[Now it has been ten years since I first published this piece. It remains, by far, the most read piece I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word, they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and consider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. Perhaps, also, in this moment when the Gulf coast is reeling from two batterings by hurricanes and humankind has been humbled before it that we might reconsider whether we can afford to be one anothers’ worst enemies much longer.]
So what are you readers doing to remember 9-11? A few weeks ago our church led in a community wide presentation on a Sunday evening with joint choirs and full orchestra as a remembrance of 9-11. It was inspiring, somber, reflective and hopeful. I expect that this year will be an especially somber time for our nation as we mark a decade since that terrible day. It has been one of the most challenging decades of our nation’s history.
One of the most intriguing books I have read in recent years is Rodney Clapp’s Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction. It really is not, mostly, a book about Johnny Cash. It is about the religious, cultural and political ambiguities of the American psyche that were embodied in the life of Johnny Cash. One of the points he made was that whereas the center of community life in New England was the public square, as expressed in the parade, in the South, the center of life became the church, and the great public event was the revival.
The result of this caused the church to bear all the weight of life, public and private. It was the center of its members’ lives in a way that did not play out the same in the Northeast. Therefore, patriotism also had to find its way into the church and live there. I have thought about this a great deal since reading it, wondering if we do not suffer greatly from the diminishment of shared public life so well-chronicled in recent years. More and more, we live disconnected from our fellow citizens, isolated into interest groups, religious ghettos and our homes with their entertainment centers. It’s hard to get us all together. Even churches need to get out in God’s wider world sometimes…
In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life (I know, how DID it take so long!). I was truly inspired by the experience. In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, butlooking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot where Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart. I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address. I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.
So as we come toward the tenth anniversary of 9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together. I wonder what our remembering will be? It is still so recent that it might tempt us to re-engage the anger and harder emotions, the disbelief and outrage and fury at human evil.
Or we might just be enervated. Last year, I read Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man, which tells of various characters who were in the buildings that day and cannot seem to get past the tragedy that has suffocated their past and replaced it with a spiritual limbo. At a critical moment, the main character comes upon a performance artist in a harness who re-enacts a man falling from one of the buildings repeatedly, reminiscent of the terrifying photograph of the same name that so defined the horror of that day.
There is another place to go—and it is remembering. Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life. If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.
I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death. She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life. My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all. I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end. However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while. But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.” He was comforted by this.
We do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes. To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory. Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant. Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners. They’re God’s problem now. I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz. He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.” Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting. Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.
Ritual and worship are powerful, too. When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us. Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:
Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship. Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and discouragement. The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV). The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement. We allow ourselves into the presence of others. We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers. We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship. But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church. There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.
I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too. As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.
Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church. They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos. God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized. It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.
I will go to all the 9-11 gatherings I can attend to be with my fellow citizens, forget whether they are a Tea Party Republican or Yellow Dog Democrat, rich or poor, black, white or recent immigrant, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic.
It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are Christians that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history. We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember. And the remembering will help heal our souls.
I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say. The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece. Remember, so that we might be one day healed.