Published September 10, 2016
Fifteen years ago tomorrow, “the world changed” for many people, and through a particular lens, many people’s understanding of the United States and its position in the world changed, too. The hijackings that lead to the thousands of deaths in New York, suburban Washington, D.C. and in rural Pennsylvania were devastating, and even as I write this remembered how I felt that day. Such a low, grim day. I was the pastor of the Universalist National Memorial Church, in Washington, D.C. then. My apartment was on a hill and I could see a plume of dark smoke rising from the Pentagon. Living within walking distance of the church, I went down to open up the doors and try to support anyone who was confused, lost or upset. But the bewilderment was only planted that day.
While it is tempting to repeat the saying that the world changed on September 11, 2001, it is more correct to say that a large number of Americans began to know better the fear and uncertainty that others know before and since: that violence takes the innocent, that life is fragile and fleeting, and that it is far easier to destroy than construct. We would want the world to change and, in fact, on that day it didn’t. But that’s not to say that we are doomed to a past, present and future of violence and cruelty, whether “senseless” or “sensible,” by which I mean violence and cruelty we would be prone to defend or forget because it serves a stated national interest.
As Universalist Christians, we trust that God sees this and knows us apart from time and away from our biases and prescriptions. Where there is hurt and loss, we trust God is present to heal. And when we give ourselves over in ministry to this healing — “the ministry of reconciliation” as St. Paul put it — we must necessarily surrender ourselves to that part of God’s vision we can see, and do what God would have us do. We cannot, for one, weigh the lives of compatriots higher than other people. Not that everyone is equally little, but rather that each of us is equally great; that is, in the words of a Universalist profession also adopted in Washington, D.C., the “supreme worth of every human personality.” But this new way of living is not for us to build, but create with God’s direction and in God’s time. This last stricture is the more painful, but so much harm has come from those who have presumed to know more that they do, and act in ways that later prove harmful. It is enough to do good where can can, and to cultivate the ability to do more good than we thought possible. That is, we should step back from the a statement later in the Washington Declaration that we could “progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” The greatness in our lives does not extend that far. The change comes not by our own design, but from a force unseen. It will bloom when and where it will; let us be ready for it. Let us show this readiness in our love for one another.