By noon on 9/11, a steady stream of people with a crazed mix of emotions, numb, panicky, teary, enraged, and confused, not knowing what else to do, showed up at churches like mine, even though it was a Tuesday. Much was said that week about God, sanctuaries were packed on Friday and again on Sunday – and now ten years have elapsed.
I try to think of all that has transpired, what has changed, how we are different. We might have hoped America would rise up like a phoenix from the ashes into a grand new epoch of greatness. But the overwhelming emotion I read in my gut is simple, deep sadness. Let me reflect on the sadness, the acknowledgment of which might be the best way to rediscover hope.
I know precisely where I heard the news, with whom I watched the unfolding horror, and the absolute urgency of needing to speak with and hug those I love but took for granted earlier that morning. A friend’s brother was in one of the towers: he phoned, said he was helping others to get out, and not to worry; we never heard from him again.
We all felt helpless, watching the utter and devastating helplessness of the unrescuable; I wonder about the long-term paralyzing effects of these harrowing images etched in our souls.
I could not sleep that week, and spent the wee hours in my children’s rooms, watching them sleep, grieving that they would grow up in such a violent world, praying for children I did not know by name whose parents had died in the attacks, or in efforts to rescue others.
Ten years ago, national pride swelled, and some vow was made to rid the world of evil. Ten years later, the economy is in shambles, and we are still mired in an unwinnable war (launched on the basis of dicey suspicions that proved to be wrong). Saddam and Osama are dead, but evil and violence still stalk the earth. The troubles of the world are so overwhelming we feel impotent, and don’t trust anybody any more. And perhaps we are less willing than ever to ask hard moral questions about the way we pursue security. We may be meaner than we were ten years ago; but if we are, it is because we are scared.
I’m a bit embarrassed we've proven to be shallow people. A decade ago this week, there was much talk about our unity as a nation, and that a great spiritual revival would sweep over our people. That marvelous feeling of unity lasted less than a month. Now the rage we should reserve for enemies in distant places is heaped on one another. We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us; politics is an embarrassment, and we have become a bitter, angry people.
The hypothetical spiritual revival was even more short-lived. Attendance in worship boomed – for about a week. Now, if anything, religion has been discredited. Wasn’t it a crazed, twisted faith that motivated the killers? And who looks more foolish? Those who say God orchestrated the events to judge us? or those who’d naively believed God would always protect us?
Where is the blessing from 9/11? If there’s a God, this deity isn’t a genie who shelters us but not others. If there’s a God, it must be a God who cares about all people, all countries, and until we think about a good God in all places, and the way that goodness in God can and should manifest itself through all religions, we will shrivel into permanently frightened, angry victims.
As a country, we now know what all other countries have experienced through history. Perhaps knowing, we can sympathize, and not intimidate so much as befriend, and maybe move toward the forgiveness and reconciliation that are at the heart of our faiths. We’ve learned that the immense power we wield (as our military still dwarfs all other militaries combined) cannot insulate us from harm; perhaps we can learn to ask how our bigness might foster understanding and peace. Perhaps we renew our claim to the moral high ground.
Where should 9/11 rank among the days? To me, 9/11 is like 12/7/41, or the day my grandfather died, or the day a tornado touched down and killed a friend, or a shooter rampaged through Virginia Tech – tragic days, solidly and thankfully in the past. Evil probably loves so much attention being lavished on such a dark, violent day.
More crucial, and hopeful world-changing days in the past for us Americans might be not 9/11 but 7/4, when the good of independence was declared, or 1/1/1863, when the unjustly enslaved were emancipated. My children’s birthdates merit pomp and circumstance, for they are days that celebrate life, not death. Is Ground Zero sacred ground – a place where evil pumped its fist? Or is it the labor & delivery room? Or our sanctuaries where we pray and hope? or the classroom where a student gets a bold idea?
What dates changed history? Christians point to Easter, Jews to the Passover liberation from bondage in Egypt; other traditions have their sacred, life-giving days as well. A graduation? A wedding? These are days with a future, with hope and joyful optimism. After a decade of grieving, fear and anger, might our next decade become one of a revival of courage and hope? Can we shake off the numbness and come back to life, to be the people who’ve been knocked down but get back up, unified not by rage but by hope, the kinds of people envisioned by those who signed on 7/4, the noble who celebrate Easter, Passover, birthdays, weddings or graduations? We reached out for meaning and help, love and hope, on 9/11. Might the best memorial be a new reaching out, and forward? Perhaps we may hope this 9/11 that there is such a God who can open a new window of hope, and the phoenix of goodness does finally rise from the ashes.