As an American chaplain at Swansea University, I was asked to speak to a chapel full of traumatised students, many recently arrived from the US, at a special service on Friday September 14th, 2001. I’ve just found my address in an old lever arch file. Here it is.
My name is Kim. I’m a University Chaplain. I’ve ministered in Swansea for nineteen years, and lived in Britain for nearly thirty. But as this badge I used to wear says: “I don’t care how they do it here. I’m from New York.” Because though you can take the boy out of New York, you can’t take New York out of the boy. And now the Big Apple has had its core ripped out. That image, iconic, the Manhattan skyline, enveloped by that cruel cloud of dust and debris, the Statue of Liberty lowering her torch, bowing her head, to weep.
So though I am an expat, who was a university student like yourselves during the Vietnam War, who came to be ashamed of my beloved America the beautiful as she turned ugly, and who ever since has had a love-hate relationship with her, today, with you, like Rachel, I weep for her lost children.
More I hesitate to say, for it is impossible – it would be almost immoral – to speak with fluency in the immediate aftermath of this event of such unimaginable horror. Death ties our tongues; mass death tears it out. Yet one cannot stay silent. So with a broken heart and in broken speech I stutter you this:
First and foremost, now is the time for sorrow, sympathy, and prayer for all the victims of this atrocity and their loved ones, and gratitude for all those giving aid and care, in acts of heroism great, small, and entirely unnoticed and unsung.
It is also, however, a time – after the shock and disbelief turn the corner of denial and head into anger and outrage – it is also time for restraint in our response – thoughtfulness in our speech, and second-thoughtfulness in our actions. We must resist the theo-political rhetoric of Good and Evil, disown the discourse of demonization, and we must certainly not rush out and “kick ass”.
So even as we rightly condemn the perpetrators of this calculated catastrophe, we must try to understand both the pathology of terrorism, and also the modern history of the Middle East – and the West’s complicity in it – which forms the unseen and unacknowledged background of those scenes, unrepresentative but deeply disturbing, of Palestinians dancing in the streets at the news and images that left us disabled on our sofas. As Christians we must talk of justice, but we may not talk of revenge, let alone of tribal vendetta, as if only Muslims can be fanatics – Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber, was a fundamentalist Christian – or as if to get at the guilty, the innocent are expendable – collateral damage – they are not, ever.
So I remind us all in the strongest terms – for our faith is at stake – that, contrary to populist Christianity, “an eye for an eye” is not the teaching of Jesus – he rejected it outright. And vengeful overreaction – and vengeance always overreacts – it is not only bad religion, it is bad politics. It is certainly meat and drink to terrorists, feeding their cause and breeding their followers, adding to the list of “martyrs” and turning yesterday’s rock-throwers into today’s suicide bombers and pilots. Is that what we want for tomorrow? Or must we not, with St. Paul, overcome evil with good? Must we not use our anger and pain creatively, seeking restorative justice that, after much hard work, heals and reconciles, rather that retributive punishment that may give us a quick blood-rush, but only leads to further bloodshed in vicious cycles of hatred and violence?
It is a cataclysm like September 11th that marks a defining moment for the nations and their leaders, testing their mettle, their wisdom, their grace under pressure. It also marks a kairos moment, a moment of truth, for the church. For it exposes the bedrock of our faith to the ultimate of spiritual tremors. Do we really believe that God loves all people inclusively, that no one is irredeemable, that no situation is hopeless, and that loving and praying for our enemies is not an option even, or rather especially, in extremis, but rather the criterion of whether we are truly followers, and not merely fans – or even deniers and betrayers – of the crucified and risen Jesus? Can we, will we stand fast, stand faithful? Lord, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from this time of trial!
May God bless America, may God bless the world, in this hour of global crisis, and may he turn it into a time of opportunity to witness to and work for his peaceable kingdom