New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has banned clergy from participating in this year’s 9/11 memorial events at Ground Zero. Good for him! He’ll save us all a bunch of post-9/11ecumenical hangover headaches on Monday. As far as I’m concerned, clergy are best neither seen nor heard in the public square. And I’m one of them.
What makes clergy “clergy” is their appointment to serve their “faith communities” as we like to call them. Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams and the like represent their various religious bodies and teach their various religions to their respective groups. They are public figures within their congregations and circles of influence, not within society at large. At least in this society.
The events of September 1, 2001 were not inherently religious in nature. I know Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher and their ilk like to say they were, but they’d find any excuse to bash religion. Yes, the perpetrators were radical fundamentalist Muslims. Yes, they did what they did in part believing they were doing the will of Allah and would be rewarded eternally for their actions. But 9/11 was an attack against the United States of America for its policies and presence in the Middle East. It was not an attack on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion. In case we’ve forgotten, the targeted buildings were the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and presumably, the White House. No cathedrals were harmed in the atrocity.
The reason we get all religious about 9/11 is two-fold, I think. First, it was an enormous, sudden and violent loss of life, property and personal security. The enormity of what happened that day is hard to fathom let alone put into words. I remember that Tuesday vividly and still don’t quite believe it. We were supposed to have our monthly pastors’ meeting. Instead, we planned our services for later that evening. I remember the silence of the skies overhead as planes were grounded. Events of such enormous loss seek enormous answers in a God who is bigger than the enormity of what happened. When really bad things happen, most people get religious. I do. I get that.
Second, we believe in our patriotic heart of hearts that our being American somehow transcends our being Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. That’s not true, though we like to believe it, at least on days other than Sunday. Hence the parade of religions around 9/11. We did it at the first 9/11 event at Yankee Stadium to show the world how we all get along and play nice in this country. It hasn’t always worked out that way since, but we like to pretend, at least when the cameras are rolling.
America’s civil religion has grown increasingly complex and diverse since our formative years when our largely Deist and Christian founding fathers carved out a place for Divine Providence in the public psyche. Ironically, a few of the founding fathers were skeptical atheists too, including notably Thomas Payne and Benjamin Franklin. But they, like the Deist Thomas Jefferson, saw the value of a little religion in public life, so long as it was neutered and kept on a short leash. We like our civic religions tame and domesticated in the public square. But as we who worship the Lion of Judah know, God is never tame or domesticated.
So as a Lutheran clergyman with a firm hold on the proper distinction of the two kingdoms, I say, “Good for you, Mayor Bloomberg.” And thank you for giving all of us clergy a day off from the public square. I’ll be sure to get together with my faith community on Sunday, September 11, as is our custom every Sunday, to hear of Jesus’ victory over Sin and Death and receive the gifts of His Sacrifice for the sin of the world.
And we’ll say a prayer for our country, for the government and those who protect us, including you, Mr. Mayor, as well as for all the nations of the world, for our fellow Christians scattered throughout all the world, for our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and for that peace that the world cannot give.