September 11, 2007
Today is September 11. There was a time when that was an innocent sentence. Now, these words evoke complex memories and emotions. Some of them are worthy of us; others are not. We remember where we were on that day in 2001. We remember the televised images of destruction and death. We remember feeling shocked, sorrowful, confused, angry, and afraid. We remember the need we felt that day to be with family, friends, and to dwell in community. We remember the days of mourning that followed the attacks. We remember feeling angry, perhaps vengeful. Perhaps some of us still feel angry, still yearn for vengeance. Perhaps we remember how our attitudes towards people with a certain accent, complexion, or dress may have changed. We think of the ways our nation has changed since September 11, 2001. We wonder what the world is coming to. This day will never again pass in our lifetimes without causing pain.
Yet we must live our lives, and we must live in community with others. It appears to me that the defining feature of the life ahead of us may turn out to be global interconnectedness, and if that’s so, living in community is going to require us to think harder about how we live with others who are unlike us: people who dress differently, speak different languages, read different sacred texts, or worship different gods. How will we do that? Where will we find guidance?
Our college’s two-year exploration of the theme of global citizenship is exquisitely timed. This is a moment in the life of our nation and of the world when we need to be focusing our energy on finding ways to go forward together rather than devolving into chauvinism, protectionism, nationalism, sectarianism and all of the other isms where evil takes refuge. The presentations this semester on Liberal Arts in Times of War and next semester on Civic Engagement and the Liberal Arts direct our study and conversation exactly where it belongs in these days and, especially, on this day, September 11. How, on this day of pain and remembrance, do we go forward?
Christians, of course, have another resource for guidance in directing their lives, and that is the Holy Scriptures. Our Scripture reading for today from the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks specifically about how Christians can live in community with others. I want to take a moment on this beautiful fall morning, reminiscent of the September 11 morning in 2001, to reflect on Paul’s words.
On a first read, perhaps, we don’t find much help. “Love one another with brotherly affection,” we are advised; “outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10 all quotations are from the RSV). “Be patient in tribulation,” is another admonition (12:12). “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” is another piece of advice (12:17). “Live peaceably with all,” our text concludes” (12:18). Easier said than done. These are certainly good and wise admonitions, but on this day, taken out of context and read seriatim as I have just done, they seem, frankly, facile.
The commentaries I consulted about today’s text view it as Paul’s admonition to the early church on how Christians should live together both with one another and with non-Christians in community. Both are real issues, but the events and aftermath of 9/11 challenge us to focus especially on how Christians live in community with the non-Christian world, friend and foe. For us at St. Olaf College, where we declare it our mission to incorporate a global perspective into our education, the challenge of how to incorporate our experience of September 11 into our notion of ourselves, our nation, and our place in the world is especially acute.
So let us look more carefully at Paul’s letter. Today’s reading begins with the Divine gift that underlies all human community: Love. “Let Love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (12:9), the text begins. This is an interesting verse, because it juxtaposes a motion of the heart against an act of the mind, a synthetic versus an analytical operation. The words “Let Love be genuine,” suggest inclusiveness, an open-armed welcoming, an embrace; but “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” seems to call for discrimination, for distinction, for a movement of the heart and mind that separates, that builds walls. Genuine Love, this passage tells us, requires us to “hate” what is evil, what shouldn’t be loved. How does that translate into our daily lives as global citizens in a time of war? How does it direct us in a time of suicide bombs, of innocents who become collateral damage in an air raid, of torture? Should we hate the individuals who caused the death of thousands of Americans on 9/11? Should we hate the suicide bomber who kills innocent shoppers at a market? Should we hate those who train, and finance terrorists, whose rhetoric impels them? Should we hate if not them then the ideology that justifies their actions? Should we hate the sinful nature that leads a captor to torture a prisoner? What does “hate” mean here, and how might it translate into concrete action?
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (12:14) today’s reading continues. In a similar vein it argues, “Repay no one evil for evil” (12:17). But how are we to do this, especially at the same time that we hate what is evil, as this text also recommends?
The latter part of today’s reading helps us to understand the rather abstract command to “Let Love be genuine” (12:9) and to think about how it can play out in our daily lives without giving up the discriminating faculty that enables us to separate what we should love from that which we should shun. “Live in harmony with one another” (12:16), for example, describes an outward motion of the soul that seeks to find the point of connection between oneself and those outside of us. It’s one thing to exercise reactive Love: people come to you, and you embrace them, or not. Proactive Love, the kind that seeks and creates harmony, projects you forward towards the unfamiliar, the unknown, the non-Christian, in search of the points of contact that create a “genuine” relationship, “Genuine Love, ”not an undiscriminating assimilation of everyone and everything.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (12:17), another verse in today’s text, reiterates this same message. Repaying evil for evil, an Old Testament reflex, is an unthinking response, like an uncritical and therefore ungenuine Love. A better way is to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all,” to find in those with whom we disagree, and even in those who have harmed us, the points, if any, of commonality, of the basis for understanding for some notion of ongoing community. But let’s be realistic. Paul’s admonition that “If possible,” so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (12:18) recognizes that there may be limits to our ability to accept, and connect, and Love. But we should not focus on the moment where a relationship breaks down; on the contrary, we should do what we can to avoid it, or to preempt it in order that we may “live peaceably with all.”
So what guidance does today’s text offer us as we reflect on September 11, our moment in history as a people, as a nation, as a college, as individuals? Helpfully, it recognizes the complexity of our situation and of our human response to our situation. It acknowledges the reality of evil, it admits the possibility of persecution, and it recognizes our human impulse to curse our enemies, to seek vengeance. In the face of those realities, our reading today calls us to love, but it calls us to “genuine love.” That is, clear-eyed, discriminating love that arises out of and acknowledges the complexities of a broken world. It does not call us to a passive and indiscriminate openness but rather to an active quest for what is “noble in the sight of all.” It recognizes the reality of evil, but it also believes in the possibility of love. It calls upon us to seek meaningful connections with others that arise out of our faith and that are encouraged by hospitality, patience, receptivity, and humility.
But somehow that isn’t satisfying enough on this day. Read in this way, today’s text helps us think about how to go forward, but it does not immediately help us to look back. Perhaps that’s because there is another action of the soul that, while not part of the text, is implicit in the guidance it gives us. That action is forgiveness. What else can give you patience in tribulation, or enable you to refrain from repaying evil with evil? What else enables one to live peaceably with all? What else enables genuine Love? The vision of life in community both among Christians and between Christians and non-Christians proposed by today’s text rests upon the willingness and ability of those in community to reach out and discern connections with one another, to exercise forbearance in those relationships, and to forgive one another in the face of evil.
I began this morning by talking about how the memories of 9/11 remain with us. To find a way forward as a global family we need to find a way to turn from retrospection to a vision of our life ahead, the life where genuine love, as the text has it, can inform and animate our works and days. Forgiveness empowers us to shift our vision in that way, and September 11 is the day, a day of remembrance, to heed the call of Scripture, to follow the example of Christ, to be animated by a proactive belief in the possibility of community and to go into the world, clear-eyed, mindful of our sorrow, and of our sin, and of the reality of evil in others, in quest of that community.
David R. Anderson ’74