I was sitting at my desk at about 8:30 on the morning of September 11, 2001. Having worked in the Catholic/Christian-Muslim dialogue for almost 20 years, I had been recently hired to set up a new interreligious education program for a seminary in New York City. Our friary is in Greenwich Village. The loud noise of a jet flying over the house startled me enough to stand up from my desk and say, “Wow! That was low!” There was no further noise and I did not think any more of it. I returned to working on my plans for the education program.
At around 9:00 I left the house and noticed a crowd on the corner of Sixth Avenue. Although I normally would have walked in the other direction, I gave in to my curiosity and walked to Sixth Avenue. The Twin Towers, which everyone in the neighborhood used to give tourists and visitors directions, were enveloped in red flames and black smoke. From where I stood I thought the heat of the fires was making the windows of the buildings blow out. I soon realized that the shapes plummeting to the ground were not windows; they were human beings.
As I stood on Sixth Avenue just before witnessing the collapse of the South Tower, it was clear that it was an attack and not an accident. At that early hour, no one knew who was responsible. People were too stunned to think about anything other than what they were witnessing. I saw a young woman wearing a hijab, the scarf many Muslim women wear. I remember being filled with a terrible sadness. I hoped that Muslims were not responsible for this terrible act. But if Islamic terrorists were responsible, I prayed that she and other innocent Muslims would not end up “collateral damage” to what was going on before my eyes. Would the hatred that brought the World Trade Center down be directed at this young woman and my other Muslim friends and colleagues?
In the ten years since September 11, 2001, I have been to “Ground Zero” only once. I was part of a team that put together an interfaith service on a bitterly cold January night in 2002. Surrounded by Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim friends and colleagues, we prayed in remembrance, we prayed for healing. The prayer service ended on a platform overlooking the gaping hole where recovery operations were still going on. The night was cold, moonless and dark; the hole was unnaturally bright, illuminated by countless work lights around the site.
We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the attack. I do not plan to visit Ground Zero. I am not ready to do that. I do not personally know anyone who died on September 11, 2001, although most of the men in the firehouse around the corner from where I live lost their lives. If I cannot bring myself to go to Ground Zero, I can barely comprehend the anguish, pain and, yes, anger of those who lost relatives and loved ones. That loss can never be undone, never be made right.
One of the most difficult aspects in Christianity — and also one its foremost characteristics — is the challenge of Jesus to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” (Luke 6:28 and elsewhere). Paul repeats the command “bless those who persecute you; never curse them, bless them. … Never repay evil with evil. …” (Romans 12:14, 17).
Looking ahead to the liturgical readings for the upcoming month, I was struck by the first reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which falls on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:
The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,
For he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice;
Then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
And expect healing from the Lord? …
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
Who will forgive his sins? (Sirach 27:1-9 passim)
The reading for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Latin Rite was not chosen because of 9/11. It just happens this year to coincide with the tenth anniversary. After the reading is proclaimed, the lector will say “The Word of the Lord” and the congregation will respond “Thanks be to God.” The Word of the Lord? What does that mean to me? And what does this particular word mean to me on this particular and painful occasion? Will I choose to ignore what I have just acknowledged as God’s Word? Or will I reject it outright?
In a way that is almost eerily prophetic, this reading is challenging us Christians to give witness in a way we rarely have the opportunity to do. The Word is not calling us to minimize or forget our pain and loss, much less the pain and loss of others. Nor is it calling us to call evil “good.” It is, however, challenging us in a most disturbing way to give witness to our conviction that love is more powerful than hate, forgiveness more God-like than vengeance and healing more powerful than death.
Rev. Elias Mallon is CNEWA’s Education & Interreligious Affairs Officer.