Our priest today told us an interesting story about one Orthodox congregation’s response to 9/11 — or, to be more precise, their response to a grave injustice visited upon them as a result of 9/11.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church of the Redeemer is a congregation of Arab Christians in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2002, their church was attacked by an arsonist, who burned it to the ground. (N.B., when 9/11 happened, we were members of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic parish in Brooklyn Heights; many of its members worried that as Arabs, they, as well as Arab Muslims, would be attacked by bigots). The only thing that survived the fire was a portion of the Gospel book, which had been on the altar, now reduced to a pile of ashes. In Orthodox churches, the Gospels are kept inside a ceremonial metal covering. It had melted in the flames. When the priest, Father Samer, took the pile of molten metal out into the sunlight and pried it open, 62 pages had burned up. Here, according to the church’s account, is what was left on the small part of the Gospel unconsumed by the fire:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:38-39

Father Samer and his congregation took that as a sign from God. It gave them the hope and the courage they needed to rebuild, and to refuse anger. Awesome. I wonder how much different things would be in our country today if we had found a way to respond differently as a nation to 9/11. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have gone after Al Qaeda. Obviously we had to do that. But if we hadn’t been so eager to seek vengeance — and believe me, I was among the most eager — we might have come to a more intelligent, restrained response that would have been wiser for us all. I’m not saying that a nation can or should run its national security policy according to the Gospel of Matthew any more than it can run its criminal justice system that way. I am saying that if we, as a people, had been more influenced by these words of Jesus, the response we collectively made to the 9/11 attacks would likely have been more measured and wise.

As crazy as the Gospel mandate to forgive can seem sometimes, it can, in retrospect, look like higher wisdom. Here is the testimony of Dom Christian de Cherge’, a French Trappist living in and serving an impoverished Muslim community in Algeria. Dom Christian and his brother monks were warned to flee Algeria, because their lives had been threatened by fanatical Muslim terrorists. They chose to stay and die, if necessary, rather than leave behind the poor. They all died as martyrs at the hands of Muslim terrorists. It’s a true story, one told with great beauty in the recent film, “Of Gods and Men.” Via Andrew Sullivan, I read Terrance Klein’s reflection on forgiveness in light of the testimony of the Tibhirine martyrs.

Listening to the sermon in church today, I heard Father talk about how our God doesn’t prevent bad things from happening to us all the time, but in His mysterious grace, He chooses to suffer with us. We don’t know why this is so, but we Christians know it is so. This is the meaning of the cross found in the smoke and death and fire of Ground Zero: a sign that God was there with the suffering. Why didn’t he keep it from happening? We’ll never know. But we’ll also never know how many times in the past He did keep something like that from happening. It has to be enough to know that as we suffer, and suffer unjustly, even unto death, so did He, and so does He.

UPDATE: Bishop Basil Essey of the Antiochian Orthodox Church composed this memorial prayer for 9/11. We all prayed it in our parish today after liturgy:

O Lord our God, Who art Thyself, the Hope of the hopeless, the Help of the helpless, the Savior of the storm-tossed, the Haven of the voyager, the Physician of the sick; be all things to our land which nine years ago on this date was devastated by the cowardly and hateful acts of false martyrs; who imitated wicked Herod in his slaughter of 14,000 innocents, whose only crime was to be born at the time of Thine incarnation. For those who lost loved ones, grant the comfort you imparted to the Mary and Martha before you raised Lazarus and care for them as Thou didst care for Thy Mother from the Cross, putting her in the care of the Apostle John. For the survivors, grant them healing in every sense, as you strengthened and healed the confessors. For those related to and aiding the survivors and the families of the fallen, grant the strength and compassion Thou didst instill in Thy foster father Joseph, who was Thy guardian in Thine earthly youth. For those who died, grant them remission of their every sin in Thy great compassion; both those who like the wise servant and the wise virgins, constantly prepared themselves to enter the heavenly banquet at any hour; and those who emulated the Rich Fool, preferring to enjoy earthly pursuits and ignore heavenly ones. To the rest of us, instill in us the knowledge that while the devil still manipulates our Divinely-given free will to his own ends in this world, his power is fleeting and ultimately void, as Thou hast already crushed his dominion, leaving to him only those who freely choose him. Remind us that, while evil at times seems to win, and the death of the innocent seems to signal the destruction of goodness, the innocent are at peace, and while the God-fearing will endure a period of torment; those who choose evil shall endure eternal torment. For those who hate us, speak to their hearts as St. Procla sought to speak to her husband Pilate concerning Thee, and as Thou didst speak to Pharoah concerning the Hebrews, to soften the hearts of those who seek our destruction. Spare us O Lord, from us all hatred of the murderers, and from prejudice toward those whose only crime is to be of their ethnicity and/or religion. Spare us, O Lord, from paranoia and rash acts by which we trample each other like rabid beasts. Spare, O Lord, those who protect us, those who serve in our government, armed forces, law enforcement agencies and all first responders, from despondency, disillusionment, and all things which would undermine their righteous calling to protect us in the manner of our Guardian Angels, and care for us in the manner of the Good Samaritan. All this we ask of Thee our all-powerful and all-loving Saviour, together with Thine unorginate Father, and Thine all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.