[Touchstone, October 2001]
On the day after the tragedy I drove through Washington, surprised to find it uncongested and tranquil. I drove past the battered Pentagon, where cars crept along the interstate at a few miles an hour as people craned their necks to see and comprehend our national wound. A few miles further, down among the suburban office towers, is a tiny old white clapboard church.
I stepped inside the cool interior, which was dimly lit and covered on walls and ceiling with paintings of Christ and the Apostles, of biblical figures and heroes from long ago. I took a seat to wait for my spiritual father and looked around. I saw faces of men and women who had known suffering, much more severe than what I had ever experienced, even as rocked as I felt just then. They stood serene around the walls, many holding symbols of victory.
Fr. George Calciu came out from beside the altar and greeted me. He is a small, resilient man, unusually vigorous for his seventy-six years. His hair and beard are thick and white, and his face is permanently creased with the marks of indomitable good cheer. Cheerfulness is an unlikely attribute, given his story. In his native Romania Fr. George challenged the communist authorities repeatedly and forcefully, with a courage that defied self-preservation. He was confined in brutal prisons, subjected to brainwashing, and formed a lifelong friendship with a fellow prisoner, Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ.
Today the first thing he asked me was, “Why do you think that happened yesterday?”
I was stumped for a minute. I hadn’t thought of exactly that question. I said “I don’t know.”
Fr. George said, “It was the punishment of God.”
Well, there’s something I hadn’t thought of. Though I wondered why I hadn’t; I’ve just finished an intensive study of the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and knew that the Jews have always seen even that brutal and sacrilegious tragedy as divine retribution for their sins. In fact, that seems to be the Old Testament pattern; anytime Israel suffered a military defeat, they responded with repentance. It didn’t replace other strategic responses, but was an indispensable companion.
This isn’t just an Old Testament phenomenon. When people told Jesus that Pilate had killed worshippers at the Temple, he responded, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). There seems to be a biblical pattern here: national suffering should bring about repentance.
I have often wondered what might return our sick culture to health. I’ve sometimes felt overwhelmed at the ugliness of America’s spiritual condition, at 40 million children killed by abortion, at the promotion world-wide of sexual promiscuity and materialism, the contempt of God, the spreading infection of American culture.
I’ve often wondered what might turn us around. Everything moves in cycles, and some sick cultures do return to health; it can happen in a generation. But I have never heard of a historical example that wasn’t inaugurated by catastrophe. Healing is the fruit of repentance, and repentance comes in the wake of suffering. There aren’t many examples of spontaneous remission from this sort of illness.
Fr. George told me that the night before he had opened his Bible and it had fallen to Psalm 127. He read me the first verse: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” How, he asked me, could the hijackers have overcome such a high level of security unless the Lord somehow permitted it?
He then turned to Daniel 9:12-14.
“He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done the like of what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us, yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and giving heed to thy truth. Therefore the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us; for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works which he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice.”
Fr. George went on to say that the concepts of repentance and humility are mostly absent in America, and it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll understand the lesson. When he first came to the U.S. he would sometimes speak of the sins he committed in prison, and people would say, “How could you commit sins? You were in prison.” He smiled at this. “Of course you still sin,” he said. “You sin in your thoughts.” But Americans, he says, are very proud, and are used to being powerful, and the concepts of repentance and humility are not commonly expressed even among conservative Christians.
Over the years I have come to see how these concepts are the very core of the Gospels; they were Jesus’ most consistent message. But we tend to skip over them in our rush to reassure ourselves that God loves us. He does, of course, but you don’t really know how much he loves you until you dare to repent. Until you see how much God had to forgive in you, you can’t really see the height of his love. Not many churches where that is preached today, conservative or liberal.
Thus it won’t do much good for us to spray on some superficial piety, while not taking it to deep, self-challenging levels. Fr. George said that he was very moved when he saw the Congressmen singing “God Bless America.” Then he began to think, in how many of their votes and actions do these same men and women work to cast away the blessing of God?
The thought occurred to me that what the song could really mean is, “God, bless the things we already do; bless the things we have decided to do.” A friend of mine says the local strip club has changed its sign to read “God Bless America,” which just about sums up the problem.
This gave me a lot to think about. For years I’ve been thinking that the main thing America needed to do is to be humble and repent. Here comes a blow that looks a lot like things God has done in the past to kindle that response, the kind of suffering that had Israel weeping in sackcloth.
But no one, including Christians, is likely to draw such conclusions. Instead, we’ll focus on how much we have been wronged, and smite our adversaries by our own considerable earthly power, and feel satisfied at videotape of young Arab men frying to death in Jeeps. If Fr. George is right, if “repent” is indeed God’s message, I’m afraid we’ll need more than one lesson to get it.
I wrote this the day after the 9-11 attack, but hadn’t sent out because it was such a first impression; I wanted to watch what happened and see whether my thoughts would change or evolve over the following weeks. I kind of went full circle and came back to substantially agreeing with this. I think the attack could not have happened without being somehow permitted by God—not that God does evil, but that God can use even evil for good. The good would be that we reconsider some of the ways we have departed from God’s ways and return to him in repentance. So in addition to the many other things we do in the wake of 9-11, including bringing evildoers to justice, we should undertake self-examination and change.
So far I haven’t seen much of the reflection I was hoping for. A friend described to me a TV show in which the women were celebrating the sexualization of our culture merely because it is offensive to Muslims. I’ve heard vicious fantasies about revenge on our enemies, even from Christians, who should know better; justice does not require hate. In general, it still seems to me that “God Bless America” is frequently a shallow sentiment, spray-on piety, backed by no intention of submitting to God. A priest from Lebanon told me, “In America people treat God as if they have him in a genie bottle. When there’s trouble, they let him out so he can use his power to fix things. Other times they won’t let people say his name or pray in public.”
I know from my email box that many people find these sentiments horrifying and intolerable. I think this is one of those “if you have ears to hear” situations, where a number of people are seeing a very complex and serious thing, and seeing the same thing, and trying to find ways to talk about it—and others see part of it, and are upset, offended and angry. It will take time for us to get better perspective.