Thistlethwaite: 9/11 and the people who ran toward the towers
“What should we preach on Sunday, Sept.16, 2001?” was a question on many pastors’ minds after the attacks of 9/11.
On the Friday before, I convened a gathering of clergy at Chicago Theological Seminary, the school where I was president, to consider that question.
Americans were rightly shocked and appalled at what had happened and were looking for a message from their religious leaders. Our question was, as religious leaders, “What should we say?”
We were all reeling from several horrible attacks. There was the hijacking of two passenger planes that were intentionally crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, killing 2,753 people.
The collapse of the towers as a result of the crashes killed 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City police officers and 37 officers at the Port Authority. Another 184 people were killed when another hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon building.
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Near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 40 passengers and crew members died when a hijacked aircraft was deliberately crashed in that location as passengers and crew attempted to retake control of the flight deck.
Many good suggestions were made by pastors on what to preach as we brainstormed on that day, and I know many insightful sermons were delivered that weekend.
My contribution was that we should preach about the people who ran toward the towers and toward the Pentagon crash, and the people who gave their lives to try to retake the flight that was crashed in Pennsylvania.
The massive evils that contributed to the 9/11 attacks can, and still do, rivet the mind on that awful aspect of human nature. What kind of people can plan, train and ultimately carry out such wanton destruction on another group of people?
Evil can be like that. It sucks all the air out of your spiritual response, and that’s all you can see and feel.
But what about goodness?
On that day, first responders jumped into action and ran toward the burning towers. Their goal was to save as many lives as possible, the exact opposite of the motivation of those who had planned and carried out the attacks. They climbed steps carrying hoses and other gear, trying to get people out. Nearly 400 of them died, accounting for over one-third of all the emergency personnel at the scene.
Both groups are human beings and represent the spectrum of human nature.
It wasn’t religion that separated these two groups. Muslims were among those first responders who died on 9/11, and they were also victims of the attacks. To highlight that some Muslims are Americans who also felt attacked on 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations released three public service announcements on Sept. 1, featuring Muslim Americans who were first responders on 9/11.
“(Sept. 11) happened to us all,” the ads say. Blaming all Muslims for the reprehensible actions of a few, spokespeople have said, is “like making all Christians responsible for Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was involved in Christian militia movements.”
Good and evil are like that in my experience, they are not polar opposites but intricately related in ways that make simply demonizing other people or groups useless and destructive as modes of understanding.
Ultimately, such events mean we face the fact that there are no easy answers. In fact, easy answers insult the ongoing horror shows such as the long fight to secure adequate health care and support for those 9/11 first responders who were affected by the toxic particles in the smoke from the burning buildings and the collapse of the Twin Towers. That is an evil that emerged in response to the goodness of those who put their lives on the line to save lives.
Easy answers and the lust for revenge drew this country into two long, expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that basically accomplished nothing other than injury and death to our service people and the hapless civilians of those countries. Though, of course, those wars did serve to enrich the military/industrial complex.
More death, more suffering and for what?
Sometimes, the only spiritual response you can make is to lament the evils and the loss. On 9/11, I canceled classes and asked the whole seminary to meet me in the chapel. We took turns reading the Psalms of Lament.
“My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?” —Psalm 6:3.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.