“Where were you when the towers fell?” I arrived at work a little early and the office was eerily quiet. As I walked to my cubicle, I noticed everyone staring intently at their computers. I began to hear murmurs of “terrorist attack” and “World Trade Center” and soon saw for myself the jarring images of CNN across my screen — dark smoke billowing into the sky, screaming crowds in the streets below, and replays of a plane seemingly disintegrating into a massive skyscraper.
It wasn’t until the winter of 2003 that I would see Ground Zero in person, then still a massive pile of rubble, surrounded by chain-link fencing full of flowers, makeshift memorials, and handwritten messages of hope and despair. You could feel the grief in the air, and the smoldering anger underneath that pain.
What does it mean, now two decades past this traumatic event, to “never forget” 9/11? And why are we simultaneously encouraged to “move on from the past” when it comes to other great American tragedies, like the genocidal erasure of Indigenous peoples, or the horrific violence against Black people from chattel slavery through Jim Crow? Selective memory in this case is easy to explain on one level: Sept. 11 is a tragedy we externalize and blame on outsiders to keep this country’s historic violence against people of color at arm’s length in order to maintain a narrative of American exceptionalism and American innocence.
Another irony of selective memory is apparent: This moment of resurgent Christian nationalism bears a striking resemblance to the groundswell of patriotic evangelicalism after 9/11. “Memory” itself is being contested and redefined. The collective consciousness of what some call a “Christian” nation has become more than conveniently edited to omit certain unfortunate events. An entirely new and revisionist “history” is now being constructed in its place — an imagined world where subjugated people were patriotic and white supremacy was justifiable. What happens to our moral imagination when memory becomes fiction?
Remembering rightly, with special attention to where (and therefore who) we once were, is absolutely central to the Christian story and Christian identity. The Law and the Prophets are saturated with refrains about memory for God’s people: “Remember you were slaves in Egypt,” therefore show hospitality to the stranger (Deuteronomy 15:15). Jesus calls on the power of memory in the upper room before his death; the Passover meal evokes the images and symbols of a God who saves the vulnerable. And if there’s any ritual that anchors the Christian tradition, it’s the table where we remember a body broken on behalf of others for the healing of the world.
All of these ways of remembering would seem to suggest that a Christian memory should never be subject to the agenda of the state or the interests of the empire. Rather, the people of God remember a God who delivers those who cry out in anguish for relief from the suffering that the powerful inflict upon them. This is another refrain in the Christian story: Remembering rightly always points to the God of the Exodus, and a lineage of prophetic justice from Moses to Isaiah to Jesus (Deuteronomy 10; Isaiah 56; Luke 4).
Prophetic memory also reminds us that terror does not only come from our enemies abroad; sometimes terror is homegrown. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., a 6-acre memorial “uses sculpture, art, and design to contextualize racial terror… [in] the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.” The language of racial terrorism is intentional and appropriate as we reckon with the legacy of thousands of lynchings of Black people throughout the South. The ones who carried out these lynchings were not “radical Islamic extremists,” but people who identified as white, Christian Americans.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s founder, Bryan Stevenson, is often criticized for imagining that a public racial reckoning is possible. Why must we go back through this painful past of violence when we could instead be focusing on all the racial progress we’ve made? But James Baldwin reminds us that “not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Put more simply, there can be no reconciliation without the truth, and summoning the courage to face ourselves truthfully is the beginning of remembering rightly.
I have not yet made the pilgrimage to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery that accompanies the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. But just as I had to visit Ground Zero in person to grasp the weight of its significance, I hope to walk among the 800 steel monuments that represent the U.S. counties where the racial terrorism of lynching took place. As EJI works diligently to connect the broader legacy of slavery to mass incarceration and ongoing police violence in communities of color, we begin to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror. If there is any shared future in this country that has yet to face itself fully, we must not look away.
In the end, Christian remembering does not take sides in the popular tendency to measure comparative human suffering. Did lives lost in 9/11 justify countless more lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were thousands of lynchings proportional to the Trail of Tears? This zero-sum approach to righting past wrongs is a political dead-end and a dehumanizing calculus. The power of memory in the Christian tradition moves the horizons of possibility to new ground in a world where justice feels elusive and temporal.
Christian memory dares to imagine a place where swords are turned into plowshares, and the lion and the lamb dwell together in peace. Christians long for a time when people no longer study war and the most vulnerable among us are more than an afterthought in our rearview mirror. To realize this vision in the present will require us to reimagine our selective memories and recover a sense of collective history. If we can face who we have been and who we have become, we may begin to see our past and ourselves in a new light.