Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From the Archives: The Gods of September 11

The following is a repost of an essay I posted here on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Over the last week or so I’ve heard more than one person say that September 11 has served our generation as a vivid reminder of the reality of evil, of the gravity of the problem of sin—in Christian terms, of what it means to exist in alienation from our creator.

I don't disagree. There is no question in my mind that what we witnessed on that day was evil—not that the agents of the attacks were essentially evil (as so many claimed), or that their religion was evil (as too many still insist), or that religion as such was evil (as Sam Harris boldly declared in The End of Faith). But what was done, the indifference to life, the deliberate pursuit of atrocity followed by its celebration…if there is anything that deserves the label “sin,” surely this qualifies.

But when Americans point to September 11 and say, “Here is sin,” their fingers are pointing away from themselves.

Let me say this again, more inclusively: When any one of us who has not personally presided over the extermination of human life points at the September 11 attacks and says, “Here is sin,” we are pointing away from ourselves.

And when sin becomes about pointing fingers, rather than about self-transformation and transcendence, the invocation of "sin" becomes part of the problem of sin.

To be transformative, "sin" must be an inner recognition, not an outer judgment. It must be seen, not as a positive reality that has claimed the wicked Other, but as something in ourselves—not something that calls for a response of self-loathing, but an absence that cries out to be filled. As such, sin is like hunger: a symptom of our need to reach beyond ourselves for sustenance. When we are hungry, we do not hate ourselves. When we are hungry we look for food.

And what will feed us? “God,” comes the answer. But what does that mean? For Fred Phelps it means a steady diet of hate. Is that God? Is that what fills the absence, what completes us?

As we confront the horror of September 11, we feel, urgently, the need to be filled. What do we turn to? When confronted with atrocity, where do we look for God?

Some look for vengeance, convinced that it will satisfy. Is their God the one who casts sinners into a fiery hell? Will vengeance fill the emptiness we call sin?

Some link arms and sing patriotic songs, and wave their flags and insist on unity, but it becomes more than just solidarity. They seek to be filled by national pride, by standing up with the tribe that has been struck, by standing together against the enemy, by retooling the very same us/them ideology that allows whole communities to be legitimately targeted in the chosen people’s holy war against its enemies. Is our God a tribal God?

Some scramble for security, taking every possible step to make certain it never happens again—as if, in Stanley Hauerwas’s provocative terms, they can thereby manage to get out of this life alive. Is that the answer? Will sin be defeated if principle gives way to fear, if in the name of security we are prepared to extract information under torture, or let the hungry starve so that our bank accounts are comfortably padded?

Some are like that alpha boy on the playground when he finds himself hurt. Others feel his pain and reach out. But compassion strikes him as pity, and pity is for the weak. And so he sets out to prove that he doesn’t need anyone. The community of mutuality, of interdependence, of shared vulnerability and strength, this community that is suddenly trembling on the tongue of that strange girl leaning down to ask if he’s alright—it terrifies him, and he bats it way.

Is self-reliance our God?

Some, when confronting tragedy, look for ways to fit it into all their old patterns of thinking, rather than allow the enormity of the moment to inspire silence. Some use what happened opportunistically, to pursue the same agendas they’ve always had, rather than let the cracks in their world inspire the humility to ask what their agendas ought to be.

Some seek to use the tragedy—and all the confused fears and longings it inspires—to manipulate their way into power or privilege. They represent themselves as having the answers, if only others will follow where they lead. If they become the thing that feeds the emptiness in others, perhaps their own will disappear. But emptiness cannot feed emptiness.

Some look at the September 11 terrorist attacks and say, “Where is God? Where is God in this horror?” They mean it as rhetorical, but the question doesn’t strike me as rhetorical at all. We all have our answers. But which one will fill us?

"Christ has bidden us," said Simone Weil in a letter to her friend and confidante Father Perrin, "to attain to the perfection of our heavenly Father by imitating his indiscriminate bestowal of light....Every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God's creative love. The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below." And when we love as God loves, when we cast out this web of indiscriminate love, we become "the bird with golden wings" who pierces the shell of the world.

Perhaps sin, in the end, is about all the futile answers we choose, all the absurd alternatives to love.

1 comment:

  1. Off-topic, but a review of Platinga's new book hit Digg's front page today, so I thought I'd pass it on: