On the way to the coffee shop in our Philadelphia neighborhood, Emily and I walked passed several newsstands each one covered with magazine after magazine memorializing the events of September 11, 2001. The predictable covers crowded our vision with images of burning towers, terrified people, and soldiers in uniforms – both in combat and saluting at memorial services. They trumpeted headlines about a changed world, a new America, and an on-going fight for freedom and justice. There was patriotism and honor splashed across every page. Even though I recently, and temporarily, laid down my Navy uniform, I remain proud of serving my country, and proud of the women and men I serve alongside. Yet these magazines filled me with an overwhelming sense of sadness and not a little anger.
Sadness for the nearly 3000 lives lost that day? Definitely, those women, men and children were victims, and nothing will ever replace their lives or fully assuage the grief and pain their families feel.
Anger at the senseless violence and hatred that spurred such actions? Yes, certainly. The men who committed such violence were despicable criminals whose actions can never be justified.
But my sadness extended far beyond these facts surrounding September 11th. My anger encompassed far more than the acts of terror and those who carried them out.
Not one of the covers at those newsstands commented on the many thousands of lives that have been lost in the intervening war of vengeance. Yes, vengeance. Anger that instead of being channeled at the myriad of complexities that lead to intercultural and religious animosity and violence, was channeled at destroying the Other. Making our fellow human beings, who are of equal worth in the eyes of our mutual creator, suffer and die because we are angry. That is revenge, not justice.
And those who suffer for this are once again the men, women, and children who are least to blame for the problems or the hatred. The women and men from our own armed forces and those of our partners who have died or been permanently injured volunteered to lay down their lives to defend our nation and protect freedom and democracy. Instead they and their families suffer through a war of vengeance. The hundreds of thousands of Afghani and Iraqi women, men and children who have suffered and died do this once again because of vengeance and hatred.
Don’t misunderstand me; I recognize that these wars have brought about some benefits to all the countries involved. There are new freedoms for women in Afghanistan, a horrible dictator in Iraq was eliminated, and in America women and men in our military have demonstrated their devotion and resilience in ways that awe and inspire us. It is beyond my point now to get into discussing the politics of oil, but I acknowledge that mixed blessing as well.
However, the fundamental questions remain. Are the hopes, dreams, stories, and lives of hundreds of thousands of people we will never meet worth the price of vengeance for the tragic deaths of nearly 3000? How do we show our love? By dancing in the streets as bombs fall on innocent people in “shock and awe” or when a fellow human is gunned down? Is our hatred so great that we can’t see, or we ignore, the face of our Lord in the face of our sisters and brothers?
Yes, we must remember 9/11. We must remember those in America, Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout this fallen world who are suffering and dying. We must remember that all our actions have consequences, that as a nation we are not innocent victims. Blood is on our hands, and terrorist or not, the blood belonged to another child of God.
I have no illusions about extremists becoming peaceful – Jesus promised us wars and rumors of wars until his return. But this knowledge should not turn us to despair, nor should it drive us to strike back. No, instead we must cry out for grace and mercy, and our Lord can change our hatred into love, our desire for vengeance into a desire for restoration, our mourning into tears of joy. Then we can love our enemies and follow in the steps of Christ, who laid down his life for those who nailed him to the cross, for those who flew planes into buildings, for those who died from bombs, bullets, and disease, and for us. Armed with this mercy and love, we can move out and participate in the renewal of the world. Our Lord is the Prince of Peace.