Learning from September 11, 2001

by Henry Neufeld, Publisher of Energion Publications

Henry Neufeld

There are things we must not forget.

Why is that? Because we need to learn and apply certain lessons. There are changes we make in who we are and how we behave because of those events. Historical events, or more precisely our perception of them, shape us as families, groups, nations, and yes, churches.

Americans remember the Revolutionary War, the framing of our constitution, the Civil War, December 7, 1941 (Pearl Harbor), the Vietnam War, and now 9/11. Those events (or periods of time) shaped us. What we were taught about them shaped us, and our perception of them shapes us. Our perception also helps to shape the next generation.

The first Gulf War shaped my life in a major way. I didn’t slog through the sand as soldiers and marines do. I was in the U. S. Air Force, and I did my job in the back of an airplane. My experience in the service, and in various conflicts also shape me. I hear the news differently. Occasionally my wife and I will see a news story and I’ll comment that in the old days, I would have gone and packed my bag, waiting for the inevitable phone call that would tell me I was deploying.

I want to emphasize that I don’t regard my time in the Air Force as some sort of hardship or trial. I enjoyed what I did. I had the opportunity to avoid that first gulf war. I had just returned from deployment, and was asked whether I’d like to volunteer. Most people didn’t have that choice!

My perspective on 9/11 and following events grows out of those experiences. As an American, that is.

But I have a different set of formative experiences as well. Those experiences center around a man dying on a cross outside Jerusalem about 33 CE. I understand that event not only through my own experiences (none of us can avoid our own experience!), but also through other stories of the faith: the creation, the exodus from Egypt, Israel’s exile and return, shaped by and shaping so much of the message of the prophets, and the Maccabean Revolt. (It is unfortunate, in my view, that the books of Maccabees are not part of the protestant canon.)

Those events form my view of what happens as a Christian, or even better as a follower of Jesus Christ. That latter distinction is important. I can see the cross as the horrible moment when the Romans, aided and encouraged by Jewish collaborators, killed Jesus. That hateful and fearful view has shaped the behavior of many who have called themselves Christians. They have, in turn hated and feared Jews. The result of that hatred was killing and the building of further hatred.

It is important to note that our perception of an event sets the way we are formed by it. In the gospel According to John Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). That sets a perspective on the cross. We are to be shaped by it as an act of love, performed on our behalf by Jesus, and thus be set on a path of love for others. And not just any sort of love, but love that makes us willing to sacrifice our very lives.

It was that sort of love that said, “Father forgive them,” regarding people who were in the process of crucifying the One who spoke.

How we remember the event impacts how we act because of it.

This is illustrated in the Passover Seder where actions are taken to remember with sadness what happened to the Egyptians. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-daniel-brenner/does-passover-celebrate-the-death-of-innocent-egyptians_b_2821971.html as an example.)

I think the intersection of these two sets of formative stories, the “myths” (in the most positive sense of that word) of our country and our faith community, illustrate a number of things. Most importantly, they show us that the two foundations are not identical. As an American I am drawn to restoration of power, to the accomplishment of justice (I hope) through means of power, and yes, even to revenge. As a Christian, shaped by the story of One who died on the cross, I am called to be different.

I wrote about the word “revenge” back in 2003 just before we invaded Iraq a second time, in the second gulf war. I titled my piece Revenge! Some have objected that their support of the war in Iraq was not based on revenge. But any time you talk about how a group of people, especially one as large as a nation, comes to a decision there are many factors.

I know that there was an element of revenge. Why? Because there was an element of revenge for me. It took me some time in thinking of the war to get past it. At the end of the first gulf war many of us had that feeling that we really hadn’t accomplished the mission because Saddam Hussein was still there and still being obnoxious and dangerous (perhaps) as ever. The thought of seeing Saddam Hussein removed was a joyful one to me.

Until I asked this question: How are things going to be better when we’re done?

As I re-read my piece from 2003 and saw my suggestion of a power vacuum opening up to more problems with Iran, I thought about our current news. Are we better off now because Iraq was invaded in 2003?

But then there is a second question that comes from that second set of formative stories: Are they better off because we invaded in 2003?

This discussion should not be seen as one about our veterans. In a democracy we need a military that obeys civilian authority. There are many ways in which civilian authority can misuse the military, but I believe those are as nothing compared to the way in which a military not under civilian control might abuse its own power. The young men and women who carry out our political will should always be honored, however we feel about the orders they are given. In fact, one of the greatest moral failures of our country, in my opinion, is that we expect this service and then fail these people as veterans. Complete care for those injured or killed in a war should be considered a basic part of the cost of that war by any nation that wants to claim moral high ground.

Yet that second set of stories tells me that I need to be caring about every Iraqi killed, and now about those killed in the current wars there, wars which resulted in part from our changing the political and military calculus of an entire region, a region few of us understand.

I cannot tie all the loose ends in a blog post, but even more importantly, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to do so.

What I’d like you to do is ask yourself about these defining events (and many more; your list may be different), and how they have shaped you. The two lists conflict and overlap. I would suggest that one shaped by both may need to resolve conflicts. It is hard to both love one’s enemies and also bomb them into oblivion. It is also hard not to respond with force when innocent people are slaughtered.

While I believe that our ultimate allegiance belongs to God and his kingdom, I do believe that allegiance calls us to take positive action in this world and at this time. At the same time, my allegiance to God’s kingdom means that the way I respond will be controlled not by anger, fear, hate, or the desire for revenge, but rather by the desire to make life better for others.

God’s love is not diminished because a person lives in another country, belongs to another faith community, or even because that person is a terrorist.

What about mine?