Listening Again to My Own Question about 9-11

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In 2002, I put together a small collection of sermons I had preached in the weeks and months following the terrorists’ attacks on 9-11 and added a brief essay or two after each. I named the collection Why, God? using the title of the sermon I preached in our 2002 Maundy Thursday service. I find it helpful to go back and read my responses fixed in their time and context by the dates they were spoken. I have gone from speaker to listener (and sometimes critic of the speaker).

What follows I have excerpted from the essay I wrote to comment further upon my sermon of October 21, 2001, less than two months after the attacks, and so my questions about the kind of responses we would make as a nation had not yet been answered. Even the essay was written before our 2003 invasion of Iraq dubbed, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

As I read the essay again, I find the question has not gone away: “Will our actions as a nation work toward healing the tragedy of September 11 or perpetuating and enlarging it?” Yesterday we remembered the attacks and made ourselves mindful of the grief of people whose loved ones were murdered. What next will we do with our mindfulness of loss and grief in this world?

Here is the excerpt:

Will our actions as a nation work toward healing the tragedy of September 11 or perpetuating and enlarging it? As citizens, we can choose to assist terrorism’s work by terrorizing foreigners among us. As a nation, we can enlarge terrorism by playing the empire and acting as though only our national interests matter in the world. Or we can posture ourselves more humbly and seek ways toward justice and peace, not only for ourselves, but for other nations and peoples, too. We can open our eyes to conditions in our world and realize that justice against terrorists is not enough by itself; we also need to seek justice for the world’s peoples, many of whom live in nearly constant fear, insecurity, and deprivation.

There are two kinds of terrorism in our world. Usually, we use the word “terrorism” for only one kind: that which blows up property and people, sends anthrax through the mail, disrupts normal life, and kills indiscriminately. That kind might be called radical terrorism, and it needs to be stopped. The other kind might be called institutionalized terrorism because it works within normal life, legally and respectably, through established laws and institutions to keep certain groups of people marginalized and exploited. Here, we find no explosive disruptions because, in this form of terrorism, the powerful terrorize the weak on a daily and routine basis. Institutionalized terrorism runs sweat shops, enslaves girls and young women as prostitutes for wealthy businessmen, shuts doors of opportunity on people of minority groups, blocks poorer nations from solving their economic distress, and maintains the imbalance of power in favor of those who already hold power. Injustice and exploitation are the ways of institutionalized terrorism, which guards its power and privilege with police forces, armies, and banks. Institutionalized terrorism is a well-dressed, respectable hypocrite that feeds off the poor of the earth, pollutes and ravages the natural world, and takes its profits.

Do the existence and power of institutionalized terrorism justify radical actions such as the attacks of September 11? No! The people who perpetrated 9-11 do not want justice or peace; they want power and prestige for themselves and do not care how many people or even which people they kill to achieve their goals. They must be stopped. But the institutionalized exploitation of the world’s poor must also be stopped. As Christians we need to see and say that justice and peace are not only about preserving America’s way of life but about seeking God’s way of life and salvation for all the world.

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