I was pushed so hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation… I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. (Psalm 118.13-14,17)
Today is a turning point, a chance to recalibrate our heading. The dastardly violence visited on the US and world at large on 9/11/01 came so unexpectedly we had no time to consider how best to respond. But we’ve been given 10 years—3,652 days—to wrestle with all the justified emotions and irrational behaviors the tragedy unleashed. While its memory will forever be stamped in our hearts and minds, it’s time to let go the fear and ugliness it produced.
We’ve spent the last decade dying a slow death, knotted up in worst-case scenarios, shrinking in terror every time a lunatic whispers, “Boo!” and blaming whoever's handy for all that’s gone wrong since that horrible day. We’ve turned from a hated people into a hateful one, and we insist on pretending we don’t notice or care how far we’ve fallen. Plummeting in 9/11's spectral shadows has robbed us of the joy, hope, and trust in one another that warmed our days and stilled our nights.
We would do well to use this moment to embrace the Psalmist’s declaration: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” (Psalm 118.17)
It's a stunning vow, given the circumstances. The writer’s rise to an enviable position of authority enraged his adversaries. He doesn’t speculate what stoked their hostility. It may have been jealousy, ethnic hostility, or a strategically devised preemptive strike. The nature of the conflict is secondary. It's most important we understand the poet's been blind-sided. He tells us his foes engulfed him, swarmed him like bees, and blazed like burning thorns. Things got real ugly real fast. He countered the attack with decisive force. “In the name of the LORD, I cut them off!” he says—not once, but three times, as though he can’t believe it. Then we discover why his reaction and success seem incredible to him.
“I was pushed so hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me,” the psalmist confesses. (v13) Falling. The pressure sends him spiraling. He’s losing his grip. Yet God mercifully catches him before he tumbles over the precipice. And rather than depend on his own abilities, he puts his trust in his Maker. “The LORD is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation,” he exclaims in verse 14. [So convinced is he that God’s faithfulness is the deciding factor that earlier in the poem he states, “With the LORD on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?” (v6)] The psalmist’s steadiness is not of his doing. God saves him. Acute awareness of God’s mercy turns him around. While the people rejoice in his triumph, he triumphs in the realization he won’t die. He will live. And he embraces a very specific reason for living: to “recount the deeds of the LORD.”
Instead of falling, the poet soars.
The terrorists who conceived and executed 9/11 were a cunning, barbaric lot. Thugs they were—naïvely heartless people seduced by a jury-rigged promise of immortality. They brooked no concern about the unjust hatred and prejudice their deeds would heap on millions of upright people who shared their ethnic and faith heritage. They deluded themselves with the fantasy they were courageous avengers waging an undeclared holy war with no place or purpose in the modern world. They were simpletons.
I can’t accept one of them was bright enough to say, “You know, when all is said and done, we will have bruised the American character past all recognition.” Their medieval mindset proves they lacked the sophistication to foresee the impact their evil would have on our culture and politics. They wanted to make us afraid of them. But somehow, through none of their doing, we turned their malevolence inside out. We became afraid and suspicious of each other.
Nine-eleven launched a cold civil war with both sides rising up in alarm at every turn, convinced anyone unlike them was scheming to overthrow the nation. We’ve devoted an entire decade to calling one another Fascists, Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, Luddites, Militants, Opportunists, Racists, Misogynists, Homophobes, Atheists, Fanatics, Hypocrites—and, yes, Terrorists—as well as only God knows how many other vicious names, including many unfit for a faith-forward blog.
Not since Pearl Harbor had Americans united in such defiance of evil and selfless compassion for our wounded. Indeed, the extraordinary solidarity spilled from our shores and overflowed the world. From every corner of the planet cries went up: “We are all Americans!” Our venal enemies placed that magnificent gift right there, in the palm of our hand.
And we let it go.
Nobody says, “We’re Americans!” these days—nobody who means it in the broadest sense, that is. “Extremists,” another label frequently heard in the wake of 9/11, has also faded from use. And little wonder why. We’re now a land overrun with extremists. The priceless middle ground on which our country rose has imploded. Moderates are wastes of space, unworthy of attention. Even the middle-class—the backbone of our economy and culture—is dwindling to dust. In an atmosphere that literally banks on overkill, anything less than reckless and ridiculous has no value. We’ll defend blatant stupidity to the death if it’s extreme. We’ll tune in and listen to anyone, as long as what he says and how she says it are extreme.
We’ve got fat to the point of stupor on a non-stop diet of flagrant animosity and ignorance. The post-9/11 gallery of pop and political icons resembles a nuthouse run amok: haters, conspiracy theorists, ne’er-do-wells, self-aggrandizing analysts, and shameless enablers in every arena have captivated our attention. Flip from ““The Real Housewives” to cable news to a conspiracy theory “documentary.” The subject and style vary, but the underlying message is the same: somebody wants to hurt me!
Just once, wouldn’t it be refreshing for someone say, “Squabbling makes no sense. Let’s compromise.” Such a statement would open fascinating dialogue. But we’re not interested in dialogue. We want to be entertained—provoked by and dragged into contrived dramas that invariably manifest themselves in emotional (in some cases, physical) violence. If it’s not extreme, we’re not buying.
And that’s the problem with compromise and common sense. Neither is ever extreme. They don’t hurt anyone beyond reason, nor do they help anyone beyond measure. In short, they neutralize the victim-and-villain charade—and that’s what we’re all about these days, feeling hurt and hurting feelings.
Is it remotely possible the terrorists foresaw we’d take a liking to victim mentality? If we went back to September 10, 2001, stopped any American on any street, and told him/her, “After tomorrow, you’ll view yourself as a victim,” we’d get cussed out.
In the immediate wake of 9/11, we ponied up like true American cowboys, vowing to hunt down the villains and bring them to justice. “Nobody messes with us and gets by with it!” Then it slowly dawned on us that we were dealing with something we didn’t understand. “Where is Osama bin Laden?” turned into a punch line. And once we rounded up those we suspected of abetting his cause, justice became a joke. Retribution and punishment were the names of the game—one that permitted us to change the rules and invent new ones as we went.
Meanwhile, voluntary victimization surfaced in the Blame Game, the domestic version of our preoccupation with nefarious conspirators abroad. More things gone wrong gave us more people to blame. When the richest among us started whining about their mistreatment, the Blame Game ballooned into absurdist farce. In grand titan fashion, they deployed media henchmen to waft their high-end Eau de Victim through the media and—sure enough—tens of thousands struggling from paycheck to paycheck picked up the scent. The truly put-upon avidly defended the hardly put-upon for one reason: they both blamed the same people for their unhappiness. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, they say.
No nation backslides from its hard-won reputation as an industrious, prodigiously capable people to become a multitude of mewlers and malingerers without its consent.
There was a time Americans had to be warned, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." We were innovators, tinkerers, and renovators who couldn’t leave well enough alone. We sauntered next door when we saw a neighbor working on his car, skipped an afternoon at the beach to make cupcakes for a charity bake sale, and knocked on a needy family’s door with a bag of groceries to tide them over. We turned barn raising and harvests into festivals, moving days into parties. Offering help before you were asked was the American way.
We witnessed that spirit at its highest after 9/11. People quit their jobs to clean up the ruins and get New Yorkers and Washingtonians back on their feet. We've caught glimpses of it after devastating natural disasters. But it's rarely sighted in our political and community lives. Now we distance ourselves from opportunities to help until the needs grow too big to handle and we blame everyone else for not doing what we wouldn't be bothered with.
But how can you blame someone else for your sad estate when you’ve done nothing to prevent it? What convinced us that 9/11 freed us of all responsibilities for our actions? Why do we think blaming somebody else gets us off the hook and magically mitigates problems we actively or passively—mostly passively—allowed to escalate?
My partner, Walt, insists there are no victims, only volunteers. While I don’t agree that’s true across-the-board, the post-9/11 American character certainly fits the profile.
A few weeks ago, I turned on a local midday newscast just as the anchor tossed to commercial. The story slated after the break was about power outages due to a storm earlier that week. Residents were naturally frustrated that their lights weren’t back on. “We’ll tell you all about it,” the anchor said, “and who’s to blame.”
And she smiled—not maliciously, as if she relished pinning down the slackers who left families in the dark. No, she smiled in that annoying, news anchor way, suggesting she didn’t give the Blame Game a second thought. She might as well have said, “We’ll tell you all about it, and then we’ll play Duck-Duck-Goose.” She was just that oblivious to how blaming anyone for the situation didn’t remedy it. And who could blame her? She looked no older than 25. All she’s known her entire adult life is confusing blame with justice and, worse yet, progress. I would have been furious had I not been thoroughly chilled.
That’s the biggest calamity of 9/11’s aftermath. We’ve invested ten years nurturing a woe-is-me, be-very-afraid culture with not the slightest concern an entire generation has come of age believing that self-pity, paranoia, and helplessness are the American way of life. If the 1980s were the “Me” Decade, the 2000s will be remembered as the “Them” Decade—as in, “It’s their fault,” “It’s their duty,” and “It’s their neglect.”
Whose fault is that?
In America, we pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.” We tender currency emblazoned with our trust in God. Whether or not we’re comfortable with how these and other legislated mentions of faith blur the lines between church and state, this is who we say we are and what we say we do. Yet we’ve permitted 9/11’s impact to divide us and we’ve exploited God’s name as a wedge that incites fear, the enemy of trust. God’s mercy and goodness to us—the strength and might God placed in us, without which our greatness as a people seems unlikely at best—have no prominence in the national dialogue, neither overtly nor implicitly. As believers, however, we know God has been unduly merciful and good to us, before and after 9/11. To acknowledge that would require us to shut down the Blame Game. It would mean living, not dying—praising, not accusing.
We let one awful morning rewire our minds. We decided there’s nothing good to say about or to one another. Consequently God’s deeds have gone unreported. And as we’ve gone down this path of retaliation and rudeness, we’ve created fewer opportunities for gratitude. What you say is what you get.
Psalm 118 is a thanksgiving processional sung as priests approach the altar to offer sacrifices of praise. Its opening line invokes gratitude: “O give thanks to the LORD, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever!” (v1) All the angst and violence the poet recounts comes in the next two stanzas to remind worshipers how close to falling he came and how God’s mercy caught him before he let go. The psalm peaks in verses 23-24: “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
What do we make of this day? Will it end like the last 3,652, with fear’s putrid tang on our tongues and blind suspicion terrorizing our hearts? Or will we redeem the lives lost on 9/11/01 by joining a long overdue thanksgiving procession, offering sacrifices of praise for God’s goodness to us? Can we quit pointing fingers and recognize the marvelous things God has done? Will this be the day we finally open our eyes to see trust in God and one another is what transforms falling into soaring? Can we summon the clarity and courage to declare, “We shall not die. We shall live”?
This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Lord, open our eyes. Amen.
Trusting God and one another transforms falling into soaring.