I wrote this shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001
I have a photograph that I keep put away. It is of a young man who I’ve never met because he died in 1945, 15 years before I was born. It shows a smiling teenager in an army uniform. Although I’ve never met him, he’s not a stranger. There is something in his eyes that is familiar. By looking in his eyes, I see gentleness and intelligence that some day would have matured into wisdom. I know this because they were just like my mother’s eyes.
He was her baby brother who she adored, who she delighted in making laugh so hard that he would roll around on the ground. She told us about him, how he would get up before dawn, before everyone in the house, to light the stove and milk the cows. I heard stories about their days in a little country schoolhouse and how one day my shy mother sassed their teacher because she made her little brother cry.
As my own sons began to approach manhood, It became painful for me to look at that picture. Because it was so tragic that that sensitive, hard-working farm boy, Bernard Polehn, should be violently killed by a machine gun far, far away from home before he even reached the age of 20.
He had to lay down his life like countless others, in other conflicts and other places and times, because there are entities that hate us. They wait in the shadows on other shores and in our own land. Over time one entity will go away, but it will be replaced with another. They patiently wait and watch, obsessed and consumed with desire for our destruction, for us to become complacent and forget that they are there.
It is easy for us to forget they are there because we don’t understand them. It is our nature to live and let live, raise our families, work hard, and mind our own business. It is easy for us to stop being watchful, to slide into the assumption that others are doing the same. We don’t understand why our existence on this planet should inspire some to make it their life’s mission to level as much murder and mayhem upon us that they can muster, some even at the expense of their own lives.
The paradox is that when this greatest of evil strikes, it is always matched and then overtaken by the greatest of love. Jesus, who knew something about the subject, said, “There is no greater love than this, that one should lay down his life for his friends,” John 15:13.
To the possessors of this love, a friend can be a nameless, faceless individual miles away and thousands of feet below them on the ground; a not-yet-born niece; or a fellow New Yorker or Washingtonian.
The greatest of love rushes from safety into a mortally-wounded skyscraper even as others are running away from it. The greatest of love counts not his life, in fact, hastens his own death in a doomed plane out of concern for those on the ground. The greatest of love travels halfway around the world to unfamiliar places and risks his or her life in order to drive back darkness that threatens to cover us all.
Conversely, the greatest of hate imposes oppression and misery on the innocent in the name of God. The greatest of hate feels that strict religious legalism practiced out of fear is preferable to faith that is freely chosen with an open heart. The greatest of hate despises societies that are free, hospitable, open, and trusting. They hate the prosperity that those attributes produce. However, the greatest of hate will exploit those attributes that they despise in order to effectively, patiently, and deliberately carry out plots to vent their hatred. Those with the greatest of hate understand the greatest of love only to the extent that they plan their destructive deeds in such a way as to cause more heros to be forced to sacrifice their lives for others.
The greatest of hate could be defined as the antithesis of the greatest of love. That, however, suggests that there are equal amounts of each, and that isn’t true. Love always has the majority. Those who hate may feel that if they kill enough of the best and the brightest, those who hate will eventually outnumber those who love. They never seem to learn that it doesn’t work that way. Out of ashes, rubble, and tears, love always multiplies and flourishes. It increases from person and person, house to house, and between nations that are oceans apart.
We are daily recipients of precious gifts, provided at unimaginable cost to others, some recently and some of them decades and centuries before we were born. We have all benefitted from the sacrifices of those who possessed the greatest of love. The greatest tragedy of all would occur on the day that we ever forget their example.