This week, we observed 15 years since the 9/11 attacks that paralyzed our nation. We have exhibited symptoms of a persistent illness ever since.
President George W. Bush’s response to the attacks was to declare the “Axis of Evil” — three nations we now know had nothing to do with the attack. We invaded two countries, started two wars, and nearly 700,000 images of God are dead as a result.
The wars did eventually hobble our actual aggressor — Al Qaeda — but they also destabilized the balance of power in the region, paved the way for the rise of ISIS, the Syrian conflict, and the Syrian refugee crisis. There are currently more than 5,000 troops still in Iraq.
Nationally, we are arguably in the middle of the most divisive presidential campaign in modern history. The era of hashtags has given way to exhaustion. New deaths by police officers are happening every week, but we’re not hearing about them because it’s too overwhelming to keep up.
On a recent visit to Flint, I spoke with community leaders who are still suffering with no clean water. I sat in an elementary school classroom where the bathrooms were nearly unusable. Visitors clean their hands with bottled water mixed with bleach.
In August, I attended a Story Workshop at The Seattle School’s Allender Center. I went thinking I was being invited to a writing workshop, one that could help the healing process for people in the movement for justice. It wasn’t a writing workshop, but it did lead to healing. Over the course of several days, workshop facilitators led participants to examine the stories we tell about the most formative moments in our lives. Deep examination in the context of safe community, led to revelation after revelation — breakthrough after breakthrough. I can honestly say, something shifted in me as a result of that deep examination of the story I tell.
This has led me to think deeply about the story we tell about our nation. Is it possible for us to experience that kind of deep national shift? I am convinced the only way for us to heal as a nation is to interrogate our stories.
That is what Colin Kaepernick is doing by sitting down during the national anthem. He examined the words and followed his conscience. In good conscience, he could not say this is truly the land of the free — not after the revelation in recent years that police officers can still kill black men, women, and children without accountability. And since his action, scholars have revealed the history of the anthem itself and unmasked its antebellum roots.
We are a people that needs to examine the story we tell about ourselves.
Our situation reminds me of Nehemiah: The power of his witness was that he faced head on the reality that the walls were down in Jerusalem. He dropped to his knees. He prayed. He wept. And he fasted.
Fasting sensitizes the heart and soul. It brings emotional walls down and helps us to feel the heart of God toward injustice. After fasting Nehemiah prayed this prayer:
“O Lord God of heaven … Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.”
Nehemiah’s fasting revealed to him his own complicity in the fall of the walls of Jerusalem — a land this exiled slave never lived in. He saw it clearly: The walls were down because Jerusalem’s leaders compelled merchants to serve them after they came out of Temple worship on the Sabbath. In essence they said to the merchants, “God cares about coming into fellowship with us, but with you? Not so much.” That was a lie. The religious leaders also charged interest on the land causing families to have to choose which they would keep; their land or their children. They sold their children into slavery to help pay for the land. What was the lie here? Profit is more important than people. I’m imagine the story they told themselves included justifications like: “Desperate times require desperate measures.” But these false narratives shaped society.. In Nehemiah’s sensitized view, these lies were the reason the walls were down.
Nehemiah faced the truth, renounced the lie, and worked to restructure Hebrew society around the truth. That was his nation’s act of repentance.
Our nation and the post-colonial world is facing a critical moment. We must face the diagnosis rising from the colonized. We must accept the reality that we are ill. We have been living according to false narratives and led by spiritual lies. And those lies have shaped and ordered life among us since our founding days.
How do we heal?
We open our national story to the gentle, yet precise interrogation of the whole community — especially those most impacted by our nation’s sin. We let truth live. Finally, we must accept the prescription for healing. We must heed the calls of the Nehemiahs among us to restructure our world in light of the truth of what happened and the truth of the image of God, which lives in us all.