J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Hoover, AL. Sept. 11, 2011.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “That of which one cannot speak, one must be silent.” I am tempted to think that it might be better for me to be silent about the events of Sept 11, 2001. I am certain that it would safer for me to say nothing about them. But I also believe that it is a pastor or priest’s responsibility to hold up the world to the light of eternity, to try to look at the world from God’s perspective, to see how the Bible might inform our understanding of these events.
Karl Barth said that a pastor should preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. Depending on your political perspective, you can substitute The Wall Street Journal for the New York Times but the point still stands.
One of the worst things about terror and violence of the magnitude of 9/11 is that the big picture obscures the small picture. The Soviet dictator Stalin believed that he could get away with mass murder because, as he said, “the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of a thousand is a statistic.” But we must not allow the dead of 9/11 to become statistics. In the months after 9/11, the New York Times published a series of obituaries of the victims on the back page of the first section of their paper. Each brief obituary was carefully researched and beautifully written and was usually accompanied by a photo of the victim. I often found myself reading those obituaries compulsively, usually with tears in my eyes. In most cases, the obituaries included facts that turned “statistics” into “tragedies”.
- For a woman named Anna, the Times noted that she loved to laugh and dance the salsa. Her family had planned a surprise party for her birthday, “but will gather instead at a small Pentecostal church she attended. ''She was so kind and generous,'' a brother, Freddy, said. ''We will pray for her soul.''
- Of an Indian American named Sankara, the paper said that “he loved company and good conversation, but also studied Hindu scriptures, attended temple and meditated at home.”
- Or a stockbroker named Sean who loved to travel the world “but no matter where in the world he was, like clockwork, he would call home to check in with mom and dad. On Sept. 11, he never got a chance to.”
One of the questions that was in the forefront of people’s minds then and now was “Where was God when the towers fell?” or “How could God let this happen to us?” For fundamentalist leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell that was a question with an easy and terrible answer. The attacks were God’s judgment on our wickedness.
But at the memorial service at the National Cathedral President Bush showed himself a much more capable and profound theologian than the Reverends Falwell and Robertson: “God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own, yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral are known and heard and understood.”
For some 9/11 was a sign that God was absent, non-existent, a terrible or perhaps comforting lie. A college friend told me that he lost his faith because of 9/11, although I believe he had been drifting away from church for some time. But why, I wonder, should anyone blame God for the actions of evil men, even if they claimed to be acting in the name of God? My friend Rabbi Jonathan Miller called them “theological hoodlums.” I understand why someone would blame God for earthquakes and hurricanes and AIDS and cancer, but not for the 9/11 hijackers.
The most persuasive theological comment about 9/11 was the observation that the only good answer to the question where was God was that God was in the people who were helping others – the fire fighters and police officers and the many other so-called “first responders.”
- The man who could have saved himself but instead remained behind to help a friend confined to a wheelchair – that was where God was.
- A security officer helped knocked out the windows in a ground floor day care center in the World Trade Center so that the children could be rescued. That’s where God was.
- Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest who was a chaplain to the New York City fire department, rushed into the midst of the destruction to pray with and give absolution to the victims when he was killed by falling debris. God was there, too.
One of the things that struck me after the terrorist attacks ten years ago was that, in the weeks after, the lectionary readings seemed so appropriate. The readings for weeks seemed to be full of ruined cities, towers falling, and destruction coming from the heavens. But perhaps that was less because of what was actually in the Bible readings and more because of the way my reading had been shaped by 9/11.
Today’s readings also speak to the tragedy of 9/11. From Exodus we hear of the angel that took the form of a pillar of cloud and who stood watch between the Israelites and the Egyptians. One of the most moving tributes to the victims of 9/11 are the twin pillars of light that are projected upward from “ground zero” every year on the anniversary of 9/11. The pillars of light remind me of God’s power to take even the greatest tragedy and redeem it.
But it is today’s gospel reading that speaks to me most eloquently. “Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
I often find it difficult to forgive, and I have to admit that there is a part of me that does not want to forgive the people responsible for 9/11. But I believe that Jesus tells me to forgive them. Notice, however, that Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive “another member of the church” who has sinned against him. Does this let us off the hook? Are we only commanded to forgive other Christians who have sinned against us? I don’t think so. A Christian who sins against another Christian has committed an especially heinous offence, because the Christian who sins has heard the teachings of Jesus, she has been baptized and received God’s forgiveness. But a non-Christian who sins may be guilty of the lesser offence, because he does not know the teachings of Christ and has not been baptized, so I think non-Christians may have an even greater claim to forgiveness.
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer contrasted grace that was “cheap” with grace that was “free but costly”. Similarly, I think there is a difference between forgiveness that is “free but costly” and forgiveness that is “cheap.” Costly forgiveness comes only after the offended party has recognized the full extent to which they have been harmed and has decided to forgive the offender anyway. Costly forgiveness comes only after the offender has made a “serious moral and spiritual inventory” and acknowledged the harm they have done and asked for forgiveness. Needless to say, I think costly forgiveness is quite rare.
We are told to forgive and forget, and that is entirely appropriate when the offense is small and unintentional. But should an abused spouse or abused child forgive and forget? Forgiveness may be therapeutic but to forget what the perpetrator has done may be to invite another attack against yourself or someone else. What may be more difficult is to forgive and remember.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that it is the hard task of a Christian leader to administer justice in a fallen and sinful world. I believe that our task in a post-9/11 world is to seek both justice and forgiveness and that one cannot exist without the other.
Several years ago I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to stand at the podium in the chamber of the United States’ Senate and deliver the invocation. I want to conclude with that prayer and offer it for our country on this solemn day.
God of our fathers and mothers, God of our children and grandchildren, yours alike are the Rockies' proud peaks and Shenandoah's green tranquility; yours are the span of the Golden Gate and the slums of Watts and Harlem.
Hear us as we pray for this land between the shining seas, this home of the pilgrims' pride, these United States of America.
We praise you for America's diverse quilt; for pilgrims from Europe and Africa, from Asia and Latin America, for Creek and Choctaw and Sioux and all our native peoples. Bind our ethnic strands together in a pattern of harmony, peace, and understanding.
Grant the women and men who lead us keenness and openness of mind; where vision is bound to personal gain or partisan good, liberate it. Stay their minds upon justice and their hearts upon compassion; may their ears be open to the voices of the voiceless and their eyes to the problems of the present and the possibilities of the future.
Grant that all the people of the United States may employ their hands and hearts and minds and bodies in work that satisfies and delights.
May peace unfold in freedom and justice, and may conflict issue in creative reconciliation.
And grant that in all things we raise our hearts and voices in gratitude to you, O Judge of nations and peoples, for in your wisdom you have set us upon a strong and high place, given us peace and prosperity, and called us to walk confidently into the future. Amen.