In William Faulkner’s Light in August there is a character named Gail Hightower who is a pastor. In Faulkner’s telling, Rev. Hightower had allowed one significant episode in his family’s history to permeate his preaching, his ministry, and even his life–the death of his grandfather in the Civil War. The people of the town explain their experience of the young pastor in the following way:
And they told Byron how the young minister was still excited even after six months, still talking about the Civil War and his grandfather, a cavalryman, who was killed, and about General Grant’s stores burning in Jefferson until it did not make sense at all. They told Byron how he seemed to talk that way in the pulpit too, wild too in the pulpit, using religion as though it were a dream. . . .
It was as if he couldn’t get religion and that galloping calvary and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other, even in the pulpit. And that he could not untangle them in his private life, at home either, perhaps (Faulkner, Light in August, 61-62).
As I have reflected on the ten-year commemoration of the September 11 attacks, I am reminded how easy it is to allow significant events from our past to subsume our present. Now, I am not attempting to question the value of remembering. If not with the intention, I can agree with the language of George Santayana’s observation, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (Santayana, The Life of Reason, 121). However, it seems to me that there is a difference between remembering the past and worshipping the past, learning from the past and living in the past, rooting ourselves in history and losing ourselves to history.
On September 11, 2001, I was serving as an associate pastor in a church in a southwest suburb of Chicago. In the weeks and months following 9/11 I had a number of opportunities to speak with the teenagers in that church about the attacks. One conversation stands out specifically in my recollection. On that occasion the young person to whom I was speaking said (and I am paraphrasing), “This is our Pearl Harbor. This is our Vietnam.” At the time I received his words as somewhat inappropriate–not because of what he said, but because of how he said it. He seemed almost excited, perhaps even relieved. Why would he respond in that way?
It occurred to me then that we often speak as though generations–great generations, anyway–are defined by the tragedies they witness and to which they respond. It seemed to me that this young teenager was pleased that something monumentally tragic, something that promised to have historical repercussions had occurred in his youth. Years later, when I read Faulkner’s story I found myself back in that tiny office in Downers Grove seeing that look in his eyes and hearing the expectation in his voice.
Is there anything problematic with allowing one moment of tragedy to become the defining moment of a generation in our popular imagination? As a Christian, my initial response is to say, “No, of course not! After all, isn’t that the cross? Don’t we as Christians define all of our lives by that monumentally humbling event? Even more, didn’t the people of Israel define themselves by the events surrounding God’s deliverance in Israel’s exodus out of Egypt?” Aren’t the lives of Christians necessarily subsumed by the past?
But, then, I am also a cancer survivor, and I have wrestled personally with the grip that past tragedy has had on my present. My cancer began as a small ache in my knee, so now I often find myself awake at night fretting over insignificant discomforts. Once I was in remission, I became so fearful of my cancer returning that I refused to consider becoming a father until I had reached my five-year survival mark. I have difficulty planning ahead for retirement, because cancer has left me with a gnawing feeling that I will not live long enough for it to matter.
My point here is that though there is value in remembering the past (let’s face it, we could hardly forget these events even if we tried), there is also a danger of allowing tragedy to define us. There is a darkness to tragedy, a helplessness in the midst of it, and a fearfulness that permeates it. Even for those of us who have faced such moments with courage and determination, we carry the scars of these experiences with us. Scars can be instructive, and at times even useful, but they also can be crippling and, more perilously, distorting. As I experienced with cancer, as much as tragedy can clarify and redirect our focus, it often does so in disproportionate ways.
I am reminded of Simeon and Levi’s conviction that the sin committed against their sister, Dinah, somehow justified the violence that they did to the Shechemites in Genesis 34. Though the Israelites were commanded to do many frightful and violent things throughout their history, the Torah had insisted that they were never to do such things out of vengeance or wrath but out of obedience to the commands of the Lord. As Deuteronomy 32:35 had instructed them, vengeance belongs to God alone.
My point here is that though tragedy may serve to instruct both those who experience it and those who witness it, it is, more often than not, a perilous leader. However we come to understand the evils that have befallen us both as individuals and as communities, my admonition would be that we allow them to clarify but not to distort–that we allow them to open our eyes but not to blind us. My hope and prayer is that as we commemorate 9/11 this weekend, we will also stand in unity against the urge to allow the things we’ve suffered to rob us of the memory of the kind of people we had set out to become. If we allow violence and abuse to recreate us in its own image, then we have allowed evil not simply to harm us, but to infect us.
As the Apostle Paul reminded the congregations in first-century Rome:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (The Bible: NIV, Romans 12:17-21).
Amen, may it be so.
J. Thomas Johnson