The Role of the Theologian in Times of Terror

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

Rosemary Chinnici
Professor of Pastoral Theology
Starr King for the Ministry

On September 11, 2001, nineteen people chose to hijack four planes in the United States, causing two to hit the World Trade Center in New York, one to strike the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and one to fall into a Pennsylvania field. The resulting loss of life, injuries sustained and suffering caused by this event has been enormous and has resulted in great psychological, political and theological crisis. The analysis of this event and its aftermath presented in this article derives from three perspectives: my professional role as a disaster specialist, my private vocation and public call as a Roman Catholic woman religious and my professional and public vocation as a pastoral theologian.

A disaster is defined as a natural or humanely-made event that results in such death, injury, personal, financial or property loss that the routine procedures and resources of the government or local community cannot handle the response.ii Events are given the name “disasters” when multiple religious, private and governmental organizations are required to meet the various needs of the individuals involved and to help speed the recovery of the affected population.

The events of September 11, 2001 fit this definition of a disaster. The loss of life was enormous; the personal injury, both physically and psychologically, was staggering and the financial and property loss was enormous. In addition to the fact that the losses are on-going, the scope of this disaster has been increased because certain characteristics of this disaster are very unique. In most disasters the resources of people outside the affected area can be used to help those who are suffering. This is the response we see in such disasters as fires, floods, earthquakes or tornados. What makes this event so unusual is that, although many have responded and are attempting to help, we are all affected, whether because of nationality, political ideation, religious belief or psychological factors.

There are common phases that occur after every disaster.iii Most of us entered into the horror of this particular tragedy at the third phase, what is known as Impact. We skipped the first two stages - Threat and Warning - and therefore, because of this, the force of the tragedy affected us more deeply. We had no time to prepare; to brace ourselves; to hold our breath and wait for a happy outcome. Despite this entry, the other usual stages have been evident.

Following Impact there is the Inventory phase: the counting up of the number of dead, the injured and the amount of damage. We have experienced this in the updating of the numbers killed, the stories of those who are recovering from their wounds, the publishing of names and photos in newspapers obituaries.

The next phase of the disaster cycle occurs at almost the same time as the inventory stage. This is the Heroic period, the naming of the heroes of the event. We have seen this naming in accounts of fire-fighters, police officers, chaplains, office workers, janitorial staff, and others who risked their lives to save others.

Following this is the Honeymoon time. It is a period of sharing, help and altruism when social attachment is very strong. During this interval material and monetary goods pour into the affected area. As Newsweek noted: “within minutes of the World Trade Center collapse, city, state and federal emergency donations managers rented warehouses in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. and set aside a hangar at JFK for the expected donations.”iv Most of these supplies were never used.

Even while some are enjoying the honeymoon others begin to enter the Disillusionment phase. This can occur from 2 months to 2 years after the event and usually includes feelings of disappointment, resentment, and bitterness that the expectations for recovery have not been met. Accompanying this time there is often great anger when the initial rush of response begins to fade and social attachment weakens.

We have seen this stage in the various comments people have made in the last six months. Two examples will suffice: 1) The Oklahoma City victims have asked why they received no money after their relatives and friends were killed and maimed; 2) There is an expectation that each family who lost a loved one will receive approximately one million dollars yet those who lost homes or businesses or the people of color standing on the sidewalk jobless waiting to be hired as day-laborers at Ground Zero will not be given this money and have voiced feelings of frustration and bitterness.

One man, Vincent Soulsby, evidences both the honeymoon and the disillusionment phase. Immediately after the disaster, in his honeymoon, he collected 30 tractor-trailers filled with supplies for the victims— 400 tons—with such things as pickaxes, two way radios, flashlights, etc. There is a record of the donation being received but no one can find the material. He is now facing bankruptcy because of the post-disaster economy and seems to be in the disillusionment time. He says: “I wanted this stuff to go to the families of the firemen, people who were having a hard time not some average Joe off the street who needed it. If that’s the case, they can send some of that stuff back to my house.”v

Blame is often evident during disillusionment. Some examples: a) the Red Cross has been blamed for not distributing all of the money that was collected; b) the FBI and CIA are supposedly responsible for the disaster because these agencies “should” have been able to predict the attack; c) we have heard that the planes would not have been hijacked if locks had been placed on the cabin doors and the fact that the locks were not there must be the fault of the FAA or individual airlines trying to save money; d) people have said that the hijacking occurred because of “those hopeless people in charge of security at the airports” and this statement is often followed by a disparaging remark about ability to speak English or lack of citizenship . In this example of blaming, birth seems to be equated with intelligence; e) it’s been said: ‘if Bin Laden could predict the collapse why couldn’t the engineer and architect of the Trade Center.’; most recently a friend told me he had heard that the tragedy occurred because monies were misappropriated from the sky marshal program during the Reagan administration

Following disillusionment there is a time of rebuilding-Reconstruction. This phase takes the form of trying to replace the recently fractured world with something new. Unconsciously, it can be an attempt to reassure ourselves that things have returned to normal. This can be seen in such things as retrofitting after an earthquake, new laws regarding student visas in order to prevent “terrorism”, or new baggage-handling procedures. Reconstruction can also be found in any rhetoric that attempts to make us, once again, feel safe.

All disaster literature predicts these phases. As a disaster specialist and one who has studied numerous sermons and theological explanations of natural and humanely-made disasters, I know that one of the traps religious leaders fall into is that, as we are victims of the same disaster as others, we are in need of the same reassurance regarding safety. As a consequence, we can unconsciously and easily slip into a language that uses scripture, prayers, or even theological constructs to bolster our psychological need to feel secure. We can find ourselves trying to make the unexplained explainable rather than embracing a faith life filled with tension, mystery, the unknown, and the hiddenness of God.

The faith stance that I carry with me in analyzing the events of September 11, 2001, is based on my experience as a Sister of The original name for my Congregation was “Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross” and we have inherited an image of Mary standing at the foot of the Cross with veil outstretched and numerous women standing next to each under protected by that mantle. The unusual aspect of this image is that these women are not facing the Cross. They are facing outward, standing both in accompaniment with the innocent victim Jesus and looking outward into a world of suffering. It is this posture that I carry with me as a pastoral theologian.

Theologian Johann Metz makes the distinction between static and dynamic memory. The latter, a transformative or “dangerous memory”,vii calls on us to engage in two actions. First, we are called to remember that each of our religious traditions is based on the needs of strangers, friends and even enemies and that these peoples’ sufferings and concerns must be foremost in our minds. Second, we must not only “remember” the sufferings of others we ourselves must embrace this affliction to such an extent that we use it to critique the political worlds in which we live. This memory of suffering is “dangerous” because we deny this inherited demand only at our own peril.viii The foundation of our faith is to remember that we cannot afford the luxury of distancing ourselves from the pain endured by all who suffer.

Metz reminds us that the traditions to which “theology is accountable know a universal responsibility born of the memory of suffering.”ix As believers, our actions as theologians require us first to remember and then to stand against any institution that links freedom with security rather than with freedom and equality.x As I have said, this is very difficult to do in times of disaster as our own need to remain unscathed can be almost overwhelming.

Based on the above observations, what follows are some of the questions and concerns that have occurred to me in the past months. I am worried about language:

It is entirely possible that “911" has become a short-hand to distance us from the horror of that day. We all know what these words mean, a time for the ambulance to come and the experts to save us or our loved ones. My question is: do these words make us passive; do they anesthetize us to the actions being down by our government, unconsciously having us believe that the emergency medical technicians are really the pilots dropping daisy-cutters? I liken this language to the use of the phrase “three strikes your out” used to explain to California voters why a third felony could be used as justification for automatic confinement in prison for life. This is a fair rule in baseball and so it must stand to reason that those imprisoned by this draconian law are somehow deserving;

The language of good/evil - In our profession we know these words carry a multiplicity of meanings yet they have been reduced to an incredible simplicity. We are good, others are evil, whether it be Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Muslims, Iran, Iraq, North Korea or, as I heard recently on February 16, 2002 on CNN, even Ken Lay. Since everyone can be divided into two camps and since we know on which side we “belong”, it must be acceptable to use our own weapons of destruction against “the others;”

The language of war is everywhere, on TV, radio, newspapers, commentaries. But, strangely, there is resistance to applying this same word to the treatment of people based on the Geneva Convention;

We have named many people “heroes.” That the police, fire-fighters and Port Authority personnel were heroes is absolutely true. Occasionally, however, when people speak of them there seems to be almost an element of “surprise”, as though some are astounded that these men and women behaved so extraordinarily. I wonder what classist implications might be present in this speech about such seemingly “ordinary” people? To what degree will the economic policies of the current administration affect these very “heroes” or how much of their pension fund was invested in shares of Enron stock?;

We hear that the “world has changed.” I don’t believe it. The right-wing politics promised us before the election of 2000 are being justified by the war. How is it possible that these simple words - “things have changed” - has become a rhetoric that is preventing the world’s greatest power from embracing the change found in seeking peace.

Earlier I wrote of the necessity, at times like these, of embracing the hiddenness of God. I wonder to what extent I or others within my profession are trying to find security in the “abstract language of theology” rather than in the experience of doubt and absence called for in times like these. I wonder if discourse about God is serving as a safety device, neutralizing a willingness to remember the human suffering endured by such a vast number of innocents, both in the United States and Afghanistan.

Metz’s message challenges each of us to remember that there is no suffering in the world that does not concern us.xi Others are distorting the language of our profession and, either because we are victims of the same disaster or because we are overwhelmed by others’ sufferings, most in our profession has been rendered silent. Psychological understandings of disaster teach us that if we deny our pain we can become fragmented from ourselves and others. At times like these our vocation as theologians calls us to speak, even haltingly, of the doubt and anguish in our own lives, avoiding theological constructs and abstractions. We are called to remind ourselves and others that violence actually stems from denial and that our current speech must be one of lament. It is only these cries of anguish that will allow us to “come to grips with our own despair, loss and anger and melt our hearts so that we might live in genuine community with others.”xii

Our public vocation requires us to enter into the experience of personal and collective suffering with which we claim familiarity and use this to fuel our collective speech and actions. We must learn to speak differently in our places of worship and oppose the current deafening silence of our denominations. If we remain voiceless, we cannot claim the title of theologians.


i. This text was first delivered as an address to the Core Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, on February 20, 2002. It will be re-printed by Dialog Magazine in an up-coming issue.

ii. For excellent studies dealing with the definition of disaster and psychological effects following disaster see: Barton, A.H, Communities in Disaster: A Sociological Analysis of Collective Stress Situations. New York: Doubleday, 1969; Lifton, Robert J. and Mitchell, Greg, Hiroshima: Fifty Years of Denial. New York: Putnam Press, 1995; Mitchell, James K., Crucibles of Hazard. New York: United Nationals University Press, 1999; Wolfenstein, Martha, Disaster: A Psychological Essay. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

iii. Ibid.

iv. “75 Million of Stuff,” Newsweek Magazine. February 18, 2002, pg. 63.

v. Ibid.

vi. The Sisters of Loretto were founded in 1812 in Loretto, Kentucky and are the first Congregation of Religious Women founded in America by Americans.

vii. Metz, Johann Baptist, A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity. New York: Paulist Press, 1998, pg. 26.

viii. Ibid.

ix. Ibid, pg. 134.

x. Ibid, pg.

xi. Ibid, pg. 145

xii. O’Connor, Kathleen M., Lamentation and the Tears of the World. New York: Orbis Press, 2002.


Eldon G. Ernst

Clare B. Fischer

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

An Instigating Signifier: The Impact of September 11th on my Scholarship
Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan

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

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