A Sermon in Response to 9/11: The
Price Tag of Fairness
by Melvin D. Schmidt
Melvin D. Schmidt, pastor of Hyattsville
(Maryland) Mennonite Church, preached this sermon on September
16, 2001. He and Charlotte had just returned from a three-month
sabbatical in Indonesia.
We were getting on the train in Semarang, bound for Jakarta,
and needed some help with our bags. I had stacked them just outside
the coach we were boarding. We had taken the same train ride
before, and knew that we must be ready with about Rp. 3,000 for
the porter. After he stowed our luggage, I offered the porter
the usual tip. He refused, demanding more. So I offered him Rp.
5,000. He refused that too. He said I must pay him Rp. 15,000.
I was shocked, not only concerning the amount of his demand,
but also concerning the fact that he was making a demand on me
at all. We had tipped our porters Rp. 3,000 or Rp. 5,000 several
times and had never had a problem.
So I dug around in my wallet for Rp. 15,000. The closest I could
come was Rp. 20,000. I ended up giving him almost seven times
the normal amount. Several rows back, an Indonesian businessman
saw this incident unfold. He rose from his seat, came up to me
and addressed me in perfect English. "I know this doesn't
seem fair to you. I usually pay Rp. 3,000 to the porters when
I make this Jakarta run, and they are happy with it. But you
are an American. They will not be happy with such a small amount
from you. What you paid seems unfair to you, but really, it is
fair. You paid him less than two dollars. Wouldn't you have tipped
any porter in America two dollars or more for stowing those same
bags? I have often traveled in the United States, and I know
how tipping is done there."
I received an important lesson from this incident. Why am I connecting
this small incident on a train in Semarang with the national
tragedy we face today? I am suggesting that some of the same
dynamics are at work in both incidents, although admittedly on
vastly different scales. The Asians perceive us Americans to
have had a free ride for close to fifty years. We bombed the
daylights out of the Vietnamese for twenty-one years, with hardly
any hint of damage to ourselves besides the cost of the bombing
itself plus fifty thousand US military casualties, compared to
the millions of innocent citizens, many of them women and children,
that were killed by our bombs and our napalm in Vietnam. For
the past ten years we have been continuing our bombing runs in
Iraq with total impunity. I have not heard of a single US casualty,
yet our country has been raining terror upon countless Iraqi
To Asians and Middle Easterners, the loss of five or ten or even
twenty thousand lives, two skyscrapers and one small section
of the Pentagon does not seem like an unspeakable price to pay.
The Asians and Middle Easterners have lived with infinitely greater
losses inflicted by our country upon them.
However, to Americans, the meltdown of the World Trade Center
and the attack on the Pentagon are unspeakable crimes. One radio
commentator said that on September 11, 2001 America suffered
the most casualties on American soil that it has ever suffered
since the Civil War almost one hundred and fifty years ago. That
observation makes this crime seem unspeakable, yet it also expresses
a fact of history: the United States has been involved in two
world wars, plus the Korean War, plus the Vietnam War, plus the
Gulf War, plus dozens of other minor conflicts, and has never
had to pay any price in significant civilian casualties or the
disruptions usually associated with the wars. As a people, we
have not had to pay the price for the wars in which we have participated.
These facts of history are not lost upon those who hate America.
We should never underestimate the profound convictions that these
people carry in their hearts. The people who boarded the four
flights last Tuesday morning with box cutters in their pockets
did so with a commitment to serving justice. We think of them
as misguided hoodlums. They thought of themselves as martyrs.
They believed that God has a special place reserved in heaven
for them because of what they were undertaking to do.
Someone asked the American poet laureate about suggesting an
appropriate poem on which to meditate in these terrible times.
He said, "You won't do any better than the Psalms."
I believe he is right. I meditated on Psalm 11:2, 3: "Look
how the wicked bend the bow and fit their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. If the foundations
are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" This ancient
text accurately describes terrorism. It acknowledges the fact
that terrorism has a terrible price tag attached to it. Terrorism
not only kills people. Terrorism destroys the foundations of
society, and when those foundations are destroyed, what can the
God, from the midst of calls for the unleashing of hate,
We call upon you who have called yourself LOVE.
From within the billowing clouds of smoke
We seek you, the light of the world.
From the blood-stained streets of Washington and New York
We seek you, the creator and sustainer of life.
From the nonstop media bringing us the calls for war from our
We seek you, O God, who leads us to the kingdom of peace.
Our prayer today is for the church
And for those who are called to be your people.
Our prayer is for remembrance, not only of those who have given
But for remembrance of your word, your immutable truth.
"They that take up the sword shall perish by the sword."
"Make friends quickly with your adversary, lest you both
"Love your enemy; pray for those who despitefully use you."
We pray today for those who seek to destroy us,
Even as they may be making plans for yet another attack upon
We pray that they may see the folly of escalating the violence.
Lead them, O God, into other understandings of your will and
For they believe that they are pleasing you in their violent
Our prayer for our leaders is the same as our prayer for our
Lead George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice as they contemplate
The response our nation must make.
We pray that tragedy may not be compounded with yet another tragedy.
Even in this dark night of the soul
We light our small candles for peace.
Even while we hear the rumblings of war
We listen for the still small whisperings of your Spirit.
May we heed your call to love.
May we seek the path to peace.
We pray in the name of the Prince of peace. Amen.