Text: 1 Proverbs:1-6, 20-23, 32-33 (Wisdom prepares a path) * Video of complete service
I have appreciated some of the changes in the commemorations of 9/11 this year, which is the 20th anniversary of the attacks by Al-Qaeda terrorists on the United States.
Not all, mind you. Some of the memorials have been much the same – like the release of a televised version of the Broadway musical “Come from Away,” which came on Friday to the Apple TV+ platform.
Kim and I saw “Come from Away,” when it played at the Jubilee Auditorium in 2019, and it is one of my favourite Broadway musicals. It tells the story of 7,000 mostly American passenger jet customers who are stranded in Gander Newfoundland when U.S. airspace is shut down to commercial traffic following the hijacking of four planes on September 11, 2001 – hijackings which led to the downing of the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, an attack on the Pentagon in Washington DC, and a fourth which ended in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers succeeded in diverting the attackers from Washington, but which led to the death of all those on board. In total, more than 3,000 people died on that shocking day.
“Come From Away” tells the story of how the small community of Gander rallies to feed, house, and cheer a group of people who are nearly the size of the community itself; and it does a wonderful job of this, in my opinion. If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I recommend the Apple TV+ version.
But other memorials, like a PBS Frontline Documentary, which aired last Tuesday and which was titled “America after 9/11,” reflect some differences. For one, the documentary considers the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th 2021 a fitting cap to 20 years of the so-called War on Terror. Instead of being led by brown-skinned Muslims, the January 6th attack on the Capitol was led by white-skinned Christians who were supporters of defeated U.S. President Donald Trump.
The PBS documentary notes the Islamophobia unleashed by the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago found a home in those who voted for Donald Trump and his anti-Muslim campaign in 2016 and again in 2020.
In 2001, almost all commentaries in North America said the U.S. was wholly in the right. Twenty years later, and with the August withdrawal of the U.S. occupying force in Afghanistan and the ascension to power of the Taliban, which had been instrumental in harbouring the 9/11 terrorists and which had been displaced as the rulers of Afghanistan in November 2001 by the U.S., the memory of bad behaviour by the U.S. since 9/11, including the illegal detention and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Cuba and Abu Ghraib Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis, and flagrant U.S. corruption in wars in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim-majority world, the picture is far less clear cut.
When I went to church the Sunday following 9/11 20 years ago, I was expecting to be turned off. But much to my surprise, the minister of Kingston Road United Church in east Toronto, Rivkah Unland, offered a personal story of the terrorism she had witnessed during her time as a pastor in Peru in the 1990s, a story that up-ended much of the 9/11 narrative of that time.
I came to that service already skeptical about Western imperialism. I knew that the U.S. empire, like the Canadian one, had been built on the back of Indigenous nations and on the labour of black African slaves. I knew that the Muslim-majority world had been distorted by centuries of French and British imperialism. I knew that while nothing could justify the cruel murders of 9/11, there was no limit to the crimes of the West in either its homelands or its former colonies like Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. Because of this, I suspected little good would come from 9/11, either in the United States or in other parts of the world.
What I didn’t know was that there were small pockets in the United Church of Canada in which a minister like Rivkah Unland could tell a tale far removed from centres of power and that would illuminate an alternate vision of the future.
Shocked by the existence of Kingston Road United Church, I was soon singing in its choir, listening to its services each week, and following other threads laid bare there that meant 20 years later I would be preaching in my 11th year of ordained ministry.
The world was different in 2001 that it is in 2021. Today, there are about 1.5 billion more people alive. Climate disaster is more acute today than then. And the rise of fascist parties in places like Afghanistan and the United States is threatening peace.
The United Church is also much smaller than it was then. The latest Statistical Yearbook, which was published this summer, gives figures up to October 2019. In that month, there were about 115,000 Canadians who came to UCC services, down from 279,000 20 years earlier in 1999, and down from a height of more than 1 million Canadians who had come regularly to UCC services in 1959.
But I am OK with the decline of the UCC, and I am OK with the fact that a lot of the church is still at least somewhat blinded by American imperialism. I am just glad there are sectors of the church that pay attention to the church’s role in oppressive relations with Canada’s First Nations and that there are some, like Rev. Rivkah Unland, who have lived the difficulties of our time and have developed an anti-imperialist stance because of it. This doesn’t need to involve the whole church; for me, it is OK if at least a part of it is connected to anti-imperialism.
In 2021, I think it might be easier to stand against imperialism in the church than it was in 2001. Increases in popular awareness of Western crimes, as well as those of the terrorists who mistakenly adopt the role of Islam in their evil endeavours, gives us more space to speak truth to power, I believe.
In today’s Scripture reading, King Solomon recommends listening to the words of Wisdom. Some might think that the first or fifth memorials of 9/11 contained all of Wisdom’s teachings. But I believe the different perspectives available on this 20th anniversary contain more of the latter.
Of course, such judgements always require discussion, and often disagreement. Nevertheless, I believe that many of the recent commemorations of 9/11 move us closer to the truth.
And for this, I am grateful.