“Patriotism,” says Father Gregory Pine, O.P., “seeks an outlet.” The anniversary of September 11th is perhaps the strongest evidence in our own times of this fundamental fact about patriotism.
Every year on September 11th a genuine outpouring of living memory takes places. Americans across the country recount experiences of that dreadful morning when our country came under attack. They share not only their own personal experiences, but they tap into the shared tradition of others’ experiences.
As I endlessly scrolled through Facebook on this year’s 9/11 anniversary, the story of Todd Beamer continued to pop into my feed. Perhaps you’ve already heard his story. A bit embarrassed to admit, I had not.
The first few times I scrolled past this Todd Beamer post, I paid little attention. As social media has made me apt to do, I was not in the mode or mood to read long posts. I was simply scrolling and clicking on the short and sweet, yet meaningful, posts commemorating that grim morning.
However, after seeing the post shared enough times, I finally decided to stop and read about this Todd character who seemingly everybody was posting about.
This virally shared post transcribed Todd’s conversation with Lisa Jefferson, a GTE phone operator. The conversation is a window into the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 and the heroism of ordinary Americans. (You might take a moment to Google this conversation, since my summary of it won’t do anywhere near the justice it deserves.)
A 32-year old Todd Beamer is recorded describing Flight 93’s situation to Lisa, explaining the number of terrorists hijacking the plane and the box cutter knives with which they did so. At one point in the conversation, Todd asks Lisa whether it is true that two other planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center buildings, to which Lisa replies in the affirmative.
The most heart wrenching moment in the exchange is when Todd, presumably confident that his own life is near its end, asks Lisa to promise that she’ll call his wife, also named Lisa, five months pregnant with their third. Todd wants operator Lisa to communicate how much he loves his wife, how proud he is of his 3-year-old (David) and 1-year-old (Andrew) boys, and how excited he is about their new baby.
After Lisa commits to this promise, she patches through an FBI agent (Agent Goodwin). Todd provides much of the same information he had previously communicated to Lisa. Agent Goodwin proceeds to tell them both that the plane is likely headed to crash into the U.S. Capitol or the White House buildings located a mere 20 minutes out.
Todd then explains to Agent Goodwin and Lisa that several passengers and flight attendants have committed to a plan of action to overtake the hijackers and regain control of the plane.
But before Todd ends the call to execute the plan, he asks Lisa one last favor: to pray with him.
Todd then leads them and others on board the flight with him through the Our Father and Psalm 23.
Todd ends the call by making a final call for God’s assistance and telling the others onboard, “Let’s roll!”
So, what, then, can we learn of patriotism from Todd, an ordinary American hero?
I would say there are three key things, at least, that we can learn from Todd, truths that are reaffirmed by our faith tradition about patriotism.
First, as Pope Saint John Paul II taught us, in his beautiful letter to his fellow Polish countrymen shortly after he was elected to the papacy: “Love of our country… springs from the law of the human heart.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church underscores: “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.”
Second, as a virtue, patriotism most properly belongs under the virtue of justice and more specifically under pietas which pertains to love of neighbor, love of country, love of God. As Joseph Knippenberg explains: “A nation under God acknowledges that it stands under God’s judgment, that its sovereignty is conditional and earthly, not absolute. If our choice is between a nation under God, a nation apart from God, or a nation that is God, piety demands that we adopt the first alternative. Properly understood, ‘God and country’ places the nation under God, where it belongs.”
Third, to return to Father Pine, “patriotism seeks an outlet.” Patriotism must radiate itself through acts of our voluntary will. Patriotism is not satisfied sitting by idly, twiddling thumbs. Nor is patriotism satisfied through cheap action. It demands authentic and demanding action, even unto the point of death.
Todd Beamer did not become a patriot on September 11, 2001. Todd Beamer was a patriot long before that.
The virtue of giving due reverence to God, country, family, and his fellow neighbor was something Todd cultivated through a life of faith. When the moment to live out patriotism most fully came knocking on the door of Todd’s heart, you might imagine Todd also repeated these words of the Psalmist: “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready.”
It’s moments like the anniversary of 9/11 and the heroic witness of ordinary people like Todd Beamer that help us renew our patriotism. It’s these moments that cut through all the division and rancor that daily poison our politics and broader community life and redirect us to a healthy and reasonable love of country.
It’s these moments that we must often return to, through the exercise of our memory, to regularly recall those deepest encounters in our hearts that allow us to see the fullness of reality and what God desires for the political community. It’s these moments where we most deeply glimpse our identity as Christians, as one’s called to lay down our lives for the other.
May Todd Beamer and the 2,995 other victims and heroes of 9/11 rest in peace. May their lives not be in vain and may they help us always be united as one people indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.