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Readings for Reflection: September 2008
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

As we approach the seventh anniversary of “9-11,” this passage from Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Jossey-Bass, 2004) describes how our country might have responded more effectively.


When it became clear what had happened on September 11, 2001, the people of the United States were caught in a tension between the violence that had been done to us and what we would do in response. Of course, the outcome was never in doubt. We would respond by wreaking violence on the perpetrators – or on stand-ins who could be made to look like the perpetrators – because that is what nation-states do.

But we had an alternative: we might have held that tension longer, allowing it to open us to a more life-giving response. If we had done so, we might have begun to understand that the terror Americans felt on September 11 is the daily fare of a great many people around the world. That insight might have deepened our capacity for global empathy. That empathy might have helped us become more compassionate and responsible citizens of the international community, altering some of our national policies and practices that contribute to the terror felt daily by people in distant lands. And those actions might have made the world a safer place for everyone, including us.

Had we held the tension longer, we might have been opened to the kinds of actions proposed by William Sloane Coffin – actions that place us in the gap between reality and possibility:

We will respond, but not in kind. We will not seek to avenge the death of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor. We refuse to ratchet up the cycle of violence that brings only ever more death, destruction, and deprivation. What we will do is build coalitions with other nations. We will share intelligence, freeze assets, and engage in forceful extradition of terrorists if internationally sanctioned. [We will] do all in [our] power to see justice done, but by the force of law only, never the law of force.

Instead of holding the tension and being pulled open to options such as these, we allowed ourselves to be caught on the horns of the "fight or flight" dilemma. Since "Americans never turn tail," we fought and, as of this writing, are still fighting. But we do not feel any safer today than we did on September 12, 2001. We have simply acquiesced to fear.

Reprinted with permission


All Readings for Reflection
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