Culture

A Christian Memory of 9/11

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I remember September 11, 2001. I suppose we all do. We all know where we were and what we were doing when the World Trade Center buildings came crashing down in New York City. It was a historical and cultural watershed moment. It was a national crisis.

But it began as an ordinary Tuesday.

I slept in that morning. I had just showered and got dressed when my wife said, “Turn on the TV. You gotta to see this.” I was a 27-year-old youth pastor, serving a congregation in rural South Georgia. I had intended on heading on to church that morning when my wife’s suggestion piqued my interest and I turned on the TV in our living room. Tower 1 was already on fire and the newscasters described how a plane had crashed into the building. I backed up and found a seat, not on the couch, but on the coffee table.

I felt both the gravity and the confusion of the moment. Initially my mind went to denial. I thought, “How could a pilot be so foolish as to fly directly into a building?” Growing up in a middle class family in a midwestern town in the booming prosperity of the 80s and 90s did not prepare me for this experience.

I had just returned from a three-week trip to India where I had led various conferences for village pastors and church planters throughout India. During my trip, I had a conversation with my friend Aby Vargis about the unsettling presence of Indian military at their airports. “You don’t have to worry about terrorism in your country,” my friend said to me, “but we do.” I had intended on staying longer in India for my friend’s wedding. My first itinerary had me flying home from India via Europe on September 11. Had I not changed my travel plans I would have been in the air during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and I would have been diverted to Canada for an indefinite amount of time.

As I continued to watch the live news coverage, the second plane crashed. Then the towers fell. I joined the corporate gasp of my neighbors both near and far. Then I heard the phrase “terrorist attacks.” I sat motionless on the edge of the coffee table staring at the television screen, breathless and stunned.

We Needed to Pray

Our home phone rang and I received word that a former church member had an adult son working in NYC near what had become ground zero and I was asked to pray for him. Yes, prayer. We needed to pray. I gathered up my things and sped off to the church. I turned on the radio in my pickup and listened to the near-panicked radio broadcasters describing the chaos, the debris, the presumed dead, and the first responders doing their best to rescue who they could.

When I arrived at church, a group of people had already gathered for prayer. A number of them were older people, women who had endured the horror of World War II. I could see the panic and fear on their faces. I stood among the group and I opened my Bible. I found Psalm 91 and began to pray. We prayed for the victims. We prayed for New York City. We prayed for the first responders and we prayed for the perpetrators. We called out to God for a grace to sustain us when the earth seemed to be shaking under our feet.

How Will We Remember?

“Never forget” became a national motto after 9/11. Certainly none of us will. The images of collapsing buildings, smoke, fire, and dust-covered faces will remain branded in our collective memories forever. No doubt we will remember, but how will we remember? This question is not for the American “we,” but the Christian “we.” How will we—who have been taught to forgive others their trespasses and love those who position themselves as an enemy—remember 9/11? We could choose to settle our thoughts on the wrongdoing, a path that leads to retaliation, or at least the desire for retaliation in some form. Some followers of Christ have gone this way. I did so in the months that followed 9/11. I applauded the so-called “war on terror,” as a reasonable response to 9/11, not understanding at that time that a war on terrorism is essentially a never-ending war, a giving in to the continuous cycle of retaliation. Our desire for retaliation results in part from transmitting our pain instead of transforming it as Richard Rohr advises. He writes:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity. [1]

War is a way of giving up on humanity, at least a giving up on the life of our perceived enemy. This kind of remembering, a kind of remembering that fuels a desire for retaliation, is not compatible with the way of Jesus. We need a better way to remember. We need to remember rightly.

Remembering that fuels a desire for retaliation is not compatible with the way of Jesus. Click To Tweet

Reconciliation Not Retaliation

Yale Professor Miroslav Volf grew up in Yugoslavia under the rule of communism and his deep Christian faith and commitment to nonviolence caused him to draw suspicion from the communist regime. He was subjected to a long season of intense interrogation by the military. This painful experience presented Volf with personal reasons to understand how Christians rightly remember horrific events in the past. In his book The End of Memory, Volf advocates for a kind of remembering that leads to reconciliation not retaliation. How do Christians remember rightly? We review our memories through the memory of Christ. Volf writes:

From the Christian standpoint, to remember rightly wrongs that we have suffered is to remember them through the lens of the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection. [2]

Volf offers us a helpful way of transforming painful memories. We do not forget the tragedy of 9/11. Rather we allow those painful memories to be transformed by Christ so that the pain is not transmitted to others. A Christian memory of 9/11 is decidedly Christian if it is seen through the lens of the cross and empty tomb of Christ. When we see the perpetrators of evil through the eyes of the crucified Christ, we can see our shared humanity and our shared sinfulness. We can see them as the object of God’s love, just like us.

A Christian memory of 9/11 is seen through the lens of the cross and empty tomb of Christ. Click To Tweet

In Jesus, we worship the God who took the evil, sin, violence, and pain of the world into the very flesh of Christ and died. This death for sin allowed for the final condemnation of sin as it was left in death. Jesus rose triumphantly over death and sin returning evil, sin, violence, and pain with nothing more than forgiving love.

Volf writes:

To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. [3]

If we return evil for evil, hate for hate, then evil and hate live on in triumph. If we follow Jesus in his death-burial-resurrection-life, reconciliation and healing become possible through of the triumph of Jesus.

If we return evil for evil, hate for hate, then evil and hate live on in triumph. Click To Tweet
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[1] https://cac.org/transforming-our-pain-2016-02-26/
[2] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 103-104.
[3] Volf, 9.

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