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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

The God Who Fits Our Agenda: 9/11 Then and Now

by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor

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.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page

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But for the day’s main event—the secular ceremony headlined by President Obama—the Kennedy Center’s a better fit. If our civil religion were less tangled up with actual religion, the event would have been planned there from the start.
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Steve Thorngate of The Christian Century takes issue with the original location for the National Cathedral’s headliner event for the 9/11 anniversary commemoration, “A Concert for Hope.”

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Tuesday Evening Melody: “Trinity Requiem”

by Chris Heagle, technical director

As the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th approaches, we’re continuing to plan for our event at St. Paul’s Chapel on September 6th. Co-produced with Trinity Wall Street, the public dialogue is called “Who Do We Want to Become? Remembering Forward a Decade After 9/11.” Three public intellectuals, Hendrik Hertzberg of The New YorkerSerene Jones of Union Theological Seminary, and the author Pankaj Mishra, will speak with Krista for an hour and then answer questions from our in-house and online audiences.

And, so it was a pleasant coincidence that just after returning from a scouting trip to the chapel, a colleague handed me a CD of Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem. Trinity commissioned the Denver-born composer to write a piece for their youth chorus commemorating 9/11. The result, which will be released September 6th, is a lush work for voice, organ, harp, and cello. The track above is actually two — the “Offertory” followed by “In Paradisum.”

The former is a variation on Pachelbel’s famous "Canon in D." During the recording sessions in Trinity’s downtown sanctuary, as if on cue, a series of sirens can be heard passing by the church. The liner notes of the CD suggest this occurred during the best take and couldn’t be edited out. I would argue that they were meant to be there all along. Thanks to SoundCloud, you can preview the whole CD.

We’re looking for your reflections on 9/11 and specifically on how we pass on the narrative of those events to future generations. Share your thoughts with us and we’ll incorporate them into our discussion.

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Reich’s piece brings back some searing memories, with (for me) an emotional intensity that had dimmed over the last 10 years. His work is a reflection of the chaos and horror of that day, and of the struggle to understand what happened. In that light, using that photo feels, to me, appropriate. I don’t fully appreciate the dark smudging and streaking of the image (the NY sky was a bright clear blue that day)…but this feels like a quibble. The events of that day were ghastly, abhorrent. But I appreciate the way Reich’s piece brings me face-to-face with what happened, and with my own visceral reaction.
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Steve Reich's "WTC 9/11"Fred Child, host of Performance Today

The classical music aficionado and public radio host weighed in on his show’s Facebook page with a brief perspective on the new cover art for the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steve Reich’s latest work, WTC 9/11, from Nonesuch Records. Released this week, the gritty adaptation of Masatomo Kuriya’s famous photo showing the second plane moments before plunging into the south tower has stirred up quite visceral reactions among people from all walks of life.

But, what about the music itself and the fact that the cover art is meant to support or tease out a central element of the music it sheaths? Well, Fred has been “listening to the piece obsessively this past week” and he’ll be writing a lengthier reflection for us in the coming weeks. As a fan of Kronos Quartet, I, for one, can’t wait to read his interpretation of the piece and how the image fits in.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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"Do Not Rejoice When Your Enemies Fall"

by David P. Gushee, guest contributor

"Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.”
Proverbs 24:17

Victims of 9/11 on PosterPhotographs of firefighters killed on 9/11 are seen outside the World Trade Center site after the death of accused 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was announced May 2, 2011 in New York City. Bin Laden was killed in an operation by U.S. Navy Seals in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

We feel compelled to respond today to the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States and to the jubilant response across the nation.

A nation has a right to defend itself. From the perspective of the fundamental national security of the United States, this action is legitimately viewed as an expression of self-defense.

But as Christians, we believe that there can no celebrating, no dancing in the streets, no joy, in relation to the death of Osama bin Laden. In obedience to scripture, there can be no rejoicing when our enemies fall.

In that sense, President Obama’s sober announcement was far preferable to the happy celebrations outside the White House, in New York, and around the country, however predictable and even cathartic they may be.

For those of us who embrace a version of the just war theory, honed carefully over the centuries of Christian tradition, our response is disciplined by belief that war itself is tragic and that all killing in war, even in self-defense, must be treated with sobriety and even mournfulness. War and all of its killing reflects the brokenness of our world. That is the proper spirit with which to greet this news.

This event does provide new opportunities for our nation.

President Obama’s respectful treatment of Islam in his remarks, and his declaration that Osama bin Laden’s body was treated with respect according to Islamic custom, offers all of us an opportunity to follow that example and turn away from the rising disrespect toward Muslims in our nation.

A second opportunity is for the United States to reconsider the questionable moves we have made in the name of the war on terror. From our perspective, this includes the indefinite detentions of scores of men at Guantanamo Bay, the failure to undertake an official investigation of detainee interrogation practices, the increase in Predator attacks in Pakistan, and the expansion rather than ending of the ten-year-old war in Afghanistan.

We also now have the opportunity for national reflection on how our broader military and foreign policies — including the placement of our troops throughout the largely Muslim Arab world, our posture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and our regular military interventions around the world, create a steady supply of new enemies.

There can never be any moral justification for terrorist attacks on innocent people, such as the terrible deeds of 9/11. But we must recognize that to the extent that our nation’s policies routinely create enemies, we can kill a Bin Laden on May 1 and face ten more like him on May 2. Might it now be possible for us to have an honest national conversation about these issues?

May we learn the right lessons from the news of this day. For Jesus’ sake.

This statement was originally published on the website of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good on May 2, 2011.


David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.

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Jitish Kallat’s Art Installation Reminds Viewers of an Earlier September 11th International Event

by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer

“‘Public Notice 3’ explores the possibility of revisiting the historical speech as a site of contemplation, symbolically refracting it with threat codes devised by a government to deal with this terror-infected era of religious factionalism and fanaticism.”
— from The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition website

The Grand Staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago with the art installation "Public Notice 3" by Jitish Kallat
The grand staircase at The Art Institute of Chicago features the art installation “Public Notice 3” by Jitish Kallat. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Before September 11th became synonymous with terrorist attacks and religious intolerance, it was host to that event’s antithesis — the First World Parliament of Religions held in The Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on September 11, 1893. The parliament was an early attempt to create a global discussion of religious faiths, and Swami Vivekananda delivered an eloquent keynote address to an audience of over 7,000.

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”

Indian artist Jitish KallatNow, 118 years after his speech and nearly a decade after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jitish Kallat reintroduces the public to Vivekananda’s words in “Public Notice 3,” an exhibition on display at The Art Institute of Chicago from September 11, 2010 through May 1, 2011.

The Indian artist, known for using historical speeches as the structure for his work, seeks to hold up these “blurred and sometimes forgotten” speeches as “apparatuses with which to grade our feats and follies as nations and as humankind.” “Public Notice 3” continues this approach from his previous exhibition in 2007, which he based on a momentous speech Mahatma Gandhi delivered on the eve of the historic 400-kilometer “Dandi March.”

In the current installation, Kallat displays the inspiring, inclusive words of Swami Vivekananda’s text in LED lights on the 118 stair risers of the historic Woman’s Board Grand Staircase, adjacent to the site of Vivekananda’s original address. Phrases from Vivekananda’s address are lit with the colors of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s alert system, creating color patterns that reach up the meandering flights of stairs to a skylight above the top flight. The effect of these patterns, coupled with the resonant sound of footsteps and voices in the cavernous staircase, is profound.

Words from Swami Vivekananda's 1893 Speech on the Grand Staircase Steps at the Art Institute of Chicago
Phrases from Swami Vivekananda’s speech displayed in “Public Notice 3” on the Grand Staircase steps. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

The following video of a conversation between artist Jitish Kallat and curator Madhuvanti Ghose provides additional insight into the artist’s desire to highlight the chasm between these two very different events of September 11.

Public Notice 3 — a hopeful and poignant reframing of “the events of 9/11” — is an inspiring, redemptive “must-see” for anyone in or passing through Chicago.

Related links:

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Can Fear and Burning Unite?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"I am more scared than I’ve ever been — more scared than I was after Sept. 11."
—Eboo Patel

Eid al-Fitr and Interfaith Flyer
A flyer calling for an interfaith peace vigil on September 11 lies on a prayer mat at the Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Fear is very real for many Muslims in America today. I don’t think I truly understood how real this elevated level of anxiety is until I read Patel’s quote in Laurie Goodstein’s article in Sunday’s New York Times. He is a man who has spent a good deal of time speaking to all sorts of people and members of religious groups trying to build interfaith dialogue and understanding; I’m sure he’s witnessed some heated arguments and outlandish actions. For him to make this statement is striking, and troubling. We should take heed.

So much is happening right now, and the confluence of popular opinion and current events must be weighing mighty heavily on the minds of many Muslims. There are decreasing favorability ratings of Islam. There are heated protests and debates surrounding Park51, the Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan. There are bricks being thrown and a taxi driver being stabbed. And, then, all this crazy media coverage of a Florida pastor pulling a publicity stunt by planning to burn Qur’ans on Saturday.

As to the Dove World church’s plans, there seems to be very little response from other faith leaders and religious communities. Where’s the outcry? But, as The Christian Science Monitor suggests Tuesday in “CNN covered interfaith call to oppose Koran burning. Who didn’t?,” perhaps it was in the lack of live coverage of events like this press conference at the National Press Club in which dozens of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders stood together while calling for a united front against Qur’an burning and other aspects of Islamophobia. The Dove World church’s fiery intentions are brighter than the stars in the night skies. Or are they?

I’ve noticed myriad secular and faith leaders, people who write and blog and tweet, vehemently protesting and uniting behind their Muslim brothers and sisters. They act not by decrying but by reading, reading the Qur’an itself — even at the holiest of times. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah services, the Velveteen Rabbi writes:

"In response to the rising tide of Islamophobia and especially to those who intend to burn the Qur’an on 9/11, my teacher Rabbi Phyllis Berman suggested that as Jews gather to worship on Shabbat Shuvah, we might consider reading from the Qur’an as a gesture of respect toward our sister Abrahamic tradition. At my synagogue, we typically gather for Torah study after services, around 11am. On 9/11, our text for sacred study will come from the Qur’an."

And the Undercover Nun continues:

"On Saturday, September 11, 2010, I’m reading the Quran so that I can be a better American and a better Christian. Won’t you join me?"

Many more noble efforts like this are taking place. Look around. And as we non-Muslims try to pay attention and express our sympathies, we ought to remember that yesterday was the last day of Ramadan. It’s a time of celebration and thankfulness. It’s Eid.

When Sayneb, a young Somali woman and co-worker came through the office the other evening, we got talking about Ramadan, next year’s dog days of July and fasting, and current events, to which I gestured, “Boy, these are crazy times.”

She paused. Then she looked kindly at me, smiled softly, and said with no uncertainty, “These are good times.”

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I have no grave site to visit, no place to bring my mother her favorite yellow flowers, no spot where I can hold my weary heart close to her. All I have is Ground Zero. … I do not like harboring resentment or anger, but I do not want the death of my mother — my best friend, my hero, my strength, my love — to become even more politicized than it already is. To the supporters of this new Islamic cultural center, I must ask: Build your ideological monument somewhere else, far from my mother’s grave, and let her rest.
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—Neda Bolourchi, from her powerful commentary in The Washington Post's opinion pages.

Earlier this week, we posted video of Mayor Bloomberg’s moving speech in which he advocates building a mosque near Ground Zero, and we asked, “How do we go forward and be sensitive to all parties involved?” One way is to make it an imperative that we pay attention and listen to the many points of view out there. And, ones we haven’t heard that much from are Muslims who were victims of the 9/11 attacks. Ms. Bolourchi’s voice is one to hear.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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