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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.

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