Catastrophic losses bring profound changes to communities.
From the family to the national level, these changes tend to become markers in the flow of history between the pre- and the post- of whatever the event was.
Whether it was the death of a child a year ago, a civil war a century and a half ago, or a terrorist attack whose 15th anniversary we mark this Sunday, we commonly observe that things will never be the same again.
What happens to a community 15 years after a loss such as the fall of the World Trade Center towers, when a handful of passionate zealots backed by a powerful ideology destroyed the very visible symbols of America’s economic success and took thousands of innocent lives with them?
We have watched it happen. We have seen the horror, the grief, the anger, the fear, the blame and the impulse to retaliate; we have also seen the courage, the resilience, the grace that have marked the response to the direct and indirect victims of the loss.
We have seen the tendency to let the loss and its pain drive wedges between parts of the human family; we have also seen efforts to reach across ravines of separation to build bridges of understanding that mend the broken places in our communities.
Modern wars in our history have reflected this pattern. After the final ceasefires, efforts soon begin to rebuild a sustainable world after a bitter conflict has destroyed so much of it and so many of its people.
It is probably much too early to identify all the long-range effects of the attacks of 9/11, and there will be no shortage of analyses and interpretations of that part of our common story.
It may not be too early, however, to suggest one feature that may have a profound effect on where that story goes from here. Fortunately, we have a paradigm that may help us.
Centuries before the symbols of America’s greatness crumbled to the ground before our very eyes, another nation saw the symbols of its greatness – a city, a temple and a “promised land” – fall to the hands of the Babylonians.
The pathos and despair of this loss were compounded by the loss of what they understood to be a covenant promise of God’s guaranteed protection.
We can see the depth of that despair in the psalms that reflect it: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
But we can also hear another voice. We associate it with the prophets of the period who shifted their emphasis from judgment to hope in a new interpretation of the covenant promise from land, city, temple and royal lineage to a reoriented heart and mind among the people of the covenant community (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
This “rethinking” of the covenant planted the seeds for the transformation of their world of loss into a new world, not of a restored past, but of hope for a different kind of future: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).
Sources available to us remind us that this transformation was not easy or complete.
By the New Testament period, the covenant community was still divided by parties that embraced different understandings of covenant theology. Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, even terrorists (sicarii – “dagger men”) reflect this diversity.
Still the momentum of the rethinking was clear over time – tribal, even national thinking, was giving way to global thinking, exclusive thinking was moving toward inclusion of the “other,” hostility was yielding to community as a new way of living, enemies would be transformed into friends.
It would be a peculiar kind of blindness that would fail to see that we are beneficiaries of this rethinking of the ancient covenant. What we claim as the core of our faith is a direct fruit of it.
Now, would it be too far-fetched to suggest that a long-range faithful response to the devastation of 9/11 might be a rethinking of the American covenant?
It has been “rethought” many times before in response to such losses as the Civil War and as a result of confrontations with various injustices previously unnoticed at best and at worst tolerated and defended.
Maybe covenants of all kinds are made to be “rethought” in response to the lessons of experience, including perhaps even devastating losses.
The heirs of those prophetic voices of long ago are still with us, and the choice of whether to listen to and live by them is still ours.
Every word, every deed, every vote and every social media post is an expression of what we are choosing in response to 9/11.
What will it be?
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.