The crash of the Towers and the crash of the Market are the two defining crises of my generation — and both took place on the small plot of land I call my home.
Remembering the Crashes
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I fulfill the unwritten, almost sacred, Tribeca weekend ritual: dad takes baby to coffee shop. After coffee, I sit by a duck pond in our Lower Manhattan neighborhood with my 1 year old son — and we stare.
We stare at the icons of these crashes. The World Trade Tower, a mirror for the blue sky with its 1,776 feet of vertical lines converging upward like an infinite path to the heavens. And one block away, the Goldman Sachs building, an impressive, if sterile, jaunt of trading floors and conference rooms behind arcs of smokey glass and silver panel. I stare and I wonder.
How have we been shaped by these crashes?
A crash often has the power to de-script us. It grabs our attention and calls into question the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our lives. If we open up, a crash can serve as a cautionary tale, signaling to us that something is rotten in the state — the state of our mind or heart, our family, our work, or if we scale out, our Republic. But if we close off, we are doomed to repeat them again.
A crash has the power to pop us out of illusions — illusions of control, safety or happiness. I see this all the time as a pastor in New York City. The crash of a discovered affair shatters an illusion of intimacy and calls into question the story a couple is living. The crash of children who grow increasingly out of our control, calling into question the power we wield in other spheres. The crash of expectations shattered, and the lingering disappointment and bitterness that settles into relationships. Here we face a critical choice.
Crashes can be transformed into gifts when they help us wake up to the truth of founding lies. They scream at us, insisting that our sense of safety and happiness has not been rightfully earned, it has not been purchased by the capital of our hard work or the dynamism of our dreams alone.
The founding lie calcifies into an illusion when we refuse to seriously entertain one question. How does a dream for us, become a nightmare for someone else?
The Cries Behind Crashes
Behind many crashes are cries — cries that reflect back to us the nightmare of someone’s oppression or exploitation, across town or around the world. Our world is shrinking through globalization and the information age, assuring that these cries will only become more intense and more frequent. To entertain the questions posed by these cries requires profound courage, vulnerability and empathy.
But we don’t always have the courage to process our crashes. We settle for that low form of human existence known as complaining. We search for someone to blame. Some person. Some group. Some country. Someone. Anyone. So long as we can avoid the difficult look at ourselves. Rather than allowing ourselves to be de-scripted, we double down on the stories we’ve grown to love.
We double down on our militarism and the promise of the new security state. We double down on our capitalism and the therapeutic ways we purchase identity. We double down on technology, hoping we can innovate our way out of trauma.
We sit now, on the verge of a potential third crash, a political crash (are these coming in 7 year cycles?). As our politicians and social media posts blame, demonize and identity politic their way forward, we show as a culture that we haven’t had the courage to collectively process our crashes. We have ignored and perhaps are becoming a cautionary tale.
But it’s not too late for change.
It was Bobette Buster, film professor at US and story guru who explained to a group of us packed into the old Tribeca Cinema, that “we always have a choice whether our story will become a cautionary tale or whether we will respond with courage and become fully alive.”
“Stories are driven,” she continued, “by how we face our deepest fear.” The temptation each of us face is to become distracted by surface fears. Fear of a plane exploding into a building. Fear of my portfolio getting sucked into a rushing vortex of red. Fear of an immigrant taking my job. Fear of a police officer abusing their power. Surface fears have the potential to distract our energy toward surface solutions.
But perhaps we miss that deeper, illusive fear, the haunting subtext of our prosperity reflected back to us in this question: are the problems we face as a nation our own making?
Some will say responsibility is always more complex than this, and they are probably right. But it was a wise Galilean peasant who once said that before we point out the speck in our neighbor’s eye, we should remove the log from our own.
Healing in Our Land
Maybe we cannot and will not experience healing in our land until we take a long hard look at our national story, taking responsibility for ourselves and making peace with those for whom the American dream has become nightmare.
Until we reconcile ourselves with the nightmare of the Native American genocide.
Until we reconcile ourselves with the nightmare of the exploitative slave-economy that dehumanized African-Americans and continues to disadvantage them to this day.
Until we reconcile ourselves with the nightmare of Main St., living in the shadow of the concentrated wealth of big banks and trans-national corporations, leaving small town, working class people less important to the national economy, replaced increasingly by the mobile creative class.
Until we reconcile ourselves with the way America has gone about securing its economic and national interests abroad, securing its status through the nightmare of arms races and occupations.
Until we wake up and acknowledge the connections between the way America has brokered power in the name of a dream and the ensuing nightmares for those on the underside of that power, we will be doomed to a never ending cycle of crashes.
In the Hebrew bible the cry of the poor and oppressed rises up to the heavens and God is said to both listen and respond to that cry. Prophets like Moses rise up and speak the truth to powers like Pharaoh. When the powers refuse to listen, fail to self-reflect, and instead double down on the stories that brought them to power, we see crashes.
We see the Hebrew prophets continually speak the difficult truth to their own power brokers. They insist that to ignore the cry of the poor and to under prioritize justice, inevitably leads to disaster on the horizon.
As I stare at these two symbols of American pain and glory, I wonder to myself, “Who are the prophetic voices of our time? Who is speaking truth to American power? Who is pressing us to listen to the cries represented by these crashes? And who is helping us re-script in the face of our de-scripting.”
I write and reflect as a Christian pastor, as a resident of New York City, and as an American citizen. We all need to mine our traditions for resources to face this present moment. As roughly 70% of Americans claim Christian identity, I believe there is disproportionate opportunity for fresh ways of engaging this tradition for our present challenges.
As a Christian and a pastor, I believe this is a moment for the Church to reconnect with its prophetic heritage. It is a moment for us to reconnect in fresh ways with the dream Jesus called the “kingdom of God”. It is a time to let what Jesus called blessed in the Beatitudes to influence what we invoke when we say “God bless America”. It is a time to feel the real tensions between Jesus’ dream and the dreams of both the political Right and Left.
Ours is a time to face our fears — fears unique to the over and underside of American power. It is a time reconcile. To reclaim the foundational enemy love Jesus calls his disciples to practice. To experiment with and gain competency in the virtues of forgiveness and restitution. There is still hope. It is not too late. All is not lost. But until we learn to listen to the cries behind our crashes we will never be able to know the dream that refuses to be someone else’s nightmare.