I don't feel it's over even now. You see, there was no closure, as they say. In
other deaths, I felt it was time to now affirm life and continue life. But here
it is as if it all froze at the moment of death. It is a moment of death that
remains. It remains to this day. I knew I had to stand before it as long as it
takes to see where this was taking me, because it has changed me, and I know it
will continue to change me.
[As a priest, were you comforted by your faith?]
As I looked at that scene of horror, the people jumping, the people running
away, the building falling, the flames, the explosions, was I consoled in some
way by my faith that I was here seeing the passage to another kind of life? No,
no, a thousand times, no. I didn't even think of it. I had to see it. I was
dominated, seized by the event, that's all. No interpretation. No consolation.
Just the reality. Later, later, the question emerges and faith comes in. But
not at that moment, no.
[The image of the man and woman who held hands as they jumped from the
window. ... Do you think about where they might be?]
I think they are in the hands of the love that is the ultimate reality about
human life, the love of which those two hands held together as they jumped from
the window. The love of which those two hands are a revelation, a sign, a brief
insight. ... I think they are there. It doesn't matter how one imagines it.
Imagine it the way you want. That's the great thing about it, the way you want,
but they're holding hands. ...
To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of
hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about.
The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it
show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred
and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself
that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a
possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a
choice. It's the choice of Sept. 11. ...
[What did you learn about evil?]
As a priest, I deal with good and evil all the time. Well, first of all, as a
human being, I live good and evil all the time, within me. As a priest, it's my
business. I hear confessions, I give spiritual advice. I deal with moral issues
all the time. So each time I recognize myself in all sides of the problems that
come to me ... in human situations. And as an intellectual, as a theologian, I
study it. I have read the history of the great debates about what is good and
what is evil, how are these related throughout the history of thought. Great
issues, great problems, all that.
But 9/11 was different. There was a reality present, something about it that
was different. And I thought, what can it be? Is it the magnitude of this? Or
the number of people? The explosion, the drama of it? Was it the incessant
looking at it on television? No, no, I tried all these things, but there was
more. There was more I had to pay attention to. I thought, take the Holocaust
for example, from the point of view of magnitude and of horror. In that sense,
it's unimaginable. And yet, Hitler at least hated a concrete people. He hated
the Jews. He wanted to destroy all Jews. In fact, in order to somehow make it
possible, he had to deny their humanity so he could wipe them out.
But here there were Jews present, there were Christians, there were Buddhists,
there were atheists, there were Muslims. There were rich, there were poor.
There were CEOs, there were waiters. There were newlyweds, there were widowers.
It was humanity. The twin towers, the whole region is an affirmation of human
dreams, of human ambition, of human desire, of the hope of human progress, of
human struggle for survival.
It's humanity, and that had to be destroyed because this was hatred for
humanity that inspired this deed. I don't know the people who did this, how
they rationalized it or explain it away. It's beside the point. I was watching
hatred for humanity. ... I am human too. I was in those buildings. We were all
in those buildings being human beings. And this was the depth of it.
And I knew that there was one human way to respond: It was to stare at it, to
face it, not to go away, above all, not to look for explanations. Certainly, no
philosophical, theological, or religious explanations; even less, political,
economic, foreign policy, the Palestinian problem, American foreign policy,
conspiracies. Immediately the whole "Yes, but" brigade came out to explain it
all away. And I knew that would be a betrayal of reality. ... The cause here is
a passionate hatred of humanity. ...
It was not Jews, it was not Christians, it was not Westerners, it was not
Easterners. There were all of these people at the World Trade Center. ... What
did they have in common? Their humanity. That was their offense. That was the
object of their hatred. This was hatred of the human.
What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the
floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be,
all we can appeal to. It's our safety net. ... But here, the more you show your
humanity, the more you're hated. I've never seen anything like this. And I saw
To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It's an
offense against the reality of what happened -- an offense against our humanity
-- to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic
explanations. "Oh, it's American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our
shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the
cultural wars. It is American imperialism." All of that is proposed by the
"Yes, but" brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is
obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of
humanity which is what we all have in common. It's our line of defense, our
only one. And now that was gone. ...
The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don't know
what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died
with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes,
they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the
worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less
evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere,
it would be a terrible thing, but ... it is the sincerity, it is the free will.
I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of
humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center.
This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the
horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. ...
[Do you believe that evil is inside or outside us?]
Well, for me, evil is certainly the worst we are capable of, but it is more.
The deepest experience of it, and even in me, where else can I examine it but
in the terrible, frightening possibilities I see within myself? There is a
dimension at that depth of the worst that we can do, a dimension of being part
of a larger reality, of being part of a rebellion that didn't start with you,
or coincides with you, but that is more. It extends beyond your possibilities
or even your existence. You can give it names, you can draw little horns on it;
these are human attempts. The experience behind it is the experience of a kind
of anti-solidarity, a force of nothingness. And it can only be expressed in
that kind of language. Not in philosophical language, but in an experiential
language, in stories, in poems. It's inside. ...
That is why in this case, for all the horror, for all the fear, you know what's
the worst part? I can't separate myself totally from the people who did this.
... When I think or talk about evil, I of course refer to the worst that I
could possibly imagine someone doing to me, or me doing to someone. The worst
things that human beings can do, and I as a human being have that capacity. The
worst things we could do, not only individually, but collectively as human
beings. But I think there is more. ... I experience more.
I experience, beyond that, that there is a dimension of participating in a
force, in a rebellion, in a hatred that goes beyond you and me as individuals
and even beyond us collectively. That it is a rebellion against existence
itself, not just humanity now, but existence that has preceded us. A force.
Does it have a personality to it? Is it a personal force? ... Is it someone? I
would rather save the word "person" for human beings. I don't want to use words
beyond the necessary "force" to indicate "beyond us," because words belong to
what exist. Words are supposed to carry existence, to carry something, to
indicate something, to be a form of communication, of relationship. This force
is the very heart of anti-relationship. Oh, yes, that too was the face of that
day, that horrible day.
[What have been the challenges to you as a priest?]
From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that
fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything
was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I
recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my
life, it's my vocation, it's my existence. I'd give my life for it; I hope to
have the courage. Therefore, I know it.
And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense,
instinct, whatever, passion -- because religion can be a passion -- the same
passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that
that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did
it did it in the name of God, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised. It only
confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.
I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don't
hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you
might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the
permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity,
that which is different -- these are characteristics of religion. And I knew
that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no
greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the
My friends in the business, religious leaders, we all took to the streets to
try to salvage something of it. Funny, suddenly every government official
became a religious leader, reassuring us that all religions are for peace. I
understand. It was embarrassing. And now I think we have a religious duty to
face this ambivalence about religion, and to do something about it. To promote
that which makes it a constructive force and to protect us from that which
makes it a destructive force. ...
If I thought what we saw on Sept. 11, the dreadful and horrible possibilities
of religion, were the only face of religion, I assure you I'd take off this
collar. There is another face -- maybe harder to see after Sept. 11 and what
has followed it -- but it's there. I see it every Sunday. The parish where I
work is not far from the World Trade Center. The Lower East Side, 90 percent
Hispanic. Poor people, many affected by death in the World Trade Center. And
yet they weren't asking the great difficult questions about why, or the nature
They don't have time for that. They have to struggle to live every day. And in
that struggle, which somehow embraced even that terrible day, their religion,
their church, their parish stands for life, stands for hope, stands for home.
It's sustains them. It helps them. It's not their opium, as Marx would say. On
the contrary, it encourages them to struggle, not to give up, not to surrender.
They are poor, but they know, they experience, they feel that each one of them
has a link with an infinite mystery. No need to worship any other source of
power, economic power, political power -- that they have a dignity that cannot
be taken away from them. ...
I mean, in Latin America, which is my ethnic background, the religion has been
the force that has sustained the drive for justice and liberty of millions. I
mean, their statues, Our Lady and so forth, it's because no matter how poor, no
matter how weak, they have come to believe and experience it. Each one of them
has a link with the infinite, with that very same mystery in the name of which
people kill and hate. They experience that link, that mystery, as the source of
their dignity and of the dignity of others. ... And when people disappear,
their loved ones, when death occurs, they imagine them resting in the arms of
that mystery of absolute love. That's my daily fare. I see that every day. I
saw it within hours of the World Trade Center. Everybody saw something of it on
This is the other face of religion. It's the same religious passion. The same
desire for infinity. How can this be? How can it be these two opposed things? I
don't know, but then maybe human passion I guess is like that. But this one,
this is the most powerful one. And so after Sept. 11, and much of what
followed, it is very difficult to see this, the face of love in the face of
religion. We cannot forget it. It alone, I believe, has the strength to face
the other face of religion. ...
When I saw this other face of religion in my parishioners as a reality, with
concrete names, I knew I had to hang onto it. I had to be with them. I needed
my parishioners, because the other was so destructive that I felt it threatened
my own life, the sincerity of everything I had said, or preached, or done. And
then they were there, and telling me, ... because I would ask them difficult
questions, and they would look at me and it was so beautiful. They were
suddenly ministering to me. And it's an amazing thing and a beautiful thing and
I knew that it was as much that reality to which I had devoted my life as that
And so I don't understand, but I know this, it is this power to sustain the
poor that I want my religion to be. ...
Time has passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and life has returned to normal, only
that the normal now contains, still as an open wound, an open window into
mystery. What happened that day -- those bodies, fire, the airplanes crashing,
relentlessly again and again. The people running away, the horror in the faces
of those who were seeing this. All of that in the name of God, the very same
God which, but a few blocks away, was sustaining the hope and the courage of my
parishioners, the poor Hispanics of the Lower East Side. They too were
appealing to God, appealing to God to console me. They were ministering to me.
And since then until now, forever I'll be faced with those two faces of God.
Two faces of the mystery. Two faces of religion. And I know, of course, what I
have to choose. I hope I have the friends and support of people who would stop
me if they see me ever moving into the direction that may open the slightest
bit of the door to the God of destruction and hatred.
Which is the true face of religion? I keep asking myself. Which is the true
face of God? I don't think there are two Gods, I think there is only one God.
Which is the true face of God? Well, I don't know, I only know this: I will
never worship a God that doesn't reveal itself as humility, as poor. That's how
I have changed, and I hope I will be faithful to it until it's my turn to
disappear into the mystery.
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