I had just walked outdoors from my homiletics class at Yale Divinity School when I overheard a construction worker on his cell phone saying “What do you mean a plane hit the World Trade Center?” The Tuesday morning air was crisp and bright. The robin egg blue sky identical to that of eighty miles almost due west of New Haven. The sky with columns of blackening smoke and sirens wailing. I went to a nearby campus apartment building and turned on the television. Helpless, I watched the towers. I prayed the prayer of a helpless person, of a person unable to help. I solemnly turned the television off after the first tower fell, unable to watch endure anymore.
I thought, “Theology is going to change after today.” My theology student mind abstracted the horror of the moment. While planes hit the towers, people lost their lives, and our world began to turn upside down, I had spent ninety minutes in a preaching class learning how to convey the inexplicable. And what I conveyed to myself in some strange coping mechanism was the observation that everything had changed.
It was naive to think that terrorist attack would usher in a time of mourning and reflection and a desire to reconsider American Christianity’s relation with the world and how Christianity understands itself as empire. It was the abstraction of a second year theology student. It was what I wanted, what I hoped for in a moment of hopelessness. What happened, instead, in much of our country was the opposite.
I soon shuddered at the muscular nationalism that caught fire among evangelicals, within the heart and mind of President Bush. To describe this new war, he used the word “crusade”, the worst possible word, that he soon sought to recant. But the damage was done. It was good American Christian versus evil terrorist Muslim. The whole of Islam was demonized. A religion whose tenets few American Christians could explain suddenly became the object of revenge. Centuries of Islam summed up and embodied in Wahhabism. The actions of a few cursed the rest.
Blind rage bled out as hate crimes against Muslims, even to Sikhs and Copts, whoever seemed a stranger. I wanted “how did we get here?” and saw “how did they get here?” And the mourning and sorrow and fear poured out further and further, casting neighbor against neighbor. I had thought better of many of my fellow Americans. The actions of a few cursed the rest.
The majority of American popular evangelical theology is unsophisticated by design. It’s about personal salvation, not collective care. It bunts international issues into cosmic struggle. Two millennia of theological reflection made digestible for the Sunday sermon set, with an American flag beside the Christian one beside the pulpit. The Stranger is the enemy. The American Empire is a shining city on a hill. God is not on America’s side. America is on God’s side. Somehow, our foreign policy and more than century of geopolitical maneuvering in the Middle East and beyond did not matter, or was simply absent. So, we invaded Iraq. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded our own communities with the cross wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
In 2004, I received the quixotic opportunity to attend the Republican National Convention in New York City. The whole experience was surreal and I will forever be appreciative of what I saw. In our Trumpian Age, we forget that the GOP was all in for this War on Terror. It was a glorious, righteous action and President Bush and the military he commanded had countless prayers of support. This noble struggle against evil would be decisive and complete.
I watched Contemporary Christian Music legend Michael W. Smith sing in Madison Square Garden about the American flag. His lyrics do not reference God, but they do not have to. It’s Michael W. Smith singing a song about the American flag. The message is unmistakeable. As he walks off the stage, the crowd goes wild, a sea of American flags, shouting USA! USA! USA! Old Glory provided power and agency in a war against a nebulous foe: Terror, itself, and its nefarious evildoers, an entire major world religion. The crowd wanted blood with a cudgel and a song. Had theology in America changed or had a particular branch unexpectedly found itself a new way to cement its dominance?
I still feel a sort of helplessness about September 11th. I felt helpless in those hours and days immediately afterward, gathering in YDS’s Common Room and listening to people prepare to give blood that would not be needed, to help survivors who were never pulled from the rubble. I felt helpless when we journeyed to Lower Manhattan to see The Pile that November. It wasn’t a pilgrimage. I don’t know what it was. I want it to remain nameless, a void. Soon after, at the church where I served as an intern, I gave my very first sermon. The verse was from the Book of Job, the sermon was about the fear of God not speaking. There was so much silence. And in all such silence, I felt such helplessness.
For those of us who remember that day, we are forever in that day: that crisp autumn morning when two airliners and towers fell out of the sky. An airliner fought into a Pennsylvania field. An airliner setting the Pentagon’s side ablaze. When a great unkindness and unspeakable evil was wrought upon the most unsuspecting and least deserving. The day does not stop. It is with us, that eternal, infernal day.
The act, the practice of lamentation is a paradoxical one. It is helpless and it is help, itself. Mourning is a cry for help. Mourning is helpful. Mourning is help. It is a solitary act. It is a communal act. It is a timeless act. It is a timely act. When we have no other power, we can mourn. Mourning is our power. We mourn to God. We mourn the absence of God. We mourn our confusion and uncertainty. We mourn our loss of what we cannot convey. We wail and we are silent. We are deafening. Does God even hear us? We even mourn about that. Our mourning will never end.
We take pains to remember our pain. We assemble and create as a marker in the place where we have lost, where obliteration and disintegration has occurred, has been made upon us. We assign, we find, we attribute God’s and not-God’s presence and agency and lack thereof. Where was God on that bright morning? Theology is about presence and praxis, absence and action. We do this to say something that seems coherent in the face of the Absurd. And we memorialize, we create monuments to the dead and to the future to say to ourselves and our children who were not yet born on that fateful day,
“Here are the Dead. Do not forget them. We can barely live without them.
Hear us. Hear their names.”
And what of the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last twenty years? How shall we remember their most vulnerable, those caught in our raging conflict? The Americans who went for so many different reasons and returned home utterly transformed by what they experienced, perhaps to the point of death? What shall we say about America and God and what shall we hear? What do we do to and for those who helped us fight our wars as translators and guides, those who were simply living their lives when they heard the thudding chop of rotors approach, those who prayed for relief from oppressive totalitarianism? What does our belief and action require of us toward them? For the Christian, it requires more than a thought and a prayer for their own son or daughter.
In this midst of this mourning on this singular, unending day, I seem to always return to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” from their Insomniac release. For me, it’s my hymn, for lack of a better word. The lyrics tell of an eschatological vision of reunion among black-eyed angels, an impossible moon, all possible origins and futures, and fantastical modes of transportation. And in the end, “there was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.” The vision is repeated to the listener. Listen. No, listen again.
The video is one of absolute catastrophic collapse and a single diver seeking to finding their place of simple comfort at home. At the end, there is, like in the song, a kind of ascent. The song has nothing to do with September 11th. But in it, I listen for the opposite of that wretched, catastrophic day of fear and doubt.
My theology did change that September 11, twenty years ago, today. Though, I didn’t realize it at the time. I think my theology deepened into the possibility of disaster. That terrible, inexplicable things do occur and that my theological terrain and territory is there, not directly in the trauma, but in the lamentation thereafter. It stirred within me the non-foundational foundation of lamentation on a national scale and a lamentation for the stranger, the outsider with whom I am connected even in conflict. Within lamentation is the possibility of comfort and the manifestation of divine compassion through human action. Let us set this day aside not for patriotism, but for humanity and the hope of solace and comfort and relief.