I was at primary school that day. Eight years old in a small rural school in Devon, in the United Kingdom. I remember walking out of class to the corridor where the parents would wait to collect us children. Some of my friend’s joined their parents and left, while others hung around whilst the mums were chatting. I remember my mum walking in the door and walking over to me but something seemed off. My memory of this bit is a bit hazy. I think I wanted to tell her something or other about my day. One of the other mums asked if Mum was alright and she said something about a terror attack. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember that it seemed weird enough that the other mums didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t believe her.
I was eight and this was just a normal day becoming a bit strange. I think that Mum must have tried to explain what was happening, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. But here’s where my memory becomes clearer. We walked into the house and I dumped my bag at the bottom of the stairs before walking into the living room to see my Dad sitting on the sofa, watching the television with the blue screen in the corner. As I looked at the television I saw for the first time that now iconic image of the twin towers, with smoke billowing from the towers. I don’t have particularly strong memories of watching what happened, but I distinctly remember the atmosphere of a significance which was too real for me to deny but which was also too great for me to really understand. The main moments of memories which I remember are my parents reactions to the hankies which were waved out of the windows, and that moment when the first tower fell.
15 years on and the repercussions of that day echo on throughout the world. The response has shaped international politics, particularly in the middle east, in such a way that it has become commonplace for analysts, writers and pundits to discuss policy and narratives as taking place in a post-9/11 world. Culturally, even internationally, it became one of those rare “Where were you when..” moments.
Each year since, but particularly this year as the 15th anniversary, it’s natural that people will remember and acknowledge the events of that day.
Remembrance is an important thing.
Yet it can also be a complicated one, and the fact is that the remembering of 9/11 today is in that transitioning phase between a shared recollection of the majority of people and the establishing of how the significance and legacy of that moment will be explained and shared with those who have either been born after it, or who were too young to remember it. This year is the first american election where among the people voting, in part, on foreign policy there will be voters who do not personally remember 9/11.
This means that those who were there that day, as a survivor, a firefighter, a medic, a news reporter, a bystander or relatives who lost loved ones should consider starting, if they haven’t already, sharing their stories and writing them down. Records are important so that when the intuitive emotional understanding of an event fades, people can still engage with and learn from it.
One hundred years ago Europe was in the midst of the first world war. The last combat veteran of that war, one Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy, died five years ago on the 5th of May 2011. That war is well documented, but is surprisingly poorly understood by the general public – particularly the younger generations. In part this is because the emotional understanding of the subsequent world war of 1939-1945 and the tangible impact of the death toll on the population where seemingly every town, village,and farm lost family members. To an extent, this experience relegated and absorbed the horrors of the first world war into the horrors of the second in the public consciousness. Perhaps not at first, but as the years roll by and the stories are handed down to those who were born 10, 30, 50 years later there has been a peculiar union between the historical realities and the legends which have grown up about them.
Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys encapsulates this beautifully in the line: “This is history. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.”
This is not to undermine the historical records we have, in fact precisely the opposite! With the world wars, the legends and the cultural consciousness of the significance of these events has inspired and prompted books, films, plays, lectures and art which have in turn enabled the education and remembrance of those events.
In reflecting on remembering 9/11 and the exploration of the recent past as it consolidates into history, my mind is drawn to Luke’s Gospel.
The purpose of John’s Gospel is so that the reader might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:31).
However the intention of Luke’s gospel, whilst chronicling the same events, is subtly different. Luke begins,
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things which have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke’s gospel was not written as Jesus was exercising his ministry, and the account of the crucifixion and resurrection are not the equivalent of an ancient diary entry. Instead it was likely written sometime between 80-100AD.* That is, it was written some years later as the church grew and there were more and more believers who had not encountered Jesus during their own lives, and more than this, as there were more and more believers who didn’t know many (or any) of the eyewitnesses personally. This is important, because as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Luke’s Gospel, with its focus on eyewitnesses (which are often referred or alluded to within the text) is an attempt to present the reality of who Jesus is, what he did and also of what happened to him. This helps Christians to remember Jesus. To remember the pain of the Cross that resulted in his death. To remember the despair of the disciples as they grieved. To remember the hope of the resurrection and the promise that in darkness and pain and suffering that we are not alone, but are accompanied by Christ; and that as he joins with us in our sufferings and our death, we will share with him in his Life, in his joy and in his relationship with the Father, sustained and nourished by the Holy Spirit.
It seems fitting that this day of remembering 9/11 is a Sunday.
As we remember and wrestle with the terrible events of that day, and as we try to explain it to those who came after that day, we would do well to remember that in the darkness and the horrors of human experience we are not abandoned. We have a Lord who does not shy away from despair or flinch in the face of death, but who squares up to it and takes it upon his shoulders along side us. As well as looking back to what has happened, let’s take stock of where we are and how we let this define us as we move forwards, with a sense of hope.
*there are discussions about the extent to which it was continuing to be edited and revised into the second century but 80-100AD is fine for the purposes of this post.