by Bill Carroll
Nowadays, I tend to speak about the terrorist attacks of September 11 rarely, usually on major anniversaries. For me, that’s a conscious decision, part of a strategy for dealing with trauma. We ought not to give these violent deeds (or the people who did them) more power than they deserve. And yet, to forget about them would be to sin against the victims and survivors. And so, remember we must.
In general, when dealing with trauma and grief, we do not simply forget and move on. We remember, but we remember in ways that let the events take their rightful place in our lives. Neither retreating into denial nor refusing to learn the lessons of our experience is helpful. We remember these events deliberately, prayerfully, and for a purpose. But, at the same time, we refuse to let them define us or become the central chapters in our story.
On the day of the attacks, it was helpful for my spouse and me to have young children at home. That kept us from having our eyes glued to the television set, transfixed by the unfolding spectacle that hatred had conceived for us to view. It was hard not to watch. At the time, one of my best friends from high school lived in a downtown neighborhood not too far from the World Trade Center. A few weeks before, I had been in New York for his wedding. I had even stood at the base of the towers.
Tracey and I were living in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I was in seminary. We were conscious of the news, and were in prayer with our friends and neighbors, but we weren’t glued to our T. V. seeing what the terrorists wanted us to see. Some of my earliest childhood memories are from newscasts of the Vietnam War, and I didn’t want our children to see the kinds of things I saw on television. And so, we participated in the liturgy of the Church, we prayed a lot, and we checked in with those we love.
The world changed that day, no doubt. But it didn’t change in all the ways we’ve been led to believe. There has always been violence, and there probably always will be. (Not that that lets us off the hook from the ministry of active peacemaking.) Sometimes it seems so random and inexplicable. And it can touch any of us, even those of us who live in relative safety here in America.
On September 11, we ought to remember those who lost their lives and their loved ones. We ought also to remember brave first responders, who ran toward the danger as others ran away. And we ought, lastly, to remember those who have suffered and died from the environmental fallout of the towers’ collapse, as well as those who have been killed and wounded in the military actions that followed. But it’s not enough to remember. We ought also to celebrate the resolve of those who refused to let that awful day keep them down but instead did the hard work of healing and rebuilding on the other side of violence.
As we pray for all those affected, we ought to bring our prayers to the Eucharist, where we always pray for the living and the dead, for all in need, and for peace around the world. In the Eucharist indeed, we are engaged in a different, but related kind of remembrance. As with 9/11 we are remembering a trauma, and we are striving to remember it well. For the crucifixion of Jesus is an act of terror that left the first witnesses traumatized—at least till Easter Day. And, whenever we gather at our Lord ’s table, his resurrection is made present to us in all its life-giving power.
The remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is redemptive in ways that 9/11 never will be. And that’s why it deserves its place as the true center of our story. In Jesus, God changes the world and all our stories from within. By our remembrance of Jesus we enter into his victory over all that harms us, kills us, or makes us afraid. Sharing in the Eucharist makes us citizens of God’s New World, where swords are beaten into plowshares, the dead come to life, and enemies learn to live as friends.
Politicians of various parties and persuasions will try to tell us what 9/11 means. Often, they will play to our fears. If we let them, they will hold our gaze captive—enthralled by the awful power of what we saw that day. But the dead are the only ones who really know what 9/11 means. And, in Jesus, they are now alive.
As citizens, we do face choices about foreign policy and national security. These are important choices that may help determine the kind of world we make for ourselves and our children and grandchildren. But they are not the only things that matter, nor in the long run do they matter most.
Far more important are Jesus and his love. And far more effective (but also more difficult) is the revolution in values to which he calls us in the Gospel. We need to join his movement. We need to learn his ways. We need to share his life. We need to share his love that conquers death.
For Jesus has entered our own flesh—assuming all the risks of being alive. And he has shown us how to be human. He sees and loves us as we are. He loves us even at our most compromised, without condoning our sins. And he invites us to follow him and be changed. For he became what we are, so that we might be like him.
In the Gospels, we see Jesus out among the little ones he loves. We see him out in the streets and in private homes, breaking bread with all sorts of conditions, especially outcasts and sinners. We see righteous people and religious leaders scoffing at the company he keeps. We see them grumbling about the wideness of his mercy—about his commitment to seek and save the lost.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus lives God’s love out consistently. Again and again, he chooses love. He lives it out with everyone he meets.
I am convinced that his outward looking, self-giving love will do more to heal and strengthen us than all our speech making and sermonizing. For Jesus enters our places of fear, division, violence, and death with the life-giving power of love.
In place of hatred, he offers forgiveness.
In place of despair, he offers hope.
In place of isolation and division, he gives us community.
In the end, he gives us resurrection.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.