How should we remember 9/11?by Jason Moyer
I looked forward to our worship service Sept. 11, 2011—the tenth anniversary of the horrific violence of the attack on the World Trade Center. When the state celebrates events connected to its sword-bearing function, the church has an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to God and the Bible.
Occasions where citizens demonstrate their love of nation through public rituals, the church can reaffirm the Romans 13 call to both love our neighbors and be subject to the state.
Karl Barth’s 1939 pamphlet Church and State helps to shape my thinking on our denomination’s approach to state holidays. Although states have the Biblical right to require subjection, when we confuse subjection with adoration the state wrongly becomes an object of worship and becomes confused with the church.
In Barth’s terms, “When the State begins to claim “love” it is in process of becoming a Church, the Church of a false God, and thus an unjust State. The just State requires, not love, but a simple, resolute, and responsible attitude on the part of its citizens. It is this attitude which the Church, based on justification, commends to its members” (77).
Although Barth speaks of a state that legally requires displays of love, Mennonite Church USA enjoys a context free from any such legal requirements (unlike the original Anabaptist reformers).
Nevertheless the atmosphere created during state holidays includes social pressure—like going to Fourth of July parades, standing and removing hats at sporting events, etc.—where citizens surveille one another for adequate displays of national affection.
On the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 in Iowa City, churches faced such social requirements at a service that combined civic and religious leaders. Those gathered focused on themes of reconciliation, understanding, and peacemaking.
But my home congregation, First Mennonite Church, didn’t participate. What about the park service didn't fit the Biblical call of the church?
Although I didn't attend the park service, the news media showed images of flags surrounding the pulpit where leaders spoke of the significance of God to 9/11. Not only local pastors, but Sally Mason (president of the University of Iowa), Congressman Dave Loebsach, veterans group leaders, and other local civic officials spoke.
The service’s intermixing civic and religious rituals on the anniversary of 9/11 encourages forgetfulness about the distinction between what is Caesar’s (submission) and what is God’s (worship).
The pastoral team at First Mennonite consistently moves our congregation with sermons, prayers, and singing that make God’s presence felt in our work within its community. On 9/11/11 I arrived at church a bit after the call to worship. The pews were packed with both familiar and visiting faces.
Since I had a seat in the back of the sanctuary, I had an interesting vantage point from which to see how the worship committee and pastoral team would frame our congregation's remembrance of 9/11 and how, importantly, the congregation would react.
The emotional pinnacle of the service was a “Prayer of Lament” read by pastors Mag Richer Smith and Bob Smith:
We regret the inability of so many of our national leaders and citizens to connect the dots between our huge military spending and our national debt crisis.
We lament the sweat of laborers, the genius of scientists, and the hopes of children that are being squandered on weapons of violence and destruction, while much of the world experiences poverty.
We lament that REVENGE has gripped the soul of our nation,
We confess that FEAR holds us hostage,
We grieve that RAGE perpetuates more rage, and we do not know where it will end …
We sat together and mourned 9/11 through the frame given us by God in Jesus. We remembered poverty on 9/11, the squandering of God-given gifts, and what seems the unending history of violence.
Although lamentation may not be the appropriate response to every state holiday, its use that Sunday at my congregation seemed fitting, and did not go unnoticed by two couples visiting our congregation for the first time.
Sitting in the back of the congregation, I could see two visiting families in attendance, who had two very different reactions to the prayer. The first family told my pastors after the service that they were “Bible-believing evangelical Christians” who saw lamentation as the most appropriate response to the 9/11 event and expressed gratitude for the focus in our service.
The second family sat next to me, and upon the completion of the prayer of lament, the couple blackened out their names from the friendship book, abruptly stood up and walked out.
Since that day I’ve wondered what specifically offended the couple, and how I could have dampened the intensity of their departure through conversation. They left too quickly for me or anyone else in the congregation to respond.
Having not talked with them, I’m left to speculation. Given the timing of their departure, I suspect that they anticipated a church service that would have included more “love for nation” language, the love that is consistently confused with Christianity and rehearsed at state holidays.
My congregation challenged the ritual American script last year by remembering 9/11 for the layers of tragedy that exceed, but seem often to be caused from within, the boundaries of this nation.
Jason Moyer is an assistant professor in the communication arts department at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. He serves on the board of The Mennonite. First Mennonite in Iowa City, Iowa, has been his home congregation for the past six years. His congregational membership remains in the filing cabinets at Salford Mennonite Church in Franconia, Pa.
Barth, Karl. Church and State. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1939.
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