Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering and Shaking Free from Memory

It's an awful sort of anniversary.

I've been reading posts today about where people were and what they were doing when the attacks came. My East Coast friends were on their way to work, people near where I lived in Southern California were mostly waking up to the deed already done, and folks here in the UK were at lunch. Everyone remembers. Everyone does something different with their memories.

Some have come to see the world as a far more complicated place than they thought it was. No one can fully grasp the full array of ethnicities and religions and cultures around the world, but most know more than they did on 9/11. Some have devoted themselves to seeking common ground with those who committed (and supported) the attacks, as if conversation alone would prevent fanatics from being, well, fanatics.

Others have allowed their memories of that day to make them hard and angry and defensive. Many of these people were like that before, which really points to an odd sort of resistance to the impact of the attacks: they really weren't changed by them at all. But there are many who evolved into a reactive form of fearful bitterness, and it's those people who grieve me the most.

Because in my little corner of the world, most of my close friends and family are Christians. Not only that, but many of us would identify ourselves (with varying degrees of volume) as evangelicals--people who believe that Jesus Christ died to redeem the world, and that it is every believer's task to share that message. That specific description of our faith and ethics is important, because I fear that it has become yet another casualty of the terrorist attacks eight years ago.

There is a disconnect these days between the faith we assent to and the decisions we make. I suppose that's always been true: Christian history is dotted with decisions and events that seem to go directly against the doctrinal and ethical beliefs of the faith. But I can't do anything about the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials or slavery. What I'm talking about, in the historically disciplined words of Pete Townsend, is my generation.

My generation of evangelicals has allowed the attacks of 9/11 to separate their faith from how they interact ethically and politically.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offer a case in point. Now I'm not much of a pacifist, but I do recognize the inherent theological challenge of violent action for the Christian. It's John Calvin's 500th birthday this year, so let's give him an opportunity to weigh in. After making a solid case for a government's responsibility to provide for national defense, he says this:

But it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity.

Calvin continues with what I believe to be the point in all of this:

Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing.

That's the part we evangelicals too often seem to have lost. True evangelicalism is driven by compassion for people who haven't yet experienced the forgiveness and restoration that comes from Christ alone. True Christianity is marked by the compassion demonstrated by Jesus himself in his earthly ministry: sacrificial, redemptive, and available to all. True Christian discipleship leads us inevitably to the awareness of our own redeemed depravity, and teaches us to humbly acknowledge what we have in common with our enemy.

Not much of that is working its way into public discourse about the wars we're fighting, which is catastrophically disappointing to me for a country that enjoys the myth of being built on Christian principles.

Which brings me (strangely) to the current debate over creating a public health service in the US. I'm glad the debate is taking place. It's long overdue, and I believe there are important philosophical questions to be asked about the role of government in the lives of individuals. I believe that to be true, and yet the people disappointing me the most are my evangelical Christian brothers and sisters. Few that I have heard, even if they have perfectly valid objections to the expansion of social programs, have articulated a Christian response either to the problem or to the proposed solution.

Most of the people I have in mind have a sort of hero-worshipping relationship to Winston Churchill. They admire, as I do, his courage and tenacity and his strong leadership in a time of war. Most will be shocked to learn that he gave strong, early support to the formation of the National Health Service. Listen to what he said in 1944:

The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion. Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.

I'll pause to let that sink in.

Most will be even more surprised to learn that after the NHS was established by a postwar socialist government, Churchill returned to power and had the opportunity to close the entire thing down. Even under pressure from his own Conservative party, he refused to do it.

I think we could learn a lot from the later views of Winston Churchill. The Second World War was far more devastating than the 9/11 attacks, and it was far more traumatic in the UK than in the US. And yet, on the other side of that horrible event, with most of his cities still in bombed-out rubble, Churchill came out more compassionate, more sacrificial, more willing to make sure his neighbor was taken care of.

I know I've read those principles somewhere before.

It's an awful sort of anniversary, but maybe there's still time to redeem something from it. There is an enormous amount of room for debate on the issues that confront us these days, but I have little patience for Christian people who refuse to wrestle with Christian principles in those debates. To call Jesus your Savior without acknowledging your enemy's need of salvation is a sin. To enjoy the benefits of Christ's sacrifice without being willing to sacrifice in turn for your neighbor is a scandal.

On this awful anniversary my prayer is that we'll resist the temptation to use the memory of 9/11 to fuel our bitterness and anger and fear. My prayer is that we'll take this day to pray that God would soften our hearts, sharpen our minds, and make us into more mature disciples of Jesus Christ.


  1. Sharon Valdez8:33 AM

    Thank you John for your thoughtful & thought-provoking post. Made me think hard about how I'm handling a situation at work with a colleague and your words brought me up short. Lots of things to think about how much I have to give my heart over to God in this situation, not just the world/national issues you mention. Thanks for lighting the path for this sister to follow; I was wandering around in a fog, sorry to say! Blessings and looking forward to more posts from you.

  2. Cameron Carothers6:19 PM

    Wow. Thanks, John, for another thoughtful essay on important things!

  3. Well written, John. Well written.


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