Like many, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. I was working at Eckerd Youth Alternatives in eastern North Carolina. I remember sitting in a dining hall that evening watching the news with 60 teenagers. I will never forget the looks on their faces as they watched airplanes collapse tall buildings and dive out of the sky into the Pentagon. I still see the makeover of their faces as one by one they pieced together that what they were witnessing wasn’t the violence of a video game or a movie, but something very real. I watched in an instant the innocence of children gobbled up by the monster that is hatred.
It frightens me to think I may one day have to witness those looks on the faces of my own children.
More than that, though, I fear my children will never get to experience an America like the one I lived in during the days that immediately followed 9/11. They were the days when the nightly news became filled with stories of heroes, not just New York City, Washington D.C and Pennsylvania heroes, but ordinary heroes all across this country who were reaching out in big and small ways to love their neighbors. People flocked to soup kitchens and homeless shelters to volunteer. They reached out to loved ones and friends to settle disputes that had lingered for decades. Dads hugged children. People hugged people. Workers found it more fulfilling to say good morning to co-workers than to pass by them with disinterest on the way to their morning coffee. And it felt like it would never end. Americans truly cared more about the depth of their neighbor’s needs and pains than they cared about, well - anything.
I think adults witnessed those crashes in much the same way our children did. As fireballs exploded and skies went empty and silent, while our President was whisked to safe harbor and phone lines jammed as loved ones checked on the fate of loved ones, adults were struck with the reality of just how little they controlled in this world. Their response was to return to what they'd left behind during an era when they'd convinced themselves they had it all. They turned to each other.
I think adults have shaken the images of that day. That’s not to say they aren’t still saddened by the scenes that will play over and over today, or that they don’t still honor the fallen heroes and pray for the victims and their families. But I think we’ve managed to shake that sense of helplessness. We’ve returned to the world we see as much bigger than our neighbors, more rewarding than service to one another. We’ve managed to convince ourselves that 9/11 was a nightmare, turning to one another was simply a way to cope with it.
It’s a sad point of view, but it is mine. I do fear I witnessed the last days Americans were united, when we found being human was reason enough to love one another. For that reason, as tragic as that day was, I wish my children had been here to share in it.
I wonder some days if anyone but me sees our growing similarities to hijackers who fly themselves and hundreds of unsuspecting passengers into buildings full of innocent people to make a point that what they believe is the only thing to believe. That the way they live is the only way to live. And I wonder if when husbands and wives and children and sisters and brothers aren’t crumbling beneath the falling towers of hate, do we somehow dismiss it as something less painful. I suspect many would say yes.
I know there are those who would not, though.
The scared teenage girl contemplating abortion who is called a murderer.
The mother who in spite of the impossibility of it all had and raised a child and now believes that all unborn should have the same opportunity and is called a Jesus freak.
Or the gay and lesbian community who has to fight hatred and ignorance in a pursuit of human rights, while much of the Christian community fights for God’s definition of marriage, somehow missing that God never promised earthly rewards (tax breaks and healthcare and death benefits) for marriage any more than any political movement or initiative can undo a single one of His definitions.
Then there are those who support a view of marriage that is generations deep in their upbringing, and do so by loving their own family and casting a vote in a ballot box, and are called bigots.
I watched a majority of both political conventions last week. When it was all over, I felt like I had not witnessed a discussion between two groups of people from the same country, but something that seemed more appropriately attached to a war of words between North and South Korea. There was that much hatred. If it didn’t come out in the specific words of the speakers, it came out in the passionate applause from the crowd when they heard something especially biting and cutting about members of the other side. When there wasn’t enough vitriol stirred up in the speeches themselves, Rachel Madow and Sean Hannity took care of that with their Monday Night Football like commentary of each word. I won’t even get into the wildfire of hate that spread through Facebook and Twitter.
I have many friends who will call all of this healthy debate. Some who will find truth in what I say about the side opposite of the one they support, and find me to be completely wrong about their own.
Many of my Christian brothers and sisters will challenge that we are called to take up the good fight. And I don’t totally disagree, I just think we might not see eye to eye on what that fight is. I was reminded this weekend of some very powerful words in the bible from Paul:
1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 New International Version (NIV)
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
How much of what we stand for is out of love? And how much of the way we stand up for what we believe is transmitted in a loving manner?
I imagine the suicide bombers who flew planes into buildings started out as young men who believed in something very strongly. They probably had debate and discussion. At what point did all of that become much less about those who agreed with them, and more about those who disagreed. I think it’s a fine line between disagreement and hatred.
Today I once again mourn all who died and suffered at the hands of hatred on 9/11. I give thanks that their loss gave us a glimpse at unity not seen in many years before, and certainly not since. And I pray that as we recall those who gave their lives over to the monster that is hatred, that we will spend some time looking not across the aisle, but within ourselves, and be unified in killing that monster once and for all.