“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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  • Pinky

    I think that, for most Americans, 9/11 did constitute a violent interruption of a peaceful life. You may consider our national path to be violent, but most of us have experienced relative security.

  • Hi Pinky –

    Part three will explain in more detail my claim that 9/11 was both an interruption and a non-interruption. (In short, it was an interruption that could not be allowed to remain an interruption.) It will also suggest that whatever security many americans have experienced has been at a tremendous cost, but that the memories of these costs has been excluded from the master narrative of the united states. In other words, americans suffer from a selective memory or historical amnesia.

    This post is obviously just an introduction, so stay tuned for parts 2-4 where I flesh this out a little more. Thanks for reading so far!

  • Gerald A. Naus

    “I think that, for most Americans, 9/11 did constitute a violent interruption of a peaceful life.”
    Those at the receiving end of American weapons didn’t consider it a peaceful life. Sure, the terrorists are murderous lunatics, but it takes special talent to draw their undivided attention. There’s a reason why Toronto wasn’t attacked. If you screw with countless countries around the world, 9/11 and other things are bound to happen. To force happiness on people at gunpoint is something so dumb only a war-like people could believe.

    I think a main reason for America’s unceasing warmongering is that it was never bombed to hell. In Europe, someone volunteering for the military is viewed, at best, as a weirdo. To kill for a living is no life.

    The scary thing about the Bush regime’s exploitation of 9/11 is that I fell for it for some time in my pathetic effort to fit in, the idiotic over-compensating immigrant. Well, I’m done with this country’s system, military, financial, political. **** it. I’m European. A Europe of regions. At home in the Champagne, Umbria, Toscana, Catalunya etc. I had to go away to find my way home. Forgive me for this being not exactly a response to your post, Michael, but I just listened to this German song by Reinhard Mey and wanted to translate it for you guys and gals. It was written in response to the Iraq War. Lastly, thank you guys – Mark, Katherine, Michael and others – for helping me along.
    Born in a city destroyed by war I have heard, for as long as I can remember, “Never again war!”

    I learned my lesson so well, saw the war up close, that even as a child I understood what happened.
    Some fears, I know, will never let go of me
    And images will not be erased from my mind.
    War is a crime, no war is ever just.

    And you, who want to sell us on it and break that oath, you pious praying folk, are now banging the war drums to lead other people’s children into your battles.
    Remember, you never, ever again wanted war.

    Down with your weapons!

    They say, they’re just doing their job, just doing their duty.
    However harmless you want to make it sound, you’re not fooling us.

    The job means to place mines, the duty to bomb
    Destroy, maim, eradicate and liquidate,
    means scorched earth, hunting people down
    and wounding your soul forever.

    Sometimes I see a child’s face under that helmet, on it sheer terror when it realizes for what shameful deeds, for what filthy crimes it had signed up.
    You will never rid yourself of that guilt, never.

    Never again war, down with the weapons.

    Do you believe that, in your godforsaken hole in the desert sand, you’re defending your children, your village or your country ? Do you think that if you come stomping in your big high tech boots, bombing the country back to the stone age, you could liberate it through bloodshed ? Shoot peace into the heart of men ?

    No, you are being abused for an evil cause – for power, for oil, for steel so that the military engine can keep humming.
    This pack that, as they please, puts a target on your back at the end of the world.

    Refuse to obey, say Never again. Never again war.

  • David Raber

    Gerald, you say:

    “I think a main reason for America’s unceasing warmongering is that it was never bombed to hell.”

    Atlanta and other American places were bombed to hell and millions of Americans died in the extreme carnage that was our civil war–so maybe you need to look for your reason elsewhere, perhaps in the forgetting of the grim reality of that particular war and others too.

    Europe, I suppose, has been beat over the head with history to the point where history cannot be ignored, and its lessons ignored–two massive wars in one century–with the rest of the world invited–being the great loads of straw that smothered the camel. But even these things can be forgotten if the effort is not made to remember.

    Pope John XXIII said that history is the great teacher of life. He learned many of history’s lessons, and our Church benefited from his learning immeasurably, proving that it can be done: Leaders can lead us wisely based in large part upon a grasp of history.

    Michael, I will look for your follow-ups as time allows.

  • Pinky

    Gerald, I assume that Michael’s analysis will deal with the American psyche. In such an analysis, the amount of damage caused by American foreign policy probably won’t affect the American state of mind.

    David, not only has the South experienced intense war, it’s the most pro-military part of the country. Up-close military loss can make you a lot more peaceful or a lot more aggressive.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Michael J. Iafrate writes September 12, 2009 at 12:18 am
    “Part three will explain in more detail my claim that 9/11 was both an interruption and a non-interruption”.

    Ah yes, the Hegelian negation of a negative. Mr. Iafrate, you’ve been reading too much Teutonic verbiage.

    But we can be grateful that you’ve at last explained whose classes you’re coming from.

  • Pingback: Remembrance, 9/11’s Theology, and Metz « flying.farther()

  • “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.”

    We certainly needn’t [bracket] either our metaphysics or our religions for discourse in the public square. We do, however, have a responsibility to TRANSLATE them such that they can be understood by other people of both large intelligence and profound goodwill, who needn’t have the benefit of special revelation in order to discern right from wrong, good from evil. Clearly, though, our deontologies should be considered at least as tentative as our ontologies (root metaphors) are speculative, which is to invite a little more humility and a lot less hubris into our discourse.

    We especially should resist falling prey to the temptation of thinking that most of our political differences, including war strategies, are moral rather than practical in essence. Such a mis-framing is a cynical ploy to demagogically engage the masses in a polarizing and energizing over-against view of other approaches and dialogue partners, who are earnestly and sincerely involved in the deliberative processes that will devise prescriptions for our ills.

    Please consider my case for deescalation in Afghanistan – just war criteria require redefinition of success http://bit.ly/21ITlm