9/11 Five Years On - Thought for the Day
Monday 11th September 2006The following is the transcript of the Archbishop's Thought for the Day, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on the morning of 11th September 2006. In it, he reflects on the experience of being in New York during the events of September 11th 2001 and the lessons we can all learn about our relationships with each other, as 'mortal beings who have immortal value'.
Good morning. On September 12th five years ago, I was in the vast cathedral of St John in New York, along with a large congregation of frightened, confused or numbed people. The day before, I had been one of those trapped for a while in a building a hundred yards from the Twin Towers; I and those with me had been fortunate enough to be able to get out by the end of the morning, alive and uninjured. And that night, the local bishop had asked if I would lead a service in the cathedral next day.
I remember that one of the other clergy read from the New Testament, and then brought the service book to me with her finger pointing to where it said 'sermon' on the page.
I hadn't planned to preach; what was there to say? What I recall is that one phrase or image in the Bible readings suddenly leapt off the page for me - about God having 'broken down the wall of division' between people. It seemed at one level the most ridiculous claim to make at that moment. If walls were falling, it was because of murderous hatred - determined, carefully planned wickedness, whose effect was to deepen division, not overcome it.
Yet in that moment of wondering what to say, it was as if the Bible were saying this to us all. We were no longer safe behind the walls of prosperity and order; we were naked, frightened and exposed to the wintry weather of terrible violence. We were human after all, in just the way that most of the human race has to be.
Desperate tragedy, trauma and shock bring us close to strangers. That doesn't make what happens good or explainable. It doesn't take away the responsibility of those who did the damage or heal the grief of the bereaved. But for the rest of us, the connection is made, with our own humanity and the humanity of others. And the question for all of us is: 'what do we need, to help us build on those moments of reconnection, so that we don't lose sight of that naked vulnerability we share as human beings, so that we don't forget about what we finally have in common with each other?'
Last week, we had a visit from one of the most senior rabbis in Israel; and among much else we talked candidly about the bloody conflict of recent months between Israel and Lebanon. The rabbi made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn't meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground. The same, said the rabbi, when we meet the human beings who are made in God's image. Those who've become hardened to violence of any kind, whether by actually bringing it about or just by assuming it's never going to come near them, need to 'take off their shoes' and recognise what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt recognise that someone else's suffering is my problem too.
Terrorism is the absolute negation of any such recognition. And in the long run, what will make it unthinkable is 'taking off our shoes', coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.