Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 and Beyond

Few of us had only one reaction to the news of September 11, 2001. When I heard the report of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center that morning, I was shocked and saddened. I thought, as many did, that it was a freak accident. I also said a prayer for the pilot and passengers under the impression that it was a small plane and went back to my work in the church office. But when NPR broke into their rebroadcast of the first two-hours of Morning Edition with the news that another large passenger plane hit the second of the Twin Towers, I knew this was not an accident but an attack of some sort. I listened in fascinated horror as they reported the collapse of first one and then the other tower. I didn't see any footage till I got to the radio station where I worked, to find, ironically, everyone was glued to the TV coverage. By that time there was news of a third plane hitting the Pentagon and a fourth that mysteriously crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania. Now a new emotion arose: fear for a high school friend who worked in Manhattan. I had no idea where in the city she worked but calls and emails went unanswered for a day. A coworker later found out that a former colleague, an ex-cop, was a flight attendant on one of the flights. She experienced grief along with the family and friends of the 2977 casualties, not including the 19 hijackers. When it was reported that the attacks were probably the work of Al-Qaeda, a terrorist network responsible for bombing the USS Cole, many Americans were inflamed with anger, so much so that Osama Bin Laden didn't admit responsibility until 2004.

Positive emotions were also evoked by the attacks on 9/11. There was a new sense of unity with other Americans, despite political differences. There was gratitude for first responders, like firemen, EMTs and police officers, 411 of whom died that day rescuing victims. There was altruism as many other police and rescue workers all over the country took leaves of absence to recover bodies at the crash sites. Blood donations for the 6000 wounded surged nationwide. There was an increase in patriotism as seen in the number of people who enlisted in the armed forces to fight the War on Terror. Sadly a few Americans attacked other Americans whom they mistook to be Arabs.

The predominant emotions in the US as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in our history are sorrow, fear and anger. These are emotions that are addressed extensively in our faith. Let us look at each in turn and see what help we can find.

Loss and sorrow are experienced eventually by all human beings. Abraham grieved the loss of Sarah, Jacob mourned Joseph, David experienced great sorrow during the fatal illness of his first child with Bathsheba, and Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Accompanying the death of a loved one is the death of the dreams one has with and for that person. Sometimes it is the pang of the loss of those future plans that lingers the longest. In one sense death is the fairest experience there is. Everyone without exception undergoes death. It is the timing and circumstances of some deaths that seem unfair. In my experience as a nurse, most elderly people face death well. And their friends and families accept the death of an older loved one because they have lived a good and long life. It is when an younger person dies, especially abruptly or violently, that death seems most cruel. It is estimated that 3000 children lost a parent in the events of 9/11. Is there any comfort for those who mourn?

If death is final, then no. If all that made up the person is irretrievably lost, then there is no real comfort to be had. But in Isaiah and in Revelation we are told that one day God will wipe every tear from our eyes. The image is comforting. It recalls something a mother would do to a sobbing child. And yet, if you ever have wiped away a child's tears, you will find that they continue to cry if what was lost or broken is not restored. They continue to grieve if all is not made right. The only way God can wipe away our tears with any finality is if he can restore what was taken or broken. And he will. Every Sunday we declare that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. That is not a metaphor. God will restore us, body and soul. More than that, we will be better than ever. As physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne puts it, God will save our software--who we are--and upload it to new hardware.

That means death, while a very real separation from those we love, need not be a final separation. It means any harm done to us or our loved ones need not be permanent. This does not mean we should not mourn those who die but as Paul says, we do not mourn as those without hope. Because we are not confined to looking back at our life with those we love but we can look forward to a new life together as well. Where there is a future, there is hope.

But what about fear? We all remember how vulnerable we felt in this country after 9/11. If people on planes bound for San Francisco and Los Angeles, and people at work seventy or more stories above the ground were capable of being killed by terrorists, who was safe? The tourist economy of Florida suffered because people were afraid to fly and afraid to gather in public places. Ironically, so many people avoided flying that deaths on the nation's highways spiked by more than 1500. Airport security today emphasizes how much we still fear that others might take over or destroy the planes we fly.

The opposite of fear is faith in God. If we trust in his loving promise of eternal life, then we have nothing to fear in this life. If death is not final, if life everlasting is our destiny, then nothing in this life can be more than a temporary obstacle. Even pain, however intense, is but a passing sensation and disease a short-lived condition compared with eternity. Trusting in God, we can endure whatever this life throws at us. Which means we need not live a life dictated by fear but one empowered by faith in a loving, just and powerful God.

And so we come to anger. The attacks on September 11 were not heralded by a declaration of war. Unlike Pearl Harbor, we weren't even sure who our enemy was at first. The lack of warning and largely civilian death toll stoked the rage of many. It was exacerbated by the fact that the terrorists turned out to be Muslim Arabs. It set off retaliatory hate crimes that included the burning of a Hindu temple and the murder of a Sikh, neither having anything to do with Islam. And I'm afraid today's remembrances, while comforting many, will stir the embers of anger for some.

Rage is like a fire. Letting it simply burn itself out is rarely an option. It will go on as long as there is fuel. And if we are really angry, we will continue to find fuel for it. Unlike fire, though, we can decide to stop raging. It is not easy. Partly because it involves forgiveness.

Everyone wants to be forgiven. No one really wants to forgive. Yet forgiveness is central to Christianity. We seek God's forgiveness. And we are commanded to forgive others. In fact the two are linked in one of the best known prayers in the world. In the Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive us our sins in the same way we forgive those who sin against us. And once again, in today's gospel, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus is saying that we can't have one without the other. If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven. This principle applies to everyone.

But wait a minute! Are we to forgive cold-blooded murderers when they don't even ask for or recognize their need to be forgiven? Yes. Jesus did it, even as his cold-blooded murderers were in the process of executing him. Of course, you may say, he could because he was God. And he knew he would rise again. Well, the people who died on 9/11 were all God's creations, made in his image, and so precious to him that he thought they were worth dying for. And he will raise them up as well. What we said about tears is true about anger: restoration is sufficient reason to stop. God is the God of healing and resurrection. We can forgive because in the end our enemies can't really destroy us or anyone permanently. Their greater offense is against God and it lies in their desire to destroy his creatures. But God can undo any damage. Except the damage we do to our relationship with him by refusing to be reconciled not only to him but to all those he made. We cannot live with him if we cannot live with his forgiveness. As John made clear in his first letter, we cannot claim to love God and hate others, for God is love. God can love and forgive those killed his Son, as well as Peter who lied to save his skin while Jesus was being railroaded, the rest of the 11 disciples who ran away, Paul who was complicit in the stoning of Stephen and who captured and sent many Christians to their deaths, not to mention Moses who stealthfully killed an Egyptian and David who cleverly got Bathsheba's husband killed. And speaking of Pearl Harbor, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Japanese air group that started the bombing and gave the command "Tora! Tora! Tora!," learned of God's love and forgiveness after the war. He spoke at my church when I was a teen, having become a Christian missionary.

If God can forgive them, we can too. We must because salvation is not just being changed legally from guilty to acquitted. It's being changed from a selfish person to a Christ-like one. It's being changed from a person who is constitutionally unable to live in harmony with God to one who is. Forgiveness is not natural to us in our fallen state. That's why it's hard. But doing what is hard is necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be. It's like after major surgery, when just getting up out of bed and walking and doing all the normal activities of daily living are hard. But not to do them is to choose to become an invalid. The physical and occupational therapists can't do much with a person who will not undergo the pain and effort of rehab. Don't bend your new knee and it will lock up and your total knee replacement will be useless. Don't put weight on your new hip and you will be as wheelchair-bound as if you'd never had it replaced. Don't eat right or change your lifestyle and your new heart will get as clogged as the old one. And salvation is all about getting a new heart and a new spirit, of God replacing our stony hearts with tender hearts, as Ezekiel tells us. We must change and that means we must become people who can forgive, and I mean forgive real, crucifying wrongs. To do less is to be less, less than we can be, less than we should be, less than God wants us to be.

The terrorists did not do this because they were happy people. They felt that they were wronged, that they had suffered humiliation and oppression and loss. But they did not for a minute consider forgiveness. They wanted to lash out, to strike back, to get revenge for the perceived wrongs of the West. If we mirror them, we are no better than them. We have seen the cost of continuing the cycle of violence. The War of Terror has cost us the lives of nearly 6000 American soldiers, and injured 42,000 more. More than a million people of other lands, both military and civilian, have been killed. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not going to end anytime soon. And the death of Bin Laden will not bring anyone's loved one back to life. Only Christ's will.

September 11, 2001 stirred up a lot of emotions. Not all are healthy. As Christians we must not prolong our sorrow lest it become bitterness. We must not let fear dominate us. We must get rid of all that fuels rage. Let us remember that ultimately nobody can take anything from us that is entrusted to God. He is the God of resurrection and transformation. In his hands, sorrow becomes joy, fear becomes faith, rage becomes forgiveness and death becomes new life. We will see this completed on the last day. But the process begins now. With us, the Body of Christ.

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