Like every American who lived through 9.11.2001, I vividly remember that day. Our brains record with almost perfect clarity events that are especially traumatic. Psychologists call this phenomenon “flash bulb memories.” September, 11th 2001 for most Americans is forever etched into our memories. I can remember watching the second plane hit the Twin Towers, where I was, and even what I was wearing. More than anything I remember the feelings of anger, confusion, sadness, and helplessness.
In the greatest attack committed on American Soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor our nation collectively stopped in its tracks. It was an eye-opening event for our nation. The senseless act of violence and unnecessary loss of life perpetuated by men who hated us – men whom most of us were unaware of before – cut deep into our hearts and minds
September 11th, 2001 was one of the worst days in American history. September 12th, however, was one of the best days in American history. All across America, the safe bubble we too-often live in was burst. The emotional and mental walls we erected to keep others at arm’s length momentarily collapsed. We saw the pain of others. We wept with them. We asked how they were doing. We encouraged each other. We stood arm in arm with each other. United. Focused. Resolved. American.
The season after 9.11 was one of the few times in my life where the word “united” could describe the United States. As a young man I hoped, then, that this tragic event might forge a stronger union in our country. I was a young and naïve dreamer who longed for everyone to get along.
Now seventeen years later it is sad to see just how divided our nation has become. Our country is in danger of tearing itself to shreds. We have all but forsaken unity, understanding, kindness, patience, empathy, and love altogether. Of course there are (and always will be) good people who embody these virtues but overall we have chosen division, self-centeredness, anger, resentment, bigotry, and closed-mindedness. Instead of being Americans we have chosen to be members of select groups. Black vs. white. Poor vs. rich. Republican vs. Democrat. Liberal vs. Conservative. Old vs. young.
We are more interested in the things that divide us than anything we have in common. We have stopped listening to those different than ourselves. We prefer screaming to civil discourse. We prefer violence to pacifism. We have become a divided house that cannot stand.
Sadly, one of the only things on which we all can agree is how divided we are. Everyone (from politicians to celebrities to blue-collar workers) sees the problem. However, it doesn’t take much skill to recognize a problem. It does take wisdom, integrity, and hard work to make solutions. Solutions for a better future; something that seemingly the loudest voices in our country are either unwilling or unable to discover. So we go on boycotting, rioting, shouting, and blaming anyone who doesn’t look like us, think like us, or live like us.
So what should we do? As a pastor, this is a question that I struggle with every day. Complex puzzles require patience, creativity, and hard work. I do not have complete answers for how our nation can move forward but I’d like to share some thoughts.
1. Live in the world with the rest of us – It is easy to become self-focused. We all have our own lives, our own problems, and our own goals. Add to that the abundance of electronic devices, social media, and unending entertainment and people can live in their own little worlds. We would do well to rekindle a sense of real community, even if it means our phones go unchecked.
2. Learn to listen - Some of the best advice in the world is recorded in James 1:19 – “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” It is human nature to want to be heard and for people to adopt our point of view. We must learn to listen more than we speak. We must learn to listen not so that we can argue but so that we can understand. We must learn that people will be more likely to listen to us when we respect them enough to listen to them.
3. Befriend people not like you – Friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. We tend to make friends with people that look like us, live like us, think like us, and have common interests with us. That’s fine but how many friends do you have with people racially different than yourself, politically different than yourself, religiously different than yourself, or financially different than yourself? When we befriend people radically different than ourselves we begin to see people as individuals not statistics or stereotypes.
4. Find common ground – When you allow yourself to get to know people vastly different than yourself you find a surprising truth: you have more in common than you thought. It may be a love for basketball, pottery, drawing, Batman, or guitar. It may be something far more substantive. All decent people (every group of people have them by the way) have this in common: they just want their family to enjoy the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Most people want to work hard, provide for their families, and live in peace. Especially in the church, there is no room for bigotry for we all have much in common in Christ. He transcends race, politics, finances, denominations, and any other dividing line.
5. Celebrate diversity – Not to counter the previous point but we are all different and that’s actually a good thing. Women and men complement one another with their unique beauties. Different cultures excel in different areas and, if we are honest, typically struggle in others. No single political viewpoint is perfect. Instead of avoiding or attacking opposing paradigms we would do well to embrace them. We don’t have to agree on everything, we won’t, but we should celebrate our differences and learn from each other.
6. A little empathy goes a long way - In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Before we judge others too sharply we should seek to view them through empathetic eyes. Let me give you some examples. I’ve been blessed to have had some of my closest friends be black: good men, honorable men, faithful friends. One by one they have told me how they literally fear for their life when pulled over by a police officer. A discussion of police brutality and race relations can be had elsewhere but for the purpose of my writing I just mean to share how they feel. These are not thugs, gangsters, or criminals. They are good men (one of them is actually a police officer himself) and yet they fear. As a white guy I can only barely understand that reality. On the other side, I doubt the black community can fully understand how frustrating, discouraging, and angering it is for whites to constantly be labeled as racist whether they are or aren’t. To be sure, racism exists in our country (everyone has to deal with it in their own hearts) but most of the white people I know have no hatred towards black people. Different cultures and opinions, to be sure, but not hatred. We need to learn to put ourselves in the shoes of others. If we are ever to move forward as a nation we must learn to walk a mile in someone’s shoes before we easily judge them. A little empathy goes a long way!
I am still a dreamer who longs for everyone to get along. I still have hope that one day we can learn to truly understand, love, and embrace others. I hope and pray that having the unity of September 12th, 2001 does not require having the suffering of September 11th once more. As for solutions, I neither have enough wisdom nor power nor influence to change the world. But I am willing to try. I am willing to have hard conversations. I am willing to walk arm and arm with anyone who sincerely wants peace. Maybe if enough people come together to try we will make a difference. Maybe that is the solution