Syncretism and 9/11

It has been sixteen years since the horrific events of 9/11. On this anniversary the nation pauses to remember those lost, and to reflect on the issues related not only to that event, but also to our seemingly never ending "War on Terror."

As you think back to where you were and what you felt on that day, I'd like to share another aspect of that tragedy with one that connects to my ongoing research and work in multi-faith engagement.

Not long after 9/11, on September 23, a memorial service was held in Yankee Stadium. The event brought together thousands of people. Emotions were still raw, and many were still waiting for word about the fate of their missing loved ones. The event included not only various politicians, but also clergy representing the major religious traditions in the area. One of those in attendance was Rev. David Benke, a minister in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Rising to the occasion of massive grief, Rev. Benke saw an opportunity to be pastoral, and in doing this he led those in the stadium in prayer. You can watch a video clip of his prayer here

You might think that this was the end of things as the population of New York, and the rest of the nation continued to wrestle with the attacks and what life in the new normal of post-terrorism would mean. But things took an ugly turn for Rev. Benke. Because of his participation in the memorial service, taking the stage with leaders of other religious traditions, denominational leaders in Benke's church took exception to his actions, leveling charges of heresy over concerns of alleged heresy. Here are Rev. Benke's own words on this, taken from the excellent PBS Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero (starting at 1:21:12):

”The Yankee Stadium day was a pivotal day in my entire life. It was a day when everything that I have stood for as a human being, as well as a person of faith, was going to be on the line. We were in the middle of a very emotional, highly charged event. There was a sense of people wanting to release these profound emotions that had just been harbored in them because they didn't know whether their husbands were going to be found, or their wives. They were still waiting for word from the rescue workers. They were still calling everybody "missing" at that time. They just came for some comfort, something to hang onto. Even though we all had questions of where was God, my prayer was "You have to be our tower of strength God, you cannot desert us at this moment." And that's how the prayer led off. When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy. The very next day, people not outside of my tradition, but from within my tradition, and they were [sending me] messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally. They just said, "You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith." One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, "Planes crash and people die. Nothing big about that." Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer. Well, I just want to say that I have not gotten over that and I can't get through that because I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings. And I've talked to people whose loved ones were murdered, and for me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me. I can't take it. I can't bear up under it. It doesn't make any sense to me. Within two months, a number of those people put together a petition and have filed charges of heresy, saying that I am not part of the Christian church because of what I did on that day and should not be part of my denomination anymore, should not be allowed to preach, should have my [clerical] collar removed. The people who brought the charges against me are clergymen from my denomination, and their belief is that the doctrine of the church does not allow a Christian to stand at the same podium with someone of another faith, or everybody is going to get the idea that all religions are equal. And we have made some absolute claims, exclusive claims about our faith. If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, perhaps, then what's underneath religion?”

As Christianity Today reported, Benke was eventually charged by leaders in the LCMS with "six sets of ecclesiastical violations, including syncretism (mixing religions), unionism (worshiping with non-LCMS Christian clergy), and violating the Bible's commandment against worship of other gods." For this he was suspended, and eventually reinstated two years later. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks the major concern of LCMS leaders was not to reach out and strengthen a Christian brother in ministry at Ground Zero. Nor was it an emphasis on love of neighbor or pastoral ministry in the form of grieving with those who grieve. Instead the LCMS emphasized concerns for boundaries, theologically appropriate distance between "us" as Christians and the "them" of other religions. Why? Given the actions of Rev. Benke in an interfaith context, and the resulting charges of syncretism, it is clear that what was driving the concern on the part of his denominational leaders, as a result of our research related to this, was the moral foundation of purity. From the perspective of LCMS leaders, given their moral assumptions that served as a filter for their theological views, Benke's participation in the event threatened to contaminate the gospel and the LCMS.

Perhaps at times my work that brings moral psychology into conversation with a theology of multi-faith engagement may seem difficult to connect to real world issues. But as this incident from 2001 indicates, the relationship between psychological frameworks and  theology have a very real application to the important issues that impact us every day. 

How far is too far in engaging others in multi-faith contexts? Is sharing a public forum with other faith leaders appropriate? Is participation or leading in group prayer permissible for a Christian leader in the context of a multi-faith memorial service? This are important questions that must be worked through. And understanding the emotional and moral psychological components are an important part of providing answers in a religiously divided world in desperate need of trust-building.

John Morehead