The 10th Anniversary of 9/11
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
10 years ago this day, we were fixed before television sets, unable to comprehend what our eyes were seeing. Low-flying jets roaring down the avenues of Manhattan like avenging demons, exploding into the World Trade Center towers. People jumping to their deaths from unimaginable heights, as those on the ground looked on with horror. The towers crumpling like a stack of cards, as 3,000 office workers, firemen, and police were crushed under tons of debris. Hordes of pedestrians running for their lives from a vast, billowing cloud of smoke.
Last winter, I went to the site. For me, the most powerful experience by far was visiting St. Paul’s Chapel, part of Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall St. St. Paul’s is up a small rise and just a little ways from Ground Zero, but amazingly, it was spared any damage. As the dust cleared after the towers fell, there it stood, its high steeple gazing serenely on that terrible scene below.
Before anyone had a chance to think about the consequences of what they were doing, the Episcopal community there became the center for rescue and recovery workers. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 8 months, countless volunteers ministered to the weary and the traumatized - cooks, massage therapists, clergy, musicians, prayer partners, social workers.
Exhausted recovery workers slept on cots with hand-made quilts and teddy bears made by volunteers. They prayed in the pews and held quiet conversations, doing whatever they had to, to maintain their sanity after digging through rubble for body parts. Today, around the perimeter, there is a permanent exhibit of what took place. The most moving of all are the photographs people left behind, with candles and notes. It is heartbreakingly sad, but it is also a place of resurrection, where we see the transcendent power of human and divine love that triumphs in the midst of evil and death.
This weekend I’ve also been thinking beyond the initial event, about what has taken place over this past decade. There has been much good. As we heard Joseph say to his treacherous brothers in the first lesson today, - Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good. God always brings some good out of evil. That’s the power of the resurrection.
There is a greater awareness of Islam, more books, news, movies, and interfaith activity. Particularly since this year’s revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere, most of us understand that not all Muslims are the same. We have improved our security, as any airline passenger well knows. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are practically powerless. We have a greater appreciation for the great sacrifices that our soldiers and their families make.
But in the past decade, we have also done harm. As all humans do when in mortal danger, we have thrashed around into some pretty dark areas. Because of the evil done to us, we have justified doing evil to others: torture, secret prisons, unspeakable things hidden from public, even Congressional, oversight. And most destructive of all, a devastating war in Iraq that had nothing to do with 9/11, but was sold as such.
We must be careful not to become what we hate. As St. Paul said in the second lesson two weeks ago, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Now it’s easy to dismiss this as a naïve sentiment in the dangerous world we live in. And yet this is the gospel we profess to live by: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. This isn’t some abstract ideal. Jesus is actually asking you and me to do good to those who hate us.
In today’s readings, we hear of Joseph forgiving his brothers who had sold him into slavery, taking care of them in a time of famine. In the gospel, a man is chastised for refusing to have mercy on someone who owed him money, after he had been forgiven his own debt. And Jesus tells us to forgive those who sin against us not just 7 times, but 77 times – that is, without ending.
But how do we forgive those religious fanatics of 9/11, caught in the grip of evil, who murdered 3,000 of our fellow citizens? For that matter, should Jews forgive the Nazis? Should Muslims forgive Christians for the Crusades? Are some things unforgiveable? Not according to Jesus.
Some resolve this conflict by saying that faith is entirely about private matters and personal relationships. A different set of rules governs public life. But this isn’t consistent with scripture or church teaching. We are accountable to God’s ways throughout our whole life, not just compartments of it.
Last week I talked about how we might continue to love those from whom we have had to separate ourselves. In this case, I said, love might consist of refusing to imagine them as one bad thing and demonizing them. It would include trying to understand their point of view, especially their pain that causes them to be harmful. It would include looking at our part in things. All of this is very difficult to do, of course. It is a kind of cross, a form of self-denial.
I don’t know about you, but in the past decade I have heard relatively little about trying to understand why so many young Muslims are angry with us. In order to understand them, we would need to look beyond the monstrous actions, beyond their many wrong views. We would need to look to their motivations, to their sense of injustice and pain, to see why they are vulnerable to the magnetic force of evil.
Remember that it was the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that were attacked. These buildings were symbols to the attackers. Is it possible that they have a point, that perhaps global capitalism and American militarism may not always be a good thing for everyone? That perhaps we should be less cocksure of our way of life, and more sensitive to those who don’t want it taking over their world? To even entertain this question is a form of humility and self-denial. Not even our President seems willing to get near this cross.
This kind of reflection doesn’t mean we will end up tolerating violence against us, unless you’re a complete pacifist. But it might mean that we look for ways to overcome evil with good. It might mean that we look for ways to care for people who might otherwise become our enemy.
In the last decade, I have heard relatively little about this, as well. It’s mostly security and tough talk, even among politicians I like. What about a massive global buildup of the Peace Corps, economic development, education, healthcare – aren’t these things more inexpensive than war? Don’t they make friends? Aren’t they forms of love and forgiveness? And in the long run, won’t they overcome evil with good?
This is how I want to honor the dead of 9/11. I want to make sure we create such good will among those who are radically different from us that they will not think of doing such a thing to us, ever again.
And I also want to respond to this dangerous world with something that I have far more control over, my own life. Peace begins in the human heart. If I keep learning to forgive, to understand, and to create good will even toward those who don’t act the same towards me, I will have contributed to peace in this world.