We Must Deny Fear Its Victory

United States of America, New York City, Lower Manhattan, Groun Zero , September 11 Memorial.A view of a rose placed at the S
United States of America, New York City, Lower Manhattan, Groun Zero , September 11 Memorial.A view of a rose placed at the September 11 memorial in the Ground Zero of NY.The inscription is dedicated to the fire fighters died there.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C., and listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center's North Tower. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our 3-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the South Tower. I still remember my first response to Joy. "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.

Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which was far greater than any of us initially imagined. My first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.

Indeed, within a short period of time, the official reaction to terrorism would simply be defined as war: 15 years of it, with no end in sight, resulting in many more innocent casualties than those on Sept. 11. In response to America's own suffering, many others in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world would now suffer in the name of our war on terrorism.

As Methodist bishop Will Willimon wrote in Christianity Today in September 2011, "American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat ... When our people felt vulnerable, they reached for the flag instead of the cross."

And now we see that the longest series of wars in American history has failed to resolve or reverse the causes of the violence that struck us, or to make us safer.

Yet despite the hateful diatribes of fundamentalist leaders in all our religious traditions -- and the bellicose rhetoric of some of our political leaders and candidates for office -- many religious leaders in the last 15 years have consistently called for loving our neighbors, and even for loving our enemies. Pastors, rabbis, and imams have preached peace and unity, and shown through their speech and actions that while religion has historically been a cause of conflict, it can also serve as a solution.

There are countless examples of Christians, Jews, and Muslims living together peacefully, even in the most conflicted parts of the world. There are plenty of examples of Christians and Jews in this country being good neighbors to the Muslim community, especially when they are under verbal and even physical attack.

In a spirit of remembrance of the terrible events of Sept.11, 2001, as well as the policies that came afterward leading to endless wars, I want to call your attention to a statement that Sojourners put together in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, entitled "Deny Them Their Victory." This document was developed in consultation with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian clergy, and the breadth of participation has made it an extensively inclusive religious statement, with more than 3,900 signers. Its insights feel just as true today as they were then. Now 15 years on, it is worth reflecting on the ways we have succeeded in living up to the values stated below, as well the ways we have failed to do so.


We, American religious leaders, share the broken hearts of our fellow citizens. The worst terrorist attack in history that assaulted New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania has been felt in every American community. Each life lost was of unique and sacred value in the eyes of God, and the connections Americans feel to those lives run very deep. In the face of such a cruel catastrophe, it is a time to look to God and to each other for the strength we need and the response we will make. We must dig deep to the roots of our faith for sustenance, solace, and wisdom.

First, we must find a word of consolation for the untold pain and suffering of our people. Our congregations will offer their practical and pastoral resources to bind up the wounds of the nation. We can become safe places to weep and secure places to begin rebuilding our shattered lives and communities. Our houses of worship should become public arenas for common prayer, community discussion, eventual healing, and forgiveness.

Second, we offer a word of sober restraint as our nation discerns what its response will be. We share the deep anger toward those who so callously and massively destroy innocent lives, no matter what the grievances or injustices invoked. In the name of God, we too demand that those responsible for these utterly evil acts be found and brought to justice. Those culpable must not escape accountability. But we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life. We pray that President Bush and members of Congress will seek the wisdom of God as they decide upon the appropriate response.

Third, we face deep and profound questions of what this attack on America will do to us as a nation. The terrorists have offered us a stark view of the world they would create, where the remedy to every human grievance and injustice is a resort to the random and cowardly violence of revenge -- even against the most innocent. Having taken thousands of our lives, attacked our national symbols, forced our political leaders to flee their chambers of governance, disrupted our work and families, and struck fear into the hearts of our children, the terrorists must feel victorious.

But we can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be. We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.

Our American illusion of invulnerability has been shattered. From now on, we will look at the world in a different way, and this attack on our life as a nation will become a test of our national character. Let us make the right choices in this crisis -- to pray, act, and unite against the bitter fruits of division, hatred, and violence. Let us rededicate ourselves to global peace, human dignity, and the eradication of injustice that breeds rage and vengeance.

As we gather in our houses of worship, let us begin a process of seeking the healing and grace of God.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.