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Reflection on “9/11” — Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue


Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue Sponsored by Jewish-Christian Dialogue of Toronto

Reflection on “9/11”

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd

February 19,2002


In the course of discussing informally Sept. 11 with many people I have always insisted on the need to hear afresh and honour anew the 9th Commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” When Muhammad Ali was taunted with, “How do you feel in view of the fact that the Sept. 11 perpetrators belonged to your religion?” he replied smartly, “How do you feel in view of the fact that Hitler belonged to yours?” I think it better that we move away from all such efforts at religious or ideational one-upmanship, for all such efforts sooner or later involve bearing false witness.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 I found myself not to be bent out of shape at all, while most people around me were. I hadn’t planned on preaching on the event the following Sunday, only to discover that I had to as parishioners wanted me to address their dismay. I wondered why I wasn’t distressed. It was not because I regarded the event as inconsequential; not because I was insensitive to the suffering it brought with it, especially the suffering of those who didn’t die immediately; not because I was unaware of what it portended in terms of public anxiety and financial downturn and rising unemployment and increased suspicion and even victimization for our Islamic fellow-citizens. Gradually I came to realize why other people were bent out of shape by the event and I wasn’t: their understanding of God had suffered a devastating blow that verged on a fatal blow, while my understanding of God had not.

The reason for this, I realized, is that unlike them I wasn’t surprised at the event, and wasn’t surprised just because such an event is congruent with the evil that I find surging over and coursing through the world at all times. I have long noted that I have a sense of evil that is far more vivid than most people’s. To be sure, I have always insisted that the goodness of the creation perdures despite the ravages of the Fall or the “yetzer ha-ra” or however we choose to speak of the fact that the goodness of the creation is contradicted. Nonetheless, the evil that now disfigures the creation is, in my opinion, hideously evil.

But not everyone agrees with me. My philosophy students, for instance, do not. Whenever my philosophy class comes to the work of Immanuel Kant I always find myself at odds with my students. I point out to my students that while the earlier Kant certainly admitted evil, albeit in terms of his rationalist ethic, and the later Kant admitted radical evil, his radical evil is never radical enough for me. While Kant may have been able to admit evil perpetrated out of woeful ignorance or misguided zeal or even the na├»ve assumption that evil may be a step toward a greater good, Kant seems unable to admit evil perpetrated for the sake of evil, evil perpetrated for the perverse pleasure of evil. My students aren’t Kantians, yet they too can’t admit radical evil, evil for the sake of evil. For years I have been puzzled at this and only recently have come to see the reason for their reluctance. They believe that God is great and God is good; therefore the world can’t be as evil as Shepherd makes it out to be. If it were, they would have to abandon their belief in the greatness and goodness of God. Myself, I too believe that God is great and God is good; for me, however, the evil of the world renders God not less believable but more. My students think that if radical evil existed it would leave God compromised; I think it leaves God magnified. My students continue to look for meaning in outbreaks of evil, seemingly unaware that part of evil’s evilness is its sheer irrationality. To the extent that evil could be understood it would thereby be less evil. Radical evil, then, will always be incomprehensible because necessarily incomprehensible. (Parenthetically, I think it should be asked, “If radical evil, unrelentingly horrific, were possessed of meaning, could any of us endure it?”)

The question in the hearts of so many people is “why?” It’s assumed that “why” is the profoundest question to be asked. But this question wasn’t deemed the profoundest in the biblical era, or in the patristic or mediaeval or early modern eras. Biblical thinkers didn’t first ask the question “why” just because they already knew the answer: the world lies in the grip of the evil one. The profounder question for biblical thinkers was “How long? You, God, have promised to resolve the contradiction we live with, and the contradiction is tormenting us, so how long will it be before you act definitively and relieve us?”

Then who raised the question “why”, and raised it, supposedly, as the soul of profundity? The French agnostics and atheists who came to the fore in the Enlightenment: they framed the question, and then the church, at least, took it over as the profoundest question, whereas Christians of an earlier era had asked an entirely different question. My reaction to Sept. 11 simply confirms that my Christian conviction maintains the pre-Enlightenment question to be profounder.

In view of what I have said concerning the presence and potency of radical evil, and in view of its magnification of the holiness of God, for me Sept. 11 magnifies God’s anger at sin (at the sin of all of us, I should add, not merely the sin of those who crumbled the World Trade Tower); it magnifies God’s mercy, for mercy is the form God’s love takes when his love meets our sin; it magnifies God’s heartbreak over a people that seems perversely bent on never being his “peculiar treasure”; it magnifies God’s patience (his patience, unlike ours, is immense; not infinite, as the fact of judgement attests, but immense nonetheless); it magnifies God’s persistence, without which his patience would be synonymous with indifference; above all it magnifies God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with Abraham. The covenant with Abraham is foundational for everyone here tonight, regardless of religious persuasion. While we continue to advertise ourselves as covenant-breakers, he keeps faith with us who do not keep faith with him. It’s plain, then, that God’s covenant-keeping has found him not abandoning the world because it’s disgusting or renouncing it because it’s hopeless or dismissing it because it’s intractable.

I am aware that in the wake of Sept. 11 many people felt they that the understanding of God they had long cherished was no longer tenable. Once again I found that they and I were not of one mind. As I spoke with them I realized that they had had in mind a definite notion of what God can or cannot do, should or should not do. Myself, I have long ceased to ponder what God can/cannot do, should/should not do. I ponder now only what God has done, therein defining himself and rendering all speculation about him pointless. As a Christian I affirm that he has so thoroughly identified himself with us, our folly and our misery, our predicament, that he has given himself up in utmost vulnerability for our sakes; God’s omnipotence or almightiness means there is no limit to his vulnerability and no limit to the effectiveness of his vulnerability.

In light of my conviction here I am persuaded that what is required of us, in the first instance, isn’t that we pursue a solution to the perplexities that Sept. 11 may have raised for us. What is required of us in the first instance, rather is that we make a response. Regardless of what we think we can understand of Sept. 11 or fear that we can’t understand, the response we have to make is our first responsibility. All efforts at solution aim at an intellectual abstraction. Solutions are always of the order of disengaged, armchair abstraction, when what is required of us is committed, concrete response; a response, be it noted, that may require of us a vulnerability similar to God’s.

Our response may take many forms. There is a response we make to the victims of Sept. 11 and to any and all victims of like occurrences. There is a response we make to our Islamic neighbours lest they be victimized in a way no less evil. There is a response we make whenever and wherever we can do something, anything, about the injustices that wound and then fester and finally develop into raging systemic infections. For we agree with the prophets that peace without justice is no peace at all. Admittedly, not all inequities are iniquities, but some are, and therefore discernment is as essential as determination.

I have mentioned several times tonight that we like to put questions to God. There’s a question, however, that God has already answered: “Why?” There’s a question he delays answering: “How long?” There’s a question, finally, that he answers as often as we ask it, yet always answers by turning our question to him back upon us: “How can you allow this sort of thing to happen?”

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd