My reflections a few days after September 11, 2001
Last week was an odd time to be a clergyperson. On September 11, as a nation, we were dealt a devastating blow to our sense of safety and security. In response, we came together as a nation. Likewise, at our President’s call, we turned our eyes as one nation to God.
In a country as diverse as ours, turning to God meant many different things. In different places, we called out to Adonai, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, Tao, or a faceless “Creator.” In myriad ways, when everything fell apart we collectively looked for safety in something that transcended the material world.
This poses no small problem for those of us tasked to speak for any of the aforementioned deities. We want our respective gods to be perceived as powerful, otherwise why bother to worship them? We also want them to be thought of as compassionate, otherwise people will think that they are wasting their time. Finally, we want them to be represented as competent and involved, otherwise people are not going to take them very seriously.
You see the difficulty. To paraphrase Karl Barth, we stood before our faith communities and in one hand we held the scriptures of our strong, kind, all-knowing deities. In the other we held a newspaper describing the horrifying deaths of thousands of innocents through the cowardly acts of religious fanatics. It was an experience not unlike juggling a growling dog and a hissing cat. You’ve got to keep them both in the air, but you’re afraid that if they ever come together the show will be over.
A few of us chose to cry, “It’s the End of the World!” This works especially well for Christians, since all bets are off at the Apocalypse – and pointing to the Second Coming is one way to keep us from thinking about the real issue of why God would let so many innocents suffer. Unfortunately, the Chicken Little approach falls apart as soon as someone points out that the horror in New York is no more likely to mean the end of history than the horrors in Rwanda or Hiroshima.
Some of us took another easy way out. Certain “religious” leaders said they believed that the shattered lives and mutilated bodies were all part of God’s plan, and were a consequence of America not following the specific political agenda that these leaders have tried to cram down our throats.
Such rhetoric, although likely to help their particular fringe causes, is patently absurd. Any victim of a crime, particularly a violent one, knows that the crime is not the victim’s fault (and is not endorsed by a loving God). Whether the crime is rape, setting fire to an African-American church, or the World Trade Center bombing – we must all admit that our respective gods allow bad things to happen to good people, sometimes even on a grand scale and regardless of the politics of those involved.
That leaves the rest of us: rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, monks, and many others who want to help. We’ve driven by your stores which have “Pray” and “God Bless America” written on their marquees; but we’ve also seen the doubt in your eyes as your faith was challenged by this catastrophe. It’s easy for us to recognize, because we see it in the mirror as well.
If we are honest, though, we do not have a really satisfying answer. That is the real irony of an event like this. It can cause an entire nation to turn to matters of faith; only to expose faith’s greatest weakness: there is no god you can believe in who is guaranteed to protect you from misery, grief, loss, pain, or physical death.
As your religious leaders, we know this – yet we still believe. We believe because we know the histories of our faiths. Every major religion in the world has faced the cowardly reprisals of lunatics and zealots. Over time we have learned that fanatics die and are forgotten. Faith, truth, and love, on the other hand, last forever.
If you come into our houses of worship, and we hope you will, we cannot offer you the miracle of an easy answer. Be wary of those who claim they can. What we can do is offer a visible reminder that when all is said and done, it is the twin miracles of love and the love of God that endure.