Where Is God? A Response to 9/11

Tuesday, Sept. 11th was simply a horrendous day. We didn’t get very much work done, needless to say, as we watched well-known buildings burn and collapse and waited for the next disaster.

My friend Ron watched the Pentagon burn from his 8th floor flat in the Cairo near Dupont Circle. It took my friend Mark over an hour to ride his bike home from his job at the Environmental Protection Agency when they closed the government and evacuated all the buildings — usually a 10 minute bike ride. And much more tragically, an old friend worked on the 89th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers and I have not heard from him or been able to reach him.

I grew up in New York. I love to drive to New York from New Jersey or Long Island and watch the skyline loom up across the river, punctuated mid-town by the Empire State Building and the lovely graceful Chrysler Building and anchored way downtown by the two huge towers of the World Trade Center. The anchor is gone now. I don’t know if it will be easy to look at my hometown skyline again.

Here in my new home I often take a route that passes right by the Pentagon on my way downtown, especially if I am going to MCC DC. The gaping hole and blackened walls of that side of the Pentagon will be hard to look at.

And though we are not yet completely sure, it appears that these atrocities were committed by religious fanatics.

It is important to remember that the last time we as a people felt like this, unknown terrorists had blown up a Federal building in Oklahoma City. The assumption was that it was the Arabs, that Islam was somehow responsible. But it turned out to be a lanky, blond-headed American boy, helpfully trained by our own military. Go figure.

Jumping to conclusions is the only exercise some Americans get. But we can’t let our assumptions control our actions. Not all followers of Islam are terrorists. The terrorists are the real heretics, twisting the Koran to their own perverted uses. Sort of like Christians can do when it comes to homosexuality.

Despite all the horrors America has unarguably committed and the wrong-headedness of some of our leaders, it is hard to look at all this disaster and feel anything but fierce pride and patriotism. I hope that feeling doesn’t translate into American horrors against whatever Arab or Muslim country can be connected with the attacks on us, and especially on individual Arab or Muslim people.

The President’s missile defense shield seems a little silly now — our enemies don’t need missiles when any handy American Airlines 767 filled with jet fuel can get through to it’s target without even a fighter jet being scrambled to try to stop it. Our strongest symbols of American financial and military might can be shattered not by missiles or nuclear bombs, but by determined fanatics with knives on a commercial airliner.

In stark contrast to the craven acts of knife-wielding barbarians there is another face of America. It is seen in the bravery, commitment, love, and compassion of thousands of people who are groping through the rubble, sometimes with their bare hands, trying to find any left alive in the huge pile of junk that used to be the World Trade Center. It is in the thousands lining up to give blood. It is the millions who are thronging their churches, synagogues, and mosques to pray. I like to think that this is the true face of America and indeed the world.

Even people of the strongest faith are tempted to ask, Where is God? How can a loving God allow this to happen? Where is God in all this?

It is my belief that we CAN see the hand of God in this situation. But not in the disaster itself. God is not found in the disasters that befall us. God is found in our response to those disasters. God didn’t hijack and crash four jet airplanes. But God does inspire our loving, caring responses the rescue workers, the police and fire fighters, the medical personnel, the heroes and heroines on the scene in New York and at the Pentagon. And God is found in us ordinary people who stop to grieve and pray, who give blood, who light a candle.

Similarly, God will not be seen in the Americans who throw bricks through mosque windows, or who vandalize Islamic centers, or who shoot up Arab gathering places, or who terrorize American citizens of Arab descent or Islamic faith. God will be seen in those of us who stretch out a hand of love to those who are different from us, even Arabs, even Muslims. God will be seen in our acts of kindness, forbearance, and understanding.

That isn’t to say that I don’t want justice done for those who supported the horror rained down upon our great nation that day. I do. I want those responsible found and punished to the fullest extent of the law. Americans crave justice in this case. I hope that we also remember that judgement is God’s.

Life will go on in our country. New York will rebuild its shattered financial district. The Pentagon will be rebuilt. But there is something else that has been taken from us, something that will not so easily be rebuilt. Our sense of safety. Our innocence. Our belief that our strong, powerful, dominant country is somehow invulnerable.

I disagree that this is a new Pearl Harbor. It isn’t, because there is no identifiable Japan, no single nation or alliance of nations who have attacked the United States militarily in an act of war. Perhaps it is more like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo toward the beginning of the last century — the act of a lone assassin. That act evolved into the First World War as nation after nation got into the act of reprisals and revenge and retaliation. Soon the whole world was engulfed.

I am afraid the new century is starting out as badly as the last one. Senseless and horrific acts of violence have obliterated hundreds, probably thousands of innocent people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. I fear what will come next.

May God have mercy on us. Grant us your peace.