Commemorating the Third Anniversary of 9/11
- Sunday, September 12 2004
In between the opening and closing devotion and prayers, the names of all 343 were read to the tolling of a bell. I was seated next to the widow of one of those named, the widow of Battalion Commander, Dennis Devlin and his 21 year old daughter Katie. At the appointed time, this young woman got up in front of the sea of uniformed men where her father should have been but wasn’t, and sang her heart out. Katie sang Amazing Grace and her brave, beautiful singing was, in itself, an act and sign of amazing grace -- one of many that touched our city yesterday in countless public and private moments.
As he came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, if only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Jesus surely wept over NYC on Sept. 11, over Washington and a field in Pennsylvania, as he weeps over Baghdad, the Sudan and still Jerusalem, and so many, many places around the earth. What are the things that make for peace? Facing the truth with open eyes is one of them.Speaking the truth is another. The New York Times ran a cover story about the children who lost parents on 9/11. One of the boys featured is Samuel Fields. His father is described as a man who listened to the Beatles, went to church every Sunday and liked to help with homework. He was a 36 year old security guard who entered the towers that morning, leaving four children and his pregnant wife behind in their Harlem apartment. After that day, 10 year old Samuel kept his hurt sealed up inside. At home he was quiet. He helped wit his younger siblings. He went through the motions. But outside he began to act out. He got into fights and threw himself off high rocks in Central Park and was arrested for throwing stones at cars.
I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out, Jesus said. The stones in Samuel’s hands did the shouting for him, until he learned to break the silence. Samuel is now 13. Everyone says, don't talk about it, that way you won’t remember anything. But Sam has found wiser counsel. He found’s expression through music and through talking with his adult mentor. His big brother says this: The kid that I met was quiet, somewhat afraid, shut down. Samuel now is a thinking child. He can talk about what he feels. And he can sing. Samuel recently wrote a song called “thinking about you” about his father.
There are times when I cry,
And all I have to say is
I’ve been thinking about you.
Samuel's ability to speak the truth about his feelings and Samuel's ability to express that truth in lyrics and singing is another act and sign of amazing grace. Samuel is learning the things that make for peace. Would that the nations of our world were led by those who followed the hard won wisdom of 13 year old Samuel who no longer throws stones at cars because he can now speak and sing the truth, bitter as well as sweet.
Instead, we live in a place that increasingly reminds me of Argentina where I lived and studied for a year in the early 80’s. Towards the end of my time there, Argentina was at war with England over the Malvina Islands or the Faulklands as the English called them. I followed the war news as closely as I could. It seemed that all the fighting was going to be offshore in the waters around the islands, not where I was, but you never know. At that point, it was the closest I’d ever been to a war and it was a little too close for comfort. I watched the news on TV when I could get near one or listened on the radio. All the news from the front was good news, if you can call war news good news. All the broadcasts were filled with patriotic bravado...rah rah Argentina. I still remember the theme song... Vamos Argentina... Vamos a vencer! Let’s go Argentina... On to Victory! It was like a football cheer. People forgot about hunger, unemployment, 600 percent inflation...that’s right 600 percent inflation, human rights violations. People left off attacking the government. Instead of large demonstrations against the dictatorship, people united in patriotic fever. Flags sprung up overnight, over everything.
Then more and more of the young men from the area where I lived, a poor area, began to come home in boxes and I was not the only one wondering if our nightly broadcasts were not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. People in that poor neighborhood began to wonder -- if Argentina is winning, if Argentina is doing so great, why are all these young men dying? I was wondering too. I didn’t trust the government but didn’t know where to get news, real news.
Then I remembered that you could buy Time Magazine and Newsweek on some newsstands in Buenos Aires. It was expensive, but you could buy it. I figured that Time and Newsweek would not be controlled by Argentina government and went to buy some. I paid about $20 for the two magazines both of which gave front page coverage to the war. I knew it was a lot, too much, way too much really, but I decided it was worth it just once. And I had dollars, if I had been paying deflated pesos, the magazines would have cost millions. I went to have a coffee and read. I opened the magazines and found that every article about the war had been neatly cut out before the magazines hit the news stands. Imagine, someone had sat down with a pair of scissors and cut the war news out of every single magazine. Whoever was paid to do it was probably glad for the job, a mini economy based on deception, mirroring global economic realities.
After 73 days, the war was over. Argentina had lost, badly. It had been losing since the first strike. When 400 young men died in the sinking of a naval ship, the news was only of victory, glory, national strength, vamos Argentina. When 10,000 young men were taken prisoner, the news was only a festive -- vamos Argentina!. In the end about 1000 lives were lost, 236 English and the rest Argentineans.. In the end, the war helped the reelection of Margaret Thatcher and brought down the dictator Galtieri who was quick to resign afterwards.
In the end, cutting the truth out of magazines didn’t change the truth. Silencing truth and waging war didn’t lead to peace then and it isn’t leading to peace now.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, if only you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Wars do not make for peace. Lies do not make for peace. Calls for national unity in the face of terror do not mean the silencing of truth, picking up scissors to cut out reality, editing footage so as to avoid showing returning caskets (which Argentina did in 1982 under its military dictator, and now is happening again in 2004 in the US)
Jesus disciples had the right idea: As he was now approaching the path down form the Mount of Olives the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God in the highest!”
They had some real news, news about leadership that comes in God’s name, not leadership that uses God’s name, news about a new world order with room for the vulnerable and weak, news about forgiveness, news about speaking the truth in love, truth that exposes the lies --the lie that human beings have no alternative but to hurt and brutalize one another and cover up the wreckage, the lie that the voices of hope must be gagged
and bound by cynicism.
Teacher, order your disciples to stop. In other words, shut up! Bring out the scissors. take away the video tapes, and Jesus answered I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out. In other words, “I have come to bring the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Jesus road into Jerusalem not on a war horse to wage war but on a humble donkey to speak truth. The first thing he did upon arrival was to enter the temple, driving out those who turning the house of prayer into a den of robbers, cheating the poor, selling goods at inflated prices that only benefited a tiny minority. Jesus speaks and acts a harsh truth.The temple -- and the church -- ought to be a place that proclaims sanctuary, a safe place for children, a safe place for immigrants, a safe place for those who feel lost and hurt. A place for those who are seeking real news, real alternatives, real purpose in their lives. Not a place of platitudes. Jesus loves you. God bless America. Support our troops. Not a place to safeguard the policies of cynicism, calls for vengeance and self-serving campaigns to justify our advantages at the cost of other’s existence.
Of course there is nothing new about cynical policies, economic injustice and war cries. What is interesting is that in the scriptures, particularly, in the prophets, the weight of blame does not fall upon the kings, the government or the military. It falls upon the religious community, the priests and prophets, the people who remain silent or who vocally support the ruling powers.* Too many churches have been too quiet, feeling that to speak out is to dishonor those who died on Sept. 11, to dishonor our troops, that to be critical is to be on the side of the enemy, but that is not the truth, that is a page out of the Argentinean dictatorship where the majority of church leaders went right along with their civil war on terror, a war that included the torture and murder of many thousands of innocent young people, The church did what many churches continue to do, participating in a truly horrific silence of the lambs, following meekly, quietly along. Forgetting that we have inherited a testimony, a truth, real news about the things that make for peace.
I was proud of our bishop, Stephen Bouman, and his statement on the third anniversary of Sept. 11. He spoke of Guiliani’s speech at the Republican convention and spoke of being moved, as were so many, by Guiliani’s retelling of the story because telling of truth, even a painful horrible truth, is part of healing, as Samuel Fields discovered. But then our bishop points out how Guiliani failed to mentioned the thousands of people stuck in economic quicksand since September 11. “He took us to Ground Zero but not to Chinatown,” Bishop Bouman writes: “I recently met a peasant from a village in the Fujian province of China who spent his life saving for a place in the bowels of a boat to come to America. He ends up in Chinatown, undocumented, living in the shadows. Years later children he has not seen in many years join him. In the midst of this Fujianese migration, 9-11 lowers the boom on economic life in Chinatown, burying the Fujianese at the bottom of the economic ladder in this metropolis. At a dinner for the economic victims of 9-11 held by Lutheran Disaster Relief of NY, Fujian teenagers speak of the harshness of life, the illness of parents with no health care or insurance, the disappearance of jobs, housing shortage, the desperate struggle of survival in their community. More than one of them confessed to suicidal thoughts. In the former mayor’s speech on 9-11 we did not meet this family or thousands like him last night.”
“He took us to Ground Zero, but not the Wackenhut Detention Facility, the Ground Zero for immigrants and asylum seekers, the shadow side of homeland security” near Kennedy airport where more than two hundred immigrants are incarcerated, held without criminal charges or due process, sometimes without access to a lawyer. Some of the in their teens.
Instead, we heard of war as a way to secure our lives against terror. Instead of the whole truth, we heard a partial truth and we heard lies. To honor the dead and the dying, to heal our hearts, our city and our earth requires that we speak truth and live truth. Last week Anne, left for Jerusalem to be a sign of peace, a witness to and for the truth. Next week on Rally Day our worship will be bilingual, a sign of our refusal to let natural borders and prejudices divide us, refusing to let, We are one the Spirit be a nice platitude, a sign that we are about the work, the hard work sometimes, of speaking a new word, sharing some real news about human community.
I have not referred much to our Palm Sunday window itself. But besides the obvious scene of Jesus’ entry into the city, I want to point out the less obvious roses on the ground, almost hidden among the palm branches. The same roses appear in another window and only in another window, the window with the angel Gabriel coming to Mary with what appeared to be impossible news. But it was real news. It was a truth so true that we continue to repeat it and celebrate it 2000 years later, in spite of all the busy scissors, all the wars, all the terror raging during all that time. The roses survive. Grace is still amazing. Grace is still news: God coming into our midst in both windows, one coming quite intimate and private, the other public in the streets of the largest metropolis around, God’s Word unfolding in the belly of a young woman, God’s truth marching on.
I began with the story of Katie’s song of amazing grace on the steps of the Firemen’s Memorial. I would like to end with the story of another singer and another Sept. 11. September 11 is not only a date seared in the memory of our nation and world these past three years. It was already a date seared forever in the memory of Chile where on September 11 in 1973, their democratically elected president, Salvadore Allende, was killed and the dictator Pinochet took over. Over night, truth was suspect. Truth was dangerous. Squads of soldiers hit the streets trying to silence truth. Teenagers are hard to silence, unless they don’t feel like talking, but that’s another story. The Chilean army rounded up over 6000 students from the University of Santiago and herded them into Santiago’s huge soccer stadium which was converted into a kind of prison camp.
For fun, the soldiers would fire their machine guns into the crowd and by police order no one was allowed to touch the bodies where they fell. The students were 17, 18, 19 years old. It’s hard to imagine their stress and terror. But perhaps some can imagine it all too well, children of alcoholics, people living in domestic violence, never knowing when the next bad thing is going to hit. Having just driven our 18 year old daughter to college in Boston, imagining her among the young people in that stadium, imagining what she would be experiencing is sickening. But no more so that what the young troops we supposedly honor by our silence are going through right now. After Sept. 11 In Chile, the terror of military violence was excused as necessary to assure peace in the streets. Washington went along. And now, the post Sept. 11 message coming from Washington is scarcely any different.
Among the group of students rounded up in that stadium four days after Sept. 11, was one of Chile’s most popular singers, Victor Jarra. His music was a ministry of truthtelling during a time of crisis. When those in charge realized he was there with his guitar, they brought him to a table in the center of the stadium and made him place his hands on it. They took a hatchet and cut off the fingers, first of one hand, then the other. He fell. They kicked him and laughed: “Now let’s hear you sing!” I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout out, said Jesus. Somehow, Victor Jarra found the strength to stand up. As Katie did yesterday.
As Samuel did. Somehow Victor Jarra found the strength to raise his arms, amigos he said, friends, vamos a cantar. Let us sing. And they did. The whole stadium of frightened students began to sing with one unstoppable voice. The singing continued after Victor Jarra was shot down. The singing of truth continued even as bullets rained down on the crowd like confetti. That singing goes on in churches and mosques and synagogues and outside them. It goes on in places where God’s real news is studied and shared.
Today in Chile and Argentina and Peru and El Salvador truth commissions are beginning to uncover the stories that had been cut out. It’s painful, but its the only way healing can happen, the only way peace can reach a people’s soul. When a people, like the child Samuel Fields, can let go of the stones, the grenades, the bombs, the tools of violence, and begin to think and talk about the truth, it becomes possible to sing again:
Remember Samuel's song:
“There are times when I cry
and all I have to say is
I’ve been thinking about you.”
It’s Jesus song isn’t it? Thinking about the city, the people’s stubbornness and blindness and ignorance, Jesus wept. But he didn’t turn around. He rode into the city, he kept going.
He fell. Whips bit into his flesh like hatchets. They kicked him and laughed. “Now let’s hear you sing.”
To honor him, to honor all those who have died trying to love their neighbor without counting the cost, to honor our children and the selves we are called to be, let us join our voices to the song that has never been silenced, the song whose streams bear truth and will make glad the city of God.
* A point made well by the Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman