by Monte Sahlin
By Monte Sahlin, September 11, 2013
This is a week of memories. Things past flood in upon the present and at my age you begin to realize how much the present shapes and taints the past. Memories are not packed away in archival containers, acid-free and protected for posterity. They are living realities. They change us. They eat on our minds. They can inspire for good or evil, depending on what we choose to remember and how we remember it.
Twelve years ago, I was at home near Washington DC preparing for my weekly trip up the New Jersey Turnpike to the community ministry and church plant that I was leading in Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Four airliners, taken over by armed fanatics, crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a rural farm in Pennsylvania. The next day people I knew in Hoboken told me about standing on the waterfront and watching the towers collapse, knowing that friends and neighbors and spouses had gone to work that morning in offices in that building. One of the men killed in that event was a young man I had chatted with at the Church of the Advent Hope on Manhattan from which some of our team had come to help with the project in Hoboken.
Fifty years ago, I was a teenager in Glendale, California, when Walter Cronkite on CBS television reported the deaths of the little girls in a Birmingham church from a bomb set by someone trying to intimidate the Civil Rights Movement after Martin Luther King’s inspiring speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington a few days prior. My memories are less distinct, both because of age and because at the time my very conservative Adventist parents thought it best not to have television in the home. So far as I know, I did not actually see the original news broadcast until several years later. I was, at the time, an active member of a right-wing organization for young people and had been taught that King was a Communist and civil rights would subvert America.
The Birmingham bombing began to change my mind. In a strange and cruel way, those little girls had to give their lives for people like me to get straight on the subject of race in America. A few years later I traveled with friends to Birmingham saw the place where it happened, and by that time I was ready for a lasting impression. As I wrote in my first book, “I have stood on the street corner where a preacher was shot in the back. I have sifted through my fingers the ashes of a bombed-out Sunday School.” (Student Power in Christian Action, 1972: Pacific Press, page 9.) It changed me forever, although the conversations we had on that long journey in a car across America probably did more to change me than the dramatic moments.
My memories of the days immediately after 9/11 are clearer and were more sharply focused. I was on the phone and exchanging Email with friends in the faculty at Andrews University, Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University), Oakwood University, Loma Linda University and La Sierra University. Volunteer professionals and students came in from all over the country and helped with a community service project based at the Church of the Advent Hope. Some of them stayed with our team in Hoboken and helped people there too. The debriefing sessions shared a jumble of feelings of shock, anger and pain. There were also stories of tremendous human compassion and caring.
Terrorists miscalculate. They think their acts of public mayhem will intimidate and dominate those they see as crushing their dreams, but in fact such pointless killing and silly violence actually generates much courage, creativity and compassion. In the end the goals of the terrorists are entirely lost. Or, do I misunderstand? Is it simply the primal thrill of hurting “the enemy” that causes the terrorist to feel good? Are they, in some sense, possessed by evil, beyond rationality?
As we remember these events, what would Jesus have us call to mind? Memory can be about nurturing vengeance and hating haters. It has become popular in America to feel victimized, to the extent that affluent people complain that they are victimized by the poor and members of the ethnic majority feel that they are victimized by those in the minority. “You are an offense to me because you exist,” an emperor tells a beggar in a novel I have long forgotten, except for that one absurd line. Meditating on wrongs done can lead to larger carnage and worse wrongs done back. There was a certain justice in American forces finding and killing Osama bin Laden, but what kind of character is built on taking pride in destroying one’s enemies? Is it the character of Jesus or is it something else? Primitive tribes cut off pieces of the bodies of their dead enemies and carry the bloody things around, and some Americans are still pressuring the government to release the photos of bin Laden’s dead body.
There is no comfort in death, even if it happens to “them” and leaves me alive. What we really remember from these great tragedies is the astounding measure of kindness and practical caring that they engendered. We remember the fire fighters and police officers who ran into the falling buildings while the crowds were rushing out. We remember the volunteers who opened the Manhattan Adventist Church to the crowds in the street and gave cups of cold water, as well as the opportunity to wash the caked dust from their faces. We remember the millions of people from many nations who gave their professional expertise, their time and their money to help. The spirit of God is in all of us, in at least some small measure, and when evil asserts itself on these occasions, God overcomes. It is instinctive. It is proof that we are created in His image. Evil repaid with good. Where else does that come from?
Memories can make us better people. Or worse. It depends on what we choose to think about. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 ESV)