Like that day on 9/11, faith remains a first responder

For me, 9/11 began with the rumble of rolling thunder the night before. I was riding the Metro home from the Pentagon, where I served as an Army chaplain. Most evenings, I used the commute home to pray for the world. But on the Monday night of Sept. 10, 2001, my prayers were distracted by the pounding bass drum of a storm on the horizon.

Vividly, I heard a divine whisper to "pray about the gathering of malice." I did just that, staying up until about 2 a.m. to pray for peace and protection. Looking back, I know that the prayers of many people of faith who were similarly directed that night helped form the spiritual foundation for the acts of courage that were needed to withstand the attacks that were just hours away.

Comfort amid catastrophe

I was on the other side of the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 careened into its walls, killing 184 innocent people. I quickly joined medical teams running into the Pentagon's center courtyard. Firemen were placing casualties on the grass. Fellow chaplains and I asked the wounded if they wanted us to pray with them. Without exception, all of them did. The scriptural passages and hymns we shared calmed their fears significantly.

To escape the fire, one officer jumped from a second-story window and lay on the ground, where he tried to break the fall of others with his arms. Deeply distressed, he repeated "I can't feel my legs."

I shared with him Paul's promise in Romans: "[T]hat neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God...." As we tried to lift him, dried leaves scratched his leg. "Ouch!" he said loudly, and we united in a triumphant cheer, realizing that he could feel his legs.

Terrorists worked for years, conspiring to make their suicidal attacks a defining day of hatred. They shattered steel and concrete, and they murdered about 3,000 people. But they utterly failed to shatter the American spirit. The acts of compassion we all witnessed in the aftermath of that Tuesday morning showed the superiority of moral courage to raw animal courage. And these heroic acts transformed 9/11 into a defining day of love.

Gratitude for first responders

In 28 years as an Army chaplain, I can't remember a day that I was prouder to be an American. To this day I am filled with gratitude for those who gave so much.

I'm grateful for the civilians and service members, regardless of rank, who gave the shirts off their backs to those whose clothes were blown off or burned. They lugged medical supplies and loaded ambulances despite the heat of the day without stopping to call their families.

I am inspired by the resolve of a Navy Petty Officer who found that everyone in her operations center had perished while she had gone to get the mail. She soon realized that fear was a selfish emotion and she executed her training, maintaining her focus on the living who needed help.

I appreciate that the soda companies and snack bars didn't mind that we broke into machines and facilities to feed hungry and thirsty rescue workers. I was moved when we broke the bread of hamburger rolls and offered firemen a cup of cold water. A communion of the highest order took place as we saw compassion and kindness quench the chaos. I thank the locals who cheered fire and rescue teams as they returned to their stations after endless, exhausting hours of work.

I can't forget the generosity of McDonald's, Outback Steakhouse, and the church rotisserie chicken group who cooked nonstop, free of charge for weeks afterward for anyone working the site.

And deep admiration is due for every Pentagon worker who returned the next morning in a show of resolve that we were not deterred from duty.

Months later, I was asked to pay tribute to the Pentagon's first responders. The resulting poem, "The Best in Human Character," ended this way:

Theirs is a courageous work

Ne'er deterred when dangers lurk

The best in human character they show

And most of us would hardly know

Their valor's rarely e'er perceived

In recognition well-deserved

To our ideals and values hold

This is the American spirit, bold

To rise to help and heal

We this day would now reveal

To look on them with gratitude

For brave and noble fortitude

For duty done and valor lived

We thank them Lord and ask you give

Your recognition e'en divine

The fire only can refine

Their hearts and souls to serve thee more

Your greater purpose now

Security and faith go hand in hand

Since 9/11, our nation has focused on the responsibility of government and the military to protect America and wage the war on terror. But there is also a vital role that faith is playing in this war.

Individual faith is often the first responder. Many Americans said the first thing they did on 9/11 was pray. Like many Americans, I have a daily prayer discipline that prepared me to comfort the wounded.

I was fortunate to have a printed set of scriptural passages with me when the Pentagon strike occurred. To this day, I am awed and humbled at their relevancy.

The survivors I cared for found the words of Jeremiah especially comforting:

"[F]ear thou not ... neither be dismayed ... for, lo, I will save thee from afar.... I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of your wounds, saith the Lord...."

As the first responder, individual faith always hears and provides words of comfort and strength appropriate to the day.

Faith has a long-term role in providing homeland security, too. Nothing is more secure than a rock-solid foundation of faith. Malicious zeal can inflict violence on innocent life. But the meekness of true faith never does. Instead, it unites and uplifts all mankind as good and pure. And it gives us a watchtower to guard against misguided animosities and mad ambition conspiring against us. We are now more spiritually alert than ever.

The US government intelligence community hungers for actionable intelligence. Seeing the good in adherents of all religions is actionable intelligence. And so is learning to recognize the mind-set of those who wish to do us harm.

As a longtime student of theology and ethics, I developed intelligence briefings in the 1990s about "divine command morality," a belief in direct revelation from a higher power that is sometimes used perversely to justify violence. Before 9/11, some military leaders asked me to share this research with them. After 9/11, many more of them did.

Understanding divine command morality is critical to those of us charged with exposing the misuse of this tradition. The effort to discern fanatic attitudes helps us to separate genuine faith from terror masked in the trappings of religious symbols. Love for all mankind is truly the divine demand.

American faith in the basic goodness of mankind has not been depleted. This perspective allows us to turn potential enemies into friends, even as we oppose destructive beliefs.

'Weapons of our warfare'

Faith is the basis for what Paul called "the weapons of our warfare." History shows that those who take a stand for understanding, brotherly love, and temperate means send a powerful, positive impulse through the world community. This approach saves lives and does not elevate human conjecture to divine judgment. Confusion and frustration are not just grounds for killing. Hatred has never accomplished anything. Only love can truly destroy hate.

Faith ensures that we fight justly. The most ardent proponents of justice in war have always been – and continue to be – faith communities. Faith gives courage to soldiers and officers, helping military actions to be effective. And it provides an ethical framework, helping military conduct to be discriminating.

Above all, faith is the best basis for establishing peace. The faithful aren't discouraged. They persist in finding a way to dwell together in harmony. Faith is a bold part of the American spirit. It insists that the goal of peace is not only good, but possible – despite those who would oppose it.

History shows that the human spirit isn't long dominated by oppressive philosophies or theologies, because faith is the great liberator.

America remains determined not to be defined by hatred. As we pause to remember those who died on 9/11, let us remember that the raw willpower of the terrorists will never overcome the courage and faith of the American people.

Janet Horton was an Army chaplain for 28 years, reaching the rank of colonel. She's now the endorsing agent for the military chaplain program of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, which publishes this newspaper.

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