In the fall of 2001, I was beginning my junior year at Indiana University. On September 11 of that year, I blew off my first two classes after being unable to unglue myself from the television, from the images of horror and confusion, from the looped footage of United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
A few hours later, I was ready to talk about what happened, so I went to my class on the literature of American expatriates, figuring that my professor would give us an opportunity to share our thoughts. I was right. Instead of lecturing about Fitzgerald or Hemingway, she asked us if we had anything we’d like to say.
Immediately a young woman in my class raised her hand. “This is our fault. We brought this on ourselves because of our foreign policy,” she said.
These words were a great example of what I like to call the Pharisaical “we,” that trick where you claim to be a part of a group so that you can condemn it for the sins you don’t believe you’re guilty of committing. It’s a clever tactic by which you demonize your neighbors and justify yourself. Under normal circumstances, the Pharisaical “we” is a dirty rhetorical tool. On 9/11, it was vicious.
So most of us in that classroom sat in horrified silence because we understood what had just happened: While innocent victims were breathing their last beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers, while rescue workers were risking death to find survivors in the chaos, while smoke and ashes filled the air, and while sorrow was tearing apart the hearts of those who couldn’t get a hold of their loved ones, 760 miles away from danger, a young woman who hadn’t lost anyone and who knew next to nothing about what had happened breathed in the dewy sweet air of safety and effectively said, “this is their fault, not mine.”
But while the room was mostly silent in response to these words, it wasn’t completely silent. This young woman was lightly cheered on by a few like-minded students who praised her for the bravery of saying what they imagined needed to be said in that moment.
If another American tragedy were to happen today, I don’t think we’d be able to rekindle the kind of civic fellowship we found in the days after 9/11. I think we hate each other so much that we’ve forgotten the art of mining unity from sorrow. And I think a major reason for this is because social media has allowed all of us to become that foolish girl in my American Expatriates class. Facebook grandstanding has made us experts at wrapping the Pharisaical “we” in barbed wire and hacking our political-rival neighbors to pieces with it. The safety of Twitter anonymity has convinced us that our words have no consequences and that our enemies have no humanity. Above all, social media has allowed us to develop little circles where we can spew out ignorant bile, block, mute, unfriend, and silence the “haters,” and then bask in the approval of like-minded vitriol-mongers.
But this is not really a political problem. It’s a spiritual problem. We don’t hate each other because we can’t agree on a president to lead us. We hate each other because we’ve forgotten the King who rules us.
And so, if we want to remember 9/11, the best way to do so is to remember it through the lens of Good Friday, the day when Christ claimed His throne with nail-pierced hands.
As Good Friday told us, and as 9/11 showed us, there is no Pharisaical “we.” We have not risen above the mob of the guilty and the wicked. We are all part of the mob. We are all sinners. We are all capable of indescribable evil. And yet God chose to love us. He chose to give us life in the death of His only begotten Son. He chose to come into the world we filled with sorrow and war and fill us with joy and peace. And all who believe in Christ will receive that joy and peace in abundance. All who believe will inherit a joy that continues radiating even on a day of thick clouds and a darkness. They will receive a peace that compels us to seek out enemies to forgive instead of seeking out neighbors to demonize.
As we’ve seen in the days since September 11, 2001, political unity fades. But unity in Christ will last forever. May He grant us that unity now.