I was talking with a colleague who is scheduling some work in south Manhattan. He shook his head and shared, incredulously, that he wanted to come in the second week of September to meet with ecumenical leadership and they wouldn’t do it because of September 11th. He looked at me and said, “Man, why don’t they just get over it!”
The comment took me by surprise. 9/11 is a defining moment for the United States in the 21st century. Not only the day and the tragic event, but major decisions following it that have impacted the entire planet. It is difficult to get over something that is still going on. But there is a larger factor at work for me, and it has to do with our national identity. I guess I’m not sure we have one. The structures of community are so fractured in the United States, and the rampant consumeristic individualism makes any kind of “us” tenuous at best. (Look at the current debate over universal health care. Those who “have” see no value in providing for those who don’t. So long as “us” is cared for, “them” can fend for themselves.) And that is the crux of my friends comment: he’s from Kentucky — 9/11 didn’t happen to him, it happened to “them” (New Yorkers), and because “they” won’t let it go, it inconveniences him.
The same sort of thing happened with hurricane Katrina. In the moment and the immediate aftermath, there was a great outpouring of compassion, aid and support. But that was then, this is now. Forget the fact that entire communities are gone and have yet to be rebuilt. Forget that thousands are still struggling to survive in new and different lives. Forget that recovery work is way behind, and in many places has halted altogether due to lack of funding and relief workers. Katrina was four years ago. “They” should just get over it.
If our faith — both in its Jewish roots and Christian transformation — tells us anything it is this: we are one. There is NO “them.” What happens to the least of these happens to the Christ, and what hurts any of us hurts all of us. For the Jews, sin wasn’t something that a person did wrong, sin was a condition that affected everyone. If one sinned, all sinned. The community, the culture, was only as strong as its weakest member. That is why there is such a strong emphasis in the Hebrew faith on responsibility. When we see someone in trouble and help them, it makes the whole community stronger.
Many Christian leaders today point to the early church as described in Acts 2 as some marvelous aberration. Today, of course it is. We don’t think communally. We operate from an ego-centric entitlement mentality. The only reason one would go to church is because one gets something from it. We don’t go to give or to be, we go in order to get. We want to be taken care of, taught, inspired, comforted, coddled, and conformed. Place too many demands on us, impose expectations, hold us accountable and we will go somewhere else. But in Jesus’ day, and the time immediately following, what is described in Acts 2 was not all that exceptional (except that it centered in the teaching of the apostles). “We” was more important than any “me,” and what defined “us” from “them” was challenged. One of the central tenets of Pauline theology was a global, universal salvation — a movement to eliminate any concept of “them” — neither slave nor free, male nor female, gentile nor Jew, for Jesus destroyed the dividing walls of hostility and ALL could be ONE in Christ.
A few years ago I spent some time with a small group of Jicarilla Apache’s in New Mexico. I was privileged to sit with them in a service of remembrance where they lamented many tragedies from their past, but the focus of the service was on the future. They asked for reconciliation, that they might become one people with the ancestors of those who had taken so much from them, that they might make amends for the violence on both sides in their past, and that in time the “brotherhood” could erase all differences and pain. They engaged in a variety of rituals of remembrance that brought to my mind communion.
Why was it so important to Jesus that the twelve remember? Why did he imprint his life, teaching and mission on them in his final time? I think it is because without memory there is no heart and soul. We lose compassion. We become hard. We see life differently. When we forget, we are made less. Without reminders of who we are, what’s really important, and why we’re here, we end up just drifting through our days.
September 11, 2001 — eight years ago. A long time, and no time. A tragedy both unique and ordinary. Part of the painful shock of that day was the realization that what happened daily to “them” around the world could actually happen to “us.” We came to the shocking conclusion that maybe we weren’t so special, weren’t so different, after all. We had a brief glimpse of the truth that we need each other, and that the only way we can get through these things is together. We may have missed a golden opportunity as a nation to become one with the larger global community in the weeks following 9/11, but we should never forget what a life-changing experience it was and continues to be. It didn’t just happen to the people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and the diverse spots called home by the passengers on the planes and in the buildings. It happened to the human family, it happened to the global community, it happened to all of us and we all should remember — and by remembering we should commit ourselves to find ways to make sure it never happens again — to any of US.