On this anniversary, I am more convinced than ever that one of the core meanings of September 11th in my life is the importance of religious liberty for all people.
The attacks of September 11th were not motivated by religion per se; their roots were deep and old and twisted, more complex than I can begin to address here. But in my own country, one of the things I have seen growing out of those terrible events is an increasing intolerance in response, a more motivated, more active, more spiritually and politically aggressive attitude among some extremely conservative Christians.
The prospective erosion of our civil rights in the area of religious liberty is as concerning to me as the erosion of civil rights about freedom from surveillance has been. There has been some ground gained in protecting and restoring civil rights in terms of surveillance, but some forms of security theater still go on, and, rightly or wrongly, we are more willing to accept some intrusions in the name of safety than we were a decade ago. I do not want to have to make similar concessions in the area of religious liberty.
There are reasons for hope: at the government-sponsored memorial today, officials chose not to have any particular form of prayer. This avoids privileging one or a few particular religions and obviates the need for the unenviable and perhaps impossible task of honoring all the victims and their families and their multitude of religious traditions and none.
The sites of the attacks, especially where the towers collapsed, are like the Cenotaph, England’s memorial to those who died in World War I. A cenotaph is an empty tomb; in World War I, there were too many bodies unrecoverable, too many lost, which was part of the previously unexperienced horror of that war. Today, heroic efforts have been made to identify and honor the remains of those who died on September 11th, and our technology to do so is much greater, but psychologically, the absence of the towers, the sheer emptiness of their collapse and the tremendous destruction that resulted, are much like a cenotaph.
One of the reasons England’s population converged around the Cenotaph – which was originally meant to be merely a temporary memorial, but was such a focus of public sentiment that it had to be made permanent – is that each person could read into its emptiness what he or she needed to: the brother lost in No Man’s Land, the husband lost at sea to U-Boats, the sister hit by a stray shell while nursing near the front. The emptiness of the Cenotaph made it universally accessible.
Contrast that unity with the context of another event being held today: James Nesbit, one of the people involved with DC 40, has announced that he is participating in Christian events, including memorializing September 11th, in Memphis. One of these is being held in conjunction with The CityGate With Purpose; this organization’s website describes it as part of “The rising ecclesia [Christian church], legislating from heavenly places into the earth.” Nesbit’s own email announcing the events portrays them as preparation for DC 40, part of an ongoing effort to change the political and religious situation in the US drastically.
This radically theocratic approach, which would “legislate into the earth” a narrowly-defined conservative Christian government, strives to control others and demands that their interpretations be universally accepted, that other stories be silenced. Rather than the unity offered by the chance to gather around our cenotaph and tell our stories, together and unique at the same time, this attitude creates division, separating us and worse yet trying to create an externally imposed unity and similarity that erases personal religious liberties.
I do not want to tell conservative Christians how they should understand their evolving stories of life before and after September 11th; I want only the freedom to make my story my own. Right now, part of that story is recognizing this day as a day of mourning for the results of intolerance, no matter its source, and a day to respect the rights of all. I appreciate that the official event has chosen to recognize the importance of plurality and to create the possibility for more unity. I will hope, and I will work, to make such respect for religious liberty more common in the future. Will you join me?