An Instigating Signifier: The Impact of September 11th on My Scholarship

Seeking Life Among the Debris: The Public Role of Religious Scholars
A Core Doctoral Faculty Forum, in the Aftermath of September 11th

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan
Assistant Professor of Theology and Womanist Studies and Director of the Center for Women and Religion
Graduate Theological Union

Guerilla warfare, terrorism, violence, and global economics have been integral to the growth of the United States before and after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the United States Constitution. War, usually a state of open and declared or undeclared armed antagonistic conflict between states or nations, is a condition of hostility, conflict, or aggression; a struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end. Guerilla warfare, like the American Revolution, or a “War for “Independence,” is an engagement in irregular warfare by independent units carrying out harassment and sabotage to achieve some political end. Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, that is, the use of intense fear and violence, to effect intimidation. Violence involves injurious physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or psychological action, directed against physical, emotional or spiritual well-being. Violence, the culprit that manipulated these North American lands, seizing them from native peoples, has affected every immigrant and descendent of immigrants, all of us, who have made these shores our home – by expulsion, desire, or force. War, terrorism, and violence are essential to the infrastructure and aegis of the socio-cultural and historical ethos of the United States. Our arrogance and vanity caused us to be surprised at the attacks upon the Embassies in recent history and the World Trade Center and the carnage at the Pentagon. We need not be surprised about terrorism meted out on us, when historically we, ourselves as a country impelled with a manifested providence, have administered terrorism to the soils of other shores. That conquering mentality is part of the United States’ specific 100-year old Manifest Destiny stratagem that has pushed us to subjugate other territories on earth and in space. There is no means of justifying what occurred in New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. And, cannot help but hear the echoes of two adages: (1) What goes around comes around; (2) Malcolm X’s comment on the Kennedy assassination, “the chickens have come home to roost.” What happened to the United States that startling 9/11 day is daily fare for a large portion of the world’s population.

Most children in the world live at the intersection of terrorism and violence, on the avenues of pain, in the province of war. Being orphaned or having to carry tiny coffins, when coffins are available, to their final repose is common place. This reflection indicates how September 11th has had an impact on my scholarship, that is teaching, research, writing. Since I see myself as a theological ambassador intent on an ethical praxis, shaped by my explorations in biblical insights and many facets of cultural phenomena, my work is interdisciplinary, provocative, exhilarating, and fun. As professor, preacher, prophet, poet, performer, I get to be teacher/learner, doing much of the same kind of work that brought me to the GTU, as proactive, instigating discourse.


Intimacy with God, social justice matters, a zest for knowledge, and envisioning the world as my stage has been part of my life since childhood. After moving from a performance-focused vocation in music to a teacher-learner focus in the academy, I made certain commitments to myself. September 11th has only intensified what was already in place. Some of my writing and teaching has focused on social justice and human responsibility. Thus weeks after the September tragedy, my most recent volume, Misbegotten Anguish: A Theology and Ethics of Violence, was released by Chalice Press. Chapter three of that work explores war and colonialism. This volume was borne after viewing the film, Saving Private Ryan. I subsequently taught a class, “Misbegotten Anguish,” without finding the specific text that I needed to explore the issues important to me. To fill this perceived gap, I wrote this work using opera, scripture, and film as primary texts. My intellectual sensibilities have been intrigued, titillated, and taunted by the hundreds of pages written on theodicy. My 1992 dissertation and subsequent work, Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals, uses cultural artifacts to explore how people live with the paradox of beneficence and evil in the antebellum and 1960s civil rights eras. Not being surprised by the weight of human inhumanity to other humans, I remain saddened. When I have seen injustices, since coming to the GTU, I usually write about it. Thus in a forthcoming volume on human rights issues edited by Charles McCoy, my essay is entitled: “Elegant Elitism: Professional Abuse in Higher Education as a Human Rights Issue,” for I see the complicity, exclusivity, mean-spirited, manipulative actions and attitudes of administrations, faculty, staff, and students, internally and externally to the various groups which leads to a huge pathology, that gets internalized and becomes normative. We begin to think that being disrespectful in sophisticated ways exacts excellence when it really extols and glorifies the ugliness that Toni Morrison mentions in her novel, The Bluest Eye:
You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to ear, and they had each accepted it without question.

On the morning of September 11th, my sister phoned and told me to turn the television on, because a plane had hit the world trade center. Watching the flames and smoke from the first plane and then seeing another plane attacking the second tower in real time was surrealistic, incredulous. The enormity was simultaneously great and numbing. During class that morning, we took time to reflect and to ask the underlying question we are examining today: Why do we do what we do? Many students felt helpless, at a loss. I turned the question to the particular thinker of the morning and responded by asking, “what would Barth have to say about this heinous event?”

Creativity as Response
The specificity of my response unfolds at once like a fugue and like jazz: thematic development amid the freedom and energy of improvisation. Post-September 11th, it is even more important for me to invite students into a conversation where they can connect what they are reading with their lives in the 21st century. In teaching, advising, writing comprehensive exams, reading dissertation proposals, I ask, where is your passion? Why is this important to you? What impact can this work have on your life, on the discipline? How is it relevant today? My epistemological and hermeneutical bent require the creative, relevance factor. To teach, read, write, or study only for the sake of itself is an exercise in futility. For me, this entire academic enterprise is a spiritual practice. Carpe diem, seizing the day, and reveling in the moment is more critical. We can plan and hope, but the only moment we have is now. Time has become more precious.

Second, I have continued to focus on excellence in work and in personal responsibility and accountability. September 11th presses us to be conscious about and responsible for what we say and do. For example, how I critique a student’s work can have major implications on the student’s future success and on her or his ability to believe in her or himself. Thus, I have continued to do the writing workshop and have added the “First Job, First Book” workshop as offerings through CWR and the Dean’s office, particularly for our Ph.D. students. I press weighing the gravity of words, both what we say, and how we say it. Once uttered, the words can never be taken back. In addition, I have become more aware of what people say versus what people do. All of the verbal machinations of support does not mean a thing, when we fail to deliver concrete assistance.

Third, September 11th presses me toward a more balanced vocational life. Many of us say “yes” too often, get insufficient sleep, and do not have a life beyond our books and computers. Yet, few people at the end of their lives note that they wished they had worked harder. Today, I work for more balance, more rest, more family time, more time for reflection and exercise. Thus I seek to embody a Womanist praxis of living, a relational system which honors a God who cares and a God who abhors the commodification and dismissal of a person made in Imago Dei—the Divine image.

Fourth, my commitment has heightened for investigating and exposing violence – injurious physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or psychological action or treatment – which stains the American Flag, our halls of justice, our lands, our places of worship, the GTU: our entire socio-cultural and historical ethos. I know that countries will continue to wage war, because of the conquer or be conquered mentality, but I work to make a difference in the minds of those I meet, so that on some level the domino affect can make it more difficult to wage war domestically and globally.

Last, personal and communal peace and pleasure are increased priorities. Today I see life as an adventure. I have been given particular gifts and graces to embrace and make a difference in this world. My prayer is that I make that difference. That as professor and colleague, I can instigate, that is, raise enough dust around issues of a faith-based, ethical life, so that others will pay more attention to what they do. That as I use the gracious gift of language to signify about a theological anthropology that sees the beauty and sacredness in every human being, we can become better stewards of all of our resources: the earth, our hearts, minds, spirits, and especially our tongues.


Eldon G. Ernst

Clare B. Fischer

The Place of a Public Theologian
William R. O'Neill, S.J.

Theology Interrupted? My Work after September 11, 2001
Timothy F. Lull

The Role of the Theologian in Times of Terror
Rosemary Chinnici, S.L.

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