Mid-September brings the autumnal equinox, the end of summer, and usually occurs around the time of Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For many Christians, the 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, traditionally the beginning of the Great Fast before Easter. Fittingly, today’s first reading is the also that for Palm Sunday, which will be seven months from now.
This weekend also marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, in which almost 3,000 people lost their lives, including the 19 attackers themselves. Hundreds more have died since, especially First Responders, from the effects of the attacks. Hundreds more still suffer debilitating illnesses caused by inhaling the smoke and dust from the destroyed buildings.
None of us who were old enough to be aware of what was happening on the 11th will ever forget that day The world changed. And as the nation and much of the world
recalls that awful day, we may well ask here – as people are all over the Christian world — what does the gospel say to us today? [The following includes some relevant citations from homilies I preached on this day 10 years and 5 years ago. Figures have been updated.]
After the attacks on 9/11, it was perhaps natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. Soon enough it became payback time. Arab Americans were shot on the streets of our cities for no reason other than being Arab. I recall an interview with a fire fighter who had been at Ground Zero and joined the army after war was declared on Iraq in October 2002. “I want to kick Arab butt,” was his explanation. Iraq had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. That didn’t matter. ‘We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you’… (G. W. Bush. Or was it B. Obama? D. Trump? OK, it was Liam Neeson in Taken, but it sums up American policy after 9/11 pretty well.)
In the following twenty years of war, the United States suffered 2461 military and civilian fatalities in Afghanistan alone, including 1,928 killed in action. There were also 1,720 U.S. civilian contractor fatalities, for a total of 4,096 Americans killed during the war. In all, over 47,000 Afghan civilians died and another 50,000 were wounded. Between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan military and police and more than 51,000 Taliban fighters were killed. Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, and Barcelona.
Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, most of them innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror]
In this country, the cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. And yet we were cautioned well over a thousand years ago by Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance….” [Sirach 27:30-28:1].
This is not some odd snippet thrown into scripture. It is a recurrent theme. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our foreign policy?
Jesus said it very simply, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45]. Or even more simply, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France saying “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. Until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let slip the dogs of war.
Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. Among his final words before his own death according to Luke, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]. Will we ever?
“Never forget” has been a recurrent refrain over this commemorative weekend. But I do not recall a single mention of forgiveness. People in America and throughout the world turned to God in prayer on 9/11 and the days that followed. Let us also pray on this sad occasion for remembrance that we as a people may grow beyond the grief and anger that may have awakened within us as we ponder that awful day. Let us pray that we will remember that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, and that we will find the mercy and forgiveness we seek only by giving it to others.
Today’s Gospel reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany authentic discipleship. Jesus put it more strongly, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45].