In the weeks after 9/11, I found myself wondering what should be said from the pulpit. At the time, I was in seminary, so preaching was not a regular weekly habit. Nonetheless, I had two Sundays in a row (rare then) when I was asked to speak at area churches in Kansas City. They happened to be the two Sundays immediately after 9/11.
Tensions and grief were high. People were still trying to name what they felt, and we were all feeling especially vulnerable, wondering if additional attacks were on the verge. What would Sunday morning be like as we gathered to pray and sing and listen to the Word?
The Sunday just after 9/11 2001 was in a Christian Church/Disciples of Christ congregation I knew fairly well. I had some rapport from previous times, so I knew it was a group quite okay with a preacher leading them in the balance between words and silence, two necessities when we needed to talk yet felt a bit numb at the same time.
The second Sunday, I was out in a rural church in Kansas. I had some trepidation about going there, as I wondered what the mood would be. After growing up in a similar community where "blunt talk" was a way of life, my gut feeling said, “Tread carefully!”
I arrived early enough that an older adult education class was using the sanctuary for Sunday School, which preceded the worship hour. The class had me sit in while they finished their session. As you could imagine, the pre-planned scripture study was left to the side. People were still talking out how they were dealing with the events of the past couple of weeks.
One old farmer reached into his pocket and pulled out a newspaper clipping. My gut went into a bit of knot, as my experience growing up in Kansas was generally of the old-timers usually bringing newspaper clippings into the coffee shop, the diner, the barber shop, or yes, even Sunday School classrooms, to air their thoughts (mostly grievances) about what they had read in the paper. So, I did what I had learned to do: I braced myself for what would likely be something blistering.
The old timer read the news article he had found just that morning from the Kansas City Star, the “metro/big city paper” read in that part of Kansas. The press release announced an interfaith prayer gathering to be led primarily by leading Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy of the area. I watched the crowd for any reaction when the word “Muslim” was read.
The old timer finished reading the article, put the clipping back in his pocket, and said, “I think we should all go.”
There were some nods around the room and the gentle murmur of “Amen.”
The lectionary cycle of scripture readings on the Sunday after 9/11/2001 just so happened to have the gospel’s parables of God looking for the lost. That word “lost” had a misfortunate ring to it, given the continuing news stories of families trying to discover if a loved one survived. Some clergy admitted shying away from the parables suggested for the day. Others claimed there was a certain strength to be drawn from these particular parables, a word of hope that God is with us, even in times when we feel the most vulnerable or afraid.
On the 10th anniversary (9/11/2011) which happened to be a Sunday that year, the lectionary suggested another parable (Matthew 18:21-35), one dealing with forgiveness with especial care given to forgive with full awareness of the transgressions and wrongs that occurred. The unforgiving slave was given great mercy. He chose not to do the same for another. A story of sin and forgiveness and mercy and judgement had quite a resonance that day, though I wanted to tread carefully just like a decade prior.
I do not presume to give a “one size fits all” sermon on how forgiveness should be worked out in relation to the great tragedy of 9/11. Nonetheless, we should look carefully at theological reflection arising from other circumstances where Christians have been asked to place their faith’s teachings to the test when other great, unimaginable evil has been wrought. Many Christians elsewhere in the world bear witness to an understanding that forgiveness is a difficult and sometimes slow, measured process. I cite Desmond Tutu’s writings on leading the “Truth and Reconciliation Process” for a post-apartheid South Africa having to deal with apartheid’s many complexities. Like Tutu, many works from the global Christian family testify that forgiveness is inescapably part of Christian reflection. Tutu warns that there is no future without forgiveness, and I ponder where we are at, even a decade plus later with resolving the questions raised by 9/11.
I do see part of the pathway from that time to today has been made easier to travel thanks in part to the interfaith movement. Public opinion began to rage about the role of religion in the world. Many voices wondered if any religion should be deemed credible, let alone a radicalized fundamentalism observed by the hijackers or the type of fundamentalism being broadcast in the aftermath of 9/11 by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as they claimed the attacks came about due to America not following God. As I said back then, I say now, “Jerry and Pat, if you believe that’s how God acts, it’s time to find a better theology.”) I lament, and continue to lament, the “guilt by association” endured by American Muslims and other people in this country. I note with hope that a decade onwards, American Baptists are one of many Christian groups endeavoring to foster friendly and respectful ties with Muslim groups.
Such work is done with a spirit of humility, a desire not to alienate but to include, and raise up the common good together instead of grasp and struggle for control, the others underfoot. We may not believe the same, but we hope for a common good within humanity.