Ground Zero 20 Years On: 9/11 and the return of the king

9/11 will live on in our collective consciousness as a defining moment.  A moment added to the list of “Where were you when…?” questions that have shaped our personal and global memories.  A rupture in our screen of the real-ity that has traumatised the West, breeding paranoia and suspicion.  The rhetoric of dark politics.  The politics of fear.  The axis of evil and war on terror.

So, where were you when you heard the news, September 11, 2001?  I was listening to my radio alarm, half asleep, waking to nightmare.  At work, in the office, we gathered around the TV as the images of terror played out in loops of frenzied media commentary.  

Two hijacked Boeing 747s crash diving into the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre within 18 minutes of each other.  Hundreds of passengers and office workers died instantly.  Thousands died agonisingly over hours and days as the nightmare unfolded.  And we kept watching and talking, asking why, seeking to comfort each other.  And yes, we prayed.

It was collective trauma.  It was Tarantino on a cosmic scale.  It was live.  It was surreal.  It was intentional, premeditated terror, delivered with meticulous, merciless planning, targeting the American capital icons of the West.  

Ground Zero

In 2013 I visited New York with my family.  Ground Zero was on our itinerary.  I kept a travel blog.  This is what I wrote on that day. 

Twelve years and one month on from Ground Zero I’m standing in front of the north pool of the 9/11 memorial, downtown Manhattan, contemplating the event again. There are two pools that flow inwards where the towers stood. Names of the almost 3,000 lost lives are cut into bronze around the pool. You’re invited to run your hand over the names in remembrance. 

The spaces between the north and south pools are filled with freshly planted trees. The complex is still under construction however the one world tower, now the tallest in New York, is up. It’s the first tower I saw flying in over New Jersey. 

The site is as close to sacred as you can get for America. 

The substantial space given over to the pools and trees sits on one of the most valuable block’s of real estate in Manhattan, maybe the world. And it is in direct contrast to everything else I’ve encountered in my brief few days here – ground zero, no height; introverted, spiritual, and dare I say it, free.  

No cynicism from me here. Just respect and admiration for a perfectly executed tribute. It does prompt me to pause, however; grappling to make sense of America, something that I’ve been wrestling with since arriving on Saturday.

20 Years On

What’s happened in 20 years?  A lot when you think about it.  In the global village we’ve lived through the knock on impact of 9/11 played out in the war on terror that President Obama declared over in 2013.  America’s still trying to bookend this with the fiasco of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021.

In the middle of terror we had a global financial meltdown called the GFC – the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 – which sparked the Great Recession and then the European Debt Crisis.

In 2016 the UK voted in a referendum that led to Brexit.  In the same year, US citizens elected Donald Trump as the 45th US President.  The political slogans of Global Britain and Make America Great Again heralded the politics of tribes retreating from the promised globalism of a neo-liberal, free market world.  

The civil rights movement birthed in the 1960s morphed into the identity politics of the 1980s.  After 9/11  a new politics of rights accelerated in the social media echo chambers of the new rock star entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley – Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, to name just a few.

These stars were on the rise following the Y2K bug scare, New Years Day, 2000.  They were the survivors of the dot com bubble when it burst in 2001 and now they preside over digital empires that rival the old nation states in terms of mass and influence. 

Not only did these new rock stars help broadcast the hashtag activism of #me too and #black lives matters; their empires became unwitting midwives of fake news

A new radical politics of tribes and rights was born.

In Australia we experienced the worst bushfires on record leading up to the Black Summer of 2019-2020 signalling an escalating global warming.⁠1

And now we are living through a global pandemic that we were warned of but for most was totally unexpected.  (See my post Anxiety As Symptom for the link between global warming and global pandemics.) 

There wasn’t a lot of space in all this in which we could catch our collective breath.  

I’m conscious that much of this 20 year recap is biased to the West but that’s an important part of where I go next.

The Return of The King and the End of History

Graham Ward talks about the Return of the King at the end of history in his book, The Politics of Discipleship:  Becoming Postmaterial Citizens.  Ward maps the history of democracy early in his book in order to ‘revisit the theological foundations of sovereignty.’2

Democracy is in crisis, but it always has been. The inherent tension between liberty and equality played out as much in twenty century socialist democracies as it did in nineteenth century (bourgeois) capitalist democracies.

If we’re all free to do whatever we please, fair and equitable treatment for all is threatened. But holding everyone to the same values and preferences compromises our liberties. Trying to balance these two polarities creates tensions and partisan political agendas.

The end of history is the resolution of this crisis as prophesied by political theorists on both sides – from Karl Marx’s utopia by revolution to Francis Fukuyama heralding the triumph of Western liberal democracy following the collapse of Communism symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  

In The End Of History And The Last Man (1992), Fukuyama’s argues that with the dissolution of Cold War Communism, humanity has now reached the end of history in the culmination of a universal Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

The difficulty with Fukuyama’s thesis, as Ward points out, is it does not account for the global resurgence of religion as highlighted in Samuel P. Huntington’s response to Fukuyama in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order.  

This is where we leave the preoccupations of Western ideology for a moment.

In short, there are three global civilisations in the world today that are modernising but reject Western liberalism – “the Sinic, based around the core state China; the Orthodox, based around the core state Russia; and the Islamic.”⁠3 

Both Islam and Marxist states share a religious vision of the perfect society by way of fundamental social change which rejects the nation-state and western liberalism. 

In Ward’s analysis, the apparent recovery of democracy from the 1970s came about through “a range of new decisionist leaders who effectively reasserted the liberal principle over the democratic.  A king returns.  But he does so at a cost, and it is this cost with which we in the West are still living.” 

Huntington is quoted again by Ward at this point.  “The cost of the so-called triumph of liberal democracy was public trust.  This mistrust was further aggravated by the development of the surveillance society, particularly after 9/11, when issues of national security fostered a politics of fear and spawned various versions of ‘homeland security’”4

Ward adds, “It is a well-known political platitude that if a citizenship feels insecure, then it demands more authoritarian forms of governance.”  And then an ominous, in my view, now fulfilled postscript.  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the word ‘post-democracy’ is being coined to describe the prevailing political condition.” 5

Which brings us back to the present ‘now’ echo chambers, self interest rants on COVID jabs, vaccine passports, and Ezekiel Declaration conspiracy theories.6  A brooding, malevolent mistrust and discontent.

The Return of Religion

Religion is a loaded word. My dad was a pastor who preached religion was the enemy of true Christianity. I grew up seeing main line denominational church as suspect at best. But I have now come to understand that religion is not so easily dismissed.

In his classic book, The Prophetic Voice, written more than 40 years ago, Walter Bruggemann said that our best religion is never disinterested. By this he means that there is always an investment by the prophet, in this case Moses, that embraces the interest it serves.  

This is offensive in the ‘now’ of our  times that prides itself in an elitism of political correctness that is unbiased and ‘just’ in its rhetoric of all subjects to which it panders.  

Interestingly, in light of Ward’s pronouncement of the return of the king, Bruggemann talks about the self serving achievement of Solomon “with its sole purpose the self-securing of the king and dynasty.”⁠7

Writing about Solomon’s kingdom, which subverted the radical revocation of Moses revolution out of Egypt, Bruggemann makes this astute claim on religion.  “The economics of affluence and the politics of oppression are the most characteristic marks of the Solomonic achievement.  But these by themselves could not have prospered and endured as they did had they not received theological sanction.”  

Bruggemann suggests a third necessary requisite for Solomon’s aspirations of empire.  “The establishment of a controlled, static religion in which God and his temple have become part of the royal landscape, in which the sovereignty of God has become fully subordinated to the purpose of the king.”⁠8 

The Return of the King

The return of the king buys our liberty of ‘rights’ at the cost of equality and democracy.  This is the politics of tribes and rights.  And it is purchased at the high shrine of our political and economic ideologies.  It begets a religion in which God serves our king. 

As Bruggemann observes, there are strong parallels between Solomon’s empire and the co-opting of religion to the empires of our day.

When Trump came to power in 2016, he was hailed as God’s ‘King Cyrus’ by the evangelical church.  Daniel Block, in Christianity Today, makes a good case on how Trump and the evangelicals’ interests were aligned. 

The conservative church had lost ground under president Obama who had alienated evangelicals by supporting same sex marriage and enforcing employers to provide birth control to their employees.  Trump was looking for votes and saw an opportunity in evangelical discontent.⁠10

Block critiques the church’s naive endorsement of Trump as a God appointed ‘King Cyrus’ by pointing out the inconsistencies of a man morally bankrupt defending a church morally indignant.  There is also the warning to the church by Martin Luther King backed up by others, such as the Sojourners’ Jim Wallis⁠11,  of the pitfalls in playing partisan politics. 

The politics of tribes and rights is purchased at the high shrine of our political and economic ideologies.  It begets a religion in which God serves our king.

In short, we have surpassed the age of theodicy in the Old Testament, there is no one Christian party, and the church is called into all the world which calls for bipartisan political involvement.  

But there is a deeper criticism here.  The neglect of injustice and inequality played out on a devastating global canvas in the interest of religious liberties that maintain a so called purity culture. 

How much of that culture masks the stench of adultery, sexual abuse and exploitation?  The church is called to justice and mercy in all of life, in all communities, without prejudice, despite whatever position is taken on sexual identity and rights.  

The church is called to a far more radical ‘politics’ of sacrificial love and grace which transcends the politics of tribes and rights.  

Where The Streets Have No Name

Five months after 9/11, U2 played the Super Bowl 36th halftime show, a tribute to the 2977 souls stolen from the arms of America.  The opening, electric chimes of the Edge’s guitar to Where The Streets Have No Name played against a back drop of scrolling names from that tragic day.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I wanna reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I wanna take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name, oh oh

Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name
We're still building then burning down love
Burning down love
And when I go there, I go there with you
It's all I can do

The city's a flood
And our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled into dust

I'll show you a place
High on the desert plain
Where the streets have no name, oh oh

One commentator watching U2 that night said, it was “the greatest halftime show in Super Bowl history.”11

Like most of U2’s music, this song has spiritual overtones.  Bono wrote the lyrics in an Ethiopian camp for orphans where he was visiting after Live Aid in 1985.  Bono talks about the song’s genesis at that time in a Rolling Stone interview in 2005.

“All this stuff about deserts and the parchedness of the earth… I wrote those things on Air India sick bags and scraps of paper, sitting in a little tent in a town called Ajibar in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “It’s a sort of odd, unfinished lyric, and outside of the context of Africa, it doesn’t make any sense. But it contains a very powerful idea. In the desert, we meet God. In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are.”12

We are all waiting for the return of a king.  A king that isn’t short of cash, mister. A king that transcends the politics of tribes and rights.  A king that sacrificed his life so we could love, not hate.  Will the church at the end of history remember which king she serves?

U2 at 36th Super Bowl playing Where The Streets Have No Name

  1. Yes, Australia has always had bushfires: but 2019 is like nothing we’ve seen before
  2. Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids 2009, p39
  3. Ward, p43
  4. Ward p62, summarising Huntington in The Clash of Civilisations
  5. Ward, p62-3
  6. Tim Costello: beware the Ezekiel Declaration’s ‘sowing seeds of vaccine hesitancy’
  7. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (40th Anniversary Edition), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2018, p23
  8. Bruggemann, p28
  9. Is Trump Our Cyrus? The Old Testament Case for Yes and No
  10. For example, Wallis urges non partisan politics in his book God Politics:  Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, 2005
  11. The Best Super Bowl Halftime Show… Ever?
  12. Bono: The Rolling Stone Interview

I will return in a few weeks with the metaphysics of cars and driving, and a series on the post COVID church.

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Categories: Church, Culture

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5 replies

  1. I agree with your father that religion is the enemy of christianity, however, i feel that religion is a grey area. Is football worship or the adoration of a pop or film star. Is it the complete giving to oneself to the draconian laws of the Roman Catholic church ? Whatever it may be humans have seemed to have lost the true meaning of religion in the sense of belief in the one true God who gave his life to us as to be free. I feel that the world is in a mess. No let up from nature in fires, floods, wild weather and earthquakes. the threat of war with other countries, the fear of Covid, political upheaval, racism, greed, gluteny, starvation, love of money and hatred for those who think differently to you. I feel that Christ is closer to us now than ever before and he is calling us to see the truth and the light ahead of us. I think that as i go out of this world my grandchildren come into it with so much stress that i beg them to see what Jesus is showing them and hear what he says to them, but i cant force them into the truth, just show them by action that with love we can conquer the hate that permeates this globe. As you quoted Bono here is another “Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree Phillip, religion is a two edged sword. God’s presence or absence makes the difference between true and false religion. Eugene Peterson said, “Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person (or government or religion or organisation) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes.”



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