Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time To Forget

That evening, after walking from the city to Falls Church because our car was locked away in a building that had received an opportunistic bomb threat, we sat downstairs with our children.  We were physically tired, but that was nothing.  We were emotionally drained, taken down to nothing by the events of the day, still struggling to process the great black pillar of smoke against the perfect crystal sky.  The helicopters.  The fighters, roaring overhead, loaded for bear.  Being two drops in that river of humanity flowing from the city, trivial extras in some big budget disaster film.

The television ran clip after clip, of bodies falling and towers falling.  Then they replayed them.  And replayed them again.  Late in the evening, Dubya had come on, looking and speaking like someone had recently whacked him in the back of the head with a bat.  It was not reassuring.  Then back to towers falling, and people falling, and people talking anxiously.  And pictures of dark black smoke against a crystal blue sky.

Our three year old, curious as always, peppered me with questions while the one-year old goofed about.  What's happening, Daddy?  What's happening to those buildings, Daddy?  I tried to give him some gentle but not-lying answers, and then realized it was time to turn off the big pipe of endlessly cycling fear and horror that was pouring into our home.

I did, and as this was 2001, I put a tape into the VCR.  VeggieTales, as it happened.  The boys stilled to watch it, and I curled up on the sofa with my wife.  It could easily have been the night before.  There were no rumbles of bombardment, no panicked cries, no sounds of war.  Instead, there was Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato.  They were sharing gently mischievous lessons about kindness and compassion.  

When the time came for Silly Songs with Larry, it was the Song of the Cebu.  I found myself unable to stop smiling.  It was a place of grace, a place to set aside the fear for a moment and be safe with the little ones and my wife half-asleep on my shoulder.

We need those places if we are to heal.  Terror and fear and anxiety can't always be in the forefront of our minds, day after day, year after year.  The inability to move forward and to find islands of forgetting does bad things to our souls, makes us too hard or too weak.  Or both.

That is true for human beings.  It is also true for the hearts of nations.


  1. Indeed. Pearl Harbor was the rare exception in which a country aiming to take and hold an empire was misguided enough to treacherously attack a superpower. In that case, it was possible to subdue the Japanese, strip them of their incipient empire, and confine them to their home islands.

    However, historically, there are thousands, tens of thousands, of tells and city mounds, each made of dozens of layers before being finally abandoned. Almost every city in existence is built on the rubble of past incarnations, each reduced to debris by invasion, riots, rebellions, and other violence. If each were turned into a memorial after one disaster, there would be no cities left anywhere. The occasional rape and sack worth remembering by historians of anything but military history is the exception.

    America has the luxury of memorializing all sorts of things because it has a relatively short history after the discontinuity in the 1600s. We do not have a stock of rubble such as is found in Northern Europe, Southern Europe, the Near East, the Mideast, or even East Asia, South and Central America, or South East Asia.

    Should we forget in 10 years? It is a question of perspective. If that was the first shot of a new phase in the war between real Islam and the world, a rallying cry for the Muslims who are not secularized and made inert (as many Christians, and people of other faiths, have been), then we can't forget and won't because the battles will continue. If it was a failed attempt, then we can learn a few lessons about terrorists, brush it off, rebuild and move on. In that case, forgetting is perfectly healthy, historically normal, and advisable.

  2. Interesting. That cartoon is a bowdlerized version of a story about a violent, aggressive invasion of a city - facilitated by the felling of its most impressive construction, its defensive walls - and then the total genocide of its inhabitants - and the plunder of its riches - by a bunch of violent religious fanatics who believe that they are acting with the will and aid of God.

  3. @ Browning: And this is why Shannie so loves your running commentary during VeggieTales. ;0)

  4. It's a very current moral dilemma for me right now actually. Thusfar the kids have had no interest in VeggieTales, so it hasn't been an issue. But Aldie just discovered it this week.

    And I have no objection in principle to their learning Bible stories. I learned them as well. But I do think there is something extremely repugnant about taking stories about genocide and conquest and sort of halfway sanitizing them for children. It's creepy. And frankly, I think, wrong.

    For example, Cucumber Joshua comes to Jericho and announced to its inhabitants, "No, you don't understand. God has given us this land for our new home, so you're gonna have to leave."

    Now, I feel my job as a parent ought to be offer my children some moral guidance in understanding this story. See, kids, Joshua is wrong here. It is evil come to a place where people are living and then tell them that because of some voice in your head that they need to clear out of their own home. How would you like it if someone did that to us? Right? Because that's the right answer. And to let them believe that Joshua is a suitable hero of a moral story is to get things exactly backwards.

    But VeggieTales does not make this easy because its creators lack the moral sensibility to understand that they are teaching that evil is good. As a parent, my duty to provide moral guidance for my children is being subverted by this tripe that's being aimed at them by well-meaning but deeply misguided people.

    So I don't know. This is an actual ethical problem for me. What did you tell your kids when they encountered that story?

  5. If you feel that way, why bother with the Bible at all? Make up your own story, to go with the God you have fashioned in your own image, and he/she/it can demonstrate your own moral/ethical principles with as much clarity and consistency as you would like. Then, perhaps, you can produce a TV show about fruit that teach those stories, unadulterated, unmodified, and in perfect harmony with yourself.

    Personally, the challenge of the God of the Bible is in part how much he is estranged not only from the religious leaders of the old Testament, but also from those of the time of Jesus and the times of today. He has Aachan killed, praises Phineas, strikes the fig tree, kills Ananias and Sapphira, and does not show any sign of changing his tune in the New Testament, frankly. He spares Noah in the flood, the remnant taken to Babylon, and a remnant in Revelation. He is merciful throughout, but only in light of His presumed authority. Challenge His right to be the giver of life (and taker of life) in all cases, including genocide, and you are left with an empty shell.

    So, why bother with this at all? If you choke on Jericho, the whole of the text and tradition is repugnant to you. On the other hand, if you embrace Jericho, secularized American Christianity must seem an odd duck indeed.

  6. I have not fashioned any sort of God, but if I were to describe one as sort of metaphor for what is good, he would be far morally superior to the one fashioned by the authors of the Bible. It's not very hard to do. Challenging the God of the Bible is morally necessary. If it leaves an "empty shell," perhaps that shell was always empty. As it was for other "Gods" of other cultures that were also morally inferior -- cultures with slavery and misogyny and human sacrifice. I would challenge to morality of the Incan sun god, and so would you, and it troubles neither of us that this leaves that character "empty."

    But why do I "bother" with Bible? Because the Bible, and those who would falsely proclaim it a source for moral guidance, are perpetually bothering with me with IT, and the ones I love and must care for. When the stories of conquest and genocide are made cute and palatable for small children with mediocre animation, it's not so easy to know what to do. Do I forbid them from watching it? Do I let them but try to set them straight about what is REALLY right and wrong, contra the cartoon's message? Do I ignore it and trust them to figure out, as I did, what is truly right or wrong?

    In Veggie Tales the conquered Jerichoan peas run away with bandages on their faces. On its face, this is no worse than when Bugs Bunny arranges for something similar to happen to Daffy Duck. But it is no better either, and the problem is that it purports to be better. It tries to teach my children a moral message that obedience to "God" is the highest form of morality, even when it leads to behavior that any morally literate human being knows is wrong.