Reflections on 9/11: Grieving, Mourning, Remembering, Forgiving, Peacemaking

Today is 9/11…a very important day in the history of our nation. Today is a day of mourning, of grieving, of remembering. I still mourn that tragic day when so many – civilians, police officers, and fire fighters – died. I still mourn all the children that grew up without fathers and mothers. I mourn the additional loss of American lives since then. I also mourn the loss of Iraqi and Afghani lives since then…much of which has been called ‘collateral damage’ in a war that has lasted far too long in my opinion. And I mourn much of the religious and political polarization that has resulted in the fallout in these last ten years since those planes struck the World Trade Center. Those that say that the world changed that day are absolutely correct.

Not only did 9/11 affect the course of globalism but it changed each of us personally…intimately. But the question is also…how has it changed us? One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, picks up this theme and asks a penetrating question: Did 9/11 make us morally better? Volf says in part,

“9/11 plunged us into in a moral struggle for our soul as a people. What I hope for those of us who consider ourselves Christians is that we will learn to live positively rather than reactively, guided by our own moral vision of life sketched for us in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, rather than fighting evil with its own methods.”

All I can say to this is: ‘Amen!’

But perhaps one of the most prophetic statements comes from Will Willimon (bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church).  I quote his comments from CT in full (see also the conversation at the Jesus Creed blog):

“On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.”

Willimon makes three particular points that I feel we need to carefully contemplate: 1) the fact that much of the church in America has lost the ability to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God is very much a theological crisis, 2) that far too many think the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid, including those who claim to follow in the path of our Liberating King, and 3) when folks felt vulnerable and threatened they reached for the flag rather than the cross (and the empty tomb). I realize that views vary and that not everyone may agree with this analysis. I want to make clear that I am not anti-American and that I pray fervently that God would bless America. I am fortunate and blessed to have the personal freedoms I enjoy here. But I also pray that God would bless the Iraqi people…the Afghani people…Muslim folks…Hindu folks…and folks of ALL ethnicities and faiths. I also certainly pray for the blessings of all those that follow in the way of the triune God.

I truly believe there is no valid excuse for terrorism of any sort, but in agreement with Alan Knox (a PhD student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) I believe we must also be on guard not to confuse nationalism and patriotism with following Jesus. We do not preach the gospel of America, but the good news of the kingdom of God. “Our citizenship is in God’s Kingdom, we simply live within the United States of America.” Whenever we fail to theologically distinguish between America and the kingdom of God it becomes far too easy in our rhetoric to move from thinking of others as un-American to also branding them as un-Christian as well. May we be willing to check our allegiances and to check our hearts. Let us not find our ultimate hope in the flag of any nation but only in the cross and empty tomb of our risen Lord and our participation in the life of the triune God.

I hope and pray that today has provided an occasion to remember and mourn all those that have been lost, of praying for those that would do us harm and those that have wronged us like our Lord has taught us, and for living more fully into the story of Jesus in a terribly broken world. I hope and pray that today is not only a day of grieving, of mourning, of remembering, but also of forgiving and of peacemaking. True, there is so much that is not right in our world, but may we find ourselves in a place of waiting on God and his kingdom. May we not be overcome with evil, but instead overcome evil with good…and remember that we will be known as followers of the Liberating King by our love. I think that perhaps its providential that the gospel text for today’s lectionary readings is on forgiveness. Yes indeed, may we seek justice, but may we seek the restorative justice of Christ rather than the retributive justice of human anger and vengeance. May we be a people who, in a world of hatred and violence, do not repay with more hatred and violence but instead embody grief and hope…peace and forgiveness in the way of Christ. May we all learn to forgive like we really believe in the resurrection! May it be before us always that ‘blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I leave you with these prayers:

Our Father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom
so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Jesus our Liberating King, You who prayed from the cross for your Father to forgive those who were killing you, grant us the courage to forgive those who harm us in our families, in our communities, and in our world. Help us recognize our own need to seek the forgiveness of others. We pray this in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit. Amen. (Adapted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the morning prayer for Sept 11th, pg 437-38)