"If God is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?"
Reflections on Faith and Terrorism
Most Reverend John Joseph Myers
Archbishop of Newark
On September 11th the world witnessed a calculated act of terror that has shocked and traumatized our nation along with the entire civilized world. This tragic loss of innocent and vulnerable human life has been felt in communities in every land and touches every city, each town, and every family. This is indeed a national tragedy for it is fundamentally a human tragedy, an event that must never be repeated. Ours is an experience of loss that moves us at the core of our existence, prompting us to ask important and deeply felt questions about our country, about ourselves, and also about our relationship with God.
The questions that issue from the depths of our hearts act not just upon our own lives and relationship with God, but also upon the lives of all who profess belief in God. We know that while this act of terror may have been committed in the "name of God" and for "God’s purposes", properly speaking these were not religious actions. The God of Abraham, the God of Mohammed, and the God of Jesus Christ is not a God of destruction. God is the author of life and the source of all that is good and true and beautiful. What the world witnessed this past September was not an act of worship, but a manifestation of evil.
The actions perpetrated against our nation and against the entire human family stem from the disorders of the heart that speak to the reality and the presence of evil. As Catholic Christians, our faith in God and Christ Jesus His Son provides answers to the questions raised by the acts of hatred that occurred in New York, in Washington DC, and in Pennsylvania. As a pastor whose flock has been so personally and so profoundly touched by this tragedy, I wish to address the questions being raised by so many in our nation and in the world. I know the answers cannot completely speak to the complexities of the mystery of sin and human suffering - they are not meant to. Nor are they meant to assuage the pain and dampen the full range of emotions we are all experiencing. The questions and the answers discussed in this pastoral letter are meant to plant seeds of comfort that will help wounded hearts grow confident once again in the conviction of God’s love and God’s love and care for His people.
I. How could God let this happen?
Since the creation of the human family the mystery of evil has perplexed the human family and called into question both God’s providence and individual human freedom. The Book of Genesis starts by addressing this age-old problem from the perspective of God’s creative activity. We read in Genesis that God created the human family, each individual man and woman, in His image and likeness. (Gen. 1:24) As images of the divine we not only possess an intellect which enables us to know the truth, but also a will that enables us to choose it. The capacity to know and to choose allows us to have a real relationship with God and with one another. The human family then is the crowning achievement of God’s creative activity, for we alone on this earth are like the God who has fashioned us, able to know and free to love. The psalmist reminds us of our dignity when he writes, "What is man that you should keep him in mind, mortal man that you should care for him? Yet, you have made him little less than a god, with glory and honor you have crowned him" (Psalm 8).
The freedom in which we have been created allows us to choose between good –that which will enhance human life - and evil - that which will destroy human life. God invites and encourages the human family to choose the good freely in order that we might "dwell in the land and be secure." (Lv. 25:18) Moses taught this to the Israelites when having gathered together "the men, women, and those children old enough to understand," he asked them to choose to live in a covenant relationship with God. "Today I set before you life and death…" (cf. Dt. 30:15 ff.)
Jesus affirms that the covenant God establishes with us is one that brings life, for it is a relationship of loving communion that affirms we are not slaves to our passions, of our instincts, or to fate, but rather that we are friends of God (Jn.15:15). Jesus also shows us that friendship with God must be freely chosen: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him." (Rv. 3:20)
That which makes us able to choose life, to choose love, also makes us capable of choosing evil. Those who directed their hatred at us on September 11 freely chose to give themselves over to a life dominated by such hatred. God does not wish us to misuse our freedom, but because He loves what He has created, He does respect our choices and refrains from intervening every time a choice we make is not life giving. One of the saddest realities of the misuse of freedom is that others can be hurt. Actions do have consequences, no person exists in isolation; therefore all human actions affect other human persons. Sin always affects the sinner first, but it influences the lives of others. A suicidal bomber not only destroys his own life, he also destroys the lives of others.
We must remember though that good choices also influence the lives of others. Acts of love reverberate throughout the entire human community. We create for good or for ill the moral environment in which we live. God is present through the gift of His grace, providing a supernatural help that enables us to choose the good even in the midst of conflicting emotions and difficult circumstances. Love is always possible, yet we remain free and can therefore reject the ways of goodness and choose instead to embrace violence, misery, and ruin. (cf. Hb 2:17)
II. Where was God?
Our reflection on the mystery of human freedom leads us naturally to propose another question: where was God while so many suffered? Those whose faith is weak and those who have no faith at all could easily see in the events of September 11, evidence that God does not exist, or conclude that if God does exist then He remains aloof, uncaring, and uninvolved.
As Christians we believe with Jews, Muslims, and all people of faith that God is anything but aloof, uncaring and uninvolved. For us, God is compassion. God loves, protects, and guides the human family through each event and in all moments of human history. In the Christian faith, the teaching of the Word of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth affirms that God is "Emmanuel," that He is "with us," in a sacred bond that can never be broken.
So where was God? With the eyes of faith we can see that God was present even in the midst of such a tragedy. If we look for Him we can find Him even now in our daily lives. Faith assures us that God is present to those who have "eyes to see and ears to hear." (Mk. 8:18)
So we can affirm that God was present to those who died or were injured. We have all been moved by the many stories of those who knew they were going to die and the calls they made to their loved ones. These calls give witness to the fundamental truth that God offers relationship to all of humanity. In the sure and certain hope that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are confident that God was present to each and every one of the victims, inviting them into His loving embrace. While we cannot judge another’s faith, for one’s faith is known to God alone, we pray that every victim experienced the loving embrace of our heavenly Father.
Our faith also teaches us that Jesus is present in a special way in the lives of those who suffer, for "the Lord hears the cries of the poor." (Ps. 34:6) We know that Jesus was present to the victims, but we also know that he does not forget those left to go on in this world. He identifies with those who suffer, for He told us that whatever we do to the least of any of us, we do unto Him. (Mt. 25:40) Jesus demonstrates on the Cross His passionate love for humanity. Christ’s wounds are wounds of love. Our nation itself has been wounded by misunderstanding and pierced by an active hatred that has left gaping holes in New York and Washington, DC. Our compassionate God weeps with us even as His Son wept for Jerusalem.
Our faith also teaches us that Jesus is present in those who serve. The love of Jesus will forever be recorded in the flesh and blood of those who laid down their lives for others: "A greater love has no man then to lay down his life for a friend." (Jn. 15:13) Never again must we take for granted the countless acts of love experienced each day from those who serve as fire-fighters, police officers, healthcare providers, and scores of others who serve the common good with sacrificial love.
The terrorist sought to bring America to its knees, and they did, though not as they intended. Instead of crippling us, they have unwittingly strengthened us for we came to our knees in prayer and have arisen from our prayers renewed in our commitment to love. In schools, at homes, in businesses, wherever we find ourselves, we have revived the heart of our nation with prayer. Churches, synagogues, and mosques, were filled to overflowing that horrible Tuesday night. We have remained a people of prayer, and so we must.
All across this great nation and throughout our Archdiocese people have responded with action. The Red Cross has received gallons of blood, millions of dollars and countless hours of service. We can sense God’s presence in the numerous conversions of heart and mind that have taken place. Shocked and overwhelmed by the devastation women and men, young and old, have re-evaluated their lives and recognized a need to adjust their domestic, social, and financial priorities. I have heard personally and my priests have shared with me stories of genuine conversion. While this is always the movement of the Holy Spirit, this action of God in the souls of so many shows how God brings some good out of the greatest tragedy if we but choose to let Him.
Far from being absent, God the Lord and master of history, was, is and always will be present to us at every moment, but especially in our hour of need. He was present to those who suffered and died, He was present to those who prayed and have been converted, and still He remains present to us calling us into a deeper relationship with Him and with one another.
Yet, I must add that sometimes when people ask where God has been at the time of tragedy, I find that their viewpoint lacks a certain spiritual outlook. We must remember that we have no permanent place here, but are a pilgrim people whose citizenship lies in heaven. Death, then, is not the end of life for those who believe, it is the beginning, the start of eternal loving communion. So we pray that God receive in His loving embrace all those who died in New York, in Washington, DC, and in Pennsylvania. We hope that now they are as present to God as God is to all who call upon Him.
III. Why do I find it difficult to pray?
In times of great suffering we are often unable to pray as we normally do. God does not expect us to. When we are suffering, God asks only that we let Him be with us. By offering our pain, indignation, and even our numbness Sacred Scripture assures us that what we feel but cannot say is spoken to the Father through the action of the Holy Spirit: "The Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groaning that cannot be expressed in speech." (Rom. 8:26) Jesus too showed us wordless prayer as an infant, as He stood before His accusers, and as He hung upon the Cross. St. John tells us that Jesus is the Word of God who by His coming as man assumes our entire condition. Thus, before He learned to speak, the eternal Word of God was Himself wordless.
We should therefore bring our pain and sorrow to Him without worry about words or protocol, but full of the sincerity and the earnestness born of love. Hurting children who turn to parents often do not have the words, and yet how well parents know what their children need. The thousands who have flooded the nation’s streets with candles, ribbons and flags, have all, in a way, prayed. Through wordless gestures and symbols our country expresses with eloquence its reverence for the fallen. Even the hand placed simply on one’s heart during the singing of the national anthem can be a movement that lifts the mind to God.
How much more then do our tears before God’s altar allow grace to flow? The Crucified Word invites us to unite our pain with His: "even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His body the Church." (Col. 1:24) Like Mary and John who stood silently by at the pierced feet of Christ, we are often wordless in the face of suffering. Yet the mere presence of both the Mother of God and the Apostle whom Jesus loved is part of the communion God desires for His people. Our presence with Him now expresses this communion.
As Catholics we unite our tears, our pain, our suffering by offering all to Jesus at Mass. Though we might not see the grace that these offerings bring to the world, in union with Christ, they remain efficacious. Our tradition tells us that the grace of St. Paul’s conversion flowed from the offering of St. Stephen — the first martyr — who united his suffering and death with Jesus crucified, and died forgiving those who killed him.
IV. What do I do with the anger that I feel?
First, we must be reminded that anger is not necessarily wrong as a response to injustice. Jesus taught us that God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice. We know from the dramatic scene of Jesus in the Temple that righteous anger can motivate us to overcome injustice through prayer and through works of mercy.
But anger can be misguided and misdirected. When it causes us to hate, to lash out, to be prejudiced towards others; we choose a course of action that diminishes us. Anger, like all emotions, must be integrated into a life lived by a fundamental choice to love. Directing our anger at overcoming the injustices of the world will lead us to put into practice that which is expressed in the prayer of St. Francis: "Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love." Words like these remind us that through prayer we are able to overcome strong emotions and to integrate them into a truly Christ-like life. As a healthy response to injustice, anger must move us to act for the good of those who have suffered, as well as for the good of those who have acted unjustly.
V. How can I possibly forgive those responsible for these attacks? Can God really demand of me that I love my enemy?
In the face of such evil, it can often seem impossible to forgive and to love those who hate us. If we were simply talking of feelings, it would be quite difficult. But God does not demand that we feel loving or forgiving to our enemies, only that we freely choose to love and to forgive. Our choices are always in our control.
But what does it mean to "forgive from the heart" or "to love one’s enemies as oneself?" It means simply this: that we must want and work for what it truly best for our enemies. This is the meaning of love -- to will what is best for the other. In this case, what is best for our enemy? The short answer is conversion from hatred and destruction. Loving an evildoer means wanting the person to repent and change. Given our fallen human nature, few of us will convert from doing evil unless forced to face the consequences of our evil deeds. Thus, as it stands now, we can rightfully want that those responsible for the planning and executing of these attacks be brought to justice. We desire this for their own good. Perhaps when faced with the reality of their evil, they will repent and be changed. Even should they not, at least once they are apprehended the innocent will be safe.
This approach in no way downplays nor excuses the evil they have done. Part of any true conversion includes remorse for the evil inflicted. With true remorse comes the desire to make restitution for what has been done. Restitution in this case could well include life in prison without parole as a proper penance.
Being forced to face the great demands that Gospel love places upon us, this tragedy should awaken in us an even greater awe and wonder at the mercy of God. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He did not wait for us to love Him. He was and always is the first to love. We must show this same love for others. This tragedy can be for us an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationships with others. Too often we allow people to remain estranged and separated from us sometimes for relatively small reasons. Events like these remind us that life here and now is short and our time together precious. Now is the time for us to be reconciled to God and to each other.
VI. Will I ever feel safe again?
Our desire for security is good. We recognize the goodness of health and life and we rightly strive to protect them. We yearn for a freedom that allows us to love and be loved. But we also recognize that in this life there is no perfect peace or freedom. Ultimately our longing for security is a longing for that perfect union with God that is only found in heaven.
Thus, in this life there will always be a sense of vulnerability. But Jesus teaches us how to live with vulnerability by showing us that in fact, loving means becoming vulnerable. Through the Incarnation, Jesus enters our history taking on the entirety of our human condition. He became vulnerable, even unto death — death on a cross. Through the cross, He revealed that to live a life of love in this life would entail suffering. But this suffering, when embraced in love, is ennobling and salvific.
Our country embodies an understanding of freedom that allows us to speak, to worship, to travel, and to grow as persons endowed with inalienable rights. Because of this freedom we are capable of choosing great heroism and heartfelt love. In upholding such freedom, our nation willingly embraces vulnerability -- but this does not mean we must allow ourselves to be victimized. On the contrary, we are committed to safeguarding the innocent and preserving a peace that allows for love.
Jesus knew intimately the vulnerability His love for the Father and for humanity required of Him. He taught us that to love means opening oneself to the possibility of rejection. The freedom of our great nation lies in its commitment, not to self-reliance and individual autonomy, but to its dependence on God, on other nations and on one another.
This is not to say that we should act recklessly. A loving heart is not ruled by passion but by prudence. Our government and our people are taking necessary precautions in order to ensure our common safety so that the freedom that has been a hallmark of our growth and development may not be lost. Properly used, this freedom will enable us to grow and to flourish through love.
Part of our security will depend on eliminating here and abroad all that tempts a person to the violence that comes from despair: poverty, discrimination, and hatred. Pope Paul VI spoke to this deeper truth and pressing responsibility when he said, "If you want peace, work for justice." The more we live in solidarity with all the oppressed of the world, the more our own people and nation will be secure.
At the foot of the Cross, Mary did not lose a son, rather she gained a world of children. John, suffering silently with her gained for all God’s children the Mother of His Son. Christ in His vulnerability gained for us an eternal life that is the fulfillment of the communion of love we are even now called to bring about. Thus, out of the groaning of steel, the shattering of lives, the new silences that plague our nights, we gain a renewed hope that the smoke that still smolders and rises above the rubble of the World Trade Towers is a symbol of the prayers that express our renewed commitment to God’s love. Jesus’ answer to our question about safety is always affirmative, if we but trust ourselves to Him.
VII. Can a Christian retaliate or be part of an effort to avenge these attacks?
Good stewardship of our lives and those of others requires us to be prudent in how we bring aggressors to justice. Throughout history, Christians have had to question the use of force, especially when using the military as an instrument of justice. How does one fulfill the requirement to defend the innocent while loving one’s enemies? Centuries of reflection have led to the development of the "just war" tradition as a guide in the formation of conscience. These ethical norms have been widely adopted by the civilized nations of the world as the proper moral framework in which to assess the appropriate use of military force. These guidelines teach that war is only just, 1) when undertaken for a just cause (for example, when defending the innocent) and 2) when executed with right intention and only as a last resort as declared by lawful authority. There must not only be a reasonable probability of success, but the damage accepted must be proportionate to the goods being defended. In addition to these requirements, each action must be judged upright according to similar conditions. In other words, each and every action must 1) be in pursuit of justice, 2) done with right intention, 3) be necessary to the stated objectives, 4) be undertaken by lawful authority, 5) have a probability of success, 6) be proportionate, and 7) discriminate between the innocent and legitimate military targets.
In our current situation it would seem that military action in the defense of innocent human life throughout the world could be justified. But note well: vengeance is never an appropriate reason for the use of force. It is certainly unworthy of a nation that is free, and is definitely unworthy of a Christian nation. Defending the innocent and bringing those who do evil to justice are worthy goals, but these objectives can never justify disproportionate and indiscriminate means. While proportionality and discrimination are always difficult to evaluate, the way our leaders ought to determine such is by some application of the Golden Rule. Would the damages accepted as a side effect of the good we are pursuing be acceptable if they were our citizens and loved ones being killed and injured? If so, the action is proportionate. If not, we must refrain.
Those charged with defending the common good have a moral obligation to do so. Retaliation out of vengeance never serves the common good. But justice demands proportionate actions in defense of the innocent. Christians and all persons of good will can support actions taken by political and military leaders that fulfill these requirements.
On September 11, 2001, the world witnessed a calculated act of terror that has shocked and traumatized us, but I remain convinced with St. Paul that, "all things work together for the good of those who love God." (Rom.8:28) Already we have seen and experienced the presence of God in the actions of countless men and women both in our nation and throughout the world. This silent witness has affirmed that for us as Christian people life has changed, not ended. Could we think it possible that He who would not spare His own Son, would not grant to us who mourn, who suffer, and who long for justice, all things beside? Certainly the deep emotions that we feel might tempt us to despair, even perhaps to the point of hungering for a vengeance that could only be satiated by becoming little better than those we oppose.
Instead, the Calvary our nation endures should prompt us to consider the Woman of Calvary, the Mother of the Son of God. In her darkest hour she chose to unite her pain and suffering with God’s plan for her life. That prophetic vision in which she secured her hope must likewise be ours. We must secure ourselves in God’s plan for our lives, believing with St. John that all tears will be wiped away, that the Lamb will be our light, and that there will be peace on God’s holy mountain. In this moment of darkness that clouds our vision and tempts us to despair, let us secure our hope in the intercessory prayer of our Mother. Mary speaks with her spouse the Holy Spirit and forms words that resonate within the heart of God. Mary helps give voice to the thoughts and feelings we are unable to voice. Through the intercession of Mary, comfort of the afflicted, we are assured that nothing can ever or will ever separate us from the love of God.