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God and Evil


One U.S. senator declined to express enthusiasm for the idea that Congress was moving for a day to New York’s historic Federal Hall, where the first Congress had met, to make speeches on the meaning of Sept. 11. He figured that everything that could be said had already been said. He may have been right. But in the media world, nothing has been heard -- little will sink in -- until it has been said a hundred times.

So, especially in New York, we relived those days with the publication of dozens of books, at least three dozen TV specials, and the editors of the newsweeklies, The New York Times, the Newark Star Ledger and the New York Daily News determined that this time the journalists’ “first rough draft of history” would be closer to the last word than the rough draft.

The most-asked question was: What has changed?

From where I stand -- on a Jersey City hilltop -- I see the hole in the New York skyline, but I walk the bustling streets of lower Manhattan. The city is very much alive.

Nationally, President George W. Bush has declared a police action against terrorists, a “war” in order to achieve his administration’s original goals: abrogate international treaties; plunder the environment; and consolidate corporate wealth and economic power permanently in the hands of the 1 percent of the population who financed his election.

According to The New York Times and the New York Daily News, Bush has also told friends that he has been “chosen by God” to take command of this “war.”

Which leads us to the most challenging question posed by the PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero”: Where was God that morning when those two planes came hurtling through space aimed at the more than 2,000 men and women about to perish?

This is not a new question.

We hear it in our own families when a parent or dear friend -- especially a good, innocent, saintly person -- loses a kidney, is diagnosed with ALS or pancreatic cancer. When a child dies at birth or a young man or woman keels over on the football field or dance floor and does not get up. Why her? Why me? For the existentialist literary philosophers -- atheists like Camus or Christians like Dostoyevsky -- the suffering of children was the greatest challenge to religious belief.

For the middle-aged fireman or policeman -- the majority of whom are Catholic -- the irrational “scandal” is the loss of the fireman/policeman’s son, the handsome young fellow with a wife and 2-year-old child who will grow up thinking of his or her father in images of the Twin Towers crumbling in fire and smoke.

“Frontline,” broadcast twice, needs to be seen at least twice to begin to deal with its questions. And it is best reviewed in tandem with the A&E/New York Times documentary, “Investigative Reports: Anatomy of September 11th,” a highly technical, rational analysis of why so many people “had to die.”

They didn’t all have to die. Some died because they heroically took risks to save others. More died because architects who designed narrow stairways and so on did not foresee planes that big or that fast slamming into the walls. Police and firemen died because their respective communications systems were not designed to talk to one another. They could not broadcast: “Get out. Your tower is about to fall!”

So A&E dealt with human responsibility. “Frontline” gave voice to those who blamed -- or thanked -- God. They talked, for the most part, with victims mourning their losses; then with ministers, atheists, Muslim scholars, rabbis, artists and a few priests touched by the tragedy who struggled to say something consoling to people so hurt that an attempt at consolation was almost a denial of their grief.

And who is this God they kick around? He is the great puppeteer in the sky. He is Providence, the Big Planner. Our resumés are in his head before we type them. He simultaneously knows past, present and future, and pushes the buttons that send otherwise free individuals marching like mechanical figures in a medieval town hall clock to do his will.

To them, God is personally responsible for whatever goes wrong. How come if he’s so great he didn’t see those planes heading for the towers and reach down out of the clouds and swat them from the sky?

An Episcopalian priest, 31, in his black suit and high collar, who pre-Sept. 11 saw God as the one who could be “counted on” to “keep things in order,” describes himself now as cynical and “alone in a cruel world.”

To others, God is the family patriarch or next-door neighbor best friend who let them down and they are confused and teed off. In fact, the depth of their anger affirms their belief that he is there to absorb their sense of betrayal. We can’t “hate” someone and deny his/her existence at the same time.

A security guard, Tim Lynston, who knew 30 victims, is filmed walking the beach in the evening, the surf washing around his footprints, as he tells us he “cursed” God. He is “having a rough time.” This God is a “barbarian.” “I believe in the Son,” he says, “but not the Father.”

Marian Fontana, a writer, now speaks and writes the eulogy for her husband -- a fireman, sculptor, loving father. On a recuperative visit to Hawaii, confronted with the glory of sunrise, she is shattered rather than consoled. How could God kill “this beautiful man … turn this loving man to bones”? Sept. 11 has weakened her faith. But we have a sense she’ll still give God a chance to prove himself … sometime.

An occasional agenda surfaces. The Iraqi exile scholar Kanan Makiya, author of The Republic of Fear, reminds us that Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds. A Holocaust survivor connects the death camp victims with the victims in the towers.

And the voice of President Bush reminds us that here we have seen “evil.” This is evil personified in our declared national enemies. And the implication is that he, having been chosen by God to save us, has a mandate to stamp out evil everywhere. Has God chosen him to invade Iraq?

History’s list of divinely appointed leaders and politicians is long, including Osama bin Laden and the hijackers who imagine that Allah was their co-pilot when they smashed their planes into the symbols of Western materialism a year ago.

Atheists and artists have their say. Novelist Ian McEwan says there is no God and no devil, only people behaving monstrously. This is not the most spectacular event in the history of human cruelty; but the artist’s task is to explain it in human terms.

NPR correspondent Margot Adler warns us that the culture of violence, of which we are part, can “make us lose our sense that a human being is there.” The main point of liberal religion, she says, is that we are all human beings. Yet the terrorists felt great killing 3,000 human beings because they knew what was “good.” Then once you accept the invitation of evil to join in the cycle of vengeance, you -- we -- too are sucked in by the ocean’s undertow. It grabs our feet and pulls us out.

The implications of this for our “war” against terrorism are almost obvious; but “Frontline” does not linger to develop them. Nor does “Frontline” -- perhaps because it concentrates on local participants -- reach out to leading modern theologians who could offset the village atheist caricature of a know-it-all God who pushes heavenly buttons, ties his own hands and watches towers crumble.

Contemporary theologians influenced by process philosophy portray God like my friend, Jesuit Fr. David Toolan, a journalist who died of cancer in July, did. Toolan wrote in At Home in the Cosmos that God is “not wrapped up in himself,” but is involved, changing, suffering along with the world he created and is calling into the future.

As Genesis makes clear, God has set us free; and in Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the suffering and death of Jesus, world wars and genocides, we responsible humans have made our own mistakes, spread death by our sins.

The night before he died, the synoptic gospels describe Jesus sweating blood in fear and confusion. If Jesus had been in the World Trade Center a year ago he wouldn’t have understood it either.

I did not love those buildings as architecture. They seemed to violate the symmetry of the Manhattan skyline, like steelyard bullies. They inevitably suggested the Tower of Babel, the hubris of capitalism and technology reaching beyond normal limits.

But several times a week I was thrilled to take the PATH train from Jersey City and emerge into the vast underground complex of silver, gleaming escalators lifting thousands of commuters every second into a sunlight of commerce, competition and Old New York. I would take visitors to the top deck where we would lean out over the awesome abyss of the city and imagine that if we were to fall we would land right on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Faith and Doubt” also tries to talk to us about God in the usual cinematic images -- ocean waves on rocks, roiling, scudding clouds, storms, lightning, mountains shrouded in mists and jutting to the stars. Dawns. Sunsets. And the sound of Kyries.

But for me, nothing matches the story of the fireman who lost his 24-year-old fireman son. Like many a biblical hero -- Abraham, Noah, the psalmists and even Jesus -- the father has tried to bargain with God. Take me. He is not content with God’s silence; but he believes the boy is with God, watching over the family. The younger brother says he visits his brother now in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, because “that’s where he lives.” They talk for a while. And when he leaves the church he drops a few dollars in the poor box -- to buy his brother some beers.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College, is author of Fordham: A History and Memoir, recently published by Loyola Press.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002