Progressive Revival

Much will be written today–and rightfully so–about 9/11 and what that day meant to our country.  As with many Americans, it was a day that had a deep and emotional effect on me, but in the years since, I have found myself thinking back on and regretting September 12 even more.  To explain why, I probably should start with the day seven years ago that none of us will ever forget… 


On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was beginning my final year at Duke Divinity School where I served as an Area Coordinator in charge of one of the freshmen dorms.  Two weeks earlier, I had concluded my summer internship at the Pentagon and left one of the offices in the wedge that was hit.  By the time I went to bed on 9/11, I had spent much of the day counseling (or actually, just sitting and holding) several of my freshmen who had lost family in the Twin Towers, and I feared that all of my former colleagues at the Pentagon were dead.  When I crawled into bed that night, I was more depressed than at any other point in my life.   


And then there was grace…a friend recently sent me a copy of an article I wrote about my experience in the early morning hours of September 12.  On first glance, the article itself has little to do with politics.  But for me, it has continued to serve as a tragic reminder of why campaigns matter so much.  So I thought I’d share what I wrote at 2AM on September 12, 2001:


I saw God’s hand at work today, amid the images of death, smoke, tragedy, and fear.  Just after midnight, I was awakened by one of the resident advisors in my dorm at Duke.  She said that my dorm was gathering outside and lighting candles for those affected by the horror of what happened today. 

            The sight that greeted me when I walked outside was even more powerful than the horrid picture of the doomed plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  I opened the door to see almost every one of my 140 freshmen, sitting in a circle in our parking lot, hands clasped together, heads bowed, praying in the soft light of flickering candles.

            I joined the group, and after a few minutes heard the most beautiful sound and something I will never forget.  At first, I seriously questioned whether what I heard was of human or divine origin because the noise was so soft and pure.  Different people in the group had begun humming, “Amazing Grace.”  Slowly the volume picked up as more members of the group joined in, and words were added here and there. 

            I could not help but think of Christmas morning in Dr. Seuss’ book, When the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Despite all the Grinch’s efforts to destroy Christmas and what it stood for, on Christmas morning the “Who’s” all gathered to sing and join together in making a joyful noise to the Lord.  The message of Christmas was made all the more clear because of the Grinch’s efforts to undermine it.

            I saw a similar thing tonight.  Like many Americans, I was very depressed and upset by what happened Tuesday morning.  I was worried about my friends who worked in the part of the Pentagon that was hit.  I worried about what my nation would do in response and feared a cycle of violence that would significantly change the world in which we live.  My heart was full of worry and fear for those suffering today and for our future.  And I questioned how God could allow this to happen.

            But I began to see a different future as I sat in that circle.  I saw people of different races, classes, and religions holding hands and singing together about grace.  I saw hope and a message so much more powerful and striking than the hate of today’s terrorist attacks.

            I submit this story because I believe that the only way we can ever overcome terror is by off-setting the images of dust, debris, and fire with images like the one I saw tonight.  We win if these acts of evil bring us together and lead to an outpouring of love and hope.  We will lose if the only thing to come from this tragedy is fear and a unified cry for revenge. If Americans all over the country come together like my freshmen did last night, we might even be able to change the twisted hearts (that are perhaps four sizes too small) of those responsible.


Clearly my dream wasn’t achieved…on September 12, 2001, our country stood at an historical crossroads that comes perhaps once in a generation.  The horror of the attack brought the world rallying around us.  And after the initial shock, Americans stood ready to sacrifice and serve and to honor the dead by showing that the terrorists had misjudged us and attacked the wrong symbols–because America’s true strength is not found in our military might or economic power but in the idea that is America and in the indomitable spirit of her people. 


At that moment in history, the unified political and international goodwill generated by the heinous attacks of 9/11 endowed our leaders with virtually unquestioned powers. If our President had called our country to become energy independent before the decade was out, it would have happened.  Had our President asked Americans to reinvigorate the Peace Corps or launch a domestic service initiative to show the world the true heart of America, millions would have answered the call.  Instead, he told Americans to shop; told Congress to pass his regressive tax plan; launched the war he and his advisors had always hoped for in Iraq; and he told the world that America believes torture and imprisonment without trial are OK as long as they happen to the “enemy.” 


There are those who might say I’m a starry-eyed idealist to imagine we had any option but to respond with hate, fear, and revenge after 9/11.  I am no pacifist (though I wish I could be), nor do I believe that the state bears the sword in vain.  I’m too much of a “fallen world” Calvinist for any of that. 


But even in this ethically-gray fallen world, I understand that my Calvinism is not a philosophy.  It is a faith.  And no matter what else might be encompassed in my definition of faith, at the very core of my faith is the cross.  If we are going to preach Christ crucified; if we are going to believe there is any higher purpose to the political squabbles we engage in; if we are going to seek to serve our Creator in hopes of edging our world closer to his Kingdom; then we must be willing to take leaps of faith from time to time and understand that foolishness to the world is not always foolishness to God.  I wish we’d had a leader who believed those things on September 12, 2001.

Eric Sapp is a Democratic faith outreach strategist and former partner at Common Good Strategies.  He is currently director of, and founding partner at the Eleison Group.


(cross-posted on

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