September 11th, 2016 will be somewhat of a rarity for preachers: it is the 15th Anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. For most of us, we can recall what happened and where we were on that morning in 2001. Some have called it our generation’s defining event, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War was for their respective generations.
However, it’s defined us in a completely different way. We’re not like the Pearl Harbor generation, who collectively rallied together as a nation in support of the nation’s involvement in WWII. Yet we’re also not like the Vietnam War generation, who collectively divided as a nation to its involvement overseas. I’d like to think today we’re somewhere in between. Instead, we have collectively rallied together as a nation – and caught a case of amnesia.
Perpetual war and violence has become our new normal. Two articles I read recently highlight this: one by a retired general suggesting that there is no endpoint to the post-9/11 war, and another explaining that the devastation in Louisiana has received little attention because ratings show we’re more captivated by who the next President will be, rather than another story about death. News about war and violence have become just another news article to post on social media, a footnote in our lives rather than a reality that shakes it and turns it upside down. However, I don’t think it’s because the majority of us have become indifferent and apathetic. Perhaps the reality is so painful that instead, we push it completely out of our consciousness. When someone does bring it to the center of our community, the result is conversation often turns into a fight over ideology where fingers are pointed, lines are drawn, and a war of words ensues where no one wins.
It’s no wonder that we then get political about the pulpit.
We get political about what we say because we’re always measuring the effect our words will have on our hearers. A good number of pastors and preachers do this as a means of good pastoral care. Yet it’s a completely different thing when one weighs the effect in terms of personal risk and cost. One only has so much social capital they can draw from, and one divisive comment or topic from the pulpit can bankrupt you in a moment’s notice. Having amnesia ourselves as preachers becomes an enticing alternative when faced with prospect of addressing 9/11, the following war, and violence on a Sunday morning. A colleague posted on social media: “Just like the Sunday near Veterans Day or Memorial Day or July 4th, ignoring it [9/11] is a missed opportunity. Yet over-doing it risks the idolatry of patriotism masked as religious faith.” It’s a delicate line and the stakes are high for one’s ministry. What’s a preacher to do?
I ask you indulge me in a bit of testimony: as I sit here and write this, I realize that I have 15 years of service in the United States Navy as a Submariner and Chaplain. My whole Naval career has been spent at war, and I recognize I have classmates, shipmates, and friends who have died in combat, died in training, and live, but do so bearing scars and wounds both on the outside and within. It is a sobering reality, but I at least know this: it’s real.
What’s not so real to me is when I take off my uniform and join society around me. To see the rest of the nation living as if war and its effects don’t exist creates a tension that’s difficult to live in. From time to time I receive a “thank you for your service” or someone buys me a cup of coffee, but overall life outside the Navy feels odd, disconnected, artificial, and lonely. I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck around as a chaplain; because I think the best part of my day is when the service men and women who frequent my path share with great honesty their stories, struggles, and experiences. They share why they chose to serve – those reasons often connected to the events of September 11th, 2001 – and things feel a bit more real for me.
And when I sit in the pew on Sunday, I need to hear more than just a petition in the prayers. I need to hear something from the pulpit, but not a word that romanticizes my military service as some sort of sacrificial act of Jesus-love. Nor do I need to hear a word that condemns the motivations and forces behind my military service as some sort of message of prophetic justice.
I need to hear about a God who is incarnate in the sobering reality of the last 15 years and likely the next 15 and beyond. I need to hear about a God who still comes to seek the lost and somehow is still present long after the fantasy of Eden vanishes from our sight. What I need to hear is that there is a community outside of the uniform I wear that doesn’t have amnesia when it comes to the reality of these last 15 years of war. I need preachers to be honest: both about the fact war and violence is a reality we can’t turn away from, and that it is a reality that God in Christ is fully present with us in.
That’s no easy thing for a preacher to do for reasons beyond just the politics of the pulpit. It would be easier for you to have amnesia that day. However, if there ever is a time to eschew the politics of preaching and to snap people out of their collective amnesia, this might be the Sunday to do it – from the pulpit. It’s likely people will be really listening….I know I will be.
The thoughts expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or Navy Chaplain Corps in an official capacity.