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I live in Dyer, Indiana, in the heartland of America, far away from New York City.
Last evening I was talking casually with my neighbor, Don, as we were both working outside in our yards, cutting our lawns and tending our flowers. When I complimented him for his display of a large American flag and for his colorful patriotic decorations, he explained why his home was decorated so colorfully. “I was there,” he said in a quiet voice. “In New York, you mean?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “I mean I was on the 57th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit several stories above me. I was there on business, doing computer maintenance for a client, when the explosion occurred. And as I was walking down those stairs to get out of the building, I was praying that I wouldn’t die.” Last Saturday evening his family and friends joined him for a “Thank God I’m alive” party. And he’s been going to mass rather often since he returned home last Wednesday.
The tragedy of 9/11 (these digits 9-1-1 are more than a date–they are also the emergency telephone number in every American community) has been broadcast into our living rooms with images burned into our minds for generations. So too have many stories of survivors and rescue workers, narratives laced with thanks to God. Community gatherings throughout the nation feature prayers and religious vigils for the victims and their families. Like a pastor holding the nation’s hand, President Bush quoted from Psalm 23 to comfort the American people.
Suddenly religion has become prominent in America. An irony, really, in view of vigorous attempts to eradicate religious expression from American public life. Does all this public piety represent a genuine renewal, a national return to God—or is religion the spare tire Americans will be using until we can get our needed repairs?
Religion as instinct
There are no atheists in foxholes, so we’ve heard. War makes many people religious. In America’s current national crisis, religious expression is an instinctive response.
At 10:30 AM last Tuesday [September 11], less than an hour after the third airliner crashed, people were gathering for prayer in the Washington National Cathedral. At noon, more than 2,000 people filled another church for a memorial service called by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C. That evening, across America thousands of churches and synagogues held prayers service or candlelight vigils.
The events have occasioned interfaith services and ecumenical calls for unity. Because of Islam’s high profile in the current situation, many clerics are taking great pains to emphasize those elements common to all religions, namely, peace, love, and toleration.
Songs sung at public events are serving to express religious feelings and patriotic loyalties. When major league baseball resumed this past Monday, the traditional song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” usually sung during the seventh inning stretch, was replaced with “God Bless America.” In fact, this song, written in 1918 by Irving Berlin and revised in 1938, has become the public’s favorite, being sung more often than the national anthem. Members of Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the nation’s capitol, and members of the New York Stock Exchange sang it at the reopening of the trading floor this past Monday.
What we have been witnessing, I think, is the body politic, traumatized by terrorism, reacting instinctively by reaching upward for help from the God we all know exists. Religion is a natural human response (Acts 17:22-28; Rom. 1:20), and to the extent that it corresponds to God’s created purpose for the human race, we may be extremely thankful for spontaneous, instinctive, national talk about God.
From instinct to interpretation
But as the hours turned into days, and the days now become weeks, religious talk in America is moving from the level of instinct to the level of interpretation. At this level, religion helps to explain both the attacks and the response appropriate to them. Clergymen who read parts of the Sermon on the Mount about “turning the other cheek” and praying for one’s enemies are offering more than comfort. They are offering direction as well. And so were pastors who preached last Sunday on Romans 13.
At this level, religious talk employs some very heavy biblical words, terms like “forgiveness” and “justice.” Appeals to sacred writings and to the character of “God” are serving to justify both calls for non-retaliation and calls for military engagement.
Last week Thursday, former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (and colleague, Pat Robertson) made the controversial claim on television that God has removed His protection from America because specific secular organizations (whom Falwell named) had led the nation to condone abortion and gay rights while banning prayer in public schools. Other Christian leaders insist that God is judging America for its arrogance toward Third World countries, for supporting their despots while plundering their resources, for indifference to Third World poverty and pain. Unfortunately, in his subsequent correction and retraction, Rev. Falwell felt compelled to disconnect both the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and God from the tragic events at the World Trade Center, suggesting thereby that we Americans need not think about the religious meaning and divine purpose in these events.
The apparent unity on the level of religious instinct is now giving way to differences of religious understanding that have long existed in our nation. As we see from the quick public condemnation of Falwell’s premature moralizing, the contest has already become one of competing interpretations that then ought to guide public policy and national response. While we may well sing “God Bless America” together at the baseball park, national harmony fades as the music dies and the preaching begins.
From fear to faith: the opportunity of “religion” in America
To say that the attacks of 9/11 have made many Americans afraid is an understatement. Many fear the unknown. When and where and how will the next terrorist attack occur? Many fear the future of American society with its commitment to open democracy. What kind of society will our children and grandchildren inherit? Many fear Islam, a religion whose claims are as absolute and total as the claims of Christianity.
But such national fear serves simultaneously as an opportunity for biblical faith-obedience. It is no easier for American Christians than for Dutch Christians to distinguish between religious commitment and patriotic loyalty. America’s current crisis gives Christ’s church a fresh opportunity both to learn and to live out her unique calling in the modern world. That calling is to keep declaring and demonstrating the good news—the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only this power will transform “religion” in America from a means that serves human need to an end, the glory of the only true God. Ora pro nobis.