By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Where were you on 9/11? I venture to say each of you could say where you were and what you were doing when you first heard the news. We all have a story to tell.
I was at the lavatory in my home in Bryan shaving and half listening to the Today Show in the bedroom. A reporter was interviewing someone on the street … something about a high-pitched sound … a low-flying airplane … a loud explosion. I washed up to take a look. The camera was focused on black smoke billowing out of the north tower of the World Trade Center. “That was no accident,” I thought to myself. Then, as I watched and listened to the report, the second plane came into view and slammed into the south tower. I stood in stunned silence: “Oh, my God!”
As FDR said about Pearl Harbor, so it’s true of 9/11: “This is a date which will live in infamy.”
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The question is what have we learned – and what can we learn – from the tragic events of 9/11?
First, on September 11, 2001, we got a refresher course in the reality of evil in the world today. Before 9/11, we regarded terrorists as being like an opposing army, only without uniforms or a flag. After 9/11, we saw a distinct difference: An opposing army is guided by allegiance to a country and its ideologies, however misguided. An opposing army is motivated by the belief that its cause is just and its victory will serve a noble and lasting purpose.
Unlike enemy soldiers, terrorists are loyal to no one. They work independently, or in cells of their own choosing. They represent no particular country or ideology, except that of fear and repression. Their only mission is to strike terror in the hearts of innocent people. They have no redeeming purpose other than to disrupt and destroy the lives of others.
Have you ever heard of a humanitarian effort led by terrorists? One of my members in Bryan had two brothers working as civilian contractors building roads in Afghanistan. Their biggest problem was dodging terrorist bullets. They had to ride in armored vehicles with armed guards just to check on their worksites. Why would anyone want to stop the construction of better roads, for heaven’s sake?
Terrorists are the personification of evil. They prey on the weak. They forbid women any semblance of dignity and self-expression. They terrorize schools to keep girls from getting an education. They hide out in hospitals and mosques and use women and children as human shields. They strike indiscriminately and without warning, killing innocent bystanders more often than police officers or soldiers.
We don’t normally like to think of people as being evil. Sinful, yes; misguided, certainly; bitter, angry, mean-spirited – that, too. But our nature is to look for a redeeming quality in others and try to bring that out with patience and understanding.
9/11 was a wakeup call. It exposed a dark and sinister reality at work among us – a reality that can only be described as the work of Satan – which is evil with a capital D.
To be honest, when the smoke cleared I had hoped the President would make an effort to talk with Osama bin Laden and his henchmen, to listen to their complaints and search for common ground. I soon came to realize that this would never be possible, that we’re not dealing with rational minds interested in the common good, but with cold, callous killers hell-bent not only on destroying us and our way of life, but any and everyone else who gets in their way.
9/11 exposed the ugly face of evil. That’s the first point, and the second point is this: It taught us that we’re vulnerable. Before 9/11, we felt safe and secure in our homeland and immune from enemy aggression. We’d grown accustomed to thinking of war as something that happens “over there,” not in our own back yard.
9/11 changed that. It alerted us to the fact that the threat of terrorism is here and now. So far, law enforcement agencies have been able to thwart wide-scale acts of terrorism, but we all know it’s a time bomb that could go off anytime, anywhere.
When I was growing up just down the street, we hardly ever locked the front door. We parked in the driveway and, as often as not, left the keys in the ignition. We had BB guns, but they were for shooting cans, not people. There was little theft, and violence came mostly in the form of pushing and shoving. Ours was a Leave It to Beaver world. Not any more.
Oh, we don’t spend sleepless nights fretting over the likelihood of another terrorist attack, but it’s always there in the back of our minds. We keep a closer watch on the news. We think twice before going on a long trip. When there’s a plane crash or major disaster like the Gulf oil spill, we’re quick to ask, “Another terrorist strike?” We’ve lost our naïveté.
9/11 also taught us that we live in a multi-cultural world. This is where things get sticky.
For one thing, we’re insecure about our own faith; and being insecure about what we believe, we’re more critical and intolerant about the beliefs of others. We hold people of other faiths at a distance, as if to say, if we only knew more about what they believe and how they practice their faith, we might be persuaded to join them.
Being ignorant of others’ faith, we accept broad generalities as fact, such as: “Oh, you’re Presbyterian; you must believe in Predestination.”
As a minister, I’m often asked what Presbyterians believe, and I’m happy to explain the basics, anytime, anywhere. It’s just that I know full well if you were to ask rank-and-file Presbyterians what they believe on any given topic, you’d get a variety of answers.
And that’s O.K. Ours is not a cookie-cutter theology. When you come to Sunday School and church, you’re not asked to park your brain at the door. You’re free to think for yourself, study the scriptures on your own and follow the Spirit, wherever it leads you.
Face it: We don’t all think alike. We don’t always agree. So, why would we suppose, for example, that all Catholics uphold the doctrine of transubstantiation; or all Pentecostals speak in tongues; or all Baptists think dancing is sinful?
I taught World Religions at UACCH for a couple of semesters, and here’s what I found: The more you know about the religions of other people, the more you can appreciate their diversity. Buddhists don’t all think and act alike. There are many different strains of Judaism. Hindus follow different paths and pray to different gods.
So, back to 9/11, why do we lump Muslims into one category? Yes, the terrorists who wreaked havoc on 9/11 were all Muslims – Islamic extremists, to be more precise – but not all Muslims are terrorists. In fact, most Muslims are peace-loving, law-abiding, god-fearing men and women, like you and me.
Muslims I’ve known since 9/11 are as quick to condemn terrorism as we are … and just as quick to invite us to get to know them as people, whose hurts and hopes run just as deeply as ours.
A couple of years ago I got an invitation to have dinner with a Muslim family in Little Rock. My brother, Tony, and a friend went with me. Kemal met us at the door, where we took off our shoes, and invited us in. He introduced us to his wife, Nesibe, and their two-month-old baby, Nadide. Kemal teaches engineering at UALR. Nesibe is a stay-at-home mother. They live in a simple frame house in the Heights Addition.
Nesibe had prepared a scrumptious dinner and Kemal helped her serve. After dinner we sat in the living room and talked over a cup of tea. It was a gracious and lovely evening.
Getting to know people of other faiths and cultures breaks down stereotypes and opens the door to mutual peace and goodwill.
This is what three young mothers in New York City – one, a Christian; one, a Jew; one, a Muslim – discovered in the wake of 9/11. Instead of hunkering down and looking for others to blame, they formed a Faith Club, in which they met every other week in one of their apartments and talked openly about their beliefs. As trust developed, they felt freer to challenge each other with the ambiguities and inconsistencies of their different faiths. For example,
• The Crucifixion – are the Jews to blame for Jesus’ death?
• The Promised Land – where does that leave the Palestinians?
• Jihad – do Muslims really intend to wage holy war against non-Muslims?
Out of their dialogue, the women came to appreciate and accept each other as individuals, who share a common humanity and a quest for peace, and who want their children to grow up in a world free of hatred and prejudice. More than that, these women came to love each other, and that love helped them bridge the gap between their different religious traditions.
No doubt, you’ve been following the news of the Rev. Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who said he was going to burn a copy of the Qu’ran to protest the building of a mosque near Ground Zero. Thankfully, he called it off. But, rest assured, there’ll be others just as zealous as he, who’ll lash out against Muslims and, yes, get their 15-minutes of fame.
This doesn’t bode well for Christians. Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek and love their enemies. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Paul echoed Jesus’ words when he told the Romans, “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
In one of the most poignant passages of all his letters, Paul summed up the character and witness of a Christian when he wrote to the Corinthians,
“He (Christ) died for all,
that those who live should no longer live to themselves,
but to him who for their sakes died and rose again.
Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on…
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old things have passed away.
Behold, all things have become new.
But all things are of God,
who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ,
and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation;
namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,
not reckoning to them their trespasses,
and having committed to us the word of reconciliation.
We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ,
as though God were entreating by us.” (2 Corinthians 5:15-20)
Friends, this is our task: To proclaim the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ, both by what we say and by what we do. It’s up to us to take the initiative, building bridges of peace while tearing down walls of prejudice, always looking for the image of Christ in the face of others, whatever their race, religion or nationality.
In 2006 I went to Turkey as the guest of an organization called, “Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.” For ten days I traveled around the country with a small group from San Antonio. In our group were Christians, Jews and a couple of Unitarians. Our hosts were three young Muslims. The leader’s name was Veysel Demir, a native of Turkey, who was then working on a Ph.D. at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
Veysel shepherded our group with the poise of a saint. He had a kind and gentle spirit and a smile that could light up the room. In spite of the stress of making connections and staying on schedule, Veysel kept calm, cool and collected. He exhibited an inner peace and a quiet self-confidence. When we talked about Islam and the Qu’ran – which we did a lot of – he was honest and open in answering our questions and sharing his faith, never dogmatic or argumentative.
From time to time, he’d break away from the group to pray. “I’ll be right back,” he’d say, then he’d slip away to find a nearby mosque. When we passed a beggar on the street, he’d quietly hand him a lira or two and offer a word of kindness. Once, he saw that we were thirsty and out of water. Just like that he showed up with bottled water for everyone.
I’ve never met a more gracious and thoughtful individual. And so, when I hear Paul telling the Galatians that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22), one of the first images that comes to mind is the face of Veysel Demir.
Here’s what I hope you’ll take home with you today: September 11, 2001 will live on as one of the most horrific days in our nation’s history, and we’d do well to learn its lessons: The reality of evil, our vulnerability to further attacks, the multi-cultural world in which we live. Let’s just not make 9/11 a battle cry. Instead, let’s take Paul’s advice and …
“Put on the whole armor of God,
that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood,
but against the principalities,
against the powers,
against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age,
and against the spiritual forces of wickedness
in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:11-12)
We held a prayer service on the evening of September 11, 2001. The sanctuary was packed, not only with our members, but with neighbors, friends and strangers from all over town. In the words of Jeremiah, they wanted to know, “Is there any word from Yahweh?” (Jeremiah 37:17)
The answer then, and the answer now is, “Yes! There is a Word from the Lord, and that Word is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the source of our strength and the hope of salvation, both for us and all of God’s creation.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.