9 - 11
The world turns and history moves on. But what does history tell us? Are things getting better or worse? After a lifetime of studying history, I can tell you that my philosophy of history is that, on the whole, history is progress. The world is getting better in so many important ways. Yet, this progress is not steady and even. It moves in fits and starts. Along the road there are many catastrophic setbacks some of which are so intensely evil that at the time they make people think that the darkness has overcome the light. The Holocaust was one such event. We must not let the darkness overcome the world that God entrusted to us.
I think the great challenge we face in the contemporary world is to balance our enormous advances in science and technology with our morality. The former has given mankind the power on one hand to make a better world in so many wonderful ways or, on the other hand to destroy the world. The choices that we human beings make between the two will depend on the level of our moral understandings and applications. I define morality as the commitment to make a better world for the human beings around us. Will our morality promote us to make the best of things, or will our lack of morality leave us wanting and falling to self-destruction? As creatures given Free Will by God, it is ours to choose.
For people of the present generation, 9-11 was the quintessential catastrophe. On a radiantly beautiful and cloudless September day fifteen years ago, all seemed well in God's world---until 1, 2, 3, 4 airplanes suddenly crashed and the world changed, literally out of the blue.
Where were you on 9-11? It is one of those days that everyone can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. I was at my desk on my job as assistant head of the South Carolina Room of the Charleston County Library. The Library is on Calhoun Street, a few blocks east of Marion Square and just on the other side of Mother Emanuel Church. My phone rang around 9 a.m. and a staff member told me an airplane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. I turned on my computer to stare in disbelief. I called my wife at home on James Island to tell her to turn on the TV because a catastrophe had happened. She did. When the second plane hit I momentarily froze. I knew this was an attack by some kind of murderous force against the United States. Most of the library staff moved quickly and quietly to the staff lounge to watch a large TV. The room was crowded but eerily silent. Everyone stared at the screen. A few shed tears. A few whispered about relatives or friends in New York. I sat through the collapse of the two towers. By then I was one of those wiping my eyes. I could not take any more. I wandered back to my desk. I was too numb to absorb much of the rest of the bad news.
The library became like a tomb. The few patrons there ambled around as lost sheep. The staff mostly sat at their desks like zombies unable to think or do any work. At lunch I went out for a walk as I usually did. I liked to walk around the picturesque nearby neighborhoods as Ansonboro and Wraggsboro. Sometimes I went over and walked around Marion Square and down King or Meeting Streets to Broad. Sometimes I walked over to the waterfront in the aquarium area. On this day I found old Charleston strangely comforting. I do not know of another city that has suffered as much disaster, natural and man-made, as Charleston. Everything in the book since 1680: plagues, fires, hurricanes, wars, earthquakes. You name it. Yet that grand old city endured, and not just endured, soared in triumph over its adversities as her piercing church spires soared over the ancient streets. It was more charming, lovely, and beautiful on that day then it had ever been. I soaked it up. I needed it. I felt better knowing that the world too would endure against potential destruction just as Charleston had, time and again.
My wife came in to downtown and after work we walked down the unusually quiet streets over to the cathedral on Coming Street where Dean William McKeachie had scheduled a service after 5 o'clock. The nearly two hundred year old walls of old St. Paul's of Radcliffeboro never seemed so lovely and comforting. The place was crowded. As I recall we read the Great Litany. It was a somber, quiet, sad, but soothing lament. Afterwards we all dispersed reassured of God's presence but still too stunned to say much.
What good came out of 9-11? I think the jury is still out on that. I can think of a lot of bad: two unnecessary, destructive, expensive, and disruptive wars, a rising fear of foreigners in the United States, a hysteria for "security," and an escalating war on "terror." But who, where, what was the enemy? The "war on terror" was not the usual war. It was a new and frustrating combat against a foe that was elusive. Fighting the new terrorists would be like eating jello with your hands.
Plenty of good events have happened too since 9-11. One of those was today. "Skip" Adams was installed as the new bishop provisional of the Episcopal Church diocese of South Carolina. It is a sad "goodbye" to the great bishop "Charlie," but a cheerful "hello" to the new bishop "Skip." Life goes on. It goes on in spite of 9-11, of the Holocaust, or of the too-numerous other disasters of modern history. It goes on as does Charleston. We need to remember that today. We need to remember too on this somber anniversary the "big picture," history is progress and true progress is the reconciliation of imperfect humankind and perfect God.