9/11 Reflection-- Now & Then

Posted: September 10th, 2013

By CTS Associate Professor of Worship,Scott Haldeman

Now... September 11, 2013

On September 11th 2001, on a gorgeous Fall day, the unimaginable happened: passenger jets became bombs, towers fell, a fortress was ripped open, a rural field became a graveyard. Twelve years later, bombs still fall, a new tower rises, the fortress is long repaired and new wars are planned there. Did we learn the right lessons? Terror cannot be vanquished; it can only be refused. Can we now wage peace?

A prayer:

Holy One, you who are known as maker of heaven and earth, of all nations and all peoples,
abide with us on this anniversary of the attacks on our country, a day now recalled simply as 9-11.

Open our eyes …

  … to the folly of making war upon a tactic
  … to the toll our fearful revenge has taken upon so many innocents
  … to the ways our self-protection only deepens global suspicions of our power and privilege
  … to the irony of engaging in new conflicts to somehow foster peace

Open our hearts …

  … to recall with dignity all those who have died--in New York City and in Kabul, in Northern Virginia and in Baghdad, in Stonycreek, Pennsylvania and in Abbottabad, Pakistan
  … to mourn with all who grieve in our own nation and across the globe
  … to pray for enemies as well as loved ones, friends and allies
  … to forgive and repent and re-imagine and reconcile

Holy One, you who are known as maker of heaven and earth, of all nations and all peoples,
abide with us on this anniversary of the attacks on our country, a day now recalled simply as 9-11.

And, we will be your people,
and we will build bridges instead of walls,
and we will launch peace initiatives rather than cruise missiles,
and we will strive to contribute to the increase of justice and mercy, banishing division, accepting vulnerability
in your holy name, we pray ….

Scott Haldeman
Associate Professor of Worship
September 11, 2013

And, then... October 16, 2011

Professor Haldeman, along with many CTS colleagues, reflected on the 9/11 tragedy in the October 2011 edition of the CTS Register. Here is Professor Haldeman's article from that publication:

SEPTEMBER 11th: A CONTEST OF SYMBOLS

Scott Haldeman
Associate Professor of Worship

Christians and Muslims, no more or less than all other people of faith, shape, understand and negotiate our world through symbols. Paul Tillich reminds us that symbols are the stuff of religion, finite objects, concepts, language that point beyond themselves to realities they cannot contain, the infinite. Symbols such as cross, the plethora of names for God, the members of a community of faith gathered as a Body, and the tables around which we gather help us to know, and practice, who we are. God is beyond comprehension yet is also self-communicating. Symbols are meeting points, places of encounter of human beings and the divine. Symbols allow us to experience through our senses the unconditioned reality of God and enable God to become present to us to communicate grace. Our symbols help us to remember central stories and the long history of interpretations of those stories that we have inherited from our forebears, shape our bodies (and inseparably our minds) by inviting a gestural response each time we encounter them, and challenge us to live more and more as faithful disciples, as children of the new age, as brothers and sisters in equality and harmony before Allah the Compassionate, the God of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.

But it is also true that people of faith live with their symbols in a world of competing symbols, objects, concepts and language that strive to substitute for God, the conditioned pretending to be unconditional, such for Tillich is the demonic. Each day we must choose with which symbols we will interact, which symbols we will allow to shape the way in which we live and relate to others. September 11 and the days that have followed have, among many other things, and without meaning to diminish or ignore the many who died nor the deep suffering of many others in body and mind and soul nor the fear and anxiety which plagues us all, included fierce competition over the shape of our symbolic self-understanding and, thereby, our response to these events of terror.

Two Towers and a Fortress

The brilliance (a demonic brilliance perhaps, but brilliance nonetheless) of the highjackers in choosing the World Trade Towers in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon in DC struck me forcefully soon after the events—too soon, in fact, to bring to speech as such words sound cynical and callous as friends and neighborhoods and many strangers lay dead among the rubble of these buildings or lived without confirmation of whether their loved ones had survived or been killed. Yet such things must now be said, whether or not they sound cynical, whether or not they sound callous. Those of us who live within the US and benefit daily from our nation’s military and economic dominance of the globe must look hard at these events and listen closely, despite the sounds of our own anguish, to the cries of those who live in lands from which we extract the resources we consume so voraciously.

We, the citizens of the U.S., live in the “belly of the beast”, the last remaining superpower. We are the sated in a world of famine, drought and erosion; the sheltered in a world of expanding deserts, terrific floods and bitter cold; the secure in a world of violence where bombs fall steadily on ancient cities. I certainly do not pretend that hunger, homelessness and violence do not exist with the boundaries of our country. They do to an intolerable and unnecessary extent given our wealth and power. The “we” with which I began this paragraph is a complex one—every man, woman and child who lives currently in the U.S. shares materially, although in various degrees, in the benefits of our status as “Americans”. Yet many, at the very same time, suffer mightily from structures of injustice within our country because of the inequities we tolerate among ourselves as we distribute wealth, opportunity and dignity to citizens based upon their race, age, class, sex/gender, sexual orientation and on and on. But to those outside our borders, I trust we look more alike than different and certainly in this battle of symbols we have been lumped together both by those who call us enemies and by those who call us to unity and who wage war in our name.

So why do I use the word “brilliant” to describe the choice of targets into which these nineteen men chose to drive our own commercial airliners as human-filled bombs? Because there perhaps no other three buildings that symbolize more dramatically our national self-understanding as a nation of free-market capitalism and global policeman? We might well ask whether our brand of capitalism is really that of the free-market as we prop up industries with tax dollars to assure shareholders that their savings will be safe instead of providing aid to the many who are now unemployed. We might also ask whether our economy is actually under our own control as a nation now that so many multi-national corporations dramatically, if quietly, shape our lives and our world. Nonetheless, these towers that anchored the skyline of Manhattan were to many a sign of the goodness of our way of life, of the naïve if sincere hope that the market will someday enrich all people and allow everyone to live in the suburbs with two cars in the garage and a supermarket down the street. The twin towers were a sign, too, of a global consensus that market economics are viable. Citizens of many nations died in the attack, citizens of many nations who were playing our financial game, trading with us on Wall Street, moving money across the face of the globe, with much of it remaining here in the form of commissions, consulting fees and mark-ups. The towers, like the tower of the biblical story, were a sign of our strong belief in our own ability to rule the earth—not in hopes of justice and mercy but in hopes of profit. It is the accumulation of money that today is power and that may well be seen as another attempt to wrestle from God control of the fate of the earth. The towers were powerful symbols and their destruction leaves a great void in that mighty skyline and in our psyches. But will we reconsider before we rebuild? Might we not be wise to reflect on our aspirations? Perhaps we should not stretch again to the heavens but seek forms of architecture, and of economic relationship that reach out more than up, that communicate a yearning for an equitable sharing of the world’s resources rather than the accumulation of so much by so few.

The Pentagon is a similarly powerful symbol, a different facet of the jewel of U.S. imperial power. In the Pentagon strategies are developed to maintain global stability so that commerce can proceed with ease and so that natural resources (especially petroleum) can continue to flow in our direction unimpeded. Before September 11, the primary example of the intersection of economic interests and our military policies was our intervention in Iraq since 1990. From the Pentagon come orders to continue the bombing raids over Baghdad and so many other cities around the world. Perhaps we do need to keep Saddam Hussien in check but we are also continuing to terrorize a people who have no way to oust their leader and we are destroying some of the greatest monuments to human ingenuity from the period of Europe’s “darkness” and Islam’s scientific and intellectual prominence. We do not yet know what treasures we have destroyed in the great libraries and other cultural centers—and we do not even seem to care to find out. For those who interpret the Quran, no matter how flawed their reading of this holy book, as a mandate for war against the West, the Pentagon is surely a worthy target. The Pentagon is our fortress if we have one. In a huge country with relatively open borders we have no walls (though we build higher and higher fences in the Southwest). But among us grows a fortress mentality as our empire is threatened on many fronts—keep out the immigrants, build a shield of missles, retreat from global conversations. Our policy-makers seem to believe that we can make peace by dropping bombs (with a cynical companion gesture of some few boxes of food). Submission can be forced through military victory but that is different than peace. Peace comes not from building stronger walls, bigger bombs or larger armies, but by reaching out a hand, by risking vulnerability, by discovering common hopes that may lead us to new ways to share this fragile planet home. The walls of the mighty Pentagon have been damaged. Perhaps we should replace those stark concrete slabs with glass so we can recall the world outside as we develop global military strategies and so that others can see in, mitigating our seige mentality and our trap of secrecy that breeds the distrust it is built upon. Perhaps we might even abandon our fortress and instead develop, with other nations, institutions that negotiate and enforce international law that recognize the common human dignity of every person and look beyond national self-interest to truly sustainable trade policies and imaginative understandings of soveriegnty.

The Stars and Stripes

Since September 11th the flag has become ubiquitous. Up and down the streets of my neighborhood, prominently displayed on all public and many private buildings, on every third car who passes me on the freeway, the stars and stripes snap in the breeze.

“What does this mean to you?,” I ask when I think I can without offense.
“National unity.”
“The symbol of our nation.”
“That we are all American.”
“That we remain strong after being attacked.”

Many people, many agendas, many answers. The flag seems to function, for most, as sign of their own defiance of fear, of the intentions of the terrorists.  But we must be aware that while providing us a sense of solidarity in survival and hope in a future for us as a people, the flag is being co-opted as a symbol of uniformity.

First, Congress quickly passes a bill giving a man, for whom most of us did not vote and who has little experience in making war and much to prove, the authority and money to wage war on an unknown enemy, a concept really. What, we must ask, are the limits on a war against terrorism? Will we be satisfied with the capture or death of Osama bin Laden or will we continue our hunt for those, who despite all of our power, still can hurt us? How will we know when to declare victory or defeat? With whom will a peace treaty be signed? In those first few days, at the first vote, only one congressperson spoke up to say “slow down” but the courageous voice of Representative Barbara Lee of California was drowned out. This is not war, in fact; but we call it such. Our quest should be to bring a criminal to justice, rather than to bomb a land already devastated by conflict with the Soviet Union, that other, now defunct superpower. But the rhetoric of war, when accepted by a people, elicits practices of patriotic sacrifice, including obedience to military strategists and the steady waving of flags. Our flag leads in our sorties and covers the caskets of our martyrs. Calling this a war both produces and depends upon the power we invest in the flag. We have become trapped by this symbol of loyalty.

Second, Attorney General John Ashcroft requests and Congress seems only too willing to grant to him, and to law enforcement agents generally, authority to abridge civil liberties in our own land in order to support our anti-terrorist efforts. Detention without evidence of wrong doing. Invasion of privacy. Racial profiling. As one of our alumni, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. declared as he cast a vote against the “anti-terrorism act known as “PATRIOT”, “why terrorize our ideals to fight terrorism?” If the flag requires such erosion of rights, have not the terrorists won already?

Finally, flags appear in churches or, if they do not, pastors are challenged regarding their patriotism. With all due appreciation of the happy consequences for almost all of us of our national commitment to freedom of religion, the flag is not and will never be a symbol of Christianity. For us, Christianity is not, and never has been, a state religion, subject to the protection and support, or rejection and persecution, of the U.S. government. To answer only one common objection to this point, “yes, ‘in God we trust’ does appear on our currency” but that is only because our currency, no longer tied to the gold standard, is itself of value based solely on symbolic trust and so requires the invocation of whatever legitimacy we can muster. Given our heritage the word “God” is a powerful symbol of trustworthy authority. These words on our coins serve our national interest as a claim of legitimacy; they employ rather than express Christian faith. Just so, God and country may be connected in our minds and hearts but if we are to be faithful then only one loyalty can be ultimate. John Calvin quotes one of Peter’s early sermons: “we must obey God rather than [human authorities]” (Acts 5:29), as he reminds us to obey our human leaders in all things except where they contradict the justice and mercy of God (The Institutes, IV.xx.32).

We place the flag in churches, I suspect, for several different reasons. First, our churches are places in which we remember the dead and many of our dearly departed died or lived in love with the flag. Second, in our churches, we live as best we can in a community that is located, happily or not, in this particular land. Or, finally, as American Christians, we still attempt to uphold the myth that our country is rooted in some innate moral goodness, some divine mission. But God is not an American. God’s concern is not for the U.S. alone. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of the whole earth, of all people, of all creatures of land, air, and sea. If the flag is in your sanctuary you probably cannot remove it now but it should be juxtaposed to the strong symbols that we inherit from the community of faith that is a universal community and is dedicated to the well-being not of one nation but of the cosmos. Relativize this symbol of loyalty. Avoid the idolotrous limitation of God to us, the U.S., alone.

From Tower to Table, Fortress to Cross and Flag to Book

The terrorists toppled two towers, symbols of our economic might. Let us not rebuild them. Let us turn from awe at our ability to build to the sky and go forward more humbly, cognizant of the damage we have inflicted upon so many of our brothers and sisters as we move gold, diamonds, petroleum, and other forms of wealth from south and east to north and west, from Africa and Asia and Latin America to Europe and to our own shores. Let us meet, instead, around a table, where all are welcome, where none leave in want, where no payment is required, where we share equally among all holy food and drink.

The terrorists laid waste a fortress, symbol of our security. Let us not rebuild it. Let us turn from our illusion of security to the reality of shared vulnerability with all mothers and fathers, all children and grandparents across the globe, in Afganistan as well as Long Island. We threaten so many directly or implicitly as we keep order in the world, an order that protects our way of life. Let us risk peace instead. Our symbol of reconciliation is not the cruise missile or the shield but the cross.  God’s power is a power of emptying, of vulnerability, of the reception rather than the infliction of violence. It is a stumbling block to the wise and foolishness to the learned. The cross does not mean we should not seek to bring to justice those who killed so callously, but any action on our parts must be measured, proportional and have a clear end in mind, an end that must include the risk of peace. Let us, as people of faith, look more to the cross than to the fortress, accepting vulnerability in the hope of reconciliation.

Our own leaders wave the flag, our symbol of shared pain and hope, and, in doing do, beg for our cooperation in the making of a war with no clear limits and in the dismantling of our own constitution. Let us wave flags but only if we include all Americans, including Arab Muslims, in our number, only if we protect the right of any person to criticize the policies being carried out in our name, only if we guard the freedoms that make the flag of value in the first place. And let us juxtapose the memories and hopes of our companions in faith to all the memories and hopes the flag conjures up in us. Let us tell the old, old story of Abraham and Sarah, who loved their land but left it when given a promise by God of another land where milk and honey flowed; of slaves in Egypt, a motley crew, who found themselves wandering in a desert and becoming a people in spite of themselves; of dynasties toppled and exiles survived; and of one who trusted God unto death, even death on a cross. This wonderful, troubling book, with its many stories of heroes and villains and ordinary folk who meet God and have their lives changed is a richer symbol than our flag for it contains stories of many peoples, of many lands and of a God who is always going on before, beckoning us with the promise of new life.

We must choose wisely the symbols with which we live, the symbols that form who we are and that shape our practices. Let us move from tower to table, from fortress to cross, from flag to

book. Let us listen to the terrorists, who while acting in evil ways, may reveal to us the symbols of imperialism and consumption that recently held us in their thrall and the way of life we have been following as a consequence. Hearing the anguish of those on the margins, let us shift our symbolic loyalties. Let us live as people of the table, as people of the cross, as people of the book. Let us welcome all and feed the hungry. Let us risk all and make peace. Let us remember who we are and imagine a new future where death is no more and fear is banished. Imagine such a future—it is already here.