A Good Way to Remember 9/11

A Good Way to Remember 9/11

NEVER FORGET: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observed a moment of silence this morning on the South Lawn of the White House to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)

By the time more than a decade has gone by, most national calamities have faded intohistory, events to be marked but no longer acted upon. It’s different with 9/11.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, still influence the United States’ politics, animate its military and fill its travelers with rage and chills. After sweeping commemorations on the 10th anniversary, the expressions of sadness and soul-searching have barely receded on the 11th anniversary today.

The occasion continues to challenge the nation.

The big challenge remains to be united, not divided, by the tragedy.

One way to use the moment as an inspiration for better things is to follow the suggestion of a Newport Beach-based group to make each Sept. 11 “a day of charitable service and doing good deeds.” The nonprofit organization MyGoodDeed promotes the idea, and says millions of Americans participate each year.

The roots of 9/11 Day are nonpartisan. It has been supported by President George W. Bush and President Obama, and its founders, David Paine and Jay Winuk, were spurred by the loss of Winuk’s brother Glenn, an attorney and volunteer firefighter who was among the 3,000 people killed in the World Trade Center.

The website 911day.org has information, including how to sign up for local volunteer efforts (which don’t necessarily require volunteers to be available today).

For the families who lost loved ones, the memory of 9/11 is acute every day, and they deserve special consideration on the anniversaries.

With that in mind, the directors of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum decided that this year’s ceremonies at the site of the World Trade Center would not include speeches by politicians but instead would feature only a reading of victims’ names by relatives.

Naturally, the effort to rid the largest 9/11 commemoration of politics has drawn charges that the organizers are playing politics in retaliation for some New York-area elected officials’ criticism of the memorial foundation.

This points up the difficulty of unlinking 9/11 and politics.

While that memory no longer dominates voters’ thoughts, a poll showed 37 percent of voters still consider terrorism and security to be “extremely important” issues in the presidential election, not too far behind the 54 percent who give the economy and jobs such marquee billing.

Thus, earlier today Obama participated in a memorial service at the Pentagon and held a moment of silence at the White House. Mitt Romney will speak at the annual conference of the National Guard. The tug of war over the legacy of 9/11 continues.

The attacks can hardly be compared with any other national tragedy and scandal. But it is worth noting that the direct and emotional effects of many historical events had passed by the 11th year after. Think of the resonance of the John F. Kennedy assassination by 1974, the Watergate scandal by 1985, or the Challenger shuttle explosion by 1997.

Sept. 11, 2001, though, continues to reverberate on Sept. 11, 2012. It continues to move and challenge Americans. For those motivated to rise above the politics of the moment, calls to service such as 9/11 Day offer a way.

Reprinted from The Los Angeles Daily News, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Used by permission of Newscom.

Whitney’s Homegoing Gives God the Glory

Whitney’s Homegoing Gives God the Glory

GOODBYE: Flowers and memorial tributes were abundant outside New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, where Whitney Houston's funeral was held. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Newscom)

There is no doubt that God was glorified on Saturday afternoon at pop icon Whitney Houston’s emotional homegoing service. Rev. Marvin Winans preached to nearly 1 million online viewers via UStream and millions more on CNN. If you followed the Twitter feed, it was as if the entire world sat down together for one powerful church service, and it was utterly beautiful.

There were performances from gospel singers Kim Burrell, CeCe Winans, as well as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and R. Kelly.

Watch Stevie Wonder’s touching performance below:

Watch R. Kelly’s performance of the song he wrote for Whitney’s final album, “I Look to You”

One of the most interesting takeaways was the power of God’s public glorification. Twitter was flooded with an overwhelming sense of humility and genuine appreciation of life. Though some expressed concern about a hint of “prosperity gospel” preaching in Rev. Winans’ eulogy, for the most part the twitterverse and blogosphere seemed genuinely stirred by the presentation of God’s Word. Many people tweeted that they hadn’t been to church in a while and that they were grateful to hear the Word today. Others seemed proud, like they were watching their favorite team playing in the Super Bowl. God was #winning.

God’s presence is so real, so tangible that it can be delivered even via the Internet. But there’s something about corporate worship that brings believers and non-believers to their knees. I am grateful that Whitney’s family didn’t allow Hollywood to dictate the service, and I am certain today that God was pleased. To God be the glory.

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.

I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.

By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.

To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.

This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.

During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.

I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.

Why did Christians commit genocide?

It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?

I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.

Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.

NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)

The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.

Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.

This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.

How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?

When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?

In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).

As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.

“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”

Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty.  Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.

Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.

God’s Agitator

God’s Agitator

LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement.  Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.

Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”

An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:

Connor:  You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.

Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?

Connor:  I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!

Shuttlesworth:  I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.

Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.

Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.

Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.

Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’” 

Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”

What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”

Shuttlesworth “conducted his civil rights activities with his hands still tightly grasping the pastoral reins of his local churches,” as my friend Andrew Manis told us in his wonderful 2001 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He believed that God was the great deliverer, who showed the Israelites that “all was not Egypt” and set the captives free.

MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)

Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.

Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:

“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others….  Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Street signs in downtown Atlanta, GA: Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and Capitol Ave

Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.

We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.

This past Sept. 11, I attended a dedication ceremony for yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.

Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.

Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:

Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.

There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”

The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.

Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.

She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”

She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.

“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”

She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.

“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”

She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.

As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.

“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”

Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.