A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Joanna Manning

People who were alive when John Kennedy was assassinated can usually remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time. Now the events of September 11 are taking on the same characteristics of indelible memory.

     On September 11 last year I was preparing to leave for a Call to Action regional conference in New York. All of a sudden the phone rang. It was my son Andrew calling from Vancouver, where he had just tuned in to the early morning news. "Mum" he said, "turn on your TV and look at what’s happening in New York - they’re attacking the World Trade Center. You can’t go to the States today!" I turned on my TV just in time to see the second plane crash live into the World Trade Center. My stomach somersaulted into my mouth.

     I live a few blocks north of the CN Tower in Toronto. A basic survival instinct warned me to run down to the basement and take cover if necessary. I went over to my south window, which has a direct view of the Tower. Shivers ran down my back as I scanned the sky around it and listened for the sound of planes. Then the phone rang again. It was my other son, Nick, who had rushed out of teaching his Grade Eight class when the news had come over the school PA: "Please don’t go to the U.S. today Mum," he said. "It’s far too dangerous."

      The skies above Toronto were clear. I sat down again, riveted and horrified by the events unfolding on the TV screen. As my mind defrosted, a phrase came into my head and roiled around there. "It’s payback time," it said. The World Trade Center, then the Pentagon. Two pillars, economic and military, on which rest the dominance of the western world. Someone, or some group, must have reached the limits of their endurance. The wheels of the systemic layers of oppression by which the world of privilege that we in the one-third world have inherited and maintained our privileges had come full circle.

     The first anniversary of September 11 now rolls around on the heels of the closing of the second Earth Summit in Johannesburg, and that phrase about payback time has come back to me. It’s payback time for the earth, for the poor. If we in the West do not heed the call to move quickly towards sustainable development, then more than the twin towers will collapse around us. In theological terms, the call to sustainable development is a call to conversion.

     If we are to move to a sustainable planet, we must replace competition with communal solidarity at all levels of life: local, national and international. This includes communal solidarity among religions. The economic colonization of the two-thirds world by European and later, American powerbrokers, were aided and abetted by the missionary efforts of Christian churches. In the spiritual as well as the secular realms, competition has been the driving force of the western ethos. Along with competition has come conquest: conquest of the earth by means of territorial invasions and exploitation: conquest of markets by means of military and economic colonization, and conquest of souls by aggressive proselytizing or forcible religious conversions.

     The act of terrorism on September 11 was undoubtedly the product of the warped views of individual fanatics. But fanaticism finds a more receptive following among those who have been rendered so poor, or so desperate, that they have nothing to lose.

     A couple of days ago, I watched a remarkable documentary on CBC’s The National, the first of several being aired in the run-up to September 11. It recounted the story of a Canadian corporate executive who was the last person to get out alive from the second World Trade Tower. He made his way down the stairs from the ninetieth floor, but lost consciousness as the tower collapsed around him. He was eventually saved by passers-by, and pulled to safety.

     Even though he suffered burns all over his body, he is now physically back to normal. But mentally he is, to all intents and purposes, a wreck. He is in a state of clinical depression. He cries at the memory of September 11. He feels vulnerable. Theologically, he is undergoing a long and painful process of conversion.

     A lengthy period of introspection has brought him to a new realization of the value of cooperation at all levels. He described his new awareness of the deficit in his personal values, values that had hitherto disregarded the common good in favor of cutthroat competition. Now he is paying back the loss and healing his memories by giving time to the community and calling for a kinder, gentler world. Would that the same were true of the current Bush administration, which has locked itself into a primitive rhetoric of revenge rather than restitution.

     The anniversary of September 11 calls us all to take stock of our ample larders of privilege and experiment with new menus for personal and corporate frugality in the interests of global solidarity and sustainability. We have accumulated too high a deficit from competitive values. It’s payback time for all of us.

Joanna Manning’s most recent book is Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right published by Crossroad in July. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.

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