9/11/17 Keynote Address, Hopedale, MA 

Remarks at the Hopedale 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony

Thomas A. Wesley

Hopedale Board of Selectman

11 September 2017

Let Us Live to Make Men Free

Some 140 years before 9/11, in the early morning hours of November 18, 1861, Julia Ward Howe crafted the immortal words to one of our countries most beloved standards, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Its’ tune was lifted from an inspirational ode to the abolitionist John Brown but the words flowed from Ms. Howe as if possessed. She was afraid to fall asleep lest her divinely creative muse leave her. 

“As He died to make men Holy, Let us die to make men free.
His truth is marching on.” 

Civil War had engulfed these United States in fury and flame. If the salvation of mankind required the sacrifice of God’s only begotten son then surely the salvation of the Union was owed no less a offering upon the alter of freedom.

Over a number of years, the words to the Hymn were altered. The word “die” was replaced with “live.” “Let us live to make men free.” The origin of the change is unclear but perhaps it reflects a realization that the fight for freedom and justice is more complicated than the mere slaughter of lives. Paraphrasing the great American World War II General George S. Patton, “No man ever won a war by dying for his country. The idea is to have the other guy die for his.”   

But it is more than this. Much more. War should never be the inescapable alternative. At the heart of all conflict is injustice and the absence of simple human kindness. It is not only a refusal to let people in but a commitment to keeping people out. 

The War Between the States ended slavery on paper but we all know the sordid history of race relations in this country that persisted for another century and still persists to this day. The war did not teach us much. 

And this brings us to this ceremony to honor the fallen of September 11, 2001. Today marks the 16th anniversary of that horrible day that changed the lives of all of us. And not for the better. The attack left holes in our lives and in our hearts. It loosed a war with far away peoples and civilizations whose worlds we barely comprehend. Far more lives have been lost in seeking justice than in offering it. Far more treasure has been spent in seeking retribution than in showing kindness.

And this was precisely what we as a people asked our government to do. It has resulted in our nation’s longest war in our history. And this war continues today and I do not feel any more sanguine about the losses that occurred on that beautiful September morning. We have unleashed a mighty force upon our fellow man but the course of history is unaltered. Those who perished in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania are still gone. The beauty of their lives remain torn from us. And they have been met in the afterlife by thousands more casualties in the fields of combat. Met by the innocents we call collateral damage. Met by the refugees who tried to flee but perished instead. Sixteen years later we are no more secure than when we began. I beat that drum of war and retribution as hard as anyone but I feel no satisfaction.  

The most effective way to keep a weed from growing on your lawn is to have healthy grass. A weed cannot take root when the lawn is lush and verdant. But a healthy lawn will be compromised by the unhealthy ones that surround it. It is not enough to have islands of prosperity. It is impossible to keep the weeds out for the long term. Our goal must be to seek to share the prosperity; to find ways of providing for all, not only for some; to lay down the burden of protecting what is ours and recognizing that what any of us has comes not from us but from our creator.

The way lies forward through kindness, justice and humility more than through bloodshed, bullets and bombs. Rather, let us live a life that makes men free

May we have the courage to begin to change the course of human history in our lifetimes. And may we do so in the honor of those whose names are etched upon the marble walls of the 9/11 memorials and on the tombstones of the soldiers and those names blown away in the sand of unmarked graves in the deserts of the Middle East.

May it be so.

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