The spiritual aftermath of 9/11

By George Clifford

This year marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Christians believe that God brings good things out of bad. In reflecting on 9/11, I see three God moving in three ways.

First, Jesus calls his followers to live in truth, not in a world of illusion. The biblical story of the exodus, from which we have heard successive installments in each of the first readings at the Sunday Eucharist the last few weeks, depicts Egypt as an eleventh century BC analogue of the twenty-first century United States. Egypt was prosperous and powerful, their world’s only superpower. Then came their 9/11: God, according to the narrative, destroyed their illusions of invulnerability and control with seven plagues.

Similarly, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. killed almost 3000 people, destroyed billions of dollars of property, and emotionally scarred countless thousands. As huge as those consequences were, 9/11’s major impact was spiritual. The attacks fractured, or even shattered, widely held illusions of invulnerability and control. Both illusions are false and profoundly unchristian. Human finitude means that we are vulnerable and not in control. Interpersonally, genuine relationships require vulnerable self-disclosure and healthy bonding that enables misuse or abuse. Physically, healthy living can diminish but not eliminate vulnerability. Cells develop cancer; diseases attack. Communally, even the United States’ unprecedented wealth and military power cannot insulate us from terrorist attacks, mass murders, economic downturns, and other problems.

Living in truth leads those who seek to walk the Jesus path not only to acknowledge but also to appreciate life’s risks and vulnerabilities. My awareness that this is perhaps my last hour of health, or even of life, helps me to cherish this moment and these relationships more fully.

Second, Jesus calls us to envision a future shaped in his image. The Christian future is communal, a dimension of the gospel often downplayed or ignored in our highly individualistic culture. Moses returned to Egypt to lead God’s people out of slavery. Paul established communities of believers, not individual converts. Jesus chose and formed a group of twelve disciples, not twelve individuals.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we as a nation recalibrated our thinking in unhelpful, ungodly ways. Fear pushed aside courage, pessimism replaced optimism, and present conflict pushed aside our vision of God’s plan for the future. Theologically, we began living and thinking as if the gospel ended with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection.

However, the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 acted differently. They refused to accede to terror, said no to evil, and lived into a vision of the future shaped in Jesus’ image. We should follow their example and do the same.

In the Exodus narrative, Egypt responded to its 9/11, as did the United States to its 9/11, by waging war. The reading assigned for a Sunday earlier this month described the annihilation of Egypt’s army and that war’s ugly ending. Biblical scholars and historians thankfully shed some light on the disparity between the narrative and actual history. At most, only a handful of slaves revolted and fled Egypt. A mistranslation of the Hebrew in the text sets events at the Red Sea rather than the Sea of Reeds. Great artists like Cecile B. DeMille bring this scene to life with powerful but inaccurate imagery of water cascading down upon and drowning the Egyptian army. More likely, the small band of escapees eluded their pursuers by safely fleeing through marshes impenetrable by soldiers in chariots and on horseback.

As a military retiree, I am thankful that the U.S. military has not suffered annihilation in Afghanistan or Iraq. Sadly, however, both of the wars launched in response to the 9/11 attacks seem destined to have ugly endings. After ten years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan remains largely ungovernable and has one of the world’s most corrupt governments. Iraq, after eight years of occupation and in spite of a lull in violence produced primarily by putting tens of thousands of Iraqis on the American payroll, remains riven by sectarianism and tribalism. Violence among Iraqis is escalating as the U.S. withdrawal proceeds. And in spite of some notable successes against al Qaeda, national security experts warn that the world is not greatly safer or more peaceful today than on 9/12.

War, in the twenty-first century as in the eleventh century, is occasionally necessary to stop a great evil like the Nazis, but war stymies the demonic rather than moving us along the path toward peace. What then shall we do? This is the third lesson to learn from 9/11 and its aftermath. Jesus calls us to begin transforming the present into the future, incarnating the image of Jesus in our lives and our relationships.

One central transformative practice is to develop a lifestyle that loves and values others as self, emulating Jesus. The heroic actions of first responders on 9/11, including many Episcopal clergy, exemplify this costly love for others. The first two National Guard pilots sent aloft to bring down United Airlines Flight 93 scrambled in planes without live ordnance. Arming the planes, already prepped for a routine training mission, would have taken too long. Between them, the two pilots had decided that one would aim for Flight 93’s cockpit, the other for the tail. Both are grateful for heroic passengers whose bold action precluded the necessity of trying to time a mid-air collision and ejection.

In the last decade, we in the Episcopal Church have emphasized God’s love for all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. We rightly expand that emphasis on God’s inclusive love to include people of all religions. Building peace entails practicing radical hospitality for people of all faiths and no faith. We value Muslims because they, like us, are God’s children.

One of my favorite paintings is Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom,” which is actually a series of paintings by the nineteenth century American Quaker depicting various animals – predators and prey – gathered in peace. Unlike our present world filled with danger, Hicks paints the future, first envisioned by Isaiah (11:6) and echoed throughout the New Testament, in which God rules and humans dwell in peace with one another.

We cannot erase the tragedy of 9/11, turn back time, or redeem the suffering the attacks caused by attempting to preserve illusions of security, invulnerability, and control. Instead, we best honor and remember the dead by embracing our vulnerability, focusing on God’s vision for the future, and walking the Jesus path to live into that future.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

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