Church can often be predictable as it’s a routine exercise in a weekly ritual. At many services I look to the sermon for variation and difference but this Sunday was different; predictably different because this Sunday was the tenth anniversary of World Trade Centre terrorist attacks. So even the sermon was predictable but ironically the ritual was not.
I am not a fan of the media’s recent fascination for nostalgic trauma surrounding its coverage of the 9/11 anniversary. It’s not healthy to give one day so much historical significance as it makes all the other days, weeks, months of the last ten years less important. The criticism I will level towards Christianity’s reaction to the 9/11 anniversary is symptomatic of a larger cultural problem. I am not so much Christian bashing but culture bashing.
I was seventeen when the attacks took place and ever since that historical day the shadow of the World Trade Centre was cast over my generation as a symbol that we would never be as lucky as our parents. According to politicians, the media and religious groups our innocence had been lost. The World Trade Centre attacks were a tragedy but it was made to mushroom and symbolise a tragic decade not just one morning. Thank god for the financial crisis in 2008 which was at least a genuine global crisis caused by the greed of millions of people and not a bunch of plane hijackers forcing their religious ideologues onto an unsuspecting world. The global financial meltdown could not compete with the spectacle of the 9/11 blockbuster despite directly affecting far more people across the globe. My anger is that 9/11 was as important as the West made it and they made it into the event that defined my generation without even asking. 9/11 heralded not only the theoretically unwinnable war on terror but a template for 24 hour event news coverage, the slow disintegration of civil liberties, the halting of global migration, a rebirth of political apathy for another generation, international polices that were based on fears not facts, the rise of islamphobia, the expansion of surveillance culture and the decline of multiculturalism. All these currents were not created by 9/11 but were given political credibility and cultural legitimacy. I feel fraudulent in taking part in any ritual surrounding 9/11 as the ritual perpetuates the myth that this event was more tragic than any other international crisis including the wars it unintentionally helped create. Why be so hung up on such trivial ceremonies I hear you ask? My main reason is that church has taught me that ritual is far more powerful than we like to think.
Despite my cultural apprehensions towards the remembrance of 9/11 I had made the romantically contrived decision to visit St James the Less on St James Avenue just next to Victoria Park. St James was a C of E church with a very polite and respectful congregation, typically full of passive smiles that were friendly but not intrusive. The site was ideal for the act of remembrance as it not only once housed a large wooden war memorial for the Great War 1914-1918 (which was moved to Sewardstone Road) but also had been reconstructed after damage during the blitz in 1944. Unlike ground zero the church site had been saved and rebuilt yet only the grand 1840 tower remained. Similar to St George of the East but less magical, St James gave the impression of existing in two time zones. The ability to link the past with present is the central crux of remembrance making the building apt for this week’s Sunday Service; the architecture providing a larger unspoken context to the sermon. Surrounded by such history I felt the effects of 9/11 should be refreshingly lost amongst so much historical tragedy but the service bowed to the societal obligation to galvanise the anniversary in a Christian context.
In the wake of 9/11 George Bush Junior did a lot of damage to the international reputation of Christianity, his war mongering was unfortunately full of crusader imagery and his jingoism firmly based on the American religious right’s international perspective that Americans are God’s true people. Not all blame can be lodged at the American Christian right in recent years it has been revealed that Tony Blair also used God to absolve himself of the sins he committed post 9/11. To the Anglican Church’s credit they never stood in favour of the War on Terror and have never been caught in the religious hatred spouted by other churches that openly attack Islam. Anglican priests seem well versed in providing a sober Christian voice when faced by international and sectarian disputes. Always quick to dispel any vengeful or righteous religious language found in the Old Testament in favour of Jesus’s belief in the power of forgiveness. The sermon predictably provided personal accounts of victims of September 11th but the soft voice of Reverend Logan was careful to pray for the remembrance for all that had been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reverend Logan’s words reminded me of the newspaper articles I had been avoiding all month. The impassioned but mannered speech was a crowning moment for a cathartic closure to anyone who had lived the last ten years like they had been trapped by events of one single day or anyone who had been reading the newspapers for the last month. The planned hysteria was given a refreshing twist with the remembrance service replacing the Holy Communion.
Entering St James the Less I was given the option of a stick or a stone as I collected my Bible and hymn sheet. It was not explained if the materials would be used for violent heckling or religious ceremony but I presumed the later. As we reached the end of the service Reverend Logan asked every member to come forward with their stick and stone and light a candle and place the item by the altar. The stick or the stone should represent a person you have not yet forgiven who you would like to, personalising the theme of forgiveness from the sermon into the ritual. I was impressed by this postmodern approach merging the personal with the political through the doctrines of Christ. I am sure some atheist critics would pettily argue that comparing the forgiveness of a terrorist from 9/11 to forgiving a teenage daughter for not cleaning up her room represented a skewed morality but I am even more cynical. I could not think of anyone to forgive, all I could think is who would forgive me for the empty gesture of placing a rock by the altar with no one in mind.
I don’t forgive anyone because I don’t know any better. I don’t have a belief that creates a dynamic in which people need to be forgiven. I see forgiveness as an emotional response not a social, political, theological or spiritual act. If you forgive everyone you forgive no one. Why not pride myself on having integrity and the ability to have empathy so you can understand people and their decisions. No one knows the exact reasons why Mohammed Atta decided to crash a plane into the World Trade Centre but we can attempt to understand by placing ourselves in his situation. Just like many people claim to understand (not agree) why George Bush launched a so called moral crusade on terrorism. Understanding is not forgiveness as it does not offer a conclusion; instead it’s an on-going process that hopes to dissolve such power dichotomies. I feel guilt for not caring enough about 9/11 or other global crises, guilt is always a feature when visiting church or writing my blog but do I want forgiveness or do I want to be understood?