Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led an armed coup against the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende in Chile. With the Presidential palace under siege and the United States military and CIA weighing in decisively on the side of the anti-leftist coup, any hope of averting crushing defeat was dashed. President Allende delivered a final poignant address to his nation and then took his own life. General Pinochet established a brutal right wing military dictatorship that terrorized Chileans for the next seventeen years. Tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, many tortured, and thousands were “disappeared.” La Villa Grimaldi, one of the prison/torture centers on the outskirts of Santiago, is now a memorial. On my visit to this site a few years ago my guide was a man who had been brutally tortured there. His story was compelling and gruesome. His grace in the face of those memories was remarkable. His questions about U.S. rationalization of torture were pointedly devastating.
Terrible things happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington on September 11, 2001. Lives were obliterated, loved ones incinerated, families and communities fundamentally altered. Heroic and remarkably generous things happened as well, both the dramatic bravery of first responders who risked, and sometimes lost their lives, as well as the quiet courage and compassion of countless souls who have remained steadfast attending to victims for a decade while many of the rest of us moved on. This week we remember all of this with a blessed mixture of gratitude and grief.
But it is important to remember that we do not own September 11, for it is a date that Chileans share and an experience that many others of every race and creed and countless nations have endured. The violence so many in the world have long experienced as daily fare came to our shores on 9/11/2001. Our privileged island of security was breached. And we might have hoped that this would have drawn us into deeper solidarity with those across the globe who have suffered terror in many forms for a long time. In those days following 9/11/2001 the suffering world reached out to us, in some ways far beyond our deserving.
Sadly, tragically, we did not reach back to embrace, but lashed out in fury that our privilege had been taken from us, determined that we would wrest it back even if it meant that the vulnerable in our world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, would pay a heavy price on our behalf. An event that could have ushered in the end of American exceptionalism – the sense that we deserve special dispensation from the world’s suffering and special access to the world’s resources – became, instead, its new found rationale. The rhetorical struggle ended almost before it began, shaping the 9/11/2001 response – “dead or alive,” “axis of evil,” “war on terror.” And where was the prophetic voice? This time, it often seemed, Elijah fled to the cave even before the contest on Carmel between Yahweh and Baal was mounted.
It does not dishonor the victims of 9/11/2001 to consider that we misread the meaning of our vulnerability or took the wrong lessons from our grief. Nor does it dishonor those victims to ask them to share this day with the victims of 9/11/1973 and the ensuing years of agony in places like La Villa Grimaldi. We can stand reverently before the stunning new memorial in lower Manhattan even as we call forth what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature that turn aside arrogant claims and vengeful impulses.
In these partisan days it may be too much to hope that speakers on Sunday will resist extravagant words of national pride, or that President Obama might remind the crowds that 9/11/2001 had an antecedent in 9/11/1973. Few would cherish reminders of our own complicity in terror and torture, and for a nation often blind to yearnings beyond its borders, such a reference would perhaps be only bewildering. But as in the days of Elijah, we can hope that there yet remain 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal. And while their voices will be muted, it will fall to them to seek out the Elisha’s of the world’s brighter future.
John H. Thomas