Where is God in All This?

Tasneem Jamal

Walter Pitman

The Ploughshares Monitor September 2001 Volume 22 Issue 3

Walter Pitman is the Chairperson of Project Ploughshares. These comments were first written for his home congregation at Lawrence Park Community Church (United Church of Canada) in Toronto.

Just a couple of days after the horrific events of Tuesday, September 11, I sat across the table from an old friend, a businessman whose world has been that of marketing and promotion. Over the years, we have talked about these matters many times, but on this occasion, with no introductory preparation or comment about the weather, our health, and the well-being of our respective families, he blurted out the question which all of us may still be silently contemplating, “Where is God in all this?”

In our church community, we have been made aware of the truth of our affirmation, “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.” We have prayed, both individually and, within two days, collectively, in our own beautiful sanctuary. The first Sunday morning service after the tragedy, prayers and music helped us to reflect on the events in New York and Washington and, most of all, to express our compassion for the victims, their families and friends, as well as for the rescue workers who died in the futile effort to rescue survivors. As Christians, we expressed our belief in the fact that God is indeed suffering with them and with all of us, that “We are not alone.”

The first reaction of many who witnessed the destruction and carnage was and still is one of revenge and retribution. We must inflict upon terrorists the same level of suffering we have endured in these past days. The power of television to fuel our fury could not be greater – indeed the image of airliners hitting the towers of the World Trade Center will be one that each of us will take to our graves. An “eye for an eye,” until, as pacifist Colman McCarthy puts it, “we all go blind.” On the other hand, there was the plea expressed in a letter to The New York Times by the parents of a boy killed at the World Trade Center that the promised retaliation should be “not in our son’s name.” To a President bent on countering violence and death with violence and death they wrote, “your response does not make us feel better about our son’s death. It makes us feel that our government is using our son’s memory as a justification to cause suffering for other sons and parents in other lands.”

But is there a lesson to be learned? The targets of these unconscionable attacks represents, first, in New York, the enormous concentration of economic power and the unspeakable oppression of a system that ensures inequality and deprivation for millions of people in the poorer countries of the world. The second, in Washington, is the very symbol and reality of rampant militarism that keeps the injustice of economic inequality in place and has ironically done much to create the repressive regimes and train the very terrorists who are now to be eliminated. The building screams out to the world that only might is right.

In the present heat of outrage, one hesitates to identify the possibility of causation in these events as such an effort appears to justify the violence. To seek an explanation appears to be providing legitimacy – an affront to all who have died and all who grieve. It is more comforting to believe that it is irrational madness or the lunatic doings of some fringe religious group.

But to seek no understanding, to assume nothing but mindless hatred and demented anger, is to learn nothing. Worse, it is an invitation to create the context for some new outrage.

First, can we realize that there are many forms of terrorism? Bringing down two enormous towers that provided a venue for thousands of workers has a visual impact and a dramatic effect. But there are mothers watching their children die in huts and streets in Palestine and Israel and in countless villages in Africa and Asia, the direct result of a form of day-to-day “terrorism” in a world in which, for the past two or three decades, the rich have thrived and the poor have sunk lower by contrast. The foreign policy and practice of the western nations have included the bombing of Iraq over these many years, along with economic sanctions that have killed, it is estimated, some 500,000 children. Other innocents have been killed and maimed by missiles launched over Libya, Grenada, Haiti, Somalia, and Yugoslavia. These are examples of terrorism, on a smaller scale perhaps, but equal in despair and sorrow for the mother of a dead child. To state that reality is not to suggest any kind of legitimacy for the indescribable events of September 11, but to present a cause-and-effect context that resounds from every form of violence.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the great historian-philosopher, states that history is ironic. Our lives are too short for us to see and understand the patterns of human action; thus, history loses the essence of tragedy. Yet, there is some order to our lives and we know that the story of humankind goes beyond complete chaos and pathos. Essentially, Niebuhr tells us, things never turn out as we expect. For example, in the midst of the debate over planetary ballistic missile defence (the “son of Star Wars”) at a projected cost of many billions of dollars, the American administration must now admit that this system would not have saved the Trade Center or the Pentagon from successful attack, nor will it stop the next outbreak of fury – whether it be the virtual “home-made” nuclear weapon detonated in the middle of a crowded city, or the chemical or biological “pollution” of the water supply of a major urban centre.

If we are not to live out our lives in continuous fear and trepidation of yet another horrible example of death and destruction coming upon us, our children, and our grandchildren, we must seek other directions. Over the years, our congregation has been most generous in its support of the inter-denominational peace advocacy of Project Ploughshares. For nearly a quarter of a century, this organization has pointed out the irony of violence-oriented international relations. It has proclaimed “common security” for all people, based on justice for all people, as the only form of security there can be. It has sought to achieve international agreements on the banishing of landmines, the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons, the cessation of a small arms trade that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. The “Ploughshares” answer is to invest in peacemaking on a scale that compares with our investment in the technology of violence. (It is significant that as a result of this latest attack the American government will add billions of dollars to the 300-billion-dollar annual US defence budget.) Such an investment in peace would make it possible to send in peacemakers and peacebuilders who would bring potential combatants to the table in every hot spot on earth. Only that common security, based on economic justice, has any hope of ending both the horrors we have just witnessed, and the day-to-day terrorism that makes such an event inevitable.

Peacemaking can be successful. In our own generation we have seen what a Nelson Mandela and a Bishop Tutu and their supporters could accomplish. The “miracle” of South Africa is far short of its goal, but also far short of the bloodbath that was expected. And there are other examples.

We have been told that we are “at war.” As has been repeated many times, the first victim in a war is the truth. We have demonized the perpetrators without, at the time of writing, being sure who they are or what their specific motive might have been. However, assuming the terrorism can all be attributed to fanatic fundamentalist Muslims is a convenient basis for action. Christians agree that the concept of bringing murderers to justice is entirely appropriate, and there are world courts for that purpose. But will “justice” be meted out through the suffering of thousands of innocents, will retribution be wreaked upon a particular faith community whose teachings find such acts equally reprehensible? Will we initiate military action that will invite escalation and produce another generation of suicide bombers?

Over the past summer, our pastor has pursued in her sermons the “hard sayings” of Jesus. The ultimate irony is that the words of Jesus about “loving our enemies” and blessing “those who curse you” can no longer be seen as idealistic twaddle but hard-headed realism. They mean accepting the personal implications of all terrorism, whether that in New York and Washington, or the terrorism of starving people in a world of potential plenty. Indeed, can we accept our responsibility for the form of terrorism that sees the destruction of the planet’s capacity to serve future generations? To the extent that we applaud and elect governments that regard tax-cuts and personal wealth as the ultimate objects of our political will – in place of investment in peacemaking, economic justice around the globe, and environmental health and well-being – we are all terrorists.

The world has indeed changed. Those thousands entombed in the crater below the World Trade Center and in the ruins of the Pentagon may become the martyrs whose deaths can have meaning for the peace and well-being of humankind in a new millenium – or the first stage in assuring that the carnage of the 20th century has pre-determined an even more horrendous 21st century. How we define and react to “terrorism” will decide the answer to that question. Could it be that we worship a God who not only comforts us but also presents us with these “hard” alternatives and provides us the example of sacrifice in Christ, along with the imagination and creativity that allow us to reach the stars of new levels of caring and compassion? Is that where God is in all this?

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