I had been a freshman in college for hardly a month. I first learned of the attacks when I arrived at a morning class, and spent most of the day huddled around a small dorm room television with new friends. We ate takeout Chinese food and sat in silence watching news coverage, except for occasional bursts of reflection or confusion that we would collectively process for a few minutes before returning to the silence. We had arrived on campus a few weeks prior, but Sept. 11, 2001, was the day we truly left home for good.
9/11 is of course one of those generational events in our country for which each of us has a story. Like so many, I revisit mine each year on the anniversary. As a pastor, the fact that Sept. 11 fell on a Sunday this year gave us an opportunity to reflect as a congregation. To be sure, this is a fraught task, for the events of 9/11 and all that has happened since are complicated and mean very different things to different people.
But we did what we do as a church, which is remember. It’s been said that to be a Christian is to be a person of memory. The church is held together by little more than shared memories: the larger memories collected in Scripture that when read a certain way become the story of our faith, but also the local memories of the individual church. And I believe it’s because we remember together so often that the church should be especially aware of how difficult a thing it is to do well.
It’s not enough simply to remember. We must remember well, which means paying attention to how we remember.
The Lord’s Supper is instructive. When we gather at the Lord’s Supper table we don’t simply “remember” that distant night in the upper room; we remind each other how we’re to remember these things: what it all means. We unfold the drama of that night: Jesus gathering with his friends, yes, but friends who would betray him. Jesus offering them a final meal, but not simply a meal: a meal that symbolizes the wider story of his life, death and resurrection. Paul says as much in his instructions to the church in Corinth. He passes on the words of institution — what happened that night — and then tells them what it all means: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
It’s not enough simply to remember; we have to be clear about exactly how we remember, and why, what it all means. Unfortunately, the church also knows well how much pain can be caused when we fail to take this much harder step, or when we fail to do it with integrity. The lowest moments in Christian history come not when Christians fail to remember our story, but when we fail to remember all of it. We remember the empty tomb, but fail to remember the cross. We tell a different story.
I think about this when it comes to remembering the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
We’re constantly urged to “remember” or “never forget,” the events of that day, but I wish we would be more specific in what we’re remembering, and how.
We seldom — at least publicly — move past memories of pain and anger, and if we do, it’s often in service of glossed up, made-for-pregame-show version of the story that seems at odds with reality. “Resilience” seems an odd way to frame a 15-year war.
Is it enough to remember 9/11 as a horrific and almost unspeakable act of violence — the worst terrorist attack ever committed on our nation’s soil? Or is there more upon which we should reflect?
Was it an end or a beginning? Are those two things sides of the same coin? Or is it better understood as part of a long story of worlds colliding?
How does it figure into our current state of hyper-polarization in almost every conceivable vector imaginable? Or our lack of consensus about what it even means to be an American?
Or to take a different line, in remembering the first responders and all the stories of unbelievable sacrifice and courage that we heard of in the aftermath, is it a reminder that the worst of our humanity also has a way of bringing out the best of our humanity?
Do we remember the sense of unity that we felt as a people in the days and weeks that followed? Dare we remember the now remarkable solidarity President Bush showed Muslims the world over in the days immediately after the attack? How he said, “We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
For all our cries to “never forget,” I fear for too many these words have long been forgotten.
As long as there is a United States of America, I feel confident that we will never forget the events of that day and its aftermath. I know I never will. But it’s not enough simply to remember; we must remember well. Otherwise, we tell a different story.