On Saturday, we will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. We will do so through television specials, reflections on where we were that morning, and solemn moments of prayer at the moments when time seemingly stood still.
Much has happened in our lives over these past two decades. We have seen our nation fight a War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, which only recently came to an end. We have seen the death of Osama bin Ladin, who was the ringmaster of the terrorist attacks. As well, we have seen our nation come unglued as a result of toxic polarization and divisions within our communities. We have experienced disunity with our responses to COVID-19.
While most of our conversations, this week, will focus on what we have experienced, I wonder if there is a deeper need for those of us in the church to reflect on who we are and what we have become as a result of these experiences. One cannot experience all that we have as a people without it affecting us in some way. The same is true for our churches, as we are made up of people who come together to worship God and bring their shared experiences into the sacredness of the community.
For one, the church has become more defined by the polarization within our society. It is perhaps expected that the more divided and polarized we have become in society that it would affect the church. We see the polarized divisions affect the church in how denominations and churches align themselves as being “conservative” or “progressive” as a banner for their witness. In doing so, the focus is not as much on the living witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is a particular framing of the message around a partisan lens. The polarization of society have led many, both clergy and laity, to look for churches that are more aligned towards a particular political persuasion.
As a result, we struggle to express a “love of neighbor” in its Biblical form. To love our neighbor means that we do not just love those that recognizes the need to not just love those we have an affection towards. It also means to love as Christ loves those that we do not agreed with and struggle to understand.
We also have become more fearful of our communities over the past 20 years. We have lived with a fear of the unknown and what might happen next. The reaction to this has been, for some, to believe that the next incident will happen in their church. It is a reaction that is promoted by those who market fear to sell trainings, weapons, and other forms of security to individuals and groups. The product of this has been to see churches with security teams that patrol churches looking for potential threats. We’ve also seen churches be open that they have armed security within the church just in case.
While some level of caution is always warranted, the way many churches have responded over the last 20 years is counter to the very witness of Christ. It was Jesus, after all, who told his disciples to put their swords away when he was arrested. The nature of how we have responded to these past 20 years sends a message that our communities to be feared and not loved, which is counter to the work of Christ that calls us to go into our communities with the love of God.
The church has also become less important in people’s lives than before. Whether this is a result of everything that has taken place over the last 20 years or not, we have see a slow decline in the place that the church has in people’s lives and the community.
There are several potential reasons for this. For one, the last 20 years have forced people to wrestle with the question directly of why there is evil in the world. That question can rock a person’s faith if it is not guided in a loving and faithful conversation. As well, aspects of society have filled the gaps of connection that the church has missed out on it as it has pulled back due to its divisions and fear. Sports, work, and other activities have filled the gaps for relationships, connection, and purpose that the church had always helped people to experience. As the church moves into a margins, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it has failed to adequately respond to its new place other than to respond in anger.
It has been a difficult and challenging two decades of life. It is important to reflect on what we’ve experienced and to consider who we are as a result. This work will help us to respond in appropriate ways to the challenges before us as a witness of God in an ever-changing world.