On that sunny Tuesday morning twenty years ago, I was driving my minivan (which served as our household school bus) down I-35 from our home in Blaine toward MN36, planning (as always) to go east to the exit that would take us to the elementary school. It was an old school day routine I was quickly redeveloping at the start of this second week of classes. At some point, just north of the interchange, the news reader for the radio station came on with a report out of New York City that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center.
At that moment, the only noteworthy element was that this wasn’t something that happened every day. There had been a recent report out of Florida (Tampa, if I remember right) of a small plane crashing into a high-rise building after the pilot (and sole occupant) apparently suffered a major medical event while flying his plane. That’s what I thought of when I heard the first report. The plane would have to be a small one, not flying at higher altitudes, and the lone pilot had some kind of episode that caused him to lose his ability to control his plane.
Another song played on the radio. After that, the news reader came back on with an update. There were reports that a second plane had struct the other tower and that one of the planes was reported to be a 767. That two planes had struck, one per tower, and at least one of them was a passenger jet (not the small plane I’d imagined), was mindboggling. How in the world could the same sort of aviation mistake or malfunction happen twice like that? I pondered the question in the back of my head as I navigated traffic, managed my own reactions for the good of my two children in the seat right behind me, and got us all where we needed to be that school day.
I helped my oldest out of the van at the elementary school and then proceeded to the seminary campus. By that point, the radio station had stopped with the music and was carrying a national live news feed about the developing situation in NYC. After I checked my youngest into the day care, I tromped off on a new element to school morning routine: a walk through the neighborhood to get some exercise before the chapel service at 10:00am. At one of the houses I passed, a construction crew was working in the front yard. A radio was blaring. That’s when I heard the word terrorism attached to what was happening for the first time. My first thought was: It’s too soon for such a statement; we can’t know that yet. My next thought was: I’ve been looking for an explanation of how two passenger jets could crash into the World Trade Center that would make some sense; as an explanation, terrorism does.
After the walk and a quick clothes change, I headed up the hill to the chapel. Lots of people were crowded around the common space. A couple of TVs had been brought in and were showing staticky images. The snatches of reporting sounded a lot like I’d heard from the radio. I went into the actual chapel for the morning service.
Clearly whatever had been planned wouldn’t work. (The Dean of Students would eventually preach her well prepared sermon three years later.) I remember we were asked to listen as the Seminary President read Psalm 46 (God is our refuge and strength…); however, by the time he was halfway through, we were reading out loud along with him. I don’t remember much of what the Dean said, only that she attended to the fears and anxieties and grief – both from what was already known and what might yet be. I don’t remember the prayers either … only that they helped.
I don’t remember when or how I found out about the other two planes … or when I heard that the towers had collapsed. My news in those days came primarily by radio, not TV. I watched the footage of the plane flying into the tower once – late on the night of September 11, 2001, after the kids were in bed and everything that needed doing that night had been done. I watched it that one time and never again
What I remember most is that my class schedule on Tuesdays that semester had the lecture portion of a class called “God, Evil, and Suffering,” taught by the legendary “Heim Brothers,” Terry Fretheim and Paul Sponheim. The class took place right after the chapel service. That day was the second time class had met for lecture. So there we were, in a class built on pondering the reality of evil and suffering in the world as well as the activity of a good God and how humans act and are acted upon in all of this. The events of September 11, 2001 would play a significant role in many of the discussions for the rest of the semester.
We were prompted and prodded to take a more expansive view of events like this … to see beyond a personal relationship with Jesus and envision God in relationship with the whole of creation … to consider God still active in the work of creation, refining it and continuing to draw forth the original and eventual fullness of God’s creative intention … God so in love with and committed to this creation as to get dirtied and bruised and bloodied in the midst of it (see also: Jesus), who could sit beside the hurting, receive all the pain, and be present with power and intention to do something … God working God’s will in the world in such a way as to allow space for the working of other wills – God’s will could be resisted and worked against and it could be co-operated with; as beloved, created co-creators, we could choose … a God who is not remote and far off, waiting to judge who gets into heaven/reward and who deserves hell/punishment, but rather God who is in the midst of this unfolding creation, ever working for wholeness and completion and perfection. Where might this God be in the midst of such devastation and suffering? How might we recognize God’s working and join in that effort?
Where is God in this? What should be our response? Those questions continued to be themes in daily chapel sermons for weeks and months … and they showed up in other classes as well. The questions were ever before us. Clear, specific answers were not.
It’s the feelings I remember most … the grief and sadness … the sense of vulnerability and softness … the sense of universal hurt as though we were all walking around wounded … the care and concern people extended to one another because they saw the need or someone asked … the coming together in our shared sense of loss. Maybe that one Tuesday class, more so than any other factor, forced me to be more reflective than most people were at that time. Something needed to be done as a response; I recognized that. However, what should be done was a much bigger question for me, a question with very unclear answers. I was growing less convinced that violence, retribution, revenge were the best or even appropriate responses. I was appalled by the anti-Muslim sentiment and hostility toward people because of how they dressed and how they prayed. I was haunted by the prayer that had been scrawled somewhere in an NYC subway: “God, save us from the people who believe in you.”
Yes … where was God in all this? But for that matter, what was our role in the chain of events leading up to the September 11th attacks? What had we done? What had we failed to do? Some people explored those questions looking for ways to prevent a repeat, a similar attack at some future date. I pondered the questions to assess if we were really the innocent victims we so very much wanted to be.
None of this is to say that any of those who died that day, or as a result of that day, deserved to die. None of them individually did any more than any one person deserves to die on any given day. None of the families directly touched by the death and destructions deserved their losses. None of the first responders, helpers, laborers who worked through the wreckage to salvage anything they could at tremendous expense of their very selves deserved those burdens. Few of those who, it could be argued, bore more direct responsibility for our national role in the scheme of things were directly touched by this tragedy.
It is anathema to the American mythos of the rugged, self-sustaining, individual to think in a collective way rather than just about individual selves. It is heresy to the American civic religion to suggest that our nation is anything other than a well-intentioned benevolent actor on the global stage. However, forced as I was by circumstances at the time to think from a big, globe-embracing, history-spanning, creation-unfolding perspective, I had to acknowledge the reality that we, our nation as a whole, were hardly innocent in all of this.
We have used the more subtle power of dollars and wealth to force our way into other nations and bend things to our purposes and economic benefit, frequently to the detriment of many and the benefit of a few in these other nations. While not as direct or wantonly destructive as military force, we have been willing to deploy that as well to defend and further our economic interests. We have played at proxy wars, using other nations as pawns to stymie our global enemies. The US is hardly the only nation to have done this; it’s true. However, we remain to this day the only nation that has ever used a nuclear weapon against another nation.
As in all things, we tell ourselves it was the only choice, or the least bad from the list of very few terrible options that could have been chosen. But is it really true? Or is it just one of the many stories we tell ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are ever and always the good guys in any conflict, the ones who unfailingly do the right thing … so that anything we do is right?
Our record at home has not been much better. Basic needs like housing, food, medical care are not regarded as universal goods that everyone should have because we all need these things to live. These are commodities to be acquired by the deserving, those who prove their worth by accumulating enough money to purchase them … who earn their keep … who pay their way. We are told this is the way it ought to be; this system is perfect and we are enlightening the rest of the world by insisting on it, exporting it.
Where is God in all this? More to the point, where are we? How far have we wrapped the flag around the cross, equating the United States of America with God’s chosen people and the promised land, calling for God to bless our endeavors – all of them – throughout the world. Yes, as a nation, we have done many great good things. However, we have also done much harm. Both are true. Did we deserve to be visited with a heavy hand for our national actions on the global stage, for the neglect of poor and unprivileged in our own land? I can only answer, Yes, we did.
I can’t celebrate “Patriots Day.” I can’t join in the “Hooray for our side! We fought back and we won!” triumphalism. I do mourn the losses. People died … needlessly. Families were shattered and broken. No amount of warfare or vengeance can ever bring the dead back or undo the losses. Nothing can guarantee that we, as a nation, will never be hurt like this again.
I can only ponder what we might have, but have not yet, learned in these past twenty years. I see the hand wringing over the removal of our troops from Afghanistan, after nearly twenty years of trying to remake another nation into our own image, to have bases in that region from which to more effectively wield military might. I see the Christian faith being welded ever more firmly to an increasingly militant nationalism. And I recognize how alike it is to the distorted faith of those who flew planes full of passengers into buildings full of people twenty years ago.
I fear we have learned nothing in these last twenty years.