Clues in the Rubble — Reflection on 9/11/11

I was privileged to be at Ground Zero in New York City on the first anniversary of 9/11. I looked down on that empty place where the Twin Towers had last stood so proudly one year earlier. And now as I looked at the bare hole, that ground truly was zero, nothing but a gaping cavity caused by a knockdown punch to the lower jaw of Manhattan.

But maybe in the rubble of that tragedy there were some clues of learning for us, evidence, as it were, that was inadvertently carted off.

It’s a vast oversimplification to compare death tolls as the measure of 9/11’s impact. For instance, some 2750 people died at the Twin Towers, while approximately ten times* that many innocent children die needlessly every day in developing nations due to poverty. We might be tempted to wonder why so much trauma (not to mention maybe trillions in increased military spending) was created by the deaths of 2750 when the deaths of 27,500 today and 27,500 tomorrow and 27,500 every new day barely evokes a yawn, not to mention recent calls to cut our national aid for those in poverty.

But clearly this ignores the deeper meaning behind 9/11… and the trauma we felt that day and will feel again as we see the reruns today, in our memories if not on our TV screens, of the planes hitting those towers.

First of all, its impact on us: our initial cluelessness as we watched hour after frustrating hour, trying desperately to piece together who did this, why they did it, and how did they get away with it… the visceral, personal helplessness we each felt wherever we were as we watched the unfolding drama of those buildings burning and then, suddenly and impossibly, collapsing in slow motion into a graveyard heap of twisted, burning metal and glass. Helplessness is a terrible feeling that we adults have spent a lifetime attempting to escape.

Second, a simplistic casualty comparison perhaps misses the power in the messages and meaning communicated by the event itself:
– the incendiary political act that it was
– the underlying religious passions that could evoke an act such as this
– the declaration of war between worldviews that the act represented

In America, we have spent a great deal of time and energy since 9/11 defending our worldview against that onslaught of underlying messages and meanings. So much so that maybe we’ve forgotten to ask: What was it about our nation that was so hate-provoking? And what part do I play personally in what was so hateful?

Maybe up ‘til now we’ve missed a real opportunity for soul-searching and learning. Had we done more of that, perhaps we might have addressed earlier some of the rampant speculation and plain old greed in our commodities markets and in the financial sector which first led to the global food crisis of a few years ago [we didn’t feel that one so much, but it drove an additional 100 million people below the poverty line worldwide], and then led us to the global financial crisis — where America was again Ground Zero.

Maybe. While it’s normal to defend oneself when feeling judged by others, in that defensive response little is learned. An opportunity can be missed; perhaps it has been.

And perhaps we’re at risk of missing some lessons and meanings behind the daily horror of 27,500 children dying, as well…
– What political priorities are evidenced in the level of our collective response, and non-response?
– What does our tolerance of those deaths show about our own religious commitments and understanding?
– And here too there’s a clash of worldviews which is brought home every day in that staccato drumroll of deaths: The worldview which is evident in my actions, versus the one evident in Jesus’ actions. He lived out what has always been God’s worldview, because long before Jesus came on the scene, the God of Israel was making it very clear with his words that he sided with the poor, the orphan, the widow, the powerless. Then, in Jesus, his very words became Flesh.

Maybe we struggle with those same feelings of helplessness contemplating these daily deaths, too. And we find it simpler to throw up our hands than put them to the plow to furrow our one measly row against that onslaught.

Truly, 2750 deaths by terrible violence is a tragedy worthy of our solemn remembrance, today and on every 9/11. Although I’m not sure yet that future historians will be able to say that it seriously “changed” America in substantive ways, certainly it deeply impacted all of us Americans old enough to remember it, and there may yet be lessons we will glean from it.

And if the tragedy also reminds us that God mourns every new day with its fresh body count, and if that reminder causes us to ask for more of the heart of God — and to be the hands of Jesus in response, then maybe there still are valuable treasures we can find in the rubble.

September 2011

* The latest estimate is that globally about 21,000 children die of preventable, poverty-related causes each day (the number is gradually shrinking!), but this only includes children up to age five.

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