Twenty years ago this weekend the world changed. Many, perhaps most, readers of this column will remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first became aware of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC on 11th September 2001. Doubtless we will all be sharing some of those memories in our conversations this weekend.
For me, however, the memory that has stuck even harder is that of flying into Charleston, South Carolina the following January. As the aeroplane – or is it an airplane when it’s over US soil? – began its descent and the ground became visible through the cabin windows, an impromptu chorus of ‘America the Beautiful’ began.
This memory sticks with me, I think, because it is one of the few moments in my life when I have felt genuinely foreign. In my case, that is particularly ironic. I have lived in France and in Spain, where I only rarely felt quite so excluded by virtue of my nationality. I am also, in fact, not a foreigner but rather a US citizen, born in the state of New York and required by law to travel into and within the USA on my American passport.
That feeling of exclusion on the basis of nationality was, of course, not the intention of those two dozen or so fellow passengers who sang, passionately and with tears in their eyes, of their love for their country on that day. It would not have occurred to them that some of those sharing that space with them, knowing neither the tune nor the words, would find it uncomfortable and excluding. And there, I think, is the point I am driving at – we all too rarely do.
Nationalism is just one of the many things we reach for to give us a sense of belonging, of identity and safety. Participation in a Christian community may be another. In both cases, it is easy to forget that the things we do that reassure us of our own membership can easily convince others of the opposite.
Remembering that every human person is created and loved by God – as well as being in need of God’s grace and love – is never easy, I know. But I also know that the key to reducing the frequency of events like those of 11th September 2001 lies in getting better at it.
May God bless you all,