I was deeply engrossed in a chapter of Dante’s Inferno when the home phone rang. My grandmother who religiously watched the morning news shows was on the other end. She told my mom to turn on the T.V. She did. In the minutes that followed, we heard Katie Couric speculating about how a Cessna or another small plane could have struck the North Tower. Then in horror, a good portion of America and I watched another shadowy airliner slam into the South Tower. In that confusing moment, I understood that the United States was unquestionably under attack. Over the next few hours, the horrors continued to unfold. As images from flight 77’s crash into Pentagon, the collapsing of the South Tower, the collapsing of the North Tower, and the crater that was flight 93 filled our living room T.V. screen, I felt my stomach drop. The dark black smoke bellowing from the towers, the photos of men and women jumping to their death to escape the flames beneath them, and the images of terrified firefighters covered in the white soot of death reminded me and a whole generation of viewers that deep, abiding evil existed. It was not confined to the fanciful musing a of renaissance theologian who spoke of farting demons. It was brutally real. It was our reality.
Evil & Nostalgia
Over the last 20 years, nostalgia has begun to redefine our understanding of 9/11. As memory often does, it has started to smooth over the horrors of the day, focusing on the heroic actions of those who fought against the terrorist and risked all including their live to rush up staircases to reach the hurting. We have rightfully remembered and honored those like Todd Beamer who attempted to retake Flight 93 from the terrorists, but we have forgotten those who hijacked the planes. In some circles, the 19 hijackers appear primarily as the catalyst for the day’s heroism. The brutal evilness of that day has become less and less poignant.
I agree with those who think an over preoccupation with and glorification of evil proves unhealthy. At its worst, the practice can foster additional expressions of evil. There is a reason sports broadcasts never show streakers. I am thankful for their discretion.
But our increasing inability to remember the unfiltered evil of September 11 proves equally dangerous. While memories should fill our souls with warm fuzzies, they should also gift us wisdom for the future. Our society struggles to understand China’s genocide of the Uighur people and the Taliban’s abuse of women in part because we have forgotten the brutality of evil. A mere 20 years ago, 19 men happily turned 4 airliners full of innocent passengers into bombs that claimed the lives of more 3,000 fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters. September 11 showed America that evil is not something found only in the imaginary world’s renaissance literature. It is something intrinsic within the human condition. Great heroes are needed because great evil exists.
The Jerry Falwell Controversy
Two days later while the dust still hovered over New York, Jerry Falwell shocked many Americans when he blamed, “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way” for the events of 9/11. In that moment (which he would later apologize for), he repackaged the well-worn theory that every evil deed has a direct earthly cause. He argued that America needed to reinstitute school prayer and other Christian values to avoid future attacks. Though transactional religion where we give God our tithe and he gives us health connects with many hearts, it is not the religion of Jesus.
The Sunday after 9/11, my pastor, Lance Quinn, took a different approach. He led the Bible Church of Little Rock to Luke 13:4-5 where Jesus discussed the collapse of another tower that had caused the Messiah’s listeners to wonder what evil deed had brought those ancient souls to the grave prematurely. The text reads as follows:
“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus’s point is two-fold and direct. Those who died in the towers and the planes did not die because their sins or the sins of their nation were greater than the sins of those still alive. Instead of lobbing stones at the victims, Jesus reminds his listeners that towers collapse because evil exists. It profoundly affects us all. Unless we repent, believe, and lay hold of Jesus’s offer of eternal life, we too will perish.
The Days After
In the days immediately following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, churches swelled with people looking for answers to the problem of evil. Sadly, most never found them. They just chose to forget them. No more earth-shattering terrorists attacks occurred. The memorials went up. Those shocked by September 11 slowly drifted out of church and back into the hum of everyday life. They once again preferred to think of evil as being as real as the demons of Dante’s Inferno.
Despite the culture’s amnesia, the darkness that formed 9/11 continues to lurk within our hearts, corrupting minds and claiming lives. It has not disappeared and keeps reappearing all over the globe. Until Jesus comes back to establish his kingdom of peace, towers will continue to fall.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we should strive to make the most of the days that God has given us. We should remember and find inspiration from those who lived, died, and served valiantly on September 11, 2001. Then we should recall the evil that made the service of those heroes necessary and set out to discover the answer to those profound philosophical and religious questions that we have put off for the last 20 years.
May we learn the lessons of our past.
“But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”