On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in Mrs. Myer’s fifth grade classroom. I remember her coming into the room in hysterics, not being able to express to her students what had happened or why she was so upset. I remember all of the fifth graders making their way into one classroom to watch coverage of everything that had happened. I remember panicked parents coming to pick up their students from school, fearing that more attacks would come. And, although as a ten year-old with no attachment to New York or Washington, it took me a long time to understand the gravity of what had happened, I know I will always remember 9/11.
Every eleventh of September since then, whether in social media or on TV or in public demonstrations, there is a call to “Never forget” what happened on this day in 2001. It is a call to remember what happened, to recognize the importance of that day. And every year, I find myself wondering: What are we remembering? And why?
My general impression is that the generic call to remember implies something like the following: “Never forget that on September 11th, three thousand Americans were killed by Muslim extremists in an unprovoked attack on our country.” And as true as this statement may be, I have been convicted and brought to the conclusion that it is not an acceptable way for followers of Jesus to remember 9/11. So I want to offer an explanation of why this is, as well as present a way of remembering September 11th that I think is properly couched in a Christian view of the world.
Whether intentionally or not, I think there is a latent implication in such a way of remembering that says “this isn’t over yet”—that those who died in the attacks will be avenged. Surely this is the feeling of many Americans; and it is the most natural possible reaction to such an event. But as followers of Jesus, this sentiment cannot be allowed to remain in our hearts or minds. We serve a King who commands a non-retaliatory love of our enemies, and who demonstrates the epitome of this enemy-love on the cross. He prayed for his executioners as they drove the nails into his hands, and he went to the cross to save sinners—to save us—when we were his enemies. He has commanded us not to retaliate against those who do us harm, and this command gives no indication that it allows an exception for evil that is on a large scale. We are to pray for those who persecute us, and this includes militaristic enemies of Western civilization. Hard (even impossible) as it may be, it seems that we are bound by love for our Savior to remove from our hearts any trace of hatred and any desire of revenge for what happened on 9/11.
This mode of remembrance also taps into a disproportionate sentiment of patriotism. The emphasis is on the fact that it was American lives that were taken. This happened on our soil, to our people: to people who believed like we believe and lived like we live. It’s an attack on our way of life, and we take it personally. Again, it is perhaps the most natural reaction we could possibly have. And yet, again, it is one which runs counter to a biblical Christianity and to the character of God. There are no borders in the Kingdom of God; political allegiances do not determine the value of life or the extent to which human beings are created in the image of God. Yes, it is an absolute evil that so many Americans were killed in the attacks of 9/11. But it is an absolutely equal evil that so many men, women, and children have been killed in the Middle East as a result. To citizens of the kingdom of God, national borders do not have the final say in who we love and mourn. As followers of Jesus, we must not allow ourselves to be outraged by 9/11 as something that happened to America, nor should we allow the memory of the tragedy to rally us to an “us versus them” sense of patriotism. Rather, we should view it as something that happened in America, to human beings made in the image of God. And we must also regard all violence that has happened in the Middle East as a result of 9/11 in the same way: not as mindless agents of evil receiving their just deserts, but as violence and evil happening to human beings made in the image of God.
So for followers of Christ, I propose a new way to remember 9/11 each year:
Never forget that on September 11, 2001, men made in the image of God were so twisted by hate and warped by pride that they killed three thousand other human beings made in the image of God. Never forget that apart from the grace of Jesus, we are no more worthy of life than those men were. Never forget that the people around the world who felt, and are still feeling, the repercussions of our reaction to the attack are also human beings made in the image of God. Never forget that we have been commanded to love our enemies. And never forget that while we were enemies of God, He loved us.