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The lightPhoto by Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Most of us remember that day and what we were doing around nine o’clock that morning. (I was at the veterinarian’s office; we had just gotten a puppy the Saturday before).

September 11, 2011 is a Sunday. For those of us who will be in church that morning — in the pulpit or the pew — there’s an expectation that something important must be said; that appropriate ritual solemnity must be observed; that meaning, in some form or fashion, must be made.

It’s just bad, calendrical luck that the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks falls on a Sunday. Tuesdays are made for the busyness of school and work, for picking up the dry cleaning, and taking the dog to the vet. Sundays seem to call for ceremony and somber speechifying. Most pastors and preachers, I suspect, won’t be able to resist the urge.

But what is left to say? Haven’t we done too much talking and not enough listening these last ten years? And haven’t Christians of all stripes spoken too hastily about the events of September 11? Haven’t we summoned pious God-talk for our own well-intended purposes, sputtering and stuttering dubious theological explanations for an inexplicable tragedy?

In his beautiful book, Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Rowan Williams suggests that “when we try to make God useful in crises, we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda.” It’s discomfiting to realize in the immediate and long-term aftermaths of tragedies like 9/11, that “we might be committed to a God who can seem useless in a crisis,” Archbishop Williams writes. Certainly this wasn’t the god invoked after the fall of the twin towers when our leaders summoned the “wonder working power” of a deity whom we simply assumed would sanction our “crusade” against global terrorism.

But we worship, in fact, this Sunday and every Sunday, a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew, “only the suffering God can help.” The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. Try putting that one on the churchyard sign sometime.

When we set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we notice that the 9/11-inspired “remember and never forget” meets up with Jesus’ outrageous admonition to forgive ad infinitum those who sin against us.

The secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans — the lopsided value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As anthropologist Talal Asad perceptively puts it, “human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples” and “this is necessary to a hierarchical global order.”

So the “important” word we wait to hear this Sunday is one that should be routine in our hearing and our living: the suffering God of the cross gathers us, greets us, and sends us out to love and forgive our enemies. What we “remember and never forget” is the commemorative meal in which he feeds us at a table of gracious plenty. On a Tuesday or a Sunday or any day of the week, this is who we are: a people turned by the eucharistic table into friends of God and neighbors to all.


Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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12 Comments

Fantastic and powerful. Too much rattling of sabers and not enough open hands of help.

Thank you for challenging us to broader our perspective and live our faith.

We live in a crisis of meaning. There is a void under "Why am I?", "the last why" and no matter how beautifully we rationalize we are "still [trying] to make God useful in our crises". Our collective efforts make God meaningless. For God's sake we should just wonder. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poems...

I heard in a report that som epeople are cobcerned that the new generations do not know anything about 9/11.  This has to do with Debra's words, When we set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we notice that the 9/11-inspired “remember and never forget” meets up with Jesus’ outrageous admonition to forgive ad infinitum those who sin against us.
I wonder if we wnat to pass on anger and vengance instead of Jesus' otrageus admonitions...

Realizing I had nothing to say today that hasn't already been said, I thought, I'll go to Debra's blog...she'll have something to say. And you did. How do you do that? I am thankful for you. You have a gift.

What struck me from this article (of course it was Rowan Williams who said it) was the idea that God might be useless. Its the arrogance of man that demands God be useful whereas its only by the grace of God that he is useful to us at all. We don't expect God to control our lives, otherwise we wouldn't be able to do what we like, yet we expect him to be there at the 11th hour when only God or Superman can save us.

Its a sad irony that God's grace is most evident when he apparently fails us. If the US government had any humility it would have sought God after 9/11 and held its hand out to a hurting world. In brokenness it could have turned the hatred that fuelled the attack into a war on hatred. Its not 'in God we trust' but 'in God we expect'. Jesus didn't expect his Father to save him from the cross yet his sense of betrayal was striking. It was at the cross that God was most useless to Jesus and his disciples because he had no interest in saving the situation. Yet trust in God was ultimately vindicated.

Chris, My idea of GOD is a caring, loving GOD. WHO is there when I need him the most. When 9/11 happened, an atheist I know, asked me "Why didn't your GOD stop that?"...GOD gave us free will. We are not robots. AMERICA let this happen. We have pushed GOD so far out of our lives, that maybe, just maybe he has decided, "They kicked me out of the classroom, kicked me out of certain businesses, and my name means little right now" You think GOD has decided, Hey, you can't mention my name anywhere, the mention of my SON, JESUS, now brings hate to the middle east. "Why don't you control the world and I will sit back and see what happens"....

there would have been a huge outrage if the American government had done that---the oft cited 'separation of Church and State' prevents it. The usual platitudes are accepted---but anything beyond that seems to be ridiculed or it becomes fodder for protest lawsuits.

When the dust and dust has died down, maybe there's more consideration of the reason for the attack on America. I hope I won't be beaten down and vilified for even sugggesting a culpability but bear with me.

We speak of guilt of omission, and I believe that there are no innocent victims in the message the terrorists sent us, all due respects to the families of those who perished. Of course it's a huge act of over-kill that the terrorists perpetrated but when we Americans own up to the karma of our arrogance and treatment of other nations and religions where we lord it over the world as we have done and still do, everytime we assert our superiority and in effect tell other nations we're the best and you're not, who wouldn't resent this? Then we perpetrate a lot of crimes against humanity in the way we exploit or cause the ruination of many ecologies of places and don't own up to it, back dictators who oppress their own people, and run roughshod over cultures with a cultural display of  licentiousness, violence, greed and other negative traits that rightfully dismay the sensibilities of more sober people.

So even "innocent victim" Americans, who by not protesting  injustice and crimes against humanity collude against other peoples suffering by American exploitation and by our overwhelming hegemony of the world as glitzily displayed on television received a powerful pushback by some very angry protestors, as over-the-top as it may have been. With payment of taxes, whether we approve of American foreign policy or not, we in effect are in collusion with that policy. And continue to do so.

It's a karmic pushback which may be being addressed when America has assumed a less hegemonic role in world affairs becoming part of a coalition to quell terrorism and violations against human rights.

When we consider the future, with the revving up of competition for natural resources and for bigger corporation profits by more determined players on the scene, I dread a trajectory of more and more conflicts.

I see a dynamic that the Buddhist speaker described from the Mahabharata where there are never winners in wars and the ones to come will be Armageddon like with certainly no winners, only survivors of a seriously compromised world reduced to a wasteland.

I hope that the cosmic cliffhanger, whether humanity will come to a collective higher consciousness that will eschew war and come to collective senses will transpire before the end-game wars bring humanity to extinction.

We and all nations of the world must learn to coexist peaceably on this planet, listen to our critics and learn what they are trying to tell us, heed those messages and mend our ways. We all must learn to be humble enough to avoid the arrogance of needing to be top dog of the world, to honor and respect other cultures and peoples if we can expect to have a peaceful world we all would want.

Someone tell me I'm talking nonsense.

So here we are 10 years
later and still there are 28 pages of the 9/11 report which haven't been
released! This video sheds a lot of light on what those 28 pages might have in
them.. Let us grow out of the silly idea that a bunch of cave dwelling Afghanis
were able to pull something like that off! Americans deserve closure. Send this
video out to everyone you know! http://larouchepac.com/10years...

Sometime in the 1990’s my brother became a card-carrying Communist.  Over the years, as I have lived and worked and raised a family in this country, I realize that the conclusion I came to then rings evermore true today: my brother had better enjoy any intrinsic benefits of the affiliation, because it is doubtful he will ever see significant success in the political landscape.  By all accounts, America will never accept, on any appreciable scale, the tenants of Communism.
 
I feel the same way about my friends who bemoan the sorry state of our national response to 9/11.  Why did we have to retaliate militarily?  Why can’t we forgive? Here is another important question to consider: who do we mean by “we”? 
 
For some Christians, “we” means the federal government, or mass media, or the culture at large.  But how realistic is it to expect these entities to behave the way Rowan Williams and others want them to behave?  I understand the yearning, I really do.  But I can’t help thinking that, time and again, such desires will be frustrated.
 
No matter how much we want the federal government of the United States to behave like a Spirit-filled, Christ-centered, Kingdom of God-focused individual Christian, it will not.  Nor will CNN, Fox or the New York Times.
 
It is important for “America” to forgive the perpetrators of 9/11 and their current fellow travelers?  My understanding of my faith does not even allow me to address such a question.  I know that, by the grace of God, I can forgive wrongs done to me.  It is extraordinarily difficult, but through Christ who strengthens me, it can, thankfully, be a reality in my life. 
 
My personal witness, and the larger witness of the church is certainly relevant in the context of 9/11, but for most people I meet, an inability to forgive terrorists is not their problem.  They desperately need to forgive their parents, spouse, boss, or whoever it was that hurt them.  And rather than lament the inability of our civic leaders or the media or John Q Public to act like followers of Jesus, we, the church, need to find new ways to invite them into a transforming relationship with that Jesus.

I think those of us who don't accept the traditional Christian God and who therefore aren't arguing over how God/Jesus would want us to react to 9/11 are asking different questions. It's creepy that our public leaders feel so obligated to conflate religion and civic policy. Certainly, for believers, the one informs the other so I guess that's fair. But it just seems our civic leaders have a need to make such an ostentatious show of their piety (directly contravening Jesus' admonition to pray privately, by the way). I guess it gets them votes.

But for we who don't accept this model, it's more fair to ask other questions. FTK1234 below goes to lengths to demonstrate that we are at least partly to blame for the attack, and I understand his or her point about karmic pushback, but that's equivalent to saying a murdered hooker got what she deserved. Of course this country has done and continues to do bad things, and if one believes in justice then there should be a price for that. But 9/11 was assymmetrical and outrageous, no sense of justice or equivalency could excuse it. I'm sure the U.S. government has been responsible for the  "disappearance" or slaughter of more than 3000 people in its history, and that's wrong. Slaughtering Americans in return might feel just, but is justice merely about evening up the body count?. Furthermore, the attackers, or at least their bosses, knew in advance what our reaction was likely to be. As another commenter said, there was no way the U.S. government would have reacted by extending olive branches and showering the world with foreign aid. They had to know that we would double down on our militarism and bloodlust, and to our national shame we have.

So I guess ultimately those of us who do not accept the traditional Christian personal God have substituted the state, and rather than debate about what God would want us to do, we debate about what the state should do. Rather than debate God's shortcomings and abilities, we debate the state's, and we frame our reactions to 9/11, and everything else for that matter, in those terms. Maybe that's why the believers and non-believers have such a hard time reconciling. Ulitmately we're talking about the same thing, and I suspect we actually want most of the same policies, but the somehow the language of God and duty doesn't translate well into the language of secularism and realpolitik.

apples