It was a Tuesday morning. I was preparing to host our monthly circuit pastors’ meeting. My wife called from work. “Turn on the TV, we’re under siege,” she said. I turned on the television in time to see a second jet slam into the World Trade towers. The Pentagon had also been hit. A fourth jet had crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania. Within a couple of hours, the World Trade towers collapsed.
Our circuit pastors met that morning. We were planning to do the usual Bible and Confessions study and then go out for lunch. Instead we talked about how best to respond to events that were still unfolding. We planned services for the evening. We prayed. After a few days, I could no longer watch television. I sometimes broke down and wept as I prayed. My world was irreversibly changed that day. Our country had been attacked on our own soil, which seemed rather foreign to our secure American way of life.
Ten years have gone by. Families were shattered, children left without fathers or mothers, widows and widowers were made. Some have moved on, some haven’t. Friends went to work and didn’t return home. Firemen, policemen, and emergency workers put their lives on the line to save others. Some lost their own lives trying to save others. Our national wound has healed somewhat, but an ugly scar remains. No cosmetic surgery exists to cover it. We are not the same as we once were.
As a nation, we are more religious than ever. And less. We agonize and argue over the absence of religious leaders at a 9/11 civic event and an Islamic center in the neighborhood of ground zero in New York. We debate prayer in the schools and the mention of God in the pledge. We dissect the religious beliefs of our candidates and examine them under the media’s microscope. Church attendance is at an all-time low. We are spiritual though not religious. Religion is a dirty word.
Atheism has grown more aggressive and confident. 9/11 provided the indicting evidence against religion. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens believe that religion is to blame for most, if not all, the violence in the world today. Many appear to agree.
Osama bin Laden and the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 were all Muslim, but one could hardly call them “devout.” Instead, their religious beliefs provided form and substance for their hatred of America. Houses of worship were not targeted, as they often are in the middle east. The crosshairs of 9/11 were focused on symbols of American rule and might – the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and presumably the White House or the Capital building. The source of their rage was not religion but the American presence in the middle east and its support for Israel.
I am more self-consciously religious today than ten years ago. I wear my clerical collar intentionally but less often than I used to. I don’t wear it when I fly. I am more aware of the religious beliefs of those around me. On a recent flight home, I sat next to a Pakistani man who was quietly but fervently chanting from an Islamic prayer book. I must confess to watching his every move out of the corner of my eye as I pretended to nap. I thought of United Flight 93. What would I have done?
As a people who love liberty, we have been posed with the difficult choice between freedom and security. We endure intrusive TSA screenings and searches of our person and possessions. We turn a blind eye to what was once considered illegal government surveillance. We want to be safe, or at least harbor a credible illusion of safety, but this safe new world comes at a very high cost. Have we done the full accounting?
Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Qaida is scattered. America is still entangled in the middle east, and probably always will be. There is too much to lose. I will gather with my congregation tomorrow, not to remember 9/11 but to remember Jesus’ victory over Sin, Death and devil. We will pray for our nation, our leaders, those who defend us, and for those victimized by the events ten years ago. We will pray for our persecutors, slanderers, and those who hate us, those who plot against us and wish to kill us.
The readings for tomorrow are about forgiveness: Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers who sought his harm. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The all-reconciling, all-atoning, all-embracing death of Jesus works good out of evil. All evil. Every evil. We must believe that and confess it, even when we don’t always see the good. The good is our forgiveness and our freedom. Forgiveness without limit: seventy times seven. The freedom of being forgiven and to forgive others. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.”
Should you doubt for a moment that God can work good out of evil, consider Jesus’ death on the cross. It was a great evil; and an even greater good. This is the God who wages holy war to save not only His people, but the world, His enemies, the ungodly, and you. This is the God who suffers and dies for you. The cross was meant for evil; God used it for good.
And if that’s true of the cross, then it is also true for what happened that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
Rev. William Cwirla is pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA.