Hindsight: Burying the Ghost of Ground Zero

The High Priest may treat the crumbs of the Eucharistic ritual with sacrosanct care in order that none go wasted; yet, it is all too easily forgotten that the Eucharist celebrates the greatest loss of all -- a life. This claim, paraphrased from the sociologist of religion Dick Fenn, reminds us that across religions and cultures rituals do the essential work of caring for our communal souls.

Irreverently treating the Eucharistic ritual therefore carries great risk: souls may linger on with their sins unrequited, loved ones may fail to be spiritually united with those they have lost, and the reign of peace may be further forestalled. When pained souls are not cared for, loves seek ill-gotten requital. Hatreds are found; wars are declared; scapegoats and effigies are crafted; and the illogic of grief reigns.

Indeed, as I have listened to the publicly mourning and the politically capitalistic speak surrounding the Cordoba House Muslim Community Center over the past several weeks, I have come to notice the distinctive language of failed rituals.

Our dead, it seems, have come back to haunt us because they were never properly buried.

Americans across the nation have grasped on to the term "families" to signify the privately aggrieved, regardless of relation or proximity to the events of September 11, 2001. "Mosque" has become a term expressing far more the injustice of human existence than a House of God. People speak readily of the untended wounds of the dead, but practice silence on the topic of the peaceful, pluralistically driven, and loving Muslims who are seeking to build this center of community. In fact, most care little about which Muslims are building this center, or the fact that it is not in fact a mosque at all.

A behavior that shouldn't surprise us, as any expert on grief will say that logic is not to be, in any way, expected from those in mourning. Pain is governing this moment.

It seems our dead are rising because they have not been buried appropriately. Our dead are too easily disentombed by entrepreneurial politicians. We can see their disingenuous spirit by their opposition to healthcare benefits for the victims of 9/11 for their physical wounds, while -- at the very same time -- claiming to oppose the Cordoba House so as to avoid salting the psychological wounds of the same victims. With respect to these leaders, blaming the hopeless is hopeless.

After all, false prophets and politicians have long been raiding tombs for the sake of their own ambitions. "Remember the Alamo" was cried at San Jacinto, and the peaceful Armistice Day was converted to an embattled Veterans Day during a time of war. The spirits of those passed are potent tools for raising the passions of the present.

It is with ourselves -- those who turn away disgusted by the hateful rhetoric we are hearing arising from some of these demagogues -- where we must direct our disappointment. Hate-mongers appear when societies fail to facilitate public grief, memorialize the dead, and be certain that they have been buried well. The dead must be attended to if we do not want them to be taken advantage of.

Would there be a "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy if those who died on 9/11 were appropriately kept down, and entombed, by a tasteful and sorrowful memorial structure? I doubt it. Rarely are we haunted by those who live under gravestones.

What is happening now is not simply a failure of the past few weeks, it is a failure of political and spiritual leadership over the past nine years to truly care for the aggrieved. As much as I welcome Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama's statements of religious pluralism, we mustn't forget that they -- and many others -- have failed to invest the political capital necessary to appropriately memorialize the dead of 9/11.

We ought not be surprised that unrequited loves and passions have uglily reared their heads at this moment. Unfulfillments can only linger dormant for so long, especially when they are being prodded by the sinister.

An important aspect of being a political leader in times of crisis is attending to the spirits of the dead for the sake of the souls of the living. When leaders of the past have failed to attend, or answer for, the passions of the masses, an illogical campaign of terror is most often the result. Scapegoats are quickly sought.

So it happened that when the theodicy of the Catholic Church could not answer for the horrors of the plague, the masses found witches to burn. When politicians ignored the plight of the impoverished and starving Southerners after the Civil War, the hatred of blacks was only fermented. And when the uncertainty of nuclear arms reigned in the 1950s, McCarthyism was borne.

The hauntings of the dead are old and common stories. You may remember that when the oppression of Roman occupation was too totalitarian, too genocidal, it is said that the masses cried out to for Pilate to crucify a young and inconvenient rabbi, a testament to the fact that keeping the dead down is important work if we do not want to only further beget violence.

Because, when the dead are given their due, society is allowed to move forward unhaunted by its past. Such it was that the Church once made room for an All-Saints-Day, so that the dead could have their day -- and only that day -- to be raised once again. As it was that in the wake of the political injustice of Vietnam that the elected elite quickly sought to construct a memorial in the midst of our national monuments.

And in the case of that crucified young rabbi, the priests have come to treat the Eucharist with great solemnity and ritualistic care so that our grief for his loss may not dangerously spill over.

If we continue to fail to attend to the dead of 9/11, then they will continue to haunt our present. The unscrupulous will continue to dig them up. Their passions will continue to spill over into enmity and boiling anger. And they will continue to deeply aggrieve, and hinder, those who held them, and loved them, so dearly.

Keeping the dead down is a tricky, forgotten requirement of leadership. Our nation's recent leaders have failed to live up to that task. While the Cordoba House must be allowed its rightful construction, we ought also take a careful look at the cacophony of failures which has led to this most recent public exercise of hatred.

Until we engage the task of rebuilding of the World Trade Center and properly memorializing the victims of 9/11, the tragedies of that day will continue to linger on through irrational, unfettered, inconvenient, and hateful ruptures of the past into the present.