September 11 - After the attack

Trinity 14, Sunday 16th September 2001

Manhattan after September 11th 2001Since Wednesday morning a constant stream of people have come into St Peter’s - to sit, to pray, to weep, to talk. At lunchtime on Wednesday and again on Thursday and Friday evenings we arranged short services here to pray for the American victims of terrorism and for the peace of the world. People came in during their lunch breaks, on their way home from work or shopping. On Friday morning at 11o’clock this building was full as many chose to come into a church to observe three minutes silence in honour of those who have died. Throughout these days we have had a candle lit on the platform - and men, women and children have come in to light many candles around it - to signify that against all present grim evidence, the light and hope of Christ does shine into all darkness.

In this one church, in one medium sized city, three thousand miles away from where the tragedy happened - it feels as though we have experienced a microcosm of all the emotions, which have spread throughout the world in the aftershock of Tuesday’s events in the United States of America. None of us can enter into the hideous pain and terror of those who lost their lives, or the horror of relatives living now with the knowledge that their loved ones have dreadfully perished - but the last few days have stirred up real depths of similar feelings in ordinary people throughout the earth. Never has it been more evident that the world is a very small place, as in different languages the same mixture of feelings are being expressed - grief beyond measure and sympathy of course, but running alongside these are fear, incomprehension, hate, anger, the pain of despair.

Out of all the many conversations this week, two stand out for me. After one of the services a small elderly lady said ‘thank you’ for the prayers, and then almost conversationally ‘don’t you hate all Muslims?’ She went on to say that all Muslims were evil, that every day her newspaper showed how cruel they were in their own countries, how they wanted to take over the world, and how militant they are here. And that this was all taught in their religion. In vain I tried to reason that this was not so - that we did not yet know for certain who was responsible - but that in any case Islam did not have any monopoly on fanatics - it was so called Christians who threw bombs at children on their way to school in Northern Ireland last week. I know that she did not hear. She had absorbed sensationalism but no understanding from her avid newspaper reading.

The second conversation was with an American lady over here on holiday (and now stranded), who just came in to pray. As she left she said very seriously ‘people of every faith must work and pray together to ensure that the world does not respond to this awful event at the level of hate - we must not pay back evil with even more evil - please pray most of all for the leaders of my country that they seek the true will of God as they plan a response’.

That woman was right. It is on this approach that Christians and all people of good will must now build in the aftermath of this evil disaster. The suicidal hijackers were fanatics. They would presumably justify their actions as being in retaliation for injustices carried out by what they see as a Satanic American Empire. This kind of fanatical hatred betrays all religion. No faith has been immune from this; there are plenty of examples throughout history. Christian against Christian in the inquisition; mediaeval massacres of Jews by Christians; Muslim against Christian and Christian against Muslim in various parts of the Balkans; Hindus against Muslims and vice-versa in India - one can go on and on.

But true religion does not bring about death and darkness ever, true religion nurtures life and hope and love. In ‘Thought for the Day’ on Thursday, the head of the Muslim College in England, in condemning the atrocity, quoted the Koran as saying ‘To kill one human being is to kill all humanity. To save one human being is to save all humanity’. At the heart of the New Testament is the belief that the world may be saved, can only be saved, by the power of self-giving love - that power which we see in the life and death of Jesus.

Enmeshed in this week’s stories of evil deeds and cries for vengeance, going side by side with them there have been other stories and pictures. Stories about the giving of life - not taking it away. The firemen going up the stairs as the office workers were fleeing down - giving their lives to save, not to destroy. The people queuing in the dust-laden streets to give their life-blood for others. The passengers who overpowered the hijackers in the plane which came down in Pennsylvania, consciously giving their own lives that many others might be saved.

There have been stories which show that at the last the power of love is the strongest in the world. Until this moment in history we have only known the last words of the very famous, recorded for posterity. This week we have heard the voices of the dying coming from mobile phones deep within the rubble. And almost without exception their last words have been words of love to someone dear. This is what they most wanted to say with seconds left to live. One newspaper had a headline ‘Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers’.

From such a secular source - and how we decry our newspapers! - but for Christians a powerful echo of the very ground of our faith. For Jesus too, love was all he had to set against his murderers. It is moving and humbling to realise that when brought face to face with eternity, the human urge is to choose love and not hate. The fire of love cannot be quenched, not like those dreadful flames which we saw on our screens this week.

It is on this belief in love which we must now build, all faiths and all races. Jesus’ self-sacrifice brought the promise of new life for the world. It is urgent, as never before, that we work in his way to bring about peace.

There was very deep evil and wickedness in the events of last Tuesday. It must be named as such. And there must be a response which is consonant with the demands of justice. Those directly responsible must be found and punished, whilst remembering that retaliation can be a very blunt instrument, and that Jesus told us two thousand years ago that simple revenge simply does not work. And we must remember that the demands of justice require that we search to find the seeds of this consuming hatred - to examine the actions of all the rich and powerful nations, to name the greed, lack of compassion, disregard for fairness, all of which contribute to at best righteous anger and at worst to fanatical destructiveness.

Last week the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, Bishop Frank Griswold said: “this is a time when people of faith, in virtue of the gospel, are called to be about peace and the transformation of the human heart, beginning with our own … through the heart of this violence we are called to another way”.

Our ‘other way’ is the way of that God whom Jesus told us about in the Gospel reading today. In ancient times all the gods, including the God of the Jews, were seen as a God for their own people, a protector of national and tribal interests, someone who would save them and nobody else. Jesus told this story (Luke 15:1-10) of a God who like a loving shepherd constantly risks his life to search for the lost, whose love for all people is boundless, and if we try to limit it we do so at our peril.

God has made us in his own image. God has made us for something better than tribal, racial and religious isolation and prejudice. He has made us for love, to be bridges of reconciliation, to care for those on the edges of this world and bring them into fellowship with all humanity.

This week it does not seem too momentous to say that we stand at one of the defining moments in history. What the world chooses to do in response to this present moment will determine fundamentally the shape of the future. Christians are challenged to work with people of all faiths to ensure that the voice of Jesus the reconciler and healer is heard and understood.

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 29th November 2001