When approached to give the sermon at Central Moravian Church for this coming Sunday, Reverend Craig Atwood was tempted to decline. The thought of developing a message that might lift the hearts and spirits of a congregation in the midst of reflecting upon such a tragedy as 9/11 is a daunting task for any minister.
In his sermon, “Dealing with Tragedy in the House of Grace,” which will be delivered Sunday at the 9 a.m. service, Rev. Atwood will discuss the Moravian response to the events of 9/11 and what the events reveal about Moravians themselves.
“A crisis like 9/11 reveals our true selves," Atwood said. "Those who we call heroes, those who lost their lives saving lives, were heroes day to day ... Our actions in crises flow from deep convictions lived out in ordinary times.”
Crisis, he points out, calls individuals to self-examination, to consider “how, not if” one contributed to the disaster and make the necessary changes to bring about peace and harmony.
He will use the opportunity to remind Moravians of their pacifist heritage. As a Moravian historian and minister, Atwood will draw upon examples from the Moravians' past to illustrate how Moravians have historically dealt with and responded to violence and tragedy with the integrity of their faith and principles intact.
“It is important to remind people that our Moravian heritage is one of peace,” said Atwood. “You don’t respond to violence by escalating violence or instilling hatred.”
Atwood is the Charles D. Couch Associate Professor of Moravian Theology and Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary devoted to the history, theology and ministry of the Moravian Church and its importance in the larger Christian Church. He is also the director of the Center for Moravian Studies at Moravian Theological Seminary, an endowment-funded Center that underwrites programs to promote the scholarly study of the life and ministry of the Moravian Church.
In his sermon, Atwood will talk about the tragedy of November 1755, when a hostile Native American tribe attacked a Moravian mission settlement, Gnaddenhutten (which means House of Grace) in the Wyoming Valley just north of Bethlehem.
Members of the community responded by gathering to grieve, pray and sing. Those who had died were named martyrs to their faith. The Moravian community did not retreat but increased its mission to convert the Native Americans.
Twenty-five years after the attacks, on March 7, 1791, about 90 Moravian Native Americans living in an Ohio settlement, also named Gnaddenhutten, were murdered by an American militia under the command of Colonel David Williamson. Again, the Moravian response was prayer and repentance. They migrated the survivors to Canada but did not waiver in their non-violent response.
Revenge is not a Moravian virtue nor is it a Christian virtue, according to Atwood.
Until the Civil War, church doctrine mandated pacifism after which time it was left to the individual conscience to determine. Although this change opened the doors to allow Moravians to defend the country in times of war and to serve as chaplains, the majority of Moravians still value the golden rule and the sense of accommodation linked to hospitality according to Atwood.
“People’s individual response is not governed by the church as in the 18th century,” said Atwood, “most churches [in response to 9/11] use the power of prayer, look at ourselves, repent and do what we can.”
The modern Moravian Church has denied its heritage as a peace church and, as a consequence, lost is conscientious objector status in the 20th century.
Post 9/11, the Moravian church took a position on non-interference with the U.S. government and its efforts to wage war. Moravian leadership encouraged churches to reach out to the Muslim community and asked that ministers not to use the pulpit to escalate desires for revenge.
On Sunday, Atwood will ask the congregation, “do we respond with repentance and a renewed commitment to the gospel of Jesus, or do we respond in fear and hatred?”
Asked Atwood how he thought the congregation would respond to his query, he said: “My work as an historian is not always well-received in the church. There are those who have argued that we were never pacifists, just neutral.”
As a historian, he feels a duty to bring the past to light. As a theologian, he feels a call to bring light to the present.
“Sometimes the two work together to offer light for the future,” Atwood said. Ten years after the tragedy of 9/11, Atwood reminds Moravians their prayers, songs and liturgy remain beacons of light and hope through dark times.