Why Clergy Rightfully Have No Place At A 9/11 Memorial (Or Any Civic Ceremonies)

Why Clergy Rightfully Have No Place At A 9/11 Memorial (Or Any Civic Ceremonies) September 11, 2011

Some clergy have been upset that they were explicitly excluded from today’s ceremonies about 9/11. I alluded to this, with a link where you can read more, in the following critical remark yesterday:

some [are taking] the opportunity [of 9/11’s tenth anniversary] to selfishly feel aggrieved because their religion and its pseudo-authority and pseudo-comforts are neglected. Remember folks, the real victims of 9/11 are the clergy who do not get to hog the spotlight at 9/11 memorials and propagandize their roles as the spiritual fathers of the city.

Mary, in a longer reply of which I am only quoting a part, disagrees with my assessment of the complaining clergy:

I never wished that I were in New York more than I did today. I think today is so important as a day of healing and powerful symbols. There is something beautiful about what’s going on

. But I have a problem, and a serious one, about the exclusion of clergy rom the podium today. In the wake of September 11th, clergy were a huge part of the healing process of the city – not because they innately have a monopoly over moments of mourning but because people WANTED them to be a part of the healing process of the city. I think, considering the religious nature of the attacks and the power of Islamophobia and hatred against atheists there would have been something incredibly powerful about truly pluralistic symbols and voices – the same symbols and voices that moved people ten years ago to come together and move on as a city. I think there would have been something beautiful about the message that people’s personal religious beliefs DON’T have to wreak destruction, schism and chaos.

My reply:

1. Some people may have found clergy to be a huge part of the healing process of the city and some people may want them to be explicitly included by the city, but not all do. I have heard that their exclusion from the formal proceedings is the consensus desire of the families of the directly impacted victims of 9/11.

2. Even if this is wrong and the majority of the family members want the clergy involved, it is still inappropriate for the city to endorse clergy as spiritual leaders. The city should be neutral on the question of the value of religion, not just ecumenical. It should be silent on the question of religion except to defend individuals’ rights to religious practice according to their consciences and consistent with the universally binding laws of the city, and to defend the rights of people to be irreligious according to their consciences as well.

Putting up only religious people to talk about religion or to pray in religious ways without having an atheist stand up and get to say, “by the way there is no God and these are the strictly godless ways we should look at this event” is unfair. How about we just let the individual family members say what they want to (whether religious or irreligious) and have the public servants leave religion out of things and let the listeners have their own philosophies respected.

3. Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of religious instruction and practice are not prohibited by the city from holding their own 9/11 ceremonies. People who want clergy to help them in their healing process will find them eagerly open for business today, I am sure. It is not the city’s role to provide them.

4. Prayers mean things to religious people. When a religious leader gets up and leads an assemblage of people, he or she presumes to speak on the people’s behalf. The irreligious or those who differ in theology with the one praying are not given a platform to register dissent with what was just said in their name. It is unfair to them to have someone speak on their behalf and not be able to shout out “No!” at the parts that do not represent them. There should be no supplication without representation.

Religious people like to effectively claim two different, disingenuous things—“these are just ceremonial words, they are not forcing participation of any one not a member of our religion” and at the same time “in collective prayer we speak as a group before God (or the god or the gods) and that is why it is so meaningful”. Further they claim that this is about private expression of religion when it is clearly and unambiguously a public expression of religion and insinuation into the character and identity of the city itself.

One of my religious Facebook friends was unguarded about what religious people tend to believe about the magical power of religious words themselves today when she posted as her status update:

I saw part of it before leaving for church…BARAK OBAMA read a scripture!! Yes, you heard me right! He simply stood…read Psalm 46…and sat back down. I found it very significant that the man holding the most powerful office in the world…would read scripture while the whole world was watching! It doesn’t matter what you think of Obama…the Word was spoken! THAT is what was important!!

5. Clergy do not comfort everyone, some of us they offend and insult. When I went to my grandmother’s wake, the Catholic priest had no interest in comforting me. He got up and gave a speech about how my devoutly Catholic grandmother was smarter than atheists since she was in heaven and atheists had no hope or meaning in life. Literally and explicitly, he talked about the “foolishness of atheism” utterly indifferent to the feelings of any atheists who might be assembled. It is his prerogative to do that when invited by my Catholic family. My city should not invite such a person who would exploit a time of grieving to bully and insult non-believers.

6. Clergy do not comfort everyone, some of us find their “consolations” trivializing. I think there can be true things to be said about the meaning of life. I believe that rituals and meditations and ceremonies are important aids to human psychology. At funerals and memorials, I believe that the truth is best served by practices and words which meditate on the truth and meaning of death and of life. I think there are true consoling things that can be said and false ones. Not every beautiful sentiment is true, but some are.

But at funerals and memorials to hear a clergy person spend half his or her time denying the reality of death and talking in fairy tale terms about resurrections is to undermine the solemnity and seriousness of a ceremony that is about recognizing the reality of death and its importance. False hopes which condescend to my intelligence are, to me, undignified, insulting, and trivializing. If you want them, go to church. But a public ceremony should not shove them down my throat.

7. Clergy draw attention away from the dead to themselves. I have been disgusted at funerals and memorials in Catholic churches because so much of what goes on is about their teachings and one size fits all ceremonies that reduce the person who is meant to be honored to just the dead of the day. What really matters in these masses has been the rituals themselves and the Church itself. These have not been ceremonies where the centerpiece is the person being memorialized but instead they have been places where Jesus is memorialized and the person is given value only through his or her relationship to Jesus.

As a seeming afterthought a brief few words by a clergy person who barely knew the person takes a few minutes. Maybe there is room for some eulogizing in other ceremonies than the ones I have been to recently. But as far as I am concerned the only thing adding clergy to the 9/11 ceremonies could bring is distraction from and competition with honoring of the dead and their legacies.

8. There are more people affected than the religious family members of 9/11. There are irreligious family members among the grieving and if even one of them feels as I do about the ways clergy handle memorials, they deserve not to be insulted as I have been or forced into prayers against their will, etc. And all of America was a victim in one way or another of 9/11. And given the insane and violent decade since, 9/11 has claimed many more victims. 9/11 damaged a lot of hearts and minds even beyond those who suffered most grievously by losing their loved ones.

It has led to further death and destruction. It has led to an erosion of millions of Americans’ beliefs in personal freedom, privacy, and the sanctity of treating even our enemies with dignity. It has indirectly led to America becoming increasingly fearful and belligerent such that its government has willfully accepted its turn to become an unashamed and unaccountable torture state and the people have no collective will to stop it. 9/11 has contributed to our economic collapse and to division among religious groups. 9/11 belongs to all of us, not only to however many religious family members of direct victims of the day’s atrocities who might want to mix their religion in with their civic celebrations.

9. “But”, you might say, “the clergy can be trusted not to treat 9/11 as an opportunity for divisiveness”. No, not American clergy. They certainly cannot be trusted. Especially not Evangelicals. Look at Rick Warren and his prayer at Obama’s inaugural in which he made a huge point out of not only mentioning Jesus’s sectarian name but saying it in multiple forms as his opening, contemptuously flouting the separation of church and state and insisting that there was no leaving Jesus behind for him, not even when in the public square and ostensibly being given the undeserved honor of speaking for all Americans.

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