The question of the week is, “Where were you on 9/11?” There is another question to be asked but we will hold that for a moment.
I had recently retired as a public school educator in Gwinnett County, Georgia and I was fortunate to get a post-retirement consultant’s job with a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts; however, I would be working with schools in Georgia. Having been offered the job, I was invited to a training session for all the company leadership and consultants in Boston. I boarded a Delta jet in Atlanta on 9/9/01. It is the only time I have been on a plane that was returned to the gate because of mechanical problems. Repairs were made and we took off for Boston. In hindsight, the delay may have been an omen of things to come.
On Monday, 9/10/01 we had our initial meeting at the John Hancock Conference Center, an older building which sits in the shadows of the towering John Hancock building. We topped the day off with a lovely dinner at a boutique restaurant on a Boston side street. I vividly remember my new found colleagues laughing as I sweated bullets while I savored the shrimp Fra Diavolo.
On Tuesday, 9/11/01, we resumed our meeting. Suddenly the conference center management was telling our leaders that they would need the room as their emergency command center. We exited the room and, as I walked into the adjacent room, I saw the second jet hit the tower. I stopped dead in my tracks. Was this a bad movie? No, it was a terrorist attack on our financial citadels, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Shock. Horror. Terror.
The conference center also housed our hotel rooms. Our leadership decided that we would leave the city and those of us from out of town would stay at the homes of the local staff and consultants. Karl, whom I had just met, and his wife would be my hosts. I ran to the room frightened that the big John Hancock tower could come down upon the small conference center at any moment. I grabbed toiletries, clean underwear, and fled to the street. We boarded a commuter train on a beautiful New England fall day and fled to the refuge of the suburbs.
I remember walking around the streets of the small town. It was an election day. The sky was blue, so deep blue, and the sun was shining brilliantly. There was a pungent smell of fall in the air. People seemed to be going about their business. It was quite a contrast to the scene south of us in the Big Apple that we were watching on television as we tried to comprehend what had happened and what was going to happen. The day ended with a lovely Chinese meal at a local restaurant with Karl and his wife.
We returned to Boston the next morning. Our game plan was simple. The meeting was over and we all tried to figure out how to get home. All planes were grounded. Fortunately, there was a consultant from Augusta and her husband. We Georgians decided to stick together. We hired a Lincoln limo to take us to Hartford because Boston’s Logan Airport was one of the crime scenes and we figured we would get a flight out of Hartford sooner. It was a lovely ride on another sunny New England day as we motored through the rolling hills of central Massachusetts en route to Hartford.
We booked into a motel near the airport and began the long vigil wondering when we would get home. I was in constant touch with my wife, Joan, who was teaching a math class at Brookwood High School in Gwinnett County Georgia when the planes crashed. Our adopted son, John, a native of India and a person of color, was a student at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. I do remember telling Joan to tell him to be cautious. Most native Georgians do not know the difference between an Asian Indian and someone from the Middle East. I wrote a letter to my family in case I did not get home. It seems silly now as I write about it but it also says how scared we all were. We could take nothing for granted, not even getting back to Georgia. Stranded in a strange town this was no time to be away from home and family.
We watched the television for updates on flights and waited and waited. When would we get home to our families? Would we get home to our families? Finally, the wait was over. We were able to get a Delta flight from Hartford to Atlanta on Friday morning, 9/14. It was an eerie feeling as I walked down the gate ramp and realized we were boarding a 767, the same type of plane that had been used in some of the attacks. The pilot asked for a moment of silence as we flew over the smoldering remains of the Twin Towers. I felt like kneeling and kissing the jet way ramp when we landed in Atlanta. Thank God, I was home. Home at last.
I regained some peace of mind as we attended a memorial Mass at St. Lawrence Church that night. The enormity and barbarity of what had happened was sinking in slowly but it was sinking in.
Now for the second question. Joan and I were members of the Lay Cistercians at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. As lay people in the world we were committed to following the Rule of St. Benedict in our daily lives—prayer, scripture reading, Eucharist on a regular basis. Shortly after 9/11, we were at the monastery for our monthly Sunday of reflection. Dom Basil Pennington, the abbot, preached the homily at the Mass. He shocked some of us more than others when he said, “The big bully got a black eye.” As I reflected on his statement, I began to ask the second question, “Why 9/11?” followed by a corollary question, “Where are we today?”
There is never a reason for one human being to take the life of another or let alone thousands of others. Terrorism is inexcusable; however, we must search for root causes in such situations. The simple fact is that much of the rest of the world is not as enamored with America as we are. In many ways, we are and have been the big bully destabilizing and toppling regimes to get at other people’s natural resources from bananas in Central America to oil in the Middle East. This has been a pattern of American policy beginning in the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century and continuing to today. This is not liberal whole cloth. Stephen Kinzer, noted press correspondent, documents this ignominious history in his book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change.
We are following in the footsteps of the Roma Empire and its Pax Romana—peace achieved through violence and the sword. It is now Pax Americana. Our position of preeminence, often coupled with strong hints of divine sanction (American exceptionalism), leads us to act as if we are in charge of the world, that we have the right to dominate others and exploit them for their resources if we need them to support our comfort levels. In the end, greed begets violence which begets even more violence.
Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting to get different results. Pax Romana worked as long as Rome had enough soldiers spread throughout the empire. Using military might to get security is not working.
Violence is not working. A trillion dollars later and after the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives the world is not safer. Is there an alternative? Gilbert Chesterton says it all, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
We have forgotten and abandoned what I am going to call the Pax Dei. I originally was going to call it Pax Christiana; however, that is rather exclusive and triumphalistic. Jews embrace and work for shalom. Muslims embrace and work for salaam. Non-believers embrace and work for true peace. The fact is that it will take a broad coalition of believers and non-believers to turn this battleship of empire around.
I can only speak from my own religious background. For followers of Jesus, the Christ, peace comes through justice, not our usual retributive justice but restorative justice. Restorative justice in the biblical sense is about restoring right relationships with God, self, others, and all of creation.
As Paul, the Jew, sought to preach the Messiah throughout the Roman Empire, he, like Jesus, challenged empire. An inscription at Priene clearly stated that Caesar Augusts is divine:
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus [??? ????????], whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [??????], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [?????????] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [????? ?? ??? ?????? ??? ??’ ????? ?????????? ? ????????? ????? ??? ????],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna. (http://ntresources.com/blog/?p=428)
The Christian Gospel is anti-empire. Mark’s declaration of the “good news of Jesus the Christ” is treasonous. Only the divine emperor could proclaim Good News. Mark’s point and Paul’s point in announcing the “Good News” that “Jesus is Lord” challenge the values of empire. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then the prime minister is not. If Jesus is Lord, then the president is not. When I visited our sister community in Somotillo, Nicaragua, I saw that he Nicaraguans understood the Gospel. The sign on the gaily decorated bus read, “Jesus es señor [Lord] in Nicaragua.” How do the poor and oppressed get the Gospel so right?
The imperative for Christians is clear—seek first the kingdom of God—the kingdom of peace, justice, mercy and non-violence. Unfortunately, we set these Gospel values aside as we imbibe the pleasures and fortunes of empire run amok. Jesus and Paul tell us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet, we unabashedly embrace revenge.
Where are we today? Have the war in Afghanistan and trumped-up war in Iraq made us safer? We have spent $1.2 trillion on these wars. The Department of Defense budget increased by 67% from 2001 until 2010. The human toll is incalculable. “In Iraq, 4,442 U. S. soldiers have died so far; 1,584 in Afghanistan, for a total of 6,026 killed in both wars. . . . So far, 31,922 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in Iraq; 12,450 in Afghanistan. Total casualties for all coalition troops in both wars stand at 7,473.” The human toll on Afghans and Iraqis is hard to determine; however, the estimates for Iraqi casualties since the 2003 invasion run from 60,000 – 111,000. “More than 500,000 children under the age 5” died as the result of U. S. imposed sanctions in the 1990s. (http://ncronline.org/news/politics/ten-years-ponder-our-losses).
As I write this, security officials in New York, Washington, DC and around the country are on high alert as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Only the peace of God—Pax Dei, impartible and fuzzy-headed as it may seem to some, will restore the world to sanity.
Doing more of the same is not working. The most fitting remembrance of 9/11 will be for us to seek peace—to seek the Pax Dei—a world where justice rolls down like a mighty river that cleanses us of our sins of greed and where all share in the bounty of God’s creation.
I can already hear the rebuttals, “That will not work.” “That is so impractical.” Jesus did not preface the Sermon on the Mount, the Sermon on the Plain, and the Final Judgment in Matthew 25 by saying, “These values will never work so I really do not expect you to follow them in this life.” No, he said, “You will be shunned, abused, and persecuted when you pursue Kingdom values.”
The group, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, has issued a statement on the tenth anniversary of 9/11:
“The members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are grateful for the expressions of remembrance and concern being offered on the 10th anniversary of the events which took the lives of our loved ones. On this day we ask those who feel compassion for our loss to expand their compassion to include others who continue to experience loss ten years later: innocent families in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing the loss of their loved ones and displacement from their communities as the result of war and political strife; Muslim-Americans subjected to bias and violence at home; those denied the protections of our Constitution and law, whether in Guantanamo or in our own country; those suffering from job loss and economic dislocation related to the cost of war and rising military budgets; and those who have seen their civil liberties and freedoms exchanged for the false promise of security.
The lesson of 9/11 is that we live in a connected world. We rise or fall together. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” On this 10th anniversary, let us honor those we lost by recognizing our kinship with people all over the world, and affirming the values and principles that will guarantee peaceful tomorrows for everyone.” (http://peacefultomorrows.org/article.php?id=10390 )
This group reminds us that peace, justice, compassion, and mercy are not optional values for Christians; however, when we buy into the values of empire—Pax Americana—like we have, we are not living the Gospel. We do not merit the name Christian. The prosperity Gospel that makes us comfortable in exploiting others for their resources is not the Gospel of Jesus and Paul.
We are challenged daily—and it is a challenge in our society—to take up our crosses daily as we live the Gospel values of the Risen One. As Paul say, “We will be crucified with Christ” when we embrace Gospel values. When Christ lives in us, we know that resurrection follows crucifixion like day follows night. Our hope is in the Risen Christ.
Change will come through small groups of people committed to peace. Judaism spoke of the faithful remnant. Jesus spoke of the leavening effect of a small amount of yeast. Paul established small faith communities—house churches. In this vein, Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Writing on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, John Dear, S.J. said:
“If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” [Lk 13:5] These are words of compassion and nonviolence, I realized at Ground Zero. There, in the face of the unspeakable horror, I saw that if we do not repent of our violence, our greed, our wars, we will all suffer and die in mindless terror. He wants us instead to live in his peaceful way of loving nonviolence, resist the culture of greed, war and empire and go to our deaths in a peaceful spirit of universal love, generous forgiveness and trusting surrender. Jesus is like the awakened Buddha, perfectly centered, mindful, alive and at peace, gently telling us: Do not continue on your present course! Your global destructive violence ensures your own destruction! Renounce your greed and war making. Stop your wars, dismantle your nuclear weapons, stop funding terrorist regimes, cut all funding for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, spend billions to feed the world’s starving, build new schools and hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, overcome evil with good, love everyone on the planet, reverse your violence and become people of global nonviolence. If you do not do this, you as a people will be destroyed. It will not be God’s doing. Your own violence will come down upon you.
Again, Dear guides us:
Sept. 11 is a good day to repent of our violence, greed and war making, a good day to return to the God of peace, a good day to prepare anew to live and die in peace with all humanity. Life is short, we suddenly remember. Let’s turn from our common foolishness and embrace Jesus’ wisdom of peace, love and nonviolence. (http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/jesus-and-falling-towers )