24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 16, 2001
Year C

Reflections on Terrorist Attacks of
September 11, 2001

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-11 13-14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 51:3-4, 17, 19
Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gospel: Luke 15:1-32

Periodically, there are events that change the world. A look through human history sadly demonstrates that most of these events are violent acts sprung from the seeds of prejudice, hatred, poverty and oppression. Even the death of Jesus, perhaps the single most earth-changing event in all of history, was a violent one. Tuesday’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is the latest such earth-changing event, and our lives will never be the same. Even our language has changed for we now believe the unbelievable and so speak the unspeakable.

These horrific acts of violence spark terror in the hearts of millions, as all of us are touched by the attacks either personally or collectively. I have two friends in New York City, and I was anxious to hear about them. I was able to ascertain on Tuesday, itself, that Marianna Pisano, Jane’s and Mark’s daughter was all right. She works a block away from the WTC. On Tuesday she was an observer for a scheduled election at a polling place many miles away. Still she lost friends in the attack. My other friend is a lieutenant on the NYPD. Not only because it is her job, but also because of her personality and commitment to service, I knew that she would be in the thick of the rescue efforts. For days I tried to find out what happened to Theresa Tobin. Finally, last Thursday, I was able to get through to another friend who informed me that Teri was injured. She had been at the WTC when the first building collapsed, and was thrown with such force that she suffered a broken ankle, multiple bruises and lacerations, and head and back injuries. She is alive and recovering.

Three thousand miles across the nation I am alive and well. But I am angry. Why should my friends, or any people for that matter, be put through such terror? Why should there be thousands of innocent people dead? Yet my anger pales in comparison to others—people whose relatives and friends died last Tuesday. I am also afraid. I am not so much afraid that there will be an attack on the West Coast. And given the mobilization of the nation’s intelligence and military personnel, it will be a long time before I fear another such attack on the East Coast. I am not suggesting that we are safe. If we have learned anything, it is that no one and no place is safe from terrorism. I only say that I do not fear an attack. Still I am afraid. I am afraid of what we will do in response to this terror, and I am afraid of what will result from our response. We are being drawn into a whirlpool of violence from which there may be no escape.

Throughout the week, I have spoken with many people about how we should respond to such evil. I have been concerned and critical of the language used by all of our political leaders. From the outset they have spoken only about punishment and retaliation. Although that language does not necessarily mean violence, I believe that is what our leaders have in mind. I hope I am wrong. And even if I interpret our leaders incorrectly, our citizens have violent retaliation on
their minds. You would think that by this time in our history we would have learned that violence only breeds more violence. No war has ever resulted in peace. Rather, every war has sown the seeds of future conflict. I have been confronted with one question over and over this week: If punishment and retaliation are not the answers, then what kind of response do we make?

My starting point is to look back at the crucifixion of Jesus--a violent act that I have already suggested is the most earth-changing event in history. And what response did Jesus make? Hanging from the Cross, as his enemies unjustly orchestrated his death, Jesus simply says: “Father forgive them.” To be honest, however, that forgiveness does not come easily, nor can it come too soon if it is to be real. Jesus had three years of healing, forgiving and teaching how to love. When he died he was ready to extend that love, that forgiveness and that healing to those who unjustly put him to death. What about us? We have had two thousand years of Christianity, of reflecting on the teachings and example of Jesus. Are we finally prepared to ask and give forgiveness, to extend healing and love?

During this past week there has been an understandable rise in patriotism accompanied by an almost uncontrollable emotion. As a result, most every store that sells American flags has had their stock depleted. We have all seen the cars on streets and freeways with the flag proudly waving in the breeze. I have resisted the temptation to purchase a flag. I have resisted both individually and as leader of this community. Instead, I stood outside a flag store yesterday for two hours waiting my turn to enter the building. And when I did, rather than purchase an American flag, I purchased the flags of every member of the United Nations. This is not just an American tragedy. It is a tragedy for all peoples. It is not just an attack against the United States. It is an attack against all of humanity. Over sixty countries lost citizens in the destruction of the WTC. So how do we respond?

My reflections this week took me back to another time in American history--to the time when Africans were forcibly brought to these shores in chains. During the awful period of slavery, the imprisoned Africans and their descendants frequently turned to the stories of the Old and New Testaments to draw strength and courage and hope. In the midst of their suffering which often took the form of violence and death, they found faith in a God who was not distant from them, but intimately a part of their suffering and their struggle for freedom. They expressed that faith in the only international language we have--music and song.

Although many spirituals emerged from this contact with the Bible, one song stands out today. Through a quirk in the English language, it is easily misunderstood, in part because singers are not too careful with the pronunciation.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

I was a child the first time I heard that song, and I thought the singer sang about a bomb in Gilead. I knew it was a religious song, so I was a bit confused. How could a religious song be about a bomb, and how could that bomb bring healing? But then I grew up and realized that the song spoke of a balm--a soothing, healing ointment. What I hear from people today takes me back to my first encounter with the song. For it is not a balm many look for to bring healing, but a bomb.

Sometimes I feel discouraged
and think my work’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

I have been searching this past week for a symbol of what unites people around the world. Most of us would like to think that we are united by a common humanity: a concern for justice and a quest for peace. The truth is less hopeful and far less convincing. It is also cynically paradoxical. I had planned to bring a gun into church today. I wanted to bring a gun, because while it obviously divides us by violence, it is also the most real symbol of what unites us as a people around world. We are not linked by common desires for good. We are linked by a common surrender to violence in all its forms. The single most defining element in international relations is power--power exercised through violence. There are two worlds on this planet: some countries have power and the ones without power want it. I did not bring the gun because I contacted the School of Theatre too late. I did, however, bring something else. This is a symbol of what should unite us. It is a copy of a painting I have previously used as a visual aid in my preaching.

This is a picture of the head of Christ. From a distance, like many other things, it seems perfectly obvious. This is an artist’s rendition of how Jesus looked. But it is only seen with clarity when one examines it closely. For this head of Christ is made up of the heads of many other people. Some of them are famous, recognizable images. They include people of every race and culture; people of various faiths and even people who do not believe at all. Other images are unknown, just a representation of all human beings. Two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, Jesus walked among us as we walk today. But now the only way Jesus is present is in us--each of us, each person.

I continued to grow up from the day I first heard the song of Gilead. Eventually I came to realize that it is not an ointment that is the balm, but it is Christ himself--his compassion, his healing, his forgiveness, and his love for all people. Jesus, by rejecting violence and embracing mercy, becomes the way to peace.

If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say he died for all.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Crafting a national response to last week’s terrorism is treacherous. Before we take refuge in our indignation and our democratic history, we must remember one thing: We are not defined by lofty rhetoric, or even by the values we treasure. We are defined by how we respond when that rhetoric and those values are challenged. We have a right to be angry, for there is no moral judgment placed on feelings. We also have a right to feel outrage, hatred and even revenge. These feelings are neutral. But it is precisely in the midst of these feelings that Jesus reaches out to and into us. Jesus calls us to something different. Jesus calls forth from us the power to transcend those feelings. Yet it takes time. I, for one, do not feel like forgiving today. There is still anger that must subside within me. But I cannot overcome the anger until I admit that it is there, and surrender the disease of my own heart to the love and the power of God. I know I will not be healed until I recognize the presence of Jesus even in my enemies.

Although the healing process will take time, it begins today. I draw inspiration and hope from the 19th century slaves. Indeed there is a balm in Gilead, and that balm is Jesus.