“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part I)

“We Will Never Forget”: Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part I) September 11, 2009

I often come back to the political theology of the German Fr. Johann Baptist Metz for helpful fundamental theological categories. I first encountered Metz’s theology while working on my undergraduate theology thesis on a political reading of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. I had an opportunity to spend some more time with Metz during the first term of my doctoral studies in a course on Catholic social thought.

My first class that term, the first class of my doctoral work, fell on September 11, 2006, the five year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in united states. Re-reading Metz later that term, I found that his powerful image of Christianity as the preservation of “dangerous memories” took on an entirely new meaning for me in light of those attacks and all the various uses that the memory of that event inspired, particularly by various actors in the Bush administration. The five year anniversary, hyped in the media, seemed like a good marker giving enough critical distance from the event to attempt to generate some theological reflection. Criticizing the Bush administration was easy enough for anyone paying attention and not living in a state of denial. But Metz provided the concepts and the language to reflect on those events and the narrative that flowed from it theologically, to understand the rhetoric of the Bush administration and the wider context of american history as an anti-theology of domination fueled by the new (but then again not so new) religious symbol of 9/11/01.

Three years after writing this paper, we have three more years of critical distance from 9/11/01 and a small amount of critical distance from the Bush presidency. For what it’s worth, I offer these reflections over the next several days in four installments (the third of which will be significantly longer than the others). America — indeed the whole world — has not stood still over the last three years. Certainly there are new dimensions to these questions that I could not see at the time of writing. There are also new dialogue partners that I could now include; Miroslav Volf’s works Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory could be particularly helpful in revisiting these themes. I’ve not revised the essay in light of current events nor in light of my own theological growth since writing it. But Metz’s understanding of Christian mystical-political spirituality remains of fundamental importance for my thinking because they enabled me to see more deeply the idolatrous spiritualities that vie for our allegiance in our context.

Re-reading this paper, I wonder if we have begun to correct the mis-uses of the communal memories of the united states of america or if they have merely retreated back into their softer, more flaccid forms. In either case, under the Obama presidency the practical results of american memory-making continue to take the lives of human beings across the globe. What will it take to heal the pathologies of american communal memory? What will it take for our memories of suffering to be “dangerous memories” in the Metzian sense: understanding them not in isolation from other memories of suffering throughout the world, but in solidarity with them, memories that bring judgment upon the “way things are” by recalling the memory of God’s promised future of justice for victims and reconciliation with enemies?

– – –


“The shortest definition of religion: interruption.”
– Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society

“Historical memory is hijacked by those who carry out war.”
– Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

“One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory.”

– Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai

In the mystical-political spirituality of German theologian Johann Baptist Metz, the gospel is nothing other than the “dangerous memory” of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which has “interrupted” history, revealing the patterns of violence and injustice at work in the systems of our world and inspiring solidarity with the victims through the memory of their suffering toward a future of hope. Memory is also central to the national spirituality of the United States, which has in recent years focused its historical narrative on the memorial event of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Rather than “interrupting” the profoundly violent history of the United States, the memory of 9/11 has been used to encourage feelings of fear, anger, and revenge within the population of the US, which has, in turn, been used to support further violence and imperial ambition. September 11, as a central memorial event of recent American spirituality, continues to serve as a “dangerous memory” in the literal sense, especially for people around the world who are on the receiving end of the U.S.-led War on Terror. Metz’s vision for a renewed Christian spirituality that is deeply aware of the sufferings of others offers a profound critique of American spirituality and challenges the Church to bear witness to the injustice of human suffering in anticipation of the coming of God’s Kingdom.

The notion of an “American spirituality” may still strike some as a strange concept, especially in light of the pride many Americans take in the separation of Church and state. Like so many aspects of life, the Enlightenment’s creation of the secular sphere has effected our definitions of spirituality, relegating the “spiritual” to the internal, private, and individual realm. Sandra Schneiders, among others, has sought to recover a holistic and anthropological understanding of spirituality that, more broadly, includes the entire life lived experience of the human person, including the bodily, psychological, social and political dimensions of life [1]. Spirituality, in this sense, is a fundamental activity of human beings and of human communities, in which persons strive to integrate their lives according to a particular ultimate value, with an awareness of some historical tradition and a system of symbols [2]. Schneider’s “anthropologically inclusive” understanding of spirituality recognizes the inter-religious, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary nature of spiritual experience, and so spirituality, then, includes more than what we typically think of as “religious” [3]. Schneider’s view makes room for spirituality to include what many have called “civil religion,” the way in which the experience, culture, myths, and symbols of the nation shape the consciousness of that nation [4]. The myths and symbols of the United States have shaped what we might call “American spirituality,” and the attacks of 9/11 have given this spirituality a new, central memorial symbol.

Insofar as spirituality remains privatized, as it does especially in the U.S., the significance of national symbols and myths is perceived to be anything but spiritual. This paper assumes Schneiders’ definition of spirituality, and will attempt to show how the role of memory in American spirituality bears similarities to the role of memory in Christian spirituality [5]. In light of the mystical-political theology of Johann Baptist Metz, we will offer a critique of the way in which American spirituality has distorted the memory of human suffering in order to justify further violence against human life.


1. Sandra Schneiders, “Spirituality in the Academy,” Theological Studies 50, No. 4 (1989), 679.
2. Ibid., 684.
3. Ibid., 693.
4. Robert Bellah, in his classic study, describes civil religion in America as the “apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people. Like all religions, it has suffered various deformations and demonic distortions” (“Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96, No. 1 [Winter 1967]).
5. One might even say that the “spirituality” of the state “parodies” the spirituality of the Church, as William T. Cavanaugh argues in his writings, especially Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T & T Clark, 2002).

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