I never voted for Ronald Reagan, but in retrospect I wish I had. Actually, I cried when he was elected, because I was afraid that Reagan would be the kind of president that could end up thrusting us into nuclear war. Perhaps it was because to me, “the Gipper’s” words of American pride sounded falsely hollow or jingoistic. I found it hard to believe that anyone really felt patriotic about this country.
Having grown up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was a child of cynicism and disillusionment. Almost every teacher I had in school told us that in the final analysis, there really wasn’t much difference between the United States and the Soviet Union. With urban riots, the Vietnam War and Watergate dominating the news, it wasn’t easy to think otherwise. I think that’s why the surge of patriotism that grew during the Reagan years was so jarring. People were proud to be Americans again. And surprisingly, I came to realize that the guilt and shame I grew up with wasn’t normative after all.
As the events of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded, I found myself feeling much the same sense of surprise. The response to what occurred was almost as unexpected as the attack itself. People took care of one another. Candlelight vigils, prayers and acts of solidarity were the order of the day. The name of God echoed in every corner of our land, and expressions of faith were not only welcome, but sought out.
Remembering 9-1-1 isn’t easy, but it isn’t bitterness and grief alone either. The mental scrapbook we all have includes images of destruction, but also icons of courage and compassion. For at least as long as the skies were silent, we were once again a nation under God — one concerned with doing the right thing; one filled with people who offered help when it was needed, even at immense personal cost.
From the ugliness and hate of terrorist violence, rose the beauty and strength of neighborly love and genuine national unity. From the rubble of the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and the wreckage of United Flight 93, emerged a spirit of humanity at its best. The real tragedy of Sept. 11, perhaps, is that we have not been able to keep that spirit alive after the smoke cleared, after the ruins were carted away, after the shock wore off.
Does it take a disaster to make us who we should be? Maybe it does. But the fact that human greatness rises from the rubble of human horror should not surprise us. As Christians, we are an Easter people. The triumph we find in the holy cross is the glory of Jesus’ resurrection. The hope that springs from the cross of Christ is not passing, but eternal. The exalted humanity Jesus models for us is not ultimately the exception, but the rule of who and what we all can be by grace.
Salvation is not an isolated event, it is a way of life. We have all had cataclysmic moments in our lives, instances when everything changed at once and forever. But from the rubble of addiction, abuse, grief and pain, illness, uncertainty, and hunger, our Lord offers a path to new freedom and new life. He does this not only for nations, but for His Church, and for every soul who calls upon Him. His offer comes, not from a distance, but from the cross that stands firmly planted in the earth, yet reaches like a ladder into heaven.