memories of that dark time when planes were grounded, telephone communications were down, and television reports were full of tales of both horror and heroism. Some of you are too young to remember 9/11, but your lives have been changed as well.

Like many of you, I was unaware of the events unfolding in New York on that Tuesday morning. I was teaching a class on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at Salem College when the towers fell.  After class a colleague told me the news.  One of my first thoughts was how meaningless that class had been.  Suddenly what had seemed of vital importance for students to know at 8:30 a.m. seemed meaningless at 10:30 a.m.  My normal world was shattered as if it were an illusion. My experience is just a pale reflection of the experience of the tens of thousands of people who had to adjust to life without a spouse, a parent, or a child. I learned that week that my work as a chaplain and a professor was not meaningless as my students tried to make sense of what had happened and how they could respond as people of faith. We studied the ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims have dealt with violence and conflict in the past. Many Americans lost their innocence and discovered that we do live in a dangerous and sometimes hostile world. The rest of the world knew this already. One thing we learn from history is that Christians in every age and every culture have been confronted with similar tragedy, suffering, and fear without losing their faith.

Revealing Who we Are:                     I spoke at many gatherings and vigils in the days that followed 9/11. I’d like to share with you some of what I said in a Moravian congregation on Sunday after the terrorist attacks. “This week we discovered just how far men of hate will go in expressing their wrath.  We also found how far some will go in acts of courage and valor.  There were those who were willing to die in order to bring destruction on others.  There were also those who willingly gave up their own lives to prevent the deaths of others. In between the hatred and the heroism were millions who watched and prayed and wept. People across this country and throughout the world have been in prayer, both privately and in large gatherings and vigils.  I walked into the chapel at Salem College to see housekeepers, groundskeepers and students bowed in prayer together. And here we are gathered in prayer, hoping for comfort and guidance.  Here we are singing in the midst of tragedy. There are times when there are no words that express what we feel, but music speaks to us and through us to bring the healing that we need. Our many voices, with our many pitches, all somehow unite in sentiments that are harmonious and true and beautiful even in the midst of our greatest nightmares.” That was ten years ago.

Ten Years Later                       As citizens and as people of faith, we continue to struggle with what happened a decade ago. Sometimes people say that everything changed that day, but that is not true. Many things remained the same. Courage, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness remain Christian virtues. A crisis like 9/11 reveals our true selves.  Those we call heroes, those who lost their lives saving lives, were heroes day to day.  Those who voluntarily crashed their plane Pennsylvania could give up their lives to save others because they had learned to sacrifice themselves in small ways for their children and friends each day. Our actions in crises flow from deep convictions lived out in ordinary times.

Crises reveal who we are. They also call us to examine ourselves and to see where our ordinary lives have become disordered and destructive.  We are asked to look within to see how, not if, but how our actions, words, and attitudes contributed to the disaster.  Crises call us to repent, not in the way some televangelists mean repent, but in the biblical sense of “turning around.”  We are called to turn around and see where our individual and national lives, our ordinary lives, need to be re-ordered and redirected. This is the message of the Scripture lessons for this morning. The prophet Amos preached to Israelites who were about to be taken into exile and told them that they were suffering because they had enjoyed their luxury while ignoring the poor in their midst. The rich man in Jesus’ parable recognized far too late that he should not have ignored the poor man at his gate day after day. Our Psalm praises God because remembers the poor and outcast that we prefer to forget. These Scriptures remind us that one of the central messages of the Bible is that God is a God of justice, and that we are called to end oppression in this world. Our Moravian ancestors read these same passages and felt a call to bring the good news of liberation and salvation to some of the poorest people in the world. They were inspired to lay down their lives and share their resources with others. They took the radical risk of love.

Moravians                   I think it is helpful to look at how our ancestors responded to instances of violence. For most of our history, the Moravians were pacifists who avoided taking up arms except in self-defense. The founders of our church tried to live strictly by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructed his followers to love their neighbors as themselves and even love their enemies. One of our early theologians repeated asked how can anyone claim to love a person while maiming or killing him.

We Moravians should keep in mind that many of our ancestors were killed centuries ago because of their faith. At times they had to worship in hiding, but they did not deny their faith by responding to violence with violence. Bishop John Amos Comenius was one of the most prominent advocates for peace during the violent days of the 17th century. He saw his church destroyed. He and many other Moravians were driven into exile by religious violence, but Comenius believed that Christians can and should work together to solve conflicts before they escalate into violence. He also argued that the primary purpose of government is to preserve the peace. When governments fail to preserve the peace they fail as governments.  He believed that churches fail when they do not follow the teachings of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

As many of you know, in the 1720s the Moravian Church was reborn from the ashes on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. What many Moravians do not know is that Moravians in the 18th century were also pacifists. Moravians went into the word armed only with the good news of salvation. Several governments, including the British Parliament, exempted Moravians from swearing oaths and bearing arms. Moravians did not take up arms during the French and Indian War or during the American Revolution even though Moravians died in both those conflicts. Individual Moravians who joined the militia were excluded from the church until they repented and laid down their weapons. There was an article last week from the Associated Press about the Moravians having to pay additional taxes during the American Revolution because they were pacifists. Rather than fight in the war, Moravians set up hospitals and tried to restore life and health in the midst of death and hatred. Moravians in Europe suffered during the Napoleonic Wars, but they also maintained their commitment to non-violence until the 1800s. Over time the church made military service a matter of personal conscience, and many Moravians have bravely worn their nations’ uniform, but the church still prays for peace. We pray that our soldiers will be able to come home and that they will be unharmed in body and undamaged in soul.

Gnadenhutten Two great tragedies struck the Moravian Church in America within a quarter of a century in the 1700s. These were the equivalent of 9/11 for the Moravian Church at that time. As you may know, the Moravians had an extensive mission to the native peoples of America. Dozens of men and women were sent out from Bethlehem to the forests of Pennsylvania and New York, and hundreds of native people were baptized in the name of Jesus and welcomed as brothers and sisters. One of the Moravian mission stations was named Gnadenhutten, which houses of grace. It was in the Wyoming Valley just north of us. Even though Moravians were pacifists, they got caught up in the violence of nations at war. In November 1755, a band of hostile Indians attacked the mission and killed eleven Moravian missionaries, including women and children.

When news reached Bethlehem that so many brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues had been brutally murdered the Moravians gathered in the church to cry, and pray and sing just as millions of Americans did ten years ago. The pastor, August Gottlieb Spangenberg, declared that the missionaries were martyrs like the martyrs of the early church. They died in witness to their faith in Christ. Spangenberg also told the community that the tragedy was a call to repentance. He asked them to reflect on what sins may have contributed to this tragedy. Many were angry about what had happened, but rather than retreat from engagement with the world, the Moravians in Pennsylvania decided that they should increase their mission to native peoples. They decided that God was calling them to reach out in love in the midst of conflict. Only the gospel of peace could counter the councils of war. Rather than seeking revenge or victory our ancestors responded to violence with a renewed commitment to love and the pursuit of peace.

When their neighbors formed a militia to take revenge on Indians in the area, the Moravians brought dozens of Indian brothers and sisters to Bethlehem for their protection. They built a small village called Nain for the Indians. We should note that even though they were pacifists, the Moravians in old Bethlehem were not naïve or foolish. They established a defense for Bethlehem, which included armed sentries, but the intention was to frighten attackers away. Spangenberg instructed the defenders to avoid shooting or killing anyone. He reported: “I called all the Brethren together and begged them for Jesus’ sake by all means to spare the life of every hostile Indian, and if one was, perchance, shot in the legs, we proposed to take him in for treatment and care for him with all faithfulness until he recovered. I fell upon my face and besought the Saviour to graciously prevent all bloodshed at our place, and, to Him be thanks, He heard our prayer.” Despite their fear and anger and grief, the Moravians relied on prayer and compassion, wisdom and courage, rather than revenge and hatred. And they labored for reconciliation.

Sadly, 25 years later another group of Moravians was cruelly massacred. This time it was ninety Moravian Indians living in a village also named Gnadenhutten, but this Gnadenhutten was in Ohio. In March 1781 an American militia under the command of Colonel David Williamson came to the village. The militia was investigating the murder of a frontier family by natives who were fighting for the British. The Moravians in Gnadenhutten were pacifists who had not been involved in that assault, but they were easy targets for revenge. The American militia held a mock trial and decided to execute the people who had welcomed them to their village. To their credit, some of the militia refused to participate in this crime, but rather than prevent it, they simply left. The militia locked everyone in the church, and a Mohican pastor named Abraham spent his last hours preparing his people for martyrdom. Thirty-five of the victims were children, two of whom survived to tell the tale.

The Moravians responded to this atrocity in the way they had for centuries. David Zeisberger, the missionary, did not abandon his flock. He gathered together those members of the church who had not been in Gnadenhutten, and he took them to Canada where they would be safe. The whole Moravian Church was shaken by this tragedy, but they did not respond in violence. They prayed for those who had died and kept their memory alive. Moravians continued to work with native peoples and advocated for them for decades. They did not respond with violence and hatred, but with grief, prayers, and a renewed commitment to missions. They remained faithful.

Conclusion:                  What we can learn from our past is that hatred, violence, and revenge are not the only ways to respond to violence. We know from our history that it is possible for the followers of Christ to respond in faith and love even in the darkest of times, but it takes courage. It is also takes practice. Our Moravian ancestors responded the way they did because they lived each day in the love of Christ. The crises they faced revealed who they really were. 9/11 and similar tragedies challenge us and reveal to us who we really are.

Our Moravian ancestors knew that the only war that God calls us to fight today is the war for justice for all God’s children, in every corner, in every street, in every tent, and every home in this world. We serve the Prince of Peace, not the ancient gods of war. The only time Jesus called us to lay down our lives is when we sacrifice ourselves to give life to others, not to bring death. When times are darkest and the world is most frightening, it is vital that Christians bring light and hope. This is what we can learn from Scripture and from our own ancestors in the faith. The question for us today is how will we respond to violence. What will we teach our children? Will we reach out in love to our neighbors and forgive others as God forgives us?

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