As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches this Sunday, with various observances planned both sacred and secular, some people have suggested that it seems that as a nation, we are wallowing, and that perhaps it would be better to leave 9/11 alone. One person I know suggested that perhaps the best way of observing this anniversary was simply with silence. As a leader of a faith community myself, I feel a certain tension between the need to acknowledge 9/11 this Sunday and the reticence that some people feel about doing so in a way that feels like “wallowing”.
These more guarded reactions to the 9/11 anniversary, along with those who are more prepared to embrace the anniversary, reflect, I think, very different feelings and perspectives not so much on the events of that day but on the ways in which that day changed the life of our nation and, indeed, the world. It would be hard to think of an area of American life that has remained untouched in the aftermath of 9/11. And I think that most of us, if we were really honest, would admit that we don’t really like the way our life has changed over these past 10 years. I also suspect that most people would blame those who committed the terrible attacks on that day for forcing these changes upon us.
In a sense, of course, to blame the terrorists for the aftermath of 9/11 is appropriate. On the other hand, however, we should recognize that while the attacks themselves are the responsibility of those who committed them, much of what has come after those attacks has been the result of our own choices as individuals and as a nation in response to terrible tragedy.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes,
This Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We will all take time to remember the day and the lives we lost, but 10 years later, we must go deeper.
There were two paths forward from the ashes and rubble of 9/11: One path led to war, torture, and fear, but another path — led by people of faith across our land — was marked by soul-searching, genuine mourning for the lost, and standing up for peace-building and caring for our neighbors.
You might not agree with the terms Rev. Wallis uses to describe the two paths forward from 9/11, but his words do underline the fact that in response to any tragedy (or anything else that happens to us, for that matter) we always have choices. I do think that our life as a nation has been dominated by choices that have tended to be dictated by fear: fear of more attacks, fear of Muslims, fear of illegal immigrants, fear of being vulnerable. The economic downturn of the last couple of years has tended to take a fearful population and make us even more fearful. Most of our public political conversation over the last ten years has been characterized by fear of one form or another. The path of fear presents a powerful temptation.
The wisdom of the biblical tradition tells us that when we make choices based on our fears, we are least likely to make choices that align with God’s call to us. As I mentioned in a recent sermon, someone has figured out that the Bible says that we should not be afraid 365 times: that’s once for every day of the year. Often, this counsel to not be afraid comes just before God or some other divine figure is about to ask someone to do something that might seem overwhelming. Perhaps that is the case because without the reminder to not be afraid, the person is unlikely to accept the invitation and do the great thing God asks of her or him because fear will lead them away from that choice.
As we observe the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I think that perhaps what is most important is that we take the opportunity to reflect on what has become of us in the past 10 years, to think about the consequences that fear-based decision-making has had on us. It seems to me that God asks of us to do something greater with the next ten years, to accept the sacred invitation to step away from fear and take a huge step the other direction. For it seems clear from our sacred texts that true greatness is never found in fear, but in a deep and courageous generosity and compassion that arises when we are able, with God’s help, to transcend fear. Many of our choices since 9/11 have served to diminish us. It is time for us to do better.