A History Beyond Comprehension

Schools are trying to teach the story of September 11, 2001. But like all historical events, the knowledge cannot touch the real experience.

I was in a middle school classroom in Birmingham, AL on Wednesday afternoon September 11, 2019, observing a wonderful after school program called SpeakFirst. As a part of this session, a young man read aloud his brief paper about what happened on that same day in 2001.

As he read, a young lady in the group said, “WHY do you want to keep reminding us of such a sad and depressing day in history?” I asked her why she did not want to hear about a historical event that was so important to our country.

“We’ve been learning about it all day. But hearing about things like that just makes me really sad and want to cry,” she shared.

It is certainly encouraging that these students are learning vital history, and I consider it a blessing that such events can still bring a heartfelt reaction from this up-and-coming generation. It is also a stark reminder of how far we are from the actual events of a disastrous day in the life of the United States.

No matter how well we teach it, we can never fully impart the flood of emotions that poured over us that day. And it may be decades before anyone can adequately gauge the impact that 9/11 had on the attitudes and actions of the American people during the years that followed.

I was sitting at my desk at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church that morning when our office manager, Tina Meiggs, received a call from her oldest daughter. Something had happened to the World Trade Center in New York and we rolled an old TV cart with a set of rabbit ears into the office.

We tried to work and listen to find out what was happening. Then the second plane flew into the South Tower. Minutes later, we watched in absolute shock when that tower collapsed. Then the Pentagon, and then Flight 93.

Then we knew.

Camden County, North Carolina might as well be on the other side of the moon from New York City. The tallest building in our little corner is a grain silo. Most of us did not know a soul anywhere close to the twin towers, yet it felt like we watched one of our neighbor’s homes collapse.

Sitting at home that afternoon, my wife turned to me and said, “For the first time, I am genuinely scared for our country and our safety.” That kind of fear can hardly be described in a history lesson. You only understand it when you live it.

As a pastor, my work and my counseling time suddenly took a drastically different direction. I was confronted with church members and dear friends who just had to talk about what happened. So many of these conversations centered around confusion and disillusionment, as we wondered what to do next. Hardest of all, I fielded numerous questions based on the very primal and natural emotion of fear.

More than questioning God in those early days, most of us battled an overwhelming sense of fear. We debated cancelling the youth trip to Busch Gardens. We talked about changing our plans for mission trips. We pondered how to address the issue in worship without letting the fear of the moment grip us and define us.

As it often does, the fear threatened to drift towards anger, hate, and a great deal of misunderstanding. Students in our church youth group asked how we could possibly love people who would do such things. A teacher in school told them that this was all predicted by Nostradamus, and they asked how a man could know more than God! Some eventually asked if it was true that God was punishing America for abortion and homosexuality.

Deep down, they knew the truth, just as we adults did when the waves of anger and rage and revenge crashed over our souls. When fear takes root, however, it leads to all kinds of conclusions that have little or nothing to do with the gracious truth of a living God.

Every generation has at least one “never forget where I was” moment. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster. 9/11 is certainly on that list and may be THE moment for my generation. But 9/11 is hardly history. Even the most faithful and spiritual need to stay aware of the ongoing challenges it presents.

We lost so much on that day, both the tangible and the intangible. What should truly scare us is the absence of forgiveness and trust, and the very real presence of hatred and ongoing fear. While these are understandable, they are not healthy. And they are not Christian.

In the minds of some people, 9/11 justifies their fear and hate of Muslims and other religions. We may feel compelled to look warily at people of color, foreign languages, immigrants, and anything that ventures outside what we deem to be “regular” Americans. These base emotions drive us to act in our own self-interest and cling to what we have and what we know.

Unfortunately, the ideal of following Christ propels us to move beyond our fear, and well beyond our self-interest. We are given a Spirit of love rather than fear (2 Timothy 1:7). We are encouraged to think of others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We are to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves, including those that do not look like/act like/believe like we do (Matthew 22:39-40, Luke 10:27-29).

We know all this. We know these slightly proof-texted verses I cite, probably just a bit less than a Christian knows John 3:16. And we still find this incredibly difficult to follow. I say “we” in the fullest sense of the word here. This is not intended to be some scolding reprimand of others who fear Muslims or immigrants. I battle my bias and fear daily, in the hope that the Spirit of Christ will drive me to overcome those all-to-human reactions.

Next year, the United States is set to lower the number of legal refugees to 18,000, while allegedly allowing cities or states to refuse them. Part of loving our neighbors involves recognizing and empathizing with their struggles. As fearful as 9/11 made us, it pales in comparison to people fleeing the war, violence, religious persecution, disease, or famine that they face in their countries.

If our fear and rage of 18 years ago drives us to clamp down and close our hands to the most vulnerable among us, then the terrorists won with one horrible shot. The answer to terror is not to be terrified. It is to struggle and strive and claw our way towards reacting in faith, against all logical odds.

The hardest lesson to both teach and learn in a post-9/11 world is that we must look intently at our past while acting boldly and faithfully in the future. That young lady in Alabama is correct—the past is sad and hard and brutal, and it can easily cause us to lash out in a rampage of natural human emotion.

But Christ was not defeated by the cross, and certainly not in the rubble of the twin towers. If anything, now is the time to stand more firmly than ever in a Spirit of faith and speak out on behalf of those that Jesus loves, including those who follow other religious traditions.

We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves and tell them that they are not allowed in unless they come to the back door. Christ does not love people from a distance, and we cannot say that we are loving as Jesus first loved us if we push people away.

My hope is that those children who learn about 9/11 will gain the most valuable lesson: that the hard lessons of the past teach us to be better and do better, so that we do not repeat such lessons in the future. I pray that they will always love others, especially those who may not love you back. I pray that they will continue to love and learn to forgive those that do them harm.

May we be the ones who set that example for them. May we all learn to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), particularly in a post-9/11 America.

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