Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
We mourn the sudden, unexpected deaths of all those who died tragically in the senseless violence in New York City, Washington, and in Pennsylvania. Just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the destruction of Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., this September day will be embedded in our psyches for the rest of our lives.
As I watched live on television the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center where I had been a visitor only weeks earlier, and when I saw the wreckage at the Pentagon, where several of my friends work, I felt an enormous wave of shock and sadness, one that only intensified as it became known that hundreds of firefighters, police, medical care-givers, had also perished in brave attempts to save trapped victims. A weight of dread descended upon me as, like many others, I kept repeating to myself: “Life will never be the same again.”
Then on Sunday, October 7, sitting in a waiting room in Chicago’s Union Station, I heard President George W. Bush announce the beginning of bombing raids on Afghanistan. The eerie nighttime pictures of explosions over Kabul, increased the sense of horror as it became clear that another war was underway, with destruction, death, and dangers abounding.
How to concentrate on business as usual, even on ordinary theological research, when a multitude of ethical questions swirl about: on just-war theories, the killing of civilians, relations between Christians and Muslims, justice, and divine providence–topics being daily debated through the media?
Any temptation to isolationism that may have lured our citizens in the past has now been rudely quashed. Ineluctably, we are drawn to ponder a vast congeries of issues affecting our country and its place in the world: globalization, economic dominance, unequal distribution of the world’s resources, reprisals, secularization, ignorance about other living faiths, especially Islam and its subdivisions, and long-seated antipathies.
If any good is to come from the sufferings of these months, may it be in us an awakened consciousness of past injustices, present social ills, the power of demagoguery and propaganda, the dangers of twisting religious truths to seemingly justify evil, and the need for profound respect for diversity.
At my own university, it was astounding to see the quick response of students and faculty to an invitation to prayer and worship. Our neighboring church was filled to overflowing; later outdoor services needed vast spaces to accommodate all those gathered to remember the dead and the grieving, and to invoke the Almighty. Regular lectures were suspended to permit classroom discussions about the causes and occasions of international violence. The mood on campus I would characterize not so much one of fear but one of bewilderment.
On a global scale there were many religious services such as those in Washington’s National Cathedral, Yankee Stadium in New York City, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The service held at Yankee Stadium presided over by a respected figure from the entertainment world, Oprah Winfrey, incorporated an amazingly wide cross-section of religious and political leaders, as well as icons of popular culture. The close-up shots of grieving families, many bereft of loved ones from among the police, the firefighters, the construction workers, the chaplains, medical care-givers, as well as office workers, brought home the enormity of the pain. How thoughtlessly we take for granted the bravery and sacrifices of those who daily protect and serve us. We learned of many stories of bravery such as the employees of the World Trade Center who carried a handicapped woman down 50 flights of stairs to safety (without even knowing her name).
Each day we are realizing how much in times of crises we rely on leaders, be it national elected officials, city mayors, and synagogue, mosque, and church hierarchs, as well as news correspondents, engineers, and medical experts. Those of us whose parents lived during the two World Wars, the worldwide influenza epidemic, or the Great Depression, recall stories from our youth of generosity, self-sacrifice, and hopeful resignation when faced with loss of life and deprivation. Will we also rise to the occasion?
We find ourselves grappling with issues we never thought realistically possible. Are outbreaks of anthrax, for instance, the result of malicious bio-chemical warfare? Is there in fact danger from germs or is the danger simply fear itself?
Writing these reflections in mid-October for a December publication, I cannot imagine the intervening course of events. What is certain, however, is that we are called upon to be discerning and wise and prayerful. Without virtue we will succumb to hatreds and relentless prejudices cultivated by inadequate or distorted information. A sad result of the present troubles is that other burning social issues: poverty, education, ecological destruction, and domestic violence will be marginalized. The times call for sober reflection and commitment.