West Palm Beach, FL. For those old enough to remember, the scenes of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan bring to mind what took us there twenty years ago. On September 11, 2001, I was an undergraduate student at a Christian college. We learned that something had happened in the cafeteria that morning. People were gathered around the television, learning that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. We ate breakfast without realizing the seriousness of it all, then we went to class. My professor canceled class and turned on the television to watch with us. As we watched, we began to recognize the gravity of the situation. The towers fell. We saw people running from clouds of smoke, people fleeing danger in American streets. There were reports of other attacks. Something had happened at the Pentagon. No one knew when it would end, no one knew what would happen next. We worried about the White House, we worried about people we knew. I thought mostly about my father, who was in the Army. I was sure he would be sent to war. I was a regular writer and sometime editor for the college newspaper, so I also wrote something. This ran in the September 14 edition of the Swinging Bridge:
As we all know, on Tuesday, September 11, the U.S. was faced with what seemed impossible. The horrific day seemed filled with visions from films or nightmares, certainly not reality. These attacks are being heralded as the “Second Pearl Harbor.” Whether or not “Remember September 11” becomes a rallying cry for various offenses, the world has changed for Americans. It was a day that will be remembered, for many as the death date of the innocence and the idealism of our generation.
The breadth of the effects of this cataclysmic turn of events is hardly a thing to be comprehended. As the days pass our numbness will gradually turn to pain and then an ache as we realize what has been lost. It is more than our feeling of safety that has been violated. We have been stripped of our eloquence, our comprehension, our ignorance and our Eden-like vision of America, where there may be some evil inside, but the outside is powerless. Answers elude us, refusing to come quickly or easily. There is no American in the world who will not be affected by this tragedy. If not through personal loss, all will be touched through the changes in American doctrine and actions. This nightmare will remain always in the back of American minds and foreign policy, lurking in the subconscious and creeping to the forefront of our thoughts and tongues.
During this time of crisis, we must remember not just to watch the skies, but to watch ourselves. As our veins begin to pump red, white and blue blood, we must guard our hearts against the excesses of vengeance. We must not support irresponsible aggression. We must foster thoughtful progress over knee-jerk reaction as we struggle to grasp the depth of the new reality we now inhabit. We must not forget the value of reflection and change. America is a land of hope eternal, and we must now progress from our loss in a manner that bestows hope on those everywhere who already live in the shattered world we have just entered.
America was an interesting and almost unfamiliar place for the next few weeks. Flags were everywhere. All bridges and overpasses were suddenly festooned. Politicians agreed on things. Everything was canceled. We were in collective shock and mourning. How could you have a birthday party or play sports after what had happened? You couldn’t. And then gradually, you could. The Yankees played a home game. We cried and entered a new stage of grief. Everyone started saying that if you don’t live your life and enjoy things, “the terrorists win.” (People said that for years.) Workers sifted the rubble in New York and the nation prepared for battle. We were going to triumph.
A Christian college is an interesting place to encounter a world-changing event. I was at Messiah College (now Messiah University), which is in scenic central Pennsylvania. People at every Christian college complain about it being a “bubble.” It is and it isn’t. There were students at Messiah College who lived in New York City. We had some students leave college to join the Army. Students donated blood. Students prayed. We all pondered. And because of Messiah’s Anabaptist heritage, we had vibrant debate about the justification for war, not just later with Iraq but even with Afghanistan. The green-haired student who had been wearing a “not my president” George W. Bush t-shirt since 2000 never quit wearing it.
The United States went to war, first in Afghanistan and then also in Iraq. It was a “War on Terror,” and not always a conventional war. Initially the U.S. public followed events overseas, we watched broadcasts, we speculated about where Osama bin Laden was hiding, we saw the names of soldiers who died overseas commemorated in our towns. Over time, we watched much less. We tracked fewer names and events. People debated drone usage, but they didn’t know deployment figures. The wars became the backdrop for movies and television shows. They stopped making the news.
Twenty years later, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan. And the images look more like the fall of Saigon than a legacy of hope. And I am in a college classroom again, now as a professor at a Christian university. My students are too young to remember September 11, 2001. Many of them were not yet born. When they go to New York, they do not remember the towers as they were, they just visit One World Trade Center. They’ve always taken their shoes off to fly; they grew up in the embrace of the TSA. Osama bin Laden was killed when they were children. He has been dead for a long time. Saddam Hussein has been dead even longer. For today’s twenty-year-olds, the War on Terror has been the low hum in the background of their lives. We have always been in Afghanistan and Iraq. For them, our messy departure from Afghanistan is the dramatic change, and the images of it are the rude shock. Suddenly Afghanistan is on every television, and it appears to indicate a huge failure on our part.
One of the fears that people have about college is that it disillusions students and makes them critical of the United States. The truth is, while we debate how students should be taught U.S. history, they are living it, too. Students don’t just take their cues from textbooks and people in tweed, they see the news. World events are also part of how they form their opinions. James Baldwin wrote that “we carry our history with us. We are our history.” By history he largely meant things that have happened, but it is also true of history as historians practice it—as a narrative. We carry our narrative interpretations of the past with us, too, because we are always writing them. And the material for those narratives is everywhere.
Twenty years ago, when the two towers fell, it was a shock to a country triumphant from the Cold War and confident in its status as the reigning world power. But it must be hard to be a young person right now and not feel that everything is kind of falling apart. The U.S. went to Afghanistan remarkably politically united, but we are leaving it very politically divided. COVID, too, has taken its toll on the country, with the population split over the economy, masks, and vaccines. While inflation is going up, church membership is going down. Denominations and congregations are strained, and a wave of leaders has recently fallen from grace. Believers of all ages are trying to make sense of it all, as we can see in the popularity of works like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast from Christianity Today and the Jesus and John Wayne book by Kristen Kobes du Mez. If twenty years ago, young people were at risk of charging too hard into the unknown, today many may be more in danger of retreating into cynicism. What can a history professor at a Christian university say to today’s twenty-year-olds about what is happening and how they might be called to respond?
In many respects, people at a Christian college should be prepared to encounter the unfortunate and the broken. Christianity teaches us that the same sin nature marks our friends, our enemies, and ourselves, as well as all people in the past and the present. That our enemies are capable of evil we can comprehend, but our own failings are also more real and more harmful than we can imagine. People and places will fail. Our own limitations will be more than liabilities at times. We can expect the imperfect. As Paul told us in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The historical evidence for sin nature is pretty compelling, too. Anyone who studies the past can think of countless ways that humans have harmed each other, intentionally and unintentionally.
Yet awareness of imperfection does not always make it easier to encounter this reality in our lives. The realities of our world and our communities can come up hard against both the idealism of youth and the narratives of our upbringings. For some reason, each generation seems almost determined to find its own disillusionment and obligated to discover the imperfections of national politicians and policies for itself. The generation raised in the shadow of Watergate and all that Nixon entailed was still surprised and indignant to learn about Iran-Contra. The Korean War was the “forgotten war,” but Vietnam vets were unprepared to be forgotten. The questions that young people watching Afghanistan today are asking are not very different from the questions of veterans in Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary.
In your twenties, you look at the world through your own eyes and begin to wonder, what is this thing that I am part of? People in college ask that question about their country, but they also ask it about their faith community. And it is not uncommon for people who ask hard questions or have high expectations to experience profound disappointment. Around a hundred years ago, a generation of war veterans—many of them volunteers—grew disillusioned when they realized that the Great War was not the “war to end all wars” after all. There is a reason that so many people quote Hemingway’s lines from A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you, too but there will be no special hurry.”
It’s tempting to develop a worldview like Holden Caufield’s in The Catcher in the Rye. Many people do turn out to be phonies and a lot of real meaning is missed in everyday life. If ever you think you’ve found something truly nice or a little sanctuary from the roughness of the world, you turn around and see someone has scrawled profanity on the wall. As Holden observes, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.” But Holden is a fictional, depressed, chain-smoking sixteen-year-old, his worldview is not the destiny of all people who are sensitive to the beauty and the pain around them.
If what we know about the world leaves us little room for illusions, both history and faith also offer grounds for chastened hope. One aspect of youth is having a relatively limited amount of experience. When you are young, every big thing that happens can feel unprecedented, simply because it is not precedented in your own life. Your sense of how things have “always” been may be very limited. The philosopher Seneca said that the study of the past allows us to benefit from the experiences of others. We see further when we extend our sight beyond our own experience. History can help us consider the possibility that we may be in the trough of the wave, and there may be more to the ocean than that. We do not need to be cynics to survive.
History also emphasizes that the present is insufficient for fully understanding world events unfolding around us. The meaning of an event cannot be determined right away. The effects of an event can last for centuries, each ripple reshaping that event’s meaning in time. As we try to piece together a provisional meaning, history warns us not to over-rely on the present or to overemphasize the significance of the most recent events. Neither does history recommend leaning on single causes or simple explanations. Cynicism prematurely ends the narrative, but the strange comfort of history is the ability to acknowledge that our current understanding of what happened and what is happening is incomplete and to leave room for meaning to emerge.
If history asks us to put the events around us in context, Christianity promises the context of a metanarrative in which good things can grow from ashes. The gospel teaches that there is always the possibility of new life. Things may be very dark, but the darkness cannot overcome the light that is Christ. The crucifixion was followed by the resurrection. The Bible shows us that there is always a potential plot twist, a eucatastrophe, as one veteran of World War I put it. Moses may not enter the promised land, but Nineveh may also be spared. Famine may fall on the land, but ravens may feed you. The expected son may not inherit everything. Zacchaeus may change his ways. The lame may walk. We cannot always predict what we will see and experience in this life. Just as we need not be cynics, neither must we be Stoics. We will encounter good as well as evil in this world.
Our present circumstances are not explained away by the possibility of future good or future understanding, but they can be endured without despair, and such hope makes noble action possible even in a broken world. Christianity teaches that meaning can be present, even now, in the most awful or ordinary of circumstances. This is why Paul urged the Corinthians to do everything for God’s glory. Tolstoy wrote compellingly about this in Anna Karenina. At the end of the book, the character of Levin has experienced a religious awakening, but he also realizes that he will still have everyday concerns, conversations and conflicts, only “my life now—my whole life, irrespective of everything that might happen to me, every minute of it—is not only not meaningless like it was before, but has the indisputable meaning of goodness, which I have the power to instill in it!” Levin realizes that through Christ, goodness can infiltrate every circumstance and bring meaning to things both high and low. The meaning of his circumstances is not based entirely on the circumstances themselves.
The circumstances in which today’s college students find themselves are not inspiring. Twenty years ago, college students were shaken and many of us were convinced that going to war would bring justice to the U.S. and make the world a safer place. Today’s college students are watching flights out of Kabul and probably having very different thoughts about what may happen next. Their confidence in collective action is also affected by their church and political environments. The past and present are full of failures and disappointments; the future will be, too. But even as we find ourselves surrounded by overnight foreign policy experts, we can keep in mind that the story isn’t over yet. The meaning and outcomes of whatever we see are not as determined as they may seem. As faith and history teach us, the narrative is still unfolding and it is not entirely predictable. And as Christianity in particular teaches us, we also have the opportunity to respond meaningfully to a broken world. By doing so, we might find ourselves surprised by the redemptive light that breaks in upon our dark days.