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Remembering 1963 and 2001
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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)
 
 

William Noel
2013-09-13 8:29 AM

Monte,

Thank you for reminding us that our significant experiences and outstanding memories continue to mold and shape us. 

I was eight and recently moved to North Alabama when that church in Birmingham was bombed.  I barely remember it.  But I do remember the fear in my second-grade teacher's eyes north of Seattle months before when she learned my family was moving to Alabama.  My father's employer was a prime contractor in the effort to put men on the moon.  We were excited about that, but she was fearful for my safety.  After the Southern summer heat, my biggest memory from that time was being puzzled trying to understand the prejudice of my schoolmates and neighbors.  How could people who went to church and talked about God' loving everyone harbor such hate for another person just because of the color of their skin?  It just didn't make sense. 

As for remembering 9/11/01, I was driving home this past 9/11 afternoon when I heard a two-minute collection of audio clips from the news of that dreadful day.  In those 120 seconds I felt again the intense shock and anger that I remembered feeling on that day.  Among the results the terrorists caused was my son's decision to join the military.  He has deployed a number of times to distant places to do battle with those who hat all non-Muslims.  He has taught me the two things that matter most in war are: 1) your survival, and 2) preventing the enemy from doing you harm, preferably before he gets a chance to harm you.  I have come to realize that those priorities also have spiritual application.  Keeping them in mind keeps me more focused on God and, as a result, I am becoming both more purposeful and effective in ministering His love.

Ella M
2013-09-13 7:48 PM

      I'll never forget when as a teen, I was sitting with some other teens on the campus of CUC when a busload of southerners got off and sat around us. They were on a class trip to see Washington, DC. I was horrified to hear them talk about having to put up with the Black race. The guys I talked to literally hated them.

Maybe they wanted to shock us girls, but I decided I would never go south of Virginia. I can still remember my anger, and for the first time I questioned how such ugliness could exist in an Adventist school. This was no "remnant church."  I remember writing to the GC and asking that belief in human equality be one of our baptismal vows and denying church membership to those who would not accept it as a fundamental belief like the Sabbath.

I got a positive response, but it was not something they planned to do.

Nathan Schilt
2013-09-15 12:05 PM

It is indeed important to remember the past.  And as you note, Monte, the present does very much shape and taint the past. Too often, stories of the past are seen and told through ideological filters that prevent us from either understanding or learning the lessons that history would teach us.

In both events that you reflect on, Monte, we see how invidious discrimination leads people to commit acts of great evil. But in the characterization of 9/11, you seem to subconsciously attenuate the evil by describing armed fanatics flying airplanes into buildings, rather than religious totalitarians murdering thousands of innocents in the name of Allah, cheered on by millions of Muslims world wide. You accurately frame the evil of racism as a problem for America, but seem unable to frame 9/11 in the reality of the global threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism - fundamentalism which does not simply deny equality of opportunity on the basis of ethnicity or race, but seeks the extermination - or at a minimum, relegation to dhimmitude - of non-Islamic believers. Both are bad. But they are not morally equivalent, particularly when you recognize that racism is a source of shame to nearly all Americans, while Islamic totalitarianism is a source of pride to hundreds of millions of Muslims, if not considerable majorities.

Stephen Foster
2013-09-15 1:37 PM

With respect Nathan, how can you suggest that radical ‘Jihadism’ is any worse than racism (in America or elsewhere) on the basis that “racism is a source of shame to nearly all Americans, while Islamic totalitarianism is a source of pride to millions of Muslims, if not considerable majorities”?
 
Racism is certainly a source of shame to millions of Americans; but how can you say “…to nearly all Americans,” man? How have you determined that as factual? Unless you have more than anecdote or perception you might do well to reconsider.
 
There are arguably “hundreds of millions of Muslims, if not considerable majorities” who see those violent radical Islamic Jihadists the same way that you see racists in America. (In other words they strongly oppose them.) We don’t know that to be true; but we don’t know that it’s not.
 
Racism has done far more than “simply deny equal opportunity on the basis of ethnicity or race,” my friend; far more. 

Nathan Schilt
2013-09-15 5:56 PM

I guess maybe you'll have to enlighten me, Stephen. I'm just not aware of any voices in America that are seeking to impose de jure dhimmitude on Black Americans, much less exterminate them and justify such policies in the name of any ideology. Where are the madrassas in America that teach racism? Where are the political leaders that call for the extermination of minority religions or races? If you have evidence that the few voices idealizing racism are actually heard in America, or that they have any influence, I will certainly reconsider my intuitive belief that racism is a source of shame to nearly all Americans.

You are absolutely correct that racism has done far more than simply deny equal opportunity on the basis of ethnicity or race. I spoke of present reality, not the past history of racism. America has come a long way in its battle with institutional de jure racism. The Arab world has moved in the opposite direction. And the fact that America has not achieved racial utopia should not blind you to that reality. Surely you would not compare the plight of non-Muslims in the Arab world with the hardships that Blacks face in America! If what I said is not obvious to you, no amount of polling data or images of anti-American, anti-Israel mobs violently feeding off the theocratic rhetoric of terrorist supporting politicians will convince you.

Racist structures in America were not overcome with flowers, love and and empathy. Earthly kingdoms must sometimes confront evil with force. Monte's prescription for overcoming Islamic terrorism would not have ended segregation in the South; nor has peace, as a geopolitical reponse to sociopathic world leaders, ever done much more than enable and embolden the forces of evil on the world stage.

From a Christian perspective, I firmly believe the bumper sticker slogan: "No Jesus - no peace; Know Jesus - know peace." While we must always humbly acknowledge the wisdom of this saying, we should also recognize that we are citizens of earthly kingdoms with a responsibility to seek and spread justice, even as we proclaim the good news of the Kingdom that only God can bring.

 

Nathan Schilt
2013-09-15 6:32 PM

I must confess, Monte, I am a bit troubled by your observation that God's Spirit in us is instinctive. I hope I'm not guilty of a dog whistle response. But that sounds dangerously gnostic. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that God's grace permeates the world, and that God's Spirit is constantly striving to gain a foothold and expand territory in our consciences. But the notion that this goodness is somehow instinctive in any sense seems non-Biblical to me.

Can we not respond with love, compassion, and generosity toward those who have suffered as a result of evil, and still support those earthly kingdom efforts that use military force to mitigate the ability of evil to torture and destroy?  Would the Korean peninsula be better off today if we had shown love and kindness toward the communists in the early '50's? Would the world be better off today if the West had not fought to defend liberty in the 1940's? Would Blacks in America be better off today if President Lincoln had allowed the South to secede?

I think we have to be careful to remember that we have dual citizenship. We can reveal, through personal acts of love and mercy, what the Kingdom of God is like. But the notion that, as citizens of earthly kingdoms, we should seek political policies and responses that will make those earthly kingdoms seem more like the Heavenly kingdom, sounds awfully theocratic. Haven't we tried that before? Monte, your caricature, and implicit condemnation, of those who believe totalitarian Islamic terrorism must at times be confronted with military force, suggests that you think Christian principles should dictate America's foreign policy. Surely, you had no problem with the use of federal troops to desegregate the South. Nor did I. So how do you decide when Christian principles should dictate a nation's response to evil?

earl calahan
2013-09-15 9:55 PM

Being of greater age than most here, i too am saddened by the hate & violent history we know. Even so, we are no closer to peace in the world, here in the 21st century. A recent poll of all segments of USA society, (approx 50%), believe are living in the last days of HUMAN existence. i don't recall ever even reading a national poll of "ARE WE IN THE LAST DAYS".
All we know is since the year 2000, we have been dealt situations that featured CRISIS after CRISIS. Every day a new Crisis. Having lived through the 1920's topresent day, i have never felt the fear and lack of a positive outlook for a good and meaningful future for the worlds youth as it is today. Despair and heartache and lack of opportunity are traumatizing the masses. Science, the answer to all questions, continue to create ever bigger and smarter Killing Machines of mass annihilation. And the Scientists are becoming envolved in all manner of grotesque cloning and any diabolical inhuman creatures. No holds barred, "what the mind can believe, it can achieve". Many are running to and fro networking for others who share similar beliefs, and share confidence they can survive, seeking something of Peace and value to this Global Madhouse. The answer to Peace and Sanity is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ, and available to all who accept His Love.
"Let not your heart be troubled, you believe in my Father, you believe in me, in my heavenly abode is room for all, if it were not so, I WOULD HAVE TOLD YOU, I go to prepare a place for you, and I will return to you and receive you unto myself, that where I abide there will you be also, I will never leave you or forsake you, i will give you the Holy Spirit to comfort you. In the New Earth I will create for you, I WILL RESTORE YOUR SOUL". 
 

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