I’m a humanities scholar, which to me, means that I have to look at issues from all perspectives—that I can’t just accept one answer and that I’m consistently making connections between my experiences. This is the nature of critical thinking for me. So, when I visited the new 9/11 Museum and memorial, I couldn’t help but think again about religion—this time in a somewhat different context.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the new museum because I wasn’t sure this was a tragedy I wanted to relive. So it wasn’t on my list of must-do while in New York, but my friend Casey wanted to visit, so I was ready to tag along with her and one of our students. First, we got a little lost trying to get there. It’s still confusing in that area because of construction, which makes it feel more chaotic than normal walks around the city and probably also lent to my feelings of being overwhelmed when we finally arrived. The memorial itself, free and open to the public, is beautiful and peaceful: two deep ever-flowing fountains, where the bottom isn’t visible, inscribed with the names of the dead, in the same spots of the Towers. To view this scene of loss and to know that the acts of 9/11 were sparked by the misinterpretation of religion already had me thinking about my church experience the previous day. When I stepped into the museum, my meditation on (I’m going to say this quite plainly) the evils of religion continued. I was thinking about religion in absolutely different terms than I had just the day before.
Once in the museum, I was—like my experience at Judson—blown away. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. The first space was a bit sparse, with large artifacts like the last column, the survivor stairs, bent pieces of steel, a fire truck, select screenings of the missing person posters that emerged after 9/11. It was somewhat quiet and immense, perhaps like the parking garage that had once stood there. As we entered the areas representative of each tower, the experience was different. I walked through images (moving and still), voices telling their stories, television screens full of reports, more large artifacts like those in the entryway and then much smaller artifacts in glass cases. The walk through the North Tower exhibit was sort of circular, allowing one to get lost in the overwhelming exhibits about many different aspects of the attacks: from pre-9/11 to post 9/11, from the perspectives of those who perished, those who survived, those who served and rescued, and even those who committed the attacks. Wandering (sort of aimlessly) in an exhibit like this brought manifest feelings of awe and disbelief, sadness and sympathy, frustration and anger.
Yes, of course, anger. Anger directed at the terrorists that committed these acts, that were the cause of this memorial in which I stood. Now I could go back to my earlier dismissal of organized religion, even religion generally, and say, “Look what happens when the wrong people appropriate, manipulate, misinterpret, and misuse religion.” I’m not singling out Islam or contemporary religion either—there is, of course, a long history of the Christian religion and violence going hand-in-hand. For instance, in the history of my own region, slave-owners beat their slaves during the week and worshipped God on Sundays, reframing biblical stories to justify their violent ownership of other people (see the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs). It would have been easy for me to quickly forget my Sunday experience at Judson and return to my pessimistic view of religion.
But the 9/11 Museum did more than just document the event and stir up my emotions; it also brought people together to think about this tragedy. While the museum was crowded, this crowd didn’t seem to be there for simple spectacle. They moved through the exhibits slowly, they lingered, and most importantly, they shared their stories with each other. As a practiced eavesdropper, I overheard many stories about where people were during 9/11 and what it meant for them to come to this site. Upon our entrance to the museum, a man was telling the security guard that he used to park in this garage everyday for work. My student and I shared our stories with each other, too. Afterwards, we all shared more, discussing what we had seen and what had been particularly moving to us. It occurred to me, as I sat outside listening the ever-flowing fountain and watching folks exit the museum with drawn hushed faces, that this memorial isn’t about the evils of religion—although I felt so angry, so sad about the intolerance that generally accompanies extremist religious perspectives and that led to the loss of so many people on 9/11. In the end, the nature of the museum and memorial (which encourages overwhelming immersion but also thoughtful emotion) brought me back to my conversion at Judson—to an affirmation that a faith in humanity–and humanity itself–will triumph over violent extremism in the end.