A Tribute for the dead

“Where were you on 11 September 2001?” That’s a question many newspapers, radio programmes and tv shows asked last week as they remembered the events of five years ago. I would say it is a clichéd question and presumes an American worldview, but I do remember where I was. More importantly for me, I remember how I felt. As I watched the first reports I could only think that a symbol of the western capitalism that enslaves the developing world with unfair trade and enslaves the West with materialism and greed had been struck. I did not weep. I did not get angry. I watched with interest and a sense that for once it wasn’t the innocent or the weak who had suffered. It took me some time to realize that I was wrong. Listening last week to answer-machine messages left by those inside the Twin Towers shortly before they died, it struck me again. These were human beings. Frightened human beings, about to die, choking on smoke and wishing they had had more chance to say goodbye to their husbands, their wives, their children. As political beings, it is easy for us to view events as abstractions, as symbols in an ideological game. As Christians, that is never acceptable

The temptation for me now is to point out that thousands of people die all over the world, all the time. That there is nothing special about American or British lives, no matter what our respective governments tell us. But it is insufficient. It misses the truth that every life is important, whether that of a stock-broker or a suicide bomber. All are valued by Jesus and every one that dies without him is a tragedy. 9/11 was an important day. Not because it happened on US soil, not because the Twin Towers ever symbolized anything other than money, and not just because people died. It was the point at which many of us who had never made my mistake of seeing abstractions instead of people, started doing just that. Not only did the perpetrators cease to be humans with grievances and motivations, replaced by “evildoers” but entire nations ceased to be made up in our minds of shopkeepers, children, teachers, husbands and lovers. They became “the enemy”.

One of the many casualties of 11 September 2001 was thought. The growth of a culture of uncritical acceptance of government rhetoric has been one aspect but more disturbing for Christians should be the unwillingness of many of us to see past our own fears and ideologies to the humans beneath the headlines. You know you’ve done it. I have. The secret joy at a military victory, despite the lives lost. The willingness to hate, actually hate George Bush, Abu Hamza, or anyone not on your side of the political fence, be it left or right.

Seeing the truth is not just about placing events in our ideological system, assigning good-guy or bad-guy badges. It is not even just about criticizing “our side” first (though I believe this is in keeping with the “check for planks in your own eye” ethos of Jesus). It’s about seeing the world the way God sees it. And God sees people as made in his image. So as we remember September 11, I wonder if fellow lefties, pinkos and commies would join me in saying, even through gritted teeth: “God bless America”. The rest of you can chime in: “and Iran, and Iraq, and North Korea.” That would be a pleasing tribute not only to the dead, but the living people still being affected by September 11.

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