Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11: What I Saw Then and What I See Now

I was in Mr. Rose's history class. Looking back, I suppose that the teachers in that wing had collectively decided to let the social studies teacher break the news to us. It seems a little surreal now that I gone through science and English class while planes hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and I remember that algebra class did feel surreal after we knew. I mean, a 13-year-old definitely knows where multiplying matrices ranks against what we know as 9/11.

The next day in English class we wrote short essays about what we were thinking. I had tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be trapped in one of the towers with smoke pouring out of it. I imagined chaos. My teacher disagreed with me. We can't really know how things were in those top floors, so I guess you can imagine it however you like.

I kept a copy of the Harrisburg daily newspaper from September 11, 2001, with a big picture of a fireball countering the clear, blue mid-Atlantic sky. Almost immediately the political cartoons I enjoyed so much depicted comparisons of the terrorist attacks to the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. One showed an eagle sharpening its talons.

Fast forward ten years. I am no longer a teenager imagining a world outside of Central Pennsylvania's hills. I'm in an office on the fourth floor of a North Side Chicago building, working with people of different ethnicities and faiths. I go home to a South Side former Lutheran parsonage where I live with people of different ethnicities and faiths. And when I get the chance, my radio is turned to a station that plays the "Thom Hartman Show", not the "Rush Limbaugh Show".

Guess what? I think of 9/11 a bit differently now then I did 10 years ago.

Whereas the world was impossibly large back then, with people Over There so different than people Right Here, I suppose the world has shrunk a bit. I've had the incredible opportunity to see how similar people really are. And how different they can be.

I learned in my social psychology class in college that what happened in the United States after the attacks--the much-celebrated, post-9/11 unity--was a classic example of rally-'round-the-flag behavior. In-groups and out-groups crystallized as hundreds of thousands of American soldiers went first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq to punish those who were responsible for the carnage--or who could, some day, be responsible for other carnage (see Wikipedia article for Bush Doctrine here).

I now see the damage that some of that behavior caused. I now see how the imperialist West, led by the United States especially in the second half of the 20th century, sowed the seeds of tragic, violent backlash. I now see how oppressive dominant culture can be, especially in stressful times. I see these things because of other things I saw with my own two eyes.

In a loving, seeker-friendly Christian fellowship at college.

In a small, Methodist church in downtown Buenos Aires.

In an old Lutheran church on the South Side that loves well beyond its strict, German heritage.

In the gospel of John, the men who became Jesus' first two disciples followed Jesus because he invited them to "come and see" (1:39). Shane Claiborne worked alongside Mother Teresa because she told him to "come and see" what Calcutta was like (read the story in The Irresistible Revolution).

Seeing isn't believing, but it sure helps.

So what will you see on Sunday when we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11?

I challenge you seek people who are different than you when you remember the attacks. Spend time with people with different shades of melanin, whose first language is different, who calls their god a different name. What you see you may not understand, and that's okay. Just be there, "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love" (Eph. 4:2). After all, what is unity worth when we are all the same?

Do this, and I can guarantee you that you won't be the same. And that, dear friends, is the beginning of what the gospel-writers called metanoia.

Repentance. For the kingdom of heaven is, indeed, at hand.

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