I had just begun my pastoral studies in September of 2001. There were hurried clusters of conversation in the seminary quad. Then students and professors crowded around TV's in the cafeteria.
Later that day, I drove to a juvenile detention center for a 10 week chaplaincy module. I tried to explain evil to teenagers in orange jumpsuits. On the way home, every gas station I passed had lines of cars backed up around the block.
Every American was trying to process impossible images. We all remember where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with.
Where were you on 9/11/01? How were you changed?
For me, a key realization was this:
There is evil in the world, and it's worse than we thought.
It wasn't just a few terrorists flying planes. September 11th exposed a real and present darkness in humanity. Until that point, my generation believed that humankind was advancing in a positive trajectory. "Sure the world isn't perfect, but we're doing better." But like the assassination of JFK or World War II before us, 9/11 exposed an ugly stain on humanity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in the 1930’s and 40’s. He was also a conspirator in the underground resistance against Hitler. He would die in a concentration camp shortly before the war ended.
In the late 1930’s, as Hitler rose to great power, there was horrific news of the atrocities on the war front and in concentration camps. The regime was slaughtering masses of people. Jews, prisoners of war, the disabled, homosexuals, and opponents of Hitler. During this time, Bonhoeffer wrote,
“Death reveals that the world is not as it should be, but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death.”
How do we make sense of terror and trauma? What does it mean?
9/11 most certainly revealed that "the world is not as it should be." The event exposed the deepest need, the "need of redemption." Sin, death, and evil had always been there. An act of terrorism further revealed what has existed since Adam and Eve. Tragedy brings to light the reality more clearly.
But just as death exposes the great darkness, so too it reveals the Great Remedy. "Christ alone is the conquering of death."
We have had our share of tragedy since 2001. Fifteen years later, I see things differently. I am no longer surprised by wicked deeds. The cross allows me to be honest about the human condition. But it also makes me hopeful. Strangely, an instrument of evil is an instrument of redemption.
When I see death openly, I see Christ all the more clearly.
And I cling to him more earnestly.
Where were you on 9/11? How were you changed?