Sin and Remembrance

Amidst all the ceremonies and rituals of commemoration for 9/11, with a new, unofficial national holiday (“Patriot Day”), I find myself deeply troubled about our tendency as Christians in America to attend to such rites as though Jesus is not Lord and has not definitively acted in this world.  Stanley Hauerwas attends to this point in his discussion of the abolition of war, and others, like Kurt Willems, have rightly questioned our motives and attitudes as disciples of Jesus toward those we identify as “enemy.”  What I want to do here, though, is bring up the very question of remembrance itself.  In so doing, other questions inevitable come up, so I hope you will bear with me as we think through this together.

There are, of course, different ways to remember something like 9/11.  We can remember it historically, as an event of considerable significance to the United States.  I’m thinking here of a critical remembering, where we are mindful of the event in all its geopolitical, cultural, and theological complexity.  This is an important form of remembrance, for, properly done, it places the event in context and refuses easy labeling of one party or another as good or evil, or of thinking that this was an event that “changed the world,” when in actuality it only gave us Americans a reality check about the suffering going on throughout the world on a daily basis.  This is worthwhile remembering in many ways, so long as we are not led through our critical reflection toward a clinical dehumanization of the participants.

There is another way to remember, the way most of us do, sharing citizenship and national and cultural identity with those who were victims.  We could call this a sort of cultural remembering, and it can be appropriate where we are humble and prayerful, and where we are mindful and properly critical of attempts to use the event to reinforce certain narratives (political and otherwise) that might require us to contradict our identity in Christ and in his church.

Perhaps the most poignant form of remembrance is that of remembering specific people who were injured or died on that day, grieving for and with their families and friends.  This is the remembrance of friends and loved ones, a relational remembering, where the context is personal and local, the names and faces are known, and we mourn for them as they would for us.  This is Job’s friends, sitting in silence with him as he mourns his lost children and his ongoing pain.  This is weeping in solidarity, and it is right and good in proper measure.

But there is at least one other form of remembrance that I’m most concerned about here, not merely in our American culture at large – where it is certainly present and manifests itself on a regular basis – but also and especially in the church: the deliberate remembrance of the evil of the event.  This is a delightful remembrance – note: not a remembrance of delight – but rather a perversely enjoyable remembrance of an evil done to us, remembered because it nurses our contempt for the perpetrators and simultaneously infuses us with a sense of mission, namely the perpetrators’ destruction and our own triumph over them.  This is the remembering of chest-beating, swaggering bravado that declares we’ll get the perpetrator dead or alive, and it is also the quietly determined remembering that assuages our guilt when we deny the inalienable, God-given rights of others in the name of protecting our inalienable, God-given rights.  This is the remembering that makes us forget: forget to pray for our enemies (for their welfare, not about their fate), forget to seek reconciliation before we take the Lord’s Table, forget that they have the same share in Christ’s blood as we do, forget that we are forgiven only as we forgive others.

This remembering is sin.  It is sin not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also because of its particular sort of nihilism: if we take the ancient Christian theological definition of evil as the privation of good, this is a deliberately cultivated and continually nurtured remembrance of…nothingness.  And such nothingness is neither good nor beautiful nor noble nor praiseworthy.  We should not dwell on such things.  I mentioned to a mentor of mine the week of 9/11 how much I saturated myself in news coverage and the imagery of the attack.  His response fits well here:  “That’s not good for your soul.”

You, my patient reader, have stayed with me thus far; let me leave you with two other observations.  On October 2, 2006, a man walked into an Amish school in Nickel Mines, PA and shot ten girls, five of whom died.  The response of that Christian community was to attend almost immediately to the perpetrator’s family in addition to their own grief, and shortly thereafter to tear down the school.  Did you catch that?  Rather than making a monument of the evil done to them, they tore it down.  Now, I’ve been warned about valorizing the Amish, so I won’t, but the practical effect of that action was to make it much easier to forgive.  As a culture, of course, we do the exact opposite, and as many have pointed out, we do so partly to fuel our own identity as a nation and sense of self-worth, over against our enemies and those whom we identify as “threats.”  The Nickel Mines Amish community reminds us just how self-destructive and unnecessary that really is.

Finally, one last thought about 9/11.  Well, September 11, 1973, I mean.  This is the date of the military coup against the democratically elected president of Chile.  US government documents since declassified suggest that the United States did not have direct involvement in that coup.  However, those documents also explain how the United States, through diplomatic and corporate activities – as well as through CIA covert ops – laid the groundwork for that coup, providing the necessary conditions for it to occur and be successful.  Were our country on the receiving end of such activities, we would not hesitate to classify them as a form of state-sponsored terrorism.  So as Chileans remember their own experiences of suffering under the resulting Pinochet regime, we can only hope that they will forgive our own country, and put away from their memories the evil we visited upon them.