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Our Native Tongue


Our Native Tongue

Kristin Hornstein

They said it would be our generation's Kennedy assassination. The thing we looked back on and swapped stories about, a day crystalized in our collective memory. For me it was first period Spanish class, an afterthought to the morning announcements, stuck somewhere between the soccer team's latest victory and the theater tickets on sale that afternoon. I remember my teacher muttering something about why a pilot would be flying a plane so low.... and then on to conjugations. Words in Spanish to distract us from what we didn't yet have words for in English. 

Terrorism. Islamic extremism. Osama Bin Laden. al-Queda. al-Shebab. Jihad. Taliban. ISIS. Today I don't remember much of my Spanish vocabulary, but I'm fluent in the language of terror. We all are. 

We've had 18 years of immersion, 18 years of learning this language that brings death and darkness everywhere it goes. 18 years of news-cycles and images on screens and Middle Eastern instability. 18 years of suicide bombings and cell groups and domestic terror and racial profiling. We speak the language of a world where lives are sacrificed by the thousands in a war no one agreed to fight. And we've learned so well. We can speak articulately about the refugee crisis, assert our opinions on foreign policy, and stomach watching videos from the latest ISIS beheadings because even that somehow fits into our new patterns of speech. Just another conjugation of the verb "to kill". 

I've heard it said that you know you're fluent in a second language when your brain no longer has to translates before reaching understanding. When you cease to hear through the filter of your mother tongue, and are able instead to comprehend and speak only through your new acquired language, that's when you know you've arrived. 

As I sit here this Wednesday afternoon 18 years after those towers toppled, it breaks my heart to think of how numb I’ve become to this terror-tongue screaming all around. It’s no longer just on my television. It’s in our schools, our churches, our concerts and our public spaces. Another shooting. Another debate. Another politician and another prayer and I’m not sure either are being heard. And I confess that in my fluency, familiarity has fostered complacency. My newsfeed reads like a catalogue of sensationalism and cynicism. Friends posts alternate between pretty “Never Forget” images and quippy memes followed by media articles that seek added shock value to a culture grown accustomed to death for death's sake. And all the while, the language center of my brain seeks to translate this broken speech into words my heart can comprehend. 

I wonder how we would have understood this social and political landscape if it exists 18 years ago. As I remember it, 18 years ago when someone said they were praying for New York, no one accused the religious right of using a crisis to push an agenda. 18 years ago when flags were flying from every car door and porch window, no one condemned their neighbors for jumping on some patriotic bandwagon. 18 years ago, when the world stood with us in grief and solidarity, no one wrote hateful articles about how the media was ignoring atrocities in Iraq and Syria and the Amazon. We say “Never Forget,” and yet we have forgotten so much.

What happened to that mother-tongue of ours? Our native language? Do you remember what it was called? Innocence, maybe? Or compassion. Humanity, perhaps. Can you hear it now? Even just a small whisper in the recesses of your mind? A language of grief and of sorrow, of heartbreak over the darkness in this world.

As I dig deep and try to listen to that old language in my own soul, I'll admit I understand why we've silenced it. It's a devastating sound. To really feel the pain of loss and the depravity of mankind. To think about the mothers and the wives and the children and the brothers and the fathers killed this past month alone in El Paso and Beirut and the Bahamas. To think about what must have happened to the killers to get them to the place that they are now, their mental health, their broken hearts and broken minds. To think about our own soldiers and what's asked of them as they take one life to save another.

But that voice, sad and sorrowful, speaks something far truer that our cynicism and sensationalism ever could.

I remember the name for that old language. It's called Hope. 

The language of Hope knows that 'Never Forget' is far more than a hashtag. Hope drives us to our knees, pleading with a holy and good God for the restoration of all things. Hope streams tears down our checks as we grieve with those who will never know justice in this lifetime. Hope increases the capacities of our hearts to extend beyond our own national, cultural, and religious borders to see all mankind as Image bearers.

And Hope tells us the fight is not over. We wage war in our hearts against the darkness by speaking the language of Hope, because Hope brings the Light. And though I understand so little of the darkness in this big, broken world, this I know for certain: there is no darkness that does not flee when Light enters the room. 

So this on 9/11 Wednesday, 18 years removed, on a day when I'm tempted to feel defeated and useless, a day when every one around chatters away in that acquired language of death, I want to listen instead to the quiet Hope voice that echoes in my soul. I want to speak again in our native tongue and cry out that there is a Hope so great no terror can shake it. I want to join the voices of the ages that have pointed to something beyond the darkness of this day to the dawning light of tomorrow. I want to sing the Hope song so loud that death itself will cover it's ears and run. That’s what I vow to remember. This is my only language now. And I'll speak it for all eternity.