Today is the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01 and I’ve spent part of the morning reflecting on that day and the subsequent years with their story authored so much by those attacks and our responses. On the one hand, I agree with Stanley Hauerwas who has maintained that 9/11 is not the “day that everything changed,” in the sense that–for Christians at least–everything changed in approximately 33 AD, over a three day period, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and later rose from the dead. That changed everything. I also agree that the initial response, the way in which people were encouraged to “go shop” was anemic and revealed a rot in our soul as a nation. a rot which, some might say, has been exposed all the more by the causes our current recession.
And yet. And yet at the same time, for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, the world changed decisively on 9/11/01. A father or mother never made it home from work. A boyfriend who worked for the FDNY died while seeking to save another from the collapsing wreck of a skyscraper. A child in the daycare and never made it out, despite the efforts of a parent to reach them. A Franciscan giving last rites became the first recorded victim of the attacks. People fell with rubble from the sky and for those who saw, and for those who loved them, the world did indeed change.
Who can blame people for seeking a return to normalcy–even a normalcy identified with shopping–in the face of such a painful and terrifying experience. I certainly can’t.
In some ways I see September 11th as the day the old world reached out and dragged the new world back in. The myth of America as separate and above the rest of the world (terrorism, like political instability, is something that happens somewhere else, not here) was destroyed that day, and our policies, carefully developed to walk the line between securing our separateness while remaining engaged with the outside world in military as well as economic ways had to adapt. The myth was destroyed, but the desire still strong, along with the hope, of holding on to some of the reality of the safety and isolation we’d so long enjoyed from those other, less practical peoples on the globe.
September 11th did change things. It changed people’s plans, their hopes, their dreams, their lives in hurtful and dramatic ways. And it is in these individual stories, these individual lives that the true impact of this crime is revealed.
I’ve been rereading Rowan Williams’ Writing in the Dust, the book he wrote as he reflected upon his experience of being in New York City on that fateful day, and I would like to share part of it with you on this anniversary:
Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile. That moment of ‘making room’ is what I as a religious person have to notice. It isn’t ‘pious’, it isn’t language about God; it’s simply language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness. It’s a breathing space in the asthmatic climate of self-concern and competition; a breathing space that religious language doesn’t often manage to create by or for itself.
God always has to be rediscovered. Which means God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him. Saying something for the sake of another in the presence of death must be one place of rediscovery. Mustn’t it?
Careful. You can do this too quickly. It sounds as though you’re gratefully borrowing someone else’s terrible experience to make another pious point. And after all, not everyone dies with words of love. there will have been cursing and hysteria and frantic, deluded efforts to be safe at all costs when people knew what was going on in those planes. and would anyone want their private words of love butchered to make a sermon?
It proves nothing. But all I can say is that for someone who does believe, or tries to, the ‘breathing space’ is something that allows the words of religious faith for a moment not to be as formal or flat or self-serving as they usually are.
The morning after, very early, I was stopped in the street in New York by a youngish man who turned out to be an airline pilot and a Catholic. He wanted to know what the hell God was doing when the planes hit the towers. What do you say? The usual fumbling about how God doesn’t intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of ‘policy’ on God’s part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrifical work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is. Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God’s refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of the Christian faith. He has made the world so that evil choices can’t just be frustrated or aborted (where would he stop, for goodness sake? he’d have to be intervening every instant of human history) but have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.
I do believe that; but I don’t think you can say it with much conviction outside the context of people actually doing the action and the prayer. In the street that morning, all I had was words. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t help. He was a lifelong Christian believer, but for the first time it came home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crises.
Perhaps it’s when we try to make God useful in a crises, though, that we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment. Perhaps the words of faith will rise again slowly in that space (perhaps not). But don’t try to tie it up quickly.