Today on the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the words keep coming to me: Never Forget. It is a national obligation: we honor the lives lost by remembering them. And while it’s easy to memorialize on nice round years (like the 10th anniversary), forcing ourselves to relive such horror is more of a challenge every year. So this year I am trying not to forget.
The question remains: once I have honored those in the past, what is the purpose of these memories for the present and future?
In 2003, Darryl Worley asked the question in his song: “Have You Forgotten?” It was clear to him how this memory was supposed to move us. To those who had any questions about the war and our need to fight, that’s all he said: have you forgotten? If you remember the unspoken tragedies of that day, how could you not be so incensed that you would fight to the death?
What is the purpose of these memories?
12 years later, when I remember the fire and the smoke and the people covered in ash and others unseen who were much less fortunate, should I continue to seek out any enemies to receive my anger? What am I supposed to do?
Our memories are so powerful. We all know how important it is to remember. It’s a given. But it’s not so clear how we should use them. Memories of hurts can cripple you with fear. Memories of failure can paralyze you from trying again. Memories of pain can drive you into unbridled anger.
Or they can help you to grow.
Turns out Christians are very well versed in memory. As a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I’ve taken communion every Sunday I’ve been to church for 20 years. I’m sure I’ve broken bread in a couple dozen different churches with I’m sure thousands of brothers and sisters. I’ve been in massive, breathtaking cathedral-sized spaces, I’ve shared it on the banks of a lake at dusk at church camp with 60 junior high schoolers, I’ve prayed over the bread and cup in small sanctuaries on a cold winter’s day where the faithful 20 members showed up. I’ve seen communion tables made of wood, plastic, metal and stone. Most of them have been etched with some form of the phrase, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
When we remember at the table, we are not reliving the horrific death of Jesus in order to be pushed to anger or hatred or vengeance. The thought is almost silly. We remember that on the cross Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” The words move us to compassion for any enemies of Jesus, and they move us to humility for our own failures.
This memory of an unthinkable, violent, tragic event moves us to fall on our knees without any option but to accept God’s forgiveness. And when we do we are empowered beyond human capability to spread that love and forgiveness to others. That is why we remember.
So perhaps for an event like 9/11, that’s where our memories should send us first: to our knees. We fall down not out of any guilt, but out of the unspeakable sorrow to see such precious lives so violently destroyed. Then comes the crucial decision: will our memory move us to more destruction or to creation? Will our memory move us to fear or to hope? Will we be moved to hatred or to love? Will our memories take us to vengeance or forgiveness? From my knees, in the shadow of the cup and the bread, the unthinkable decision suddenly seems obvious.
“Do this in remembrance of me.”
Let us never, ever forget.