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Sam Wells: 9/11 and Lessons of How to Live

Sam Wells: 9/11 and Lessons of How to Live

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Editor's Note: The Rev. Sam Wells is dean of Duke Chapel.  These remarks were made at the Durham commemoration of the 9/11 anniversary in Duke Chapel on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011.

Durham, NC - We live in a culture that is an orchestrated denial of death. Our diets are designed to keep us young, our benefactions are intended to preserve our name forever, our calendars are crammed full so we need never stop and contemplate our mortality, our personal and national budgets are chronically weighed down by the cost of navigating the last days of our lives, our vocabulary is awash with euphemisms that avoid naming the oblivion and finality and inevitability of death.

This was what made the hijackers of 9/11 so powerful. This was the hold they had and continue to have on our imaginations. They were not afraid to die. And so they acted beyond our society's comprehension. They believed that something was more important than preserving their own lives. That was their power. It was a power that continues to hold us in thrall.

But they used that power so cruelly. Their last moments were spent turning themselves and others into guided missiles directed toward sudden, apocalyptic and indiscriminate murder. But as we grieve that massacre and lament that horror, let's not miss the source of those hijackers' power. We can't overcome that power by simply making ourselves better at death-dealing than the hijackers were. We can only transcend that power.

The passengers on the planes transcended that power by spending their final moments telling their cherished ones how much they loved them. That's how to die. In the chaos of Ground Zero, the firefighters and first responders hurried toward the scene that everyone else was running away from, making their lives a human bridge others could cross to safety. That's how to face death. Those on board United Airlines 93 contrived to make their plane crash in Pennsylvania rather than cause further carnage in Washington. That's called laying down your life that others might live.

The heart of the Christian faith is that in his resurrection, Jesus transcended the power of death, so that henceforth, we might do the same. A requiem is an occasion for inhabiting this new reality -- of envisaging and praying for a truth and a life beyond our comprehension. 9/11 showed the worst that humanity is capable of. But it also showed us the best. Look into the face of a firefighter, look into the face of a selfless hostage, look into the face of a prisoner whose dying words are, "I love you." Look into the faces of each of those people, and hear them quietly say, "You want to know what Jesus looks like? He looks like me."

A requiem is a time to mourn the deaths of others and to contemplate our own. Our culture denies death. On 9/11 the hijackers manufactured death in unspeakable quantities. But many people that day showed us how to die, how to transcend death, and so how to dissolve its power. May our lives, and our deaths, be worthy of theirs.