Our hearts are heavy on this 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. I imagine that nowhere is the grief greater than with those who lost loved ones that day. We remember the people—the mothers, the fathers, the sons and daughters, the aunts and uncles, the lovers, the friends, the workers, the travelers, the families, all with their own lives, their loves, their stories—who died so suddenly and tragically in the terrorist attack. We remember the first responders—the firefighters, EMTs, police, chaplains, and others, who showed up immediately, courageously to help. So many of them lost their lives that day and in the days and years that have followed, a consequence of the damage to their health from being at Ground Zero.
Grief, we make room to experience you, not as suffering but as a reflection of our enduring love for those who died and our compassion for the families and loved ones remembering and mourning on this day.
The grief grows deeper on this anniversary, as the United States has just withdrawn from its twenty-year war in Afghanistan. This war was a misguided response to the tragedy of 9/11 rooted in xenophobia and vengeance. The suffering and devastation continuing to unfold for the people of Afghanistan—especially the women and children and all those who are resisting the Taliban – is also a part of the story of 9/11. It was a heartbreaking day that cannot be understood in isolation from the foreign policy and economic policy choices that preceded it and the twenty years of pain, violence, and death that have followed.
As I remember my own experience of that day twenty years ago, and the days of grief and shock and spiritual disruption that followed, two things rise to the surface of my consciousness. One is deep sorrow and the feeling of the trauma again in my body. The other visceral response is the memory of feeling a tremendous opportunity in that moment. I remember it felt like a moment opening—with the world watching, the world grieving such a devastating assault on innocent people. There was a brief moment when so many of the world’s people came together in compassion and empathy—and it felt like we could make a choice to reject ideologies of terrorism by refusing to return violence with violence. This was a moment to lean in, to learn, to understand the pain from which terror is so often born, and to resist it by turning toward greater solidarity and collaboration across the globe.
Instead, we, the United States, considered the most powerful nation in the world, acted not out of strength, but weakness—specifically a spiritual weakness that led us to embrace our sense of victimhood and demand retribution. Rather than leaning into our grief, our capacity for compassion, and tending to the fear and trauma we all experienced, we chose a path of vengeance—spending trillions on the machine of war, taking many hundreds of thousands of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fueling Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. and around the world.
We invested in policies and rhetoric of fear, division, criminalization, and torture. We dismantled civil liberties, invested in surveillance, and increasingly shut down mechanisms of dissent and democracy. Let us not forget that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was a response to 9/11. Those trillions of dollars going to weapons, training, and equipment of war didn’t just go overseas. And those that did often made their way back home escalating the militarized local police forces we now see regularly on our streets. All the while, terrorism and the ideologies of violent supremacy and authoritarianism have flourished, including domestically from Charleston and Charlottesville to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol.
Today, as humanity faces the collective tragedy of a global pandemic that has spared no country and taken millions of lives, we have once again, not been able to come together to help one another. This is a choice. It is also a reflection of the consequences of previous choices of violence and war that undermined our capacity to understand our shared humanity and our shared fate.
This reminds me of a Biblical story I treasure—the story of the Samaritan, often known as the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story in response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” A lawyer asks this question following the call to “love your God with all your heart and all your soul…And to love your neighbor as yourself.”
The story begins with a man being beaten by a band of robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. All the people we assume would help, the leaders in the community, see the man and cross to the other side of the road to avoid him. But then a Samaritan sees the man and stops to help. The Jewish Studies and New Testament scholar, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that to a first century Jewish audience (Jesus’ audience) the Samaritans were known as the rivals and enemies of Judea. Levine argues that while the Samaritan is often interpreted in contemporary reading as an outcast or poor laborer, the better comparison for the first century context is to understand the dying man as an Israeli and the Samaritan as a member of Hamas.
This story is a call for a radical reorienting of our thinking. The message of the story is not just about having compassion for those in need, but actually understanding that our enemies hold our lives in their hands—that our fates are inseparable. With the story of the Samaritan, Jesus says the way to live, to choose life, is to reject the ideologies that make of us enemies, and embrace compassion and mercy for those we are told to hate. Otherwise, we ensure our shared demise through the perpetuation of violence, division, and vengeance.
Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it is hard to separate out all the levels of trauma and loss—personal, collective and global. It is impossible to remember that day and not also reflect on the tremendous costs of our response to that tragedy. And to remember that it is never too late to choose love and to build a new path.
Choosing love, choosing empathy and compassion, is not a passive path. We need organizing, agitation, protest because people’s lives are on the line. Black people, women, Native people, Muslims, Trans and non-binary people, people of color, disabled people, gay and lesbian people, migrants and poor people everywhere experience the violence of the policies that deny the worth and dignity of their lives. And so we must organize and agitate and struggle to protect one another, to save each other. And at the foundation of our work must be an ethic of love and compassion that seeks not to destroy those we oppose, but to redeem each other and our future.
I am reminded of some of my favorite words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Words that he spoke in 1957 in an address to the religious community titled “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation's Chief Moral Dilemma.” He writes:
“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
As we continue to face fiercely urgent moral issues on a global scale, we always have a choice before us. May we choose love and an overflowing compassion that seeks only the wellbeing of all our neighbors, all people with whom we share this earth.