9.11.2012: What have we wrought?

The beautiful September Tuesday in Wisconsin today was eerily like the one I remember eleven years ago in South Carolina–brilliant blue skies, bright sun, a hint of fall in the air. Everything changed, we all said, as we watched the planes go into the twin towers and heard about the Pentagon, as we watched, glued to the TV for days. Eleven years later, it’s worth pondering what changed.

We are diminished as a people and as a nation. As I worked out in the gym this morning, I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, those powerful songs of sadness, hope, and resilience that he wrote in the weeks and months after 9-11. I saw on the televisions scenes of our president against a backdrop of American flags, saying something. Fortunately, my earbuds drowned it out.

I thought of how we came together as a nation and as a world, united in grief and in wanting to help the victims. I thought of how we also sought vengeance in small and large ways, of the two wars, the countless dead in addition to the victims of 9-11. I also thought of how we as a nation, as a people have let our freedoms slip away, our consciences, our better selves.

Last week, the Democratic Convention did everything but parade Osama bin Laden’s body through the convention center, glorying in his assassination. A president who was elected on promises to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, to end torture, to bring our troops home, campaigns on bellicosity and assassinates people in far-off lands with drone aircraft while his administration quietly lets the torturers go without judicial accountability. Just after the convention, we learned that another detainee had died in Guantanamo. Apparently, death is the only way out of that prison. But to criticize the president is as unpatriotic for Democrats today as it was to criticize Bush eight or six years ago.

This summer we have witnessed more outbreaks of Islamophobia and the attack on the Sikh temple.

Who are we? What have we become? Fortunately there are voices that challenge the conventional–voices like Glenn Greenwald and Al McCoy who tell the story of torture, rendition, and targeted assassination.

There are others who speak out, too. Tim Kreider has a powerful piece on the way we have allowed fear to govern our lives and our foreign policy:

I believe that we collectively decided, without quite admitting it to ourselves, that somebody, somewhere in the world, had to die for 9/11, and we didn’t really care whether they’d had anything to do with it or who they were, so long as they were brown-skinned and worshipped Allah and lived in the Middle East. We imagined that killing thousands of strangers on the other side of the world might somehow assuage our fear, in the same way that someone who’s been assaulted might buy a gun as a security blanket, a prop to accompany his fantasies of protection and revenge. Our invasion of Iraq was an act of human sacrifice, undertaken for pretty much the same reasons the Aztecs slaughtered prisoners by the tens of thousands: to propitiate the gods. If George W. Bush had slit the throat of a single lamb on live TV it would’ve had much the same net effect on national security, at considerably less cost.

This charge is also a confesssion. I reacted to 9/11 the same way as a lot of my compatriots: by going completely berserk.

And Will Willimon’s sermon from the first Sunday after 9-11, calls us to remember that the God in whom we put our faith is the God who created light in the formless and dark void:

I would have thought the first word might be vengeance, or cowering fear, or at least bitterness. But no, the first word the exiles heard God say to formless void was, “Light!”

It is a word that we cannot say to ourselves. It must be spoken to us, overheard in God’s conversation with the formless void. No word, not mine, or the president’s, or some grief counselor, or therapist can help us when the chips are down, and the mountains tremble and the earth shakes, no word can help except one spoken from the outside. And just at full midnight we hear that word, and it is a sovereign command, a promise, a creative act, “Light!”

The trouble between us and the resilient formless void is serious. If there is not a God who delights at bringing light out of night, who likes nothing better than to go one-on-one with the void, then we are quite frankly without hope and my little words of comfort in the face of your despair are pointless.

Reflections on our Interfaith prayer service last night

To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of interfaith worship. From my experience at Harvard Divinity School in the 1980s, it always seemed to reduce itself to the lowest common denominator or be an opportunity for progressive Christians to feel good about themselves for their inclusivity.

Still, when I began thinking about doing something interfaith for 9-11 this year, I thought it was important for religious people in Madison to make such a statement. Our city is well-advanced in its de-christianization, and by extension, its secularization. To offer an interfaith religious witness on this 10th anniversary was one way to remind people that knee-jerk anti-religious responses to terrorists claiming Islam as their warrant, and Christians using crusade language in support of a military response, were not the only religious options.

We live in a polarized society in which the differences among us, political, cultural, religious, are often stressed. But there is also a great deal that unites us–as human beings, as American citizens, and, yes, as people of faith. My goal was to offer a service that was an authentic witness to the diverse faiths that were represented, but that also expressed the faith we do share. Whatever any else might say to the contrary, Muslims, Christians, and Jews do worship the same God. We experience that God in very different ways, through different revelations and in different historical and cultural contexts. Perhaps those differences are due to human frailty; perhaps they a result of God’s infinite mystery.

We also share values–a desire for peace, for a shared common life, and for the possibility of living together in the midst of our diversity. To come together in that way is no small thing, given the histories that divide us–the wars we have fought, the violence, discrimination, and the Holocaust. In many parts of the world such violence between faiths is still a reality–witness the attack on the Israeli embassy in Egypt last week, and the Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria.

We bore witness yesterday to the possibility of a different future–one in which violence is supplanted by peace and mutual understanding. But in a small way, we bore witness to another possibility–that the divisions in our culture and country that express themselves in language of great violence, may give way to a realization that in spite of our differences, there lies in our hearts, whatever our political views, a deeply-shared love of country, freedom, and democracy.

Our service made no headlines (in fact it took extraordinary effort for the local newspaper even to publish it in their calendar of events for 9-11) but there was a report on Wisconsin Public Radio. That can be found here. I suppose we were not flashy enough to be newsworthy.

Here’s video of an interfaith service held in Newark, NJ last night:


Images from 9-11-11 in Madison

It was a beautiful early fall day today, although temps were a bit warmer than they had been earlier in the week ( a high of 82, perhaps). Today was also the Ironman Triathlon. Like almost every other Sunday throughout the summer and fall, driving and parking downtown were adventures. I knew the triathlon began at 7:00, but knowing that it began away from our corner of Capitol Square, I imagined that the early service would be relatively free from noise. I was wrong. There was some sort of commemoration of 9-11 taking place at the Capitol. As I walked up to the church, I heard Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. There were speeches and bagpipes. Our service was accompanied by patriotic music; our recital of the creed drowned out by the flyover of a fighter jet. I preached on our memories of 9-11 and on forgiveness. That was the gospel, after all. My words seemed drowned out, at least symbolically, by all that was taking place at the Capitol.

Later, we had an Interfaith service. Jews, Muslims, and Christians came together at Grace to reflect on the past ten years, to mourn the dead, and pray for peace. The chant of Allahu Akhbar reverbated from the walls and ceiling of Grace.

I was grateful to all those who participated and all those, 150 or so, who attended. Coming to the service was a challenge because of the race; several people told me it took them an hour to get across town. Organizing it took a great deal of time and energy, but those of us who attended, and those of us participated thought it was well worth the effort. We prayed and remembered and could hear the loudspeaker shouting out race finishers from the other side of Capitol Square. And we made some connections, across denominations, and across religious traditions, connections that might deepen interfaith cooperation and understanding in this very secular city.

That juxtaposition was itself meaningful. It reminded us that life goes on; that, perhaps, we have been taking all of this 9-11 stuff too seriously (but on the other hand, who takes anything more seriously than a tri-athlete?).

And then we came home. I had a couple of beers and grilled some hamburgers.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow promises a full slate of meetings, and emails, and conversations, and getting ready for next Sunday. Life goes on.



Forgiveness Unbounded–A Sermon for Proper 19, Year A, September 11, 2011


Proper 19, Yr A

September 11, 2011

Grace Episcopal Church


Where were you on September 11, 2001? What were you doing when you heard the news of the airplanes flying into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What has been going through your mind these past weeks as the 10th anniversary has edged ever closer, and now is here? Continue reading

The Tempest

We saw a wonderful performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at American Players Theatre last night. The play’s an old favorite of mine and we used it regularly back when I was teaching in interdisciplinary humanities programs at Sewanee and Furman. It works well in that interdisciplinary context because it touches on so many themes that are important for developments in Early Modern Europe. It also touches on themes I often highlight on this blog, particularly questions of human nature. A review of APT’s production by Terry Teachout is here. He was particularly taken with the musical score by Joshua Schmidt.

I’m intrigued by the different ways I encounter the same work of art over the years. With a play as rich as The Tempest, it’s not surprising that we hear and see new things with each new reading or production. Last night, however, what affected me most was this exchange between Ariel and Prospero (Act V, scene i):


I did say so,
When first I raised the tempest. Say, my spirit,
How fares the king and’s followers?


Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The king,
His brother and yours, abide all three distracted
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay; but chiefly
Him that you term’d, sir, ‘The good old lord Gonzalo;’
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds. Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.


Dost thou think so, spirit?


Mine would, sir, were I human.


And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

It touches on vengeance and humanity, especially as Ariel wonders why Prospero cannot be compassionate toward those he has imprisoned when Ariel says that their plight would move him to pity, if he had the feelings of a human.

As we think about 9-11, Shakespeare challenges us to think about how our human nature requires more of us than demands for revenge.

Remembering 9-11

The media are full of 9-11 commemorations. Linda Holmes mentions many of them, and watches part of one, 9-11: The Days After. Her response:

What I personally felt was a rolling back of a ten-year process in which my memories became less raw and my sadness became more manageable than it was when I stood on the lawn of the state capitol watching a co-worker pal of mine eulogize his brother at my state’s official memorial service. Mind you, my experience of this was strictly from far away, living as I did in the Midwest at the time. I was marked so much less than almost anyone else, and yet feeling that healing effectively un-happening was profoundly unnerving, and I found myself wondering why I was doing it.

Susan Jacoby attacks the “sacralized myth of 9-11” with power:

This Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011, will undoubtedly mark the apotheosis of the long sacralization of the terrorist attacks that brought down the towers of the World Trade Center and killed more than 3000 in New York, Washington and Shanksville, PA. By sacralization, I do not mean the phantasms of those who see a crucifix in a surviving piece of metal among the ruins but an ongoing attempt, usually in religious but also in secular rhetoric, to elevate this event from one more chapter in the history of human evil to “the day that changed everything.”

This mass murder did not change everything; it changed only some things. And what it did change, it generally changed for the worse.

Some religious reflections: