December 14, 2017

How 9/11 Changed Me

In September of 2001 I was working for a Christian book publisher in Tulsa as editorial director of a brand new imprint. We were all very busy with our first list—our first books published under the new name. There were 350 employees total working for this publisher, and many would gather on the ground floor of our building for a time of prayer each morning. Then we would all disperse to our various floors and offices to make magic—or at least to put verbs and nouns together trying to make some semblance of sense.

The morning of September 11 we had just finished with morning prayer and I was jammed into an elevator that took me to my floor—the 48th floor. The tower I worked in had (and still has) 60 stories with a great view of Tulsa from just about any window. As I was getting off of the elevator my boss said, “I just heard there was some kind of explosion at the World Trade Center in New York.” Again? I thought. In February of 1993, six terrorists ignited a truck bomb in the parking garage of the WTC, killing seven. Did something like this happen again?

I turned on a radio I kept on my desk. It was set on a music station, but this morning they were carrying network news. That’s when I knew something serious had occurred. Others on my floor gathered into my office to hear the news anchor talk about the first plane that had flown into one tower of the WTC. When he exclaimed that a second plane had just hit the other main tower I jumped from my chair, took the elevator down to the ground, ran to my car and drove across the street to a store that rhymes with TallMart where I bought a small color TV. I was tearing it out of its box as I ran back down the hall to my office. Everyone was still gathered around my radio (and really didn’t even know I had left), but cleared away from my conference table where I plopped the TV and turned it on. I chose ABC and Peter Jennings.

We stood and watched in silence as one, then the other, tower fell. This cannot be happening, I thought. This is a movie. This is a dream. This is a nightmare. As we watched the screen, text crawled across the bottom of the screen from the local ABC affiliate saying that the CityPlex Towers—where I was on the 48th floor at that moment—were being evacuated. Just then someone came over the intercom to announce that the CityPlex Towers were NOT being evacuated. Chaos reigned 1400 miles from Ground Zero. Two of my editors came to me and said they were too afraid to keep working, so I sent them home.

I called my brother-in-law in Ohio who had worked in NYC in leasing and facilities for a major insurance company. I asked him how many people worked in the WTC complex. He said that it might be as high as 50,000. Fifty thousand? Do you mean that there could be as many as fifty thousand people dead in that wreckage? My brother-in-law said he didn’t know. I said I hoped we had jets laden with bombs on their way to Middle East right now. He said wouldn’t it be better to be praying for those injured in New York and Washington, D.C. That was very humbling for me to hear.

And still we kept watching. A few hours after the WTC had collapsed the news network showed us some Iraqis celebrating in the streets. I said out loud, “Fine. They can be the first ones we take out.” I was angry. I was speaking in false bravado. I was … I was a fool. Another of my editors said, “Jeff, do you realize there are a lot of Christians in Iraq? They face great persecution in their native land. And those people you want to take out with bombs? Most of them are Muslims who have yet to be presented with the Gospel. Is that really what you want?”

As I said, I was a fool. I was very quiet the rest of the afternoon. Yes, I was (and at last glance still am) an American. Yes, an enemy had attacked our land. As we said back then, “We’re all New Yorkers right now.” Yet there was something larger at work—at work in me, at least. The Holy Spirit was stirring deep within my heart.

We are all sinners. The terrorists who flew hundreds of people to horrible deaths were no greater sinners than the editorial director sitting safely in Tulsa, Oklahoma, condemning men and women and children whom he had never met. For years—decades—I had spoken in favor of the death penalty, of castrating rapists, of chopping off the hands of pickpockets. “Kill ’em all” was my motto. “All” included all those of whom I was afraid. Those with whom I differed. Those who did line up with my way of thinking. Yet now I was feeling the crushing weight of my own words. Did I really want to see more people die on this day?

September 11, 2001 was the beginning of the end of my radical right-wing leanings. I had seen myself in the light of the explosions in New York and D.C., and I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t recognize the Jesus I claimed to be following. I was ugly, filled with hate toward those who needed mercy.

Many will disagree with me. Many will say that I need to stand up for my country, to be patriotic, to desire justice. I say I need God’s mercy, and thus must offer it. I say I desire God’s grace, and thus must allow God to shower his grace on those who were responsible for one of the worst days in our nation’s history. I was very angry, just like Jonah. But God opened my eyes, just as he did with Jonah.

I have never been the same. I pray I never am the same again.

The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”

Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly.  But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

Jonah 4:4-11, NLT

Comments

  1. Word.

  2. I too, was angry about it.

    I still am. When thousands of innocent people are murdered it’s ok to be angry about it.

    We are to “hate evil”. We ought “love our enemies”, but we ought “love our neighbors”, as well. If we need to protect innocent life from murderous religious zealots and prevent those murderers from having a place to operate from…then I think the loving thing to do is just that.

    There were good Christian families in Nazi Germany, as well. But we had to do what we had to do.

    I’m not saying that you are wrong, Jeff. Just giving my perspective on it. Each one of us has to come to these conclusions, or work them out in his/her own way.

    This world can sure be an ugly place.

    Thanks, Jeff.

    • However, many of the things we ended up doing in Germany we did not actually “have to do”. Anger and blind rage do not actually make for good foreign policy.

      • War is not a neat and tidy thing, Marie. Innocent people always get hurt and terrible mistakes are always made.

        I am not advocating war. Just saying that sometimes it is the necessary thing to do.

        One Day, Christ will put an end to all this pride-soaked ambition that leads mankind to want to expand and control.

        I hope, soon.

        • Sorry to contradict, Steve, but you are in fact advocating war… At least this is how I take it. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”. Do you think this is some kind of metaphor? And if a good Christian ought to obey it, why wouldn’t it be valid for a whole nation? Yes, I would go to war if I’d be forced to, but I would not fight. He would take care that I be used as a paramedic and/or as a spiritual mentor. Why not want and actually do resemble Jesus in the way we think, speak, act even when it comes to “turning the cheek”? Is it my duty to revenge the cruel death of my neighbor? “Thousands of innocent people” – where did that come from? Are you suggesting that God was looking away, that it was an accident? Why not put an end to thinking that God needs a hand of help from us, the unrighteous, the unworthy, creatures not capable of thinking the very thought of God?
          I end with this: Jesus’ teaching says that God is glorified when we are humble, when we not only do not fight back but even show love to our enemies. What is it that we seek, the glory of God or the glory of a nation? Is patriotism something godly? He sends us to the nations, He wants us to serve The Kingdom, not a nation…

          • Sometimes you have to face evil and defeat it. If Germany under Hitler was left unchecked, and a quick look at history will show that Engalnd and France went head over heals not to go to war (and the US stayed clear in the beginning) then there would have been much genocide, first the jews and disabled, then gypsies, then the Catholics, etc….

            If the Japanese were left unchecked in their imperealism you would have seen much subjegation as well (Bataan death march, prison camps).

            Sometimes we have to act and not be like sheep to slaughter.

            Again – that does not mean the Japanese people or the german people were evil, just a few in leadership.
            I will admit though that this does not jive with Jesus’s message… so I understand and accept my hypocracy….

          • You can have that liberty if you choose b/c others are fighting for your right to do so, and let it be said I’m not one to beat the drums of war. I’m mostly an isolationist, I see no reason to be on the Korean penisula still, to be inserting ourselves in places we are clearly not needed any longer (bases in Europe still?)

            But a country does have a right to defend its existence.

          • You are mostly right, Mr. Constantinescu. Up until your namesake (I’m making some linguistic assumptions there) legalized Christianity in the fourth century, the Church was, more or less, pacifist. As it became more intertwined with the world, this became less practical and was dropped. I’m not sure we’re entirely better off for it.

            I respect the efforts of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to define what a Christian just war would look like. I am disturbed to see how few Christians, particularly evangelicals, pay any attention to the work those Church Doctors have done, preferring instead to repeat patriotic platitudes and canned history. Who needs great theology when there’s Fox News?!

            By taking the implications of Jesus’ words seriously, you are closer to an important truth about the way of the world, closer than those who passively accept whatever the Government tells them. Good for you.

          • There is a difference between saying something HAS TO BE DONE and advocating it.

            I hate war. But they will always have to be fought to keep evil at bay.

    • Steve, I was not crying out for our army to take down their army. In a time of war, such as WWII in Germany, I want our army to overcome their army as quickly as possible. On 9/11, I wanted our army to take out their civilians—the women and children who cheered as our towers fell.

      In a time of war, it is merciful to want a fast and efficient military victory. That was not my attitude. It was an attitude of hate. It was disgusting. I pray I never encounter it within myself again, and that is why I am no longer an “us vs. them” kind of person. That is why I quit following right-vs.-left political issues.

      God is still at work, scraping away crappy attitudes in my heart, and will be I’m sure until he returns or I die. But the freedom that comes when he does take away what I thought was vital to me only to find out it was killing me…oh my…

      • Jeff,

        Good distinction. And I think you are right. There is a way for a nation to conduct a war justly and humanely and even in a Christian manner as much as that seems like a contradiction.

        • There’s a great book you can read about that: Advance to Barbarism. It was written by a British judge in 1948. He described in detail the history of “just warfare” and the Christian code of warfare that was more or less universally adopted by the European nations around 1648 (Treaty of Westphalia).

          The rules of war protected civilians and protected prisoners of war and held leaders of rival nations to an honor code that prevented undue humiliation of the losing side.

          The author then charges that with World War II, those standards of Christian warfare were completely abandoned, in favor of “total war” against civilian populations. He also said that the precedent set by the Nuremberg trials was toward total humiliation of the ‘losers” of future conflicts, which would ensure more brutal warfare in the future. His book was so controversial he had to publish under an assumed name.

          The author also points out that the treatment of the South by Generals Sheridan and Sherman during the War Between the States was a key turning point for the leaders of European nations, as they saw how otherwise “civilized” people could conduct an amazingly brutal war that targeted civilians. Yet another thing we can thank Mr. Lincoln for (sarcasm).

          • A plausible, if not persuasive, argument can be made that the rules of war essentially went out the window with 20th century technology, particularly the advent of the nuclear weapon but also the ability to saturate Dresden, etc., with bombs. Air war guarantees the deaths of innocents.

            That said, I want to thank Jeff for writing an excellent essay.

      • There is a difference, Jeff. You are right.

        We are all certainly guilty of hate, now and then. I’m no exception.

        Just the other day I was angry at someone. Jesus said that is akin to murdering the person.

        OK…I’m guilty. I need a Savior. Thanks be to God that I have one.

  3. Thank you, this was wonderful.

    I really appreciate how you were actually honest about your reaction and about you changing your mind. People usually choose to double down and insist their initial reactions were right and good, or conveniently forget how they at one time thought and pretend they always felt generous and forgiving towards their enemies. It takes courage to be honest.

  4. There will be a lot of 9/11 posts this week and next; I even took a crack at it. This is the one I like. This post has paradigm shift implications for the way we think about the spreading the Gospel. You could have simply explained the way 9/11 should make us think/act/pray without confessing your own sins. Very well done.

  5. textjunkie says:

    I had seen myself in the light of the explosions in New York and D.C., and I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t recognize the Jesus I claimed to be following.

    Word, indeed. Props to you, Jeff.

  6. A great story of Christian transformation. Out of the destruction and anger of the times comes change and compassion. The person that corrected you in your office spoke the truth and placed you on the right path.

    I remember hearing prayers for the Iraqi people as we proceeded to invade and destroy their country. I wondered how many people really were praying for their “enemies” as Christ asked us to.

    Thanks for a great essay.

  7. Thanks for great thoughts once again, Jeff. After watching the coverage of the events of 9/11 for days on end, as we all did, My emotions ranged from disgust to sorrow to anger. I heard so many people say “nuke’em” over the course of the weeks that followed, it was insane.

    The thing was, I felt like we should exact justice, but when I would hear others say we should do just that, I would have mixed emotions. Wreck a nation, or even a city, over the actions of a few twisted, misguided individuals. The rumors flew….”There’s Muslim kids being given pictures of buildings in the US, being taught, ‘This is the building you’re going to blow up one day.” I actually heard that one from the pulpit. People were incensed and wanted to declare holy war…if there is such a thing.

    I still get a sinking feeling, just thinking about that time in our history. I pray my own children never have to experience such a time. Again echoing CM’s thoughts from yesterday, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus…”

  8. I am a conservative. Not a christian right or Limbaugh or even a tea party conservative but it is the direction I lean. I am also a bit hawkish. But I am also compassionate. As mentioned before I reached out to muslims in the weeks after to get an understanding so that I could head off the “raghead” rhetoric in my class. Like Jeff I began to move away from the us versus them mentality both in my political view and in my world view. That means I will admit when I am wrong, not dig my heals in and note when I hear a good idea from others with a different view from mine. I will also listen to differing views with love without first reacting and look for the good.in what they say (though I am less tolerant of conspiracy theories whether it be from left or right) But I will still defend my core if I believe it is right, though a lot more gently for the most part ( I still fail at times).

    So I may not agree with you all (yins guys in Pittsburghese) all of the time but I enjoy the conversation…

    Peace

  9. Also as mentioned before – for me 9/11 was very personal.

    I once lived outside of New York City, and watched the towers being built in the early seventees. I have relatives in the NYC and Long Island area. I had cousins who were at ground zero when the attacks came. I interfaced with folks on the phone as part of my daily work routine who were housed in the towers. Though I did not know them personally they were still a familiar voice.

    I was right outside of DC on the customer site and was locked down because we regulated the stock market and it was felt we were a target. I got to experience the hysteria as DC was hit, as those in the office with close ties to those in the trade center watched them perish.

    My family was in Pittsburgh without me as the plane was flying towards Pittsburgh from Cleveland and the control towers couldn’t contact it. And I got to hear the news of its crashing while I was helplessly away from my family. Yes… helplessness was a strong feeling that day.

    So again… for me things are more personal, to this day.

  10. Jeff,

    I very much identify with you. My initial reaction to 9/11 was one of anger as well. Many of my friends were the same way. It took years before I realized: Wait a minute. All those people over there are Muslims who need Jesus. How dare I see them as my enemy, and kid around about their destruction? But that was years in the making.

    I’m still a conservative-leaning sort of person, but I’m trying not to be such an angry one.

  11. I had some similar thoughts that day about how a Christian should approach this. There are certain foes, however, against whom pacifism is just suicide, and these radical Muslims are one such foe. No, Teodor, it isn’t a metaphor to turn one’s cheek, but I think it is far more applicable to personal than to international relations, especially when genocide is on the menu.

  12. One more thing: too often Christian introspection and attempts to love one’s Muslim neighbor turn into grotesque justifications/whitewashing of Islam itself. We are called to love and minister to Muslims, not justify the evil in Islam (or ignore it: “Islam is a religion of peace.”)

  13. Jeff…don’t take this personally….but I didn’t know Oklahoma had sky scrapers! 😛 After I read your post I goggled Tulsa and saw a picture of the city skyline. I’ll be danged…learn something new everyday.

  14. That was perhaps one of the most powerful and profound things I have read about the September 11th attacks. Thank you for sharing them.

    • The grammarian in my must correct my mistake- it, not them. I had originally written “some of the most powerful thoughts.”

      Glad I settled that.

  15. Jeff, you were not the only fool that day, nor in the days to follow. A lot of us fell into that trap. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  16. Unless I have missed it, I have not seen any comments saying what the response of United States government should have been atfer the attacks of September 11, 2001. We as individuals may think and act in a way that we have determined to be ‘Christian’, but our nation is secular. Secular nations don’t have a history of ‘turning the other cheek.’ Just wondering?