Shock, Anger, Prayer: Bethel Responds to September 11th

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WTC from space

WTC from space

When nineteen hijackers commandeered four commercial aircraft and steered them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a cornfield in Pennsylvania on a Tuesday morning in September, students and faculty at Bethel College reacted the same way as many other Americans: with mingled shock, anger, and prayer — and a degree of caution. In the first Clarion published after the attacks, editor Bill Lent and others suggested policymakers and citizens exercise some degree of caution in responding. The need to react strongly to the attacks should be tempered by care to correctly identify the perpetrators, argued contributing writer Na Txia Vang.¹

However, that caution may simply have been an artifact of publishing delays. Aside from oral testimony, the record of Bethel’s initial reaction to 9/11 is limited. When the Clarion’s last issue before the attacks went to press on September 6, its new editor was concerned mostly with reporting on the recently concluded Welcome Week. Grainy black and white pictures of smiling faces adorned the newspaper’s pages. The next issue, published on September 27, contained eleven articles reacting to the events of September 11. During the three week publication hiatus, Bethel’s writers had time to consider the attacks in a broader context.

On that Tuesday morning, and in the days immediately following the 11th, feelings ran hotter than the Clarion suggests. One Bethel student, a junior in autumn 2001, remembered learning about the attacks:

I was getting ready to head to class when the first tower was hit and the news began to come over the television. I went to class — and we watched the news the entire hour as the events of the morning progressed. I don’t remember what I thought [or] felt, other than being captivated by what was happening.²

Across campus, professors and students huddled around televisions and radios to hear as news reports from New York, then Washington DC, then Pennsylvania flooded in. While in the weeks after, that same student recalled “being annoyed by the incessant coverage of EVERY aspect of the attacks and aftermath,” on September 11, all people wanted was news. What they heard angered them. Ruben Rivera, then-history professor and current Chief Diversity Officer recalled a training session for faculty and staff that took place on Wednesday or Thursday after the attacks. The training, a racial sensitivity curriculum brought to campus in the wake of several racial incidents among students, was a disaster. Rivera remembered the first question asked of the group: “How do you define racism?” The answer came promptly from the back of the room:

Crashing a plane into a building.³

CLOUDSOF911While most of the students surveyed for this project were still in high school on September 11, there is no good reason to assume their experiences were significantly more provincial than students on campus in September 2001; not a single survey respondent recalled being aware of Muslims or the religion of Islam before 9/11; indeed, in 2001, the Clarion still spelled the word in the older style as ‘moslem.’ Yet in spite of the abrupt way the Islamic world had burst into Bethel’s consciousness, the Clarion largely rejected anti-Muslim sentiment, taking some care to distinguish between terrorists and the Muslim majority which rejected violence.⁴ For most students however, the furry expressed at the training session by a staff or faculty member was far more typical. Rivera remembered teaching a large class in the weeks after the attacks in which he asked his students a series of questions based on Matthew 5. “How many of you believe Jesus when he said that not a jot or tittle of the law shall pass?” Rivera asked. All hands in the room went up. “And how many of you agree with Jesus when he said that to let your yes be yes and your no be no?” Ninety-five percent of the room’s occupants raised their hands. Finally, Rivera asked, “And how many of you agree with Jesus when he says to love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” In the classroom of 120 students, only one young woman raised her hand “because she had figured out what I was doing,” Rivera remembered.⁵ Although all of the students had agreed that “not a jot or tittle” of Jesus’ teachings would pass away before the ending of the world, only one student was willing to accept Jesus’ teaching that Christians should love their enemies in the weeks after 9/11. That attitude was widespread on campus, Rivera recalled. So while the Clarion offered a more moderate position — at least in the first weeks after the attacks — its editors were somewhat out of step with the average student.

Clarion shot of a gas station

Clarion shot of a gas station

On the evening of September 11, a large number of Bethel students spent the evening waiting in line at two local gas stations — the Tank n’ Tummy on County E2 and the Texaco on County E. They had heard, Clarion writer Timothy Goddard wrote, of an impending gas shortage. In some cases, students waited for over two hours to refuel their vehicles. As students waited, they talked about the day’s events:

The gas stations became an impromptu meeting place for Bethel students as they gathered, not only to hoard petroleum but also to discuss the enormity of what had happened that day and the effect that it was already having upon their lives.

Hubert Humphrey Metrodome vikings

The Metrodome

Towards the end of the week, Bethel students were enlisted as volunteers at the memorial service, Minnesota Remembers, held on Sunday September 16 at the capitol in St. Paul. Governor Jesse Ventura had asked Paul Ridgeway, a local event organizer, to put together a service. As Ridgeway’s daughter attended Bethel, the organizer turned to Bethel for help. On Saturday afternoon, Bethel students helped set up chairs, barricades, and garbage bins for the crowds, and on the day of the event they handed out programs and directed traffic.

The Salvation Army, which was also involved in Minnesota Remembers, asked for more Bethel volunteers the following week in order to collect donations at the Metrodome. On the weekend of September 24, twenty-four students collected money at the Twins and the Cleveland Indians games. The money went to the relief effort in New York.

In addition to the events that Bethel students participated in, students editorialized on the attacks. While two editorials did begin to engage the issue of war as a response (one each for the pro and con positions), most were confined to working out the larger meaning of the attacks, sorting through emotions, and preparing for the days ahead.⁹ All of the editorials drew on their author’s faith for inspiration and guidance.

Goddard in 2001

Goddard in 2001

Minnesota Remembers, 2001

Minnesota Remembers, 2001

Timothy Goddard, the author of the recurring column “Good Idea/Bad Idea,” looking back to earlier attacks such as Pearl Harbor in 1941, suggested that “America [was] not discovering new territory but walking a well-trodden path of pain.” Why, given that earlier example, did everything seem so different this time, Goddard wondered. Americans had forgotten the lessons “the Greatest Generation” had learned through its experience of World War II, Goddard argued. “During both the painful days ahead and the peace we pray for afterwards,” Goddard continued, “we must all avoid the lies that plague all people — either that there are no lessons to be learned or that there are no more lessons to be learned.” Concluding, Goddard argued that “We, as a generation and campus, must watch for what God is trying to teach us.”¹⁰

Na Txia Vang offered similarly cautious advice. While “those who planned [the attack] really deserve to be punished in the most severe way,” Vang argued that a number of conceptual questions cried out for resolution before such a punishment could be meted out. “Who did it? Osama bin Laden? Afghans? The Taliban? Muslims?” Vang asked. In order to hold the responsible party accountable, Americans needed to determine exactly who to blame. The alternative, blaming “cultural groups in the United States,” was unacceptable; doing so would raise the specter of the mid 1950s McCarthyist witch hunts. Even if the U.S. were able to identify the party responsible, Vang wondered whether apprehending them would “solve the problem altogether.” While it might send a strong message to “other malicious individuals,” Vang maintained that there would always be more people in the world with the desire to attack the United States; America could not apprehend them all. The approach that some Americans suggested — “obliterate all the Muslims,” as Vang put it — was wrong. Most Muslims did not condone the attacks and those who did “probably grew up with so much propaganda and lies that they don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong anymore.” Vang pointed out that Afghanistan had be a war zone for over thirty years and that its people had known little but war, death, and destruction. Still, this did not excuse them for the attacks, she concluded. What was needed was for America to recognize the grey areas in life, and to open itself to the world in order to “feel what the world is feeling.” By channeling energy into foreign aid programs, American citizens could become “responsible world citizens.” The result, Vang argued, would be the neutralization of evil through America’s good.¹¹

Minnesota Remembers, 2001

Minnesota Remembers, 2001

For Clarion writer Ben Linde, the cause of the attacks was less America’s failure to be engaged in world suffering that it was human sinfulness. “People are discovering a truth the world seems to have ignored,” Linde wrote, “human being are corrupt — all the way to the core:”

The presence of sin is overwhelming. It sounds harsh, but even God knows it is true. He says of humankind, “Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways…” Is the speed of a jetliner swift enough? How many thousands of lives were destroyed that Tuesday?

But he goes further: “There is none righteous, no, not one… There is none who does good, no, not one.” Not even one. Now God is not referring to terrorists only. He declares all people (apart from Christ) as “dead in trespasses…” In other words, completely helpless in sin.

“That,” Linde concluded, “is why New York City lies smoldering, the death toll visits quadruple digits and countless families are left reeling.” Linde recited the Good News, reminding his readers that “all who received God’s gift of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ are transformed.”

For Linde, the proper lesson of the attacks was evangelism. “Sin rules on earth,” he wrote, “However, it does not — praise God — rule God’s children.” Christians ought to pray for, serve, and rally for the wounded of Washington DC and New York City — “in the saving name of Christ.” “My we also remember the unbelieving neighbors across the street and next door within our witness,” Linded concluded. But for the grace of God, “all these share destinies with the terrorists.”¹²

Lent

Lent

Finally, Bill Lent, the Clarion’s news editor, sought to answer the question on everyone’s mind: “How should we respond?” There were three ways Americans could respond, Lent suggested. They could take an essentially defensive posture, taking “all necessary precautions in preventing any further terrorist attacks.” Such an approach, and the personal inconveniences it would entail were well supported by Americans, Lent wrote. Or, Americans could assume an offensive approach, waging war “even if it means innocent civilians in other countries might be hurt or killed.” Lent cited polls indicating that seventy-five percent of Americans would support such an action. Finally, there was the option of pursuing both other courses of action, and more. Lent wrote that some American supported incarcerating Arab Americans, a sentiment with which he did not agree. However, for Lent, “the more important question” was: “do we as Christians follow a different code from our nation’s leaders?”

Lent quoted Hebrews 12:14 (“follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord”) and Matthew 5:38-39 (“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whatsoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”), Lent suggested that many Christians ignored a third verse: Deuteronomy 32:25: “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.”

That verse suggested, Lent argued, that Christians ought to reserve vengeance for God alone and themselves focus on justice. Hebrews, he wrote, called Christians to be peacemakers among people of all religions. While Christians would differ on which course of action American should pursue in response to the September 11 attacks

Our prayer must now be for the leaders of our country, and that vengeance does not overlap justice. The vengeance that our hearts desperately seek must give way to the love that God calls us to embody.¹³

Lent and many of his fellow Clarion authors, in exercising some measure of restraint in the weeks after the attacks, were notable among the larger student reaction. Even as Lent urged prayer, others had already taken up the war drums, arguing for a vigorous military response. The general mood on campus was one of deep, abiding anger.

— Fletcher Warren

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Citations
¹ Na Txia Vang, “Terror should provoke us to action,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
² [Anonymous], Survey response, Author’s personal collection (hereafter WPC).
³ Ruben Rivera, Personal interview, August 2014, WPC.
⁴ Bill Lent, “United we stand?” The Clarion 2001-09-27; Vang, “Terror should provoke us to action.”
⁵ Rivera, Personal interview, WPC.
⁶ Timothy Goddard, “Gas prices cause stir,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
⁷ Sarah Grono, “Bethel remembers victims,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
⁸ Daniel Diehn, “Bethel aids Salvation Army,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
⁹ Timothy Goddard, “War must be fought with love,” The Clarion 2001-09-27; Jaron Burdick, “When the empire shouldn’t strike back,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
¹⁰ Timothy Goddard, “War and peace both offer lessons,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
¹¹ Na Txia Vang, “Terror should provoke us to action,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
¹² Ben Linde, “Tragedy exposes human reality,” The Clarion 2001-09-27.
¹³ Bill Lent, “United we stand?” The Clarion 2001-09-27.

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