Remembering well: 9/11 reflections from a captain turned priest

September 10th, 2015

We are never safe. As a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force, I was assigned the task of performing my base’s vulnerability assessment in August of 2001. It was thought to be a trivial task because in the post-Cold War era, it was ludicrous to think anyone would attack a target on US soil. There will always be enemies at the gate, disease in our midst, natural disasters coming out of nowhere and embolisms lying dormant in our brains. To assume we can make ourselves safe is folly. To chase after security as our greatest good is idolatry.

We are never alone. Augustine wrote City of God in response to Rome being sacked. Instead of asking why God let that tragedy take place, he thanked God for preserving the survivors. God does not protect us from suffering; God helps us through it. Bonhoeffer said “only a suffering God can help,” and lucky for us, Jesus suffered more than anyone for our sake. I suppose that is why we call it Good Friday; no matter what we are going through, Christ is with us.

We are never innocent. The 9/11 terrorists did not attack the National Cathedral or the National Archives, our symbols of Christianity and democracy. They destroyed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the heart of the American military-industrial complex. Having been on the front lines of that complex, and having seen how American greed and arrogance exploited and demeaned other cultures, I can understand the terrorists’ frustrations and anger. I still condemn their actions.

We are never beyond redemption. I have seen more grace in combat zones and prisons than I have in churches. People can change, and God always works through the unworthy.

Violence begets violence. Gandhi said it best when he observed that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Vengeance for 9/11 leads to vengeance for drone strikes. The innocent are always collateral damage as well as the justification for more violence. As Martin Luther’s contemporary Erasmus said, “No one ever wages a Just War.”

Sometimes love begets violence. Martyrdom in the strictest sense is “witness,” and it is rarely pretty or reasonable, but it is the Gospel. If death gets the last word, then loving our enemies is noble idiocy. However, if the Resurrection is true, then courageous, loving, non-lethal resistance is the most appropriate Christian response to violence.

Love anyway. It is better to live as a fool for Christ than as an executioner for justice. We rarely learn this lesson until it is too late, which is why we have more soldiers killing themselves than being killed in combat.

Reconciliation begins within. Go to at 10am Eastern Time on Friday and listen to my friend and fellow veteran priest, David Peters, deliver his award-winning reconciliation sermon from Ground Zero.

Be gentle with yourself.  In my experience as a priest who has been on both sides of the rite of reconciliation, God forgives rather easily; it is we who have the toughest time with letting go of our sins.

Reconciliation can’t be done alone. As written in James, faith without works is dead. At some point our outward lives need to reflect our inward transformations. Get to know a soldier. Get to know a Palestinian. Go to an interfaith event.

Be gentle with others.  Life is hard for everyone. This took me a long time to understand as a kid raised in trailer parks looking over fences at people in mansions. Rich, poor, black, white, male, female, Jew, Gentile, Muslim, Cubs fan, Patriots fan: suffering is part of all our lives. Compassion comes much easier when this is our basic assumption.

Never forget. Memory is a kind of immortality. It is no wonder the Process Theologians couch life after death in the memory of God. To remember, especially through story, is to sustain, to resurrect and to commune with those who have gone before us.

Remembering is a process. In Tim O’Brien’s classic collection The Things They Carried, he says, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” The past, or at least how we relate to the past, is fluid like storytelling. For the first five years following 9/11, all I could remember was the anger. Since then, all I can recall is the grief. Perhaps someday all I’ll remember will be the presence of God.

Christians remember well. Christ taught us the power of anamnesis: the ability to remember deeply and to recollect performatively. Anamnesis collapses time so that we all may participate in the work of the Trinity and the saints. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Word and Sacrament bind us to past and future; we remember and we are remembered. Take communion today and join with that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to the banquet table of everlasting life.

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