Like any homeowner whose property has just been ravaged by fire, flood, or vandalism, the whole population of the United States began wandering numbly last Wednesday morning through the wreckage of their society, trying to calculate the cost. The total was going to be astronomically high.
All apart from the unspeakable loss of life, you could also begin to measure the cost just by looking at the business pages of the newspaper. "Attacks may set record for insurers." "Full global recession 'highly likely.'" "Prices of oil, gold rise." "Businesses will likely see lower productivity." "Already weak airlines stand to lose billions." And those were just a few of the first morning's headlines.
The point is this: Sin always carries a high price tag.
Sometimes that price tag is expressed in literal dollars. That's why the financial markets staggered in the hours and days immediately following Sept. 11. Gas prices spiked briefly in Oklahoma City to $5 a gallon. Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued a terse warning against gougers of all kinds in Manhattan (although in this terrifyingly unusual circumstance, New Yorkers may actually be remembered for their charitable civility). New security measures at airports, and armed sky marshals in every plane, will hike the price of airline tickets for years to come.
It's the wages we always pay for sin. It's the tax on wickedness that we like to ignore, but that is a guaranteed part of God's inexorable plan for human society.
Sometimes that payment is exacted for our own sin. Sometimes we're called on to pay for the sin of others. In this case, there's plenty of both. Both "we" and "they" have worshipped false gods-and now we're being called on to look our idolatry square in the face.
High on our own Western shelf of false deities have been the gods of nominalism, materialism, secularism, and pluralism. And it's hard to think of more apt symbols of all those "isms" than the twin towers of the World Trade Center-anchored in the financial capital of the world, and capped as they were with transmitting towers for the major media and entertainment networks. Babel needed just one such tower; New York built two. And let me confess that I loved those towers; I walked beneath them just last May, and marveled at God's gifts to men and women to fashion and construct such places of beauty and service. But the false gods forsook us last week.
So is it just a little perverse that it was those very symbols that a group of Islamic fundamentalists focused on as they sought the favor of their false god through suicidal devotion? "Bullseye!," was the comment of two taxi drivers in Cairo as they watched footage of the burning and collapsing buildings in New York. But Gawish Abdel Karim, an embassy driver in the same city, went further: "The Americans have forgotten that God exists," he explained as he too offered his approval. (How strange that an Islamic fundamentalist might explain the problem with the very same diagnosis offered by a typical American evangelical-but still mean something so very different.)
Two kinds of paganism. One we explain away all too easily, and the other is so mystifying we can't explain it at all. But both displease the God of the Bible, the one who says, "Don't have any other gods before me." Nor was Sept. 11 the first time God has allowed one group of pagans to inflict terror, horror, and death on another group, or even on His own people. The wages of sin get paid on God's schedule and in God's way.
The answer is not to try to argue that somehow our paganism is a little less severe than that of the Islamic extremists. It is-and for that, we should be profoundly thankful. The so-called Judeo-Christian tradition, shaped by God's profound revelation in the Old and New Testaments, has always evidenced a compassion and tenderness unknown by all the rest of the world's religions. In recent years, Western society has tended to trade in that great heritage for a silly mishmash of relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism. But the half-wittedness of those value systems was hung out last week for all to see. The sins of America are profound, but deliberately flying a 757 into a skyscraper is a monstrous kind of evil.
But Christians shouldn't kid themselves. Nominalism and its handmaiden relativism are as repugnant to God as is outright denial-and maybe more so. To whom much is given, much is required. So as we call on God for help in these needy days, we'd better not come with our pedigrees or lists of qualifications and achievements. "No one comes to the Father, except by Me," said Jesus. For those who come that way, sin is still expensive-but Jesus amazingly promises that He is picking up the bill.