16,000kms may separate Australia from New York but no distance could keep us apart from our American friends on that day, September 11th 2001.
I don’t remember the exact moment I turned on the television. I think it was about 11 pm. Susan and I were getting ready for bed but I thought to quickly look at the late night news before going to sleep.
On the screen, I saw a plane crashing into what appeared to be a skyscraper in New York City. For a few moments, I asked myself, what movie is this? It took me several seconds to release that this was no Hollywood production. I was seeing a real passenger airplane explode into a ball of fire as it struck the World Trade Centre. I called out to Susan and for the next 3 hours we sat in horror at the unfolding scenes taking place in New York City, Washington DC and a Pennsylvanian field. In real-time we saw real people jumping out of buildings and those buildings crash to the earth. In real time we saw the Pentagon billowing with fire and smoke.
Our generation had never witnessed an event on this scale: Three thousand people murdered by a group of Islamic terrorists who hijacked four civilian aircraft, filled with innocent passengers.
Susan and I were living in Sydney at the time, and I was studying first year of a Divinity degree at Moore College. As we woke up in the morning in the safety of our home and street, I turned on the news again. As the Manhattan skyline was filled with choking smoke, our suburb of Erskineville and Newton was in stunned silence. I don’t recall everything that happened that day at College but I do remember the community gathering to pray. My first-year chaplaincy group later met across the road at a cafe called the Green Iguana, where we sat, shared, and prayed.
Twelve years later, in 2013, Susan and I took our 3 children for a holiday in the United States. For 5 weeks we lived in New York. The city of Seinfeld, Home Alone, and the Muppets had enthralled my imagination since childhood and the opportunity to visit with our children was too good to decline.
Our Greenwich Street apartment was situated only 50m away from where the Twin Towers once stood. Outside our window, we would see the queue forming each day as people waited to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Every morning we walked past the NYC Fire Fighters memorial wall as we went about enjoying the incredible city that is New York. For that short time, we were New Yorkers, observing the tourists.
One afternoon I visited the 9/11 Memorial with a friend. His father had worked on the construction of the Towers in the late 1960s.
There is an entire generation of Australians and Americans growing up with no recollection of 9/11 and with little appreciation for what took place. I’m so glad my children have seen the area in lower manhattan and know what happened on September 11th 2001. Although, even now it is impossible to grasp how Greenwich Street was once filled with thousands of fleeing office workers, a ferocious dust storm, twisted metal, and millions of paper sheets drifting through the air. The streets are still noisy with people and the occasional blaring of a siren from police or fire trucks. But it in the late Autumn of 2013 the city of New York was healing, Christmas celebrations were gearing up, and the new skyscraper that is One World Centre was well on its way toward completion.
Today marks the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. In the 20 years that have past it is not only the New York skyline that has changed. While American resilience and muscle proved to be strong in the months following the attack, and the world largely stood alongside our American friends, today the world is very different. It is the same world with the same fundamental flaws and sins, but the pieces are shifting on the global stage.
America was proven to be vulnerable that day. Not only the United States but the West itself. Years followed with terrorist attacks all over the world and armed conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, these 20 years that have gone by have also produced years of economic growth, technological advancement. Yet the cracks are more pronounced. The West no longer needs enemies abroad. Al Qaeda may have injured the West, the West is killing itself. Block by block we are removing the very foundations that created the modern secular and pluralist society we enjoy. Tolerance is giving way to strident opinion. Basic facts about the human condition can no longer be spoken without fear of losing one’s job and place in society. The ability to listen and engage the other is now a luxury few can afford. Words are now rarely used to unite and bring peace, they are weapons of power used to breed fear, and to humiliate and silence those who think differently.
Several years ago I met an American man by the name of Mack Stiles. His story is well known. He and his wife have a heart for the Middle East and to share Christ with Muslim people. Their decision to leave the United States and move to UAE was interrupted by 9/11, or least one would have thought so. Instead, the Stiles resolved that the Gospel is good news even for the millions living in the Middle East. On September 13th 2001 the Stiles sold their home. They then flew to Dubai. For the last 20 years they have been serving Christ, planting Churches and loving Muslim people in the UAE and in Iraq.
Without ever diminishing the evil done that day 20 years ago, and without us pretending that the sins committed against us are ever okay, there is an alternative to hatred and the persistent rage, selfishness, and hostility that is now controlling public discourse in many Western societies, including Australia and America. Now, I am not a pacifist. I accept Romans 13 which speaks of Government having authority in taking up the sword. Sadly, Governments often wield the sword unjustly, even if it there was justification in unsheathing it to begin with. What I am saying is that the answer our societies so desperately need is the good news we are turning our back on. We are not rejecting it through sword, but with words and heart. With a hubris that it’s only matched by the indignation shown toward the very worst of public sins, our cultural leaders deem Biblical Christianity to be a threat to society. In some Australian States, our Governments are even beginning to legislate in order to protect society from Christian teaching. This is a mistake.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10)
What if we grasped that God has loved those who do not love him? What if we understood that the God of complete holiness is also the God of mercy? What if we had ears to hear the announcement that God who just in punishing evil has also spoken a word of forgiveness and reconciliation? This isn’t something we should be deleting from the social consciousness but resurrecting in order to save us from community self-harm and cultural destruction.
In the day following 9/11 Mack Stiles was persuaded by the Christian message such that he left his home to love and serve a people who were despised in the West. If this Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to do that, think of the good this same message can accomplish in Australia today, and in America, Afghanistan and across the world. If it is wrong to bite the hand that feeds us, let us not despise the Son of God who died to save us.
I will never forget 9/11, but even more I pray that we will never forget the One who laid down his life for his enemies.