Seeds of September #2: Where Was God on 9/11?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Who is Caesar, where is God?

On the day now enshrined as 9/11, these issues became central to American society as they had never been before. How can we look at what happened that day, how can we begin to reflect upon it?

"Reflection" means using a mirror, in some way. And at first glancing into the mirror, we may see what looks like a "mirror image" of "us" and "them." I do not think the two faces, one on each side of the mirror, are as much alike as the recitation below may make them sound. But first let us swallow hard, and see the ways they may seem similar.

People who claimed to be acting on behalf of God attacked a society they named as a modern, godless, and oppressive empire — the Roman Empire of the 21st century. They accused the nation they were attacking of aggressing against the Umma, the world-community of Islam, and of polluting its holy soil near Mecca and Medina. They saw that nation's rulers as a cabal of powerful men who represented a nation and culture that hated God and sought to break the power and shatter the identity of God's people.

Although they attacked not "Caesar" but ordinary citizens, they called what they were doing a holy war — the violent version of jihad, which can also mean a sacred struggle for personal or political transformation.

In response, the President of a society that saw itself as generous and democratic — God-loving much more than God-fearing — called for a holy war on God's behalf against any nation or people that harbored these attackers. The President invoked the violent aspect of "crusade," a word invented for religious war that can also mean a sacred struggle for personal or political transformation. These attackers were, he said, a secret cabal, chosen by no people and responsible to no democratic process, who hated freedom itself and sought to impose their will upon free peoples. An underground empire in the shadows.

Obviously I have described these two forces in the world with words that mirror each other. Is that because they are simply mirror images of each other?

No. It is more complicated than that. The two share some dimensions of reality, and are very different in regard to others. It is important to hear that when they talk about themselves, their missions, and each other, they sound more like each other than either side imagines. But that does not mean they are twins.

Who was Caesar, where was God?

On and after 9/11, I saw God embodied neither in the United States nor in Al Qaeda, and Caesar embodied — in different ways — in both.

God I did indeed see in those terrible hours and days. I saw the God Who is embodied in the processes of both sweet and bitter consequences.

We saw and rejoiced in the God of sweet community. When Americans felt themselves attacked as a society, they responded as a community. Some people died in the attempt to rescue others. Some gave money, time, energy, love in the attempt to uncover bodies, heal the wounded, comfort survivors. Those who knew they bore the Image of God on their own faces saw the Image of God in the faces of others, and responded.

We saw that America was Beautiful, and we rejoiced.

But this vision of the Image and of the Beautiful went from sea to shining sea, and then stopped at the water's edge. It proved fairly easy for the government to mobilize this love into anger at a range of people who were defined outside the tent, beyond the sea (even if they lived right here). Foreigners, immigrants, visitors were suddenly detained — imprisoned — without charges, lawyers, or trials. Though many Christians and Jews in American society began reaching out to Muslims, their government used ethnic and religious profiling to round up "suspects." What began as stripping civil liberties from foreigners moved into lessening them for citizens as well.

And it was also easy for the government to mobilize Americans' anger around the metaphor of War, rather than the metaphor of Justice. A government that had opposed the creation of an International Criminal Court to try war-crimes cases — lest it set a standard for American troops to meet along with all others — ignored the possibility of convening a special International Criminal Court to pursue arrests and trial of the specific culprits in the 9/11 attacks. Instead, it undertook what it itself said would be an endless war against terrorism — in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iraq, perhaps elsewhere.

And it shrugged aside suggestions that US policy look more deeply into the causes of the swamps of humiliation and despair that bred terrorism. It shrugged off urgings that the United States respond as it did after World War II, when we decided not to repeat the mistake of 1919 that prepared the swamp of despair that sprouted Hitler, and instead created the Marshall Plan in a (successful) effort to prevent the emergence of new Hitlers.

So these were the triumphs, and the limits, of compassion and community.

But sweet consequences were not the only Form and Presence God took in those early days.

There was a sense of bitter consequence as well.

I saw God also in the bloody ironies that grew from the murderous attack, as well as in the compassionate and courageous acts of community that followed even before the fires and ashes settled.

Bitter ironies: Oil is the "life-blood" of our civilization, and also its deadliest addiction. It is bringing down on us the scorching of our planet. Yet, like addicts, we have gone to great lengths to make sure it is available. Oil was the reason for the Gulf War — both for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and for the American-led riposte against Iraq. It was the reason for placing American troops on sacred Saudi soil — the troops whose presence, desecrating holy space, stirred the violent passions of Al Qaeda.

Oil. And it was oil in the form of jet fuel that did the worst damage in the World Trade Center attack, melting the steel structural supports that held the Towers up. The fires fueled by oil are what destroyed the buildings and killed most of the people.

Only in the warnings of the ancient prophets might one find such irony of event, far beyond any ironies of speech.

And the irony of sacred space. Remember, what stirred Al Qaeda to its murderous action is what they saw as the desecration of holy space in the land of Mecca and Medina. They put this claim to a society so secularized that it could hardly make any sense of the notion of sacred space altogether, let alone make sense of the claim that its troops, though invited by the local government, were violating holiness.

Yet what Al Qaeda did created utterly unexpected holy space. Sacred space where the Twin Towers had been standing. In a society and a city that had hardly been able to conceive of sacred space, that had gutted great buildings for the sake of instant profit, suddenly a mass grave was filled with holiness. Debate arose about how best to keep it sacred.

When the ancient Rabbis said that the Pharaoh's Nile was turned to undrinkable blood because Pharaoh had filled the Nile with the blood of newborns condemned to drowning, they were describing just such a bitter irony: What you sow is what you reap. This is not punishment, but consequence. What in another tradition is called "karma." The Torah named this process "YHWH."

(This Name of God is said to be unpronounceable, and is conventionally euphemized as "Lord." But if we try to break the "rule" and to pronounce it as it is written, with no vowels, it becomes the sound of breathing, of the wind. The deepest rule against pronouncing it is that there is no way to say it, just to breathe. And so it is a Name that includes and transcends all languages and all life-forms: what the trees breathe out, we breathe in. We breathe each other into life. All sweet and bitter consequences are borne upon this Breath.)

In the first days after 9/11, the Jewish community moved toward Rosh Hashanah — the renewing of the year, when we put aside ordinary reactive behavior to reflect on our actions of the previous year. In the congregation I led, we read aloud the names of some who had died at the World Trade Center and some who had died of AIDS in Africa, where their lives could have been spared if drug prices had not been set so high by global drug corporations. That act, we felt, at least acknowledged that the officially lawful behavior of lawful corporations could kill even larger numbers of people than outright, explicit terrorism.

As we moved into these Awesome Days, these days of reflection and return, two images flashed into my head.

One was the image of what makes an atomic bomb work. Two chunks of plutonium — among the densest, heaviest of metals — are jammed together by an explosive. (Nothing less will force them into such closeness.) As they crunch onto each other, their radioactive potential crosses into "critical mass." The splitting, suffering atoms have nowhere to go. They explode each other, and a city dies.

As, unbeknownst to most of us, the calendar raced toward 9/11, Modernity had with even greater speed jammed together two explosive cultures that had nowhere to go. These two chunks of dense and heavy toughness, forced into collision, then exploded. Thousands died. The Towers had provided no security.

My other image was of the hut, the "sukkah" that a Jewish community builds to celebrate the harvest festival (which came just a few weeks after the attack).

What is a "sukkah"? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, where it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, where its roof must be not only leafy but leaky — letting in the starlight, and gusts of wind and rain.

The precise opposite of density. Of toughness. Almost anything can interpenetrate with a sukkah, and it remains a hut for celebration, song, prayer, eating — even sleeping.

In their evening prayers, Jews plead with God — "Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha" — "Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom, of peace and wholeness and security."

Why a sukkah?-- Why does the prayer plead to God for a "sukkah of shalom" rather than God's "tent" or "house" or "palace" of peace? Surely a palace, a tower built of toughened steel and concrete, would be more safe, more secure, than a sukkah?

No. The sukkah, despite all the logic of Modernity, can become a haven for shalom precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.

For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:

    Air raid shelters,
    World Trade Centers.

Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us.

But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If as the prophet Dylan sang, "A hard rain gonna fall," it will fall on all of us.

Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet on 9/11 the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.

Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing. Worse than nothing.

Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us.

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. For my neighbor and myself are interwoven. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me. If I reject this truth, if I pretend to ignore it, if I toughen myself into the densest substance I can manufacture, then a toughened mirroring of my same density will crash into me. Like two tough, super-dense packets of plutonium jammed together, we will explode.

Once we might have lived far distant from each other; but today Modernity has jammed us together, willy-nilly. The same Muslims who might have gladly lived forever without contacting us, find themselves forced by Modernity into a contact they despise. They identify "us" not as our caring communities, our compassionate neighborhoods, our courageous firefighters, but as the Modernity that has exploded into them — — and so they explode themselves into us.

Because we all forgot that we live in a leaky, leafy sukkah.

What is the lesson, when we learn that we — all of us — live in a sukkah? How do we make such a vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace and security and harmony and wholeness?

The lesson is that only a world where we all recognize our vulnerability can become a world where all communities feel responsible to all other communities. And only such a world can prevent such acts of rage and mass murder.

If I treat my neighbor's pain and grief as foreign, I will end up suffering when my neighbor's pain and grief curdle into rage.

But if I realize that in simple fact the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them beyond those who have decided on murder and terror, past them in compassion and connection to the haunted societies that bore them.

In September and October of 2001, our citizens reached out to each other in compassion and connection. We saw the best beauty of our country and we sang it: America the Beautiful. It was true, it is true: We America are beautiful. But our government, our media, our great institutions did not pause to reflect, to reconsider. They did not pause to help us ask, Is there another face, different from the one we see so beautiful among us? They did not pause to look into a different mirror.

Indeed, they turned our truth — the Beautiful America — into precisely the reason to despise anyone who saw another face of us. We can see our beauty with such clarity; how can anyone else fail to see such spacious, shining majesty? So anyone who rejects it must be not simply wrong or simply blind but perversely attached to blindness, evil in their perversity.

From a standpoint that sees conscious homicidal intention as the central element that defines murderous behavior, the two plutonium packets of Modernized America and infuriated Al Qaeda behaved at different moral levels.

Modernized America did not deliberately murder thousands of helpless civilians of Islamic societies, and chortle at their deaths. But we did blind ourselves to the deaths we have caused in instance after instance without "deliberation." Modernity's drug companies aimed at super-profits — and millions died of AIDS in Africa. Modernity aimed at making chemicals in a low-wage country — and thousands died when the chemicals spewed forth into the public air of India.

We have blinded ourselves to the deadly consequences of our acts; thousands died. Al Qaeda blinded themselves to the possibility of decency in us, and then killed with eyes wide open. Thousands died.

The dead were just as dead.

So from a different standpoint — in which perhaps destructiveness is measured not by conscious homicidal intention but by avoidable homicidal results — the Modern/ global machinery of state and corporation may be even more culpable than terrorist acts of mass murder. Once the destruction of human beings is institutionalized in "normal" life, simply doing what comes automatically does not require murderous intent.

If our goal were not only to place blame and secure justice but also to explore how best to prevent violence of both kinds — intentional and institutional — we might ask: What would it mean for both the United States and Islam to recognize that we all live in vulnerable sukkot?

For example:

What do Americans need to do to recover our knowledge of the history of two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world?

How does the US welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community? Is there anything the American people can do — without violating our own traditions that free religion from governmental control and assistance — to encourage grass-roots support for those elements of Islam that seek to renew their community as ally and partner, rather than to restore it as master? How do the US government and American culture encourage not top-down regimes that make alliances with our own global corporations like the Big Oil giants to despoil the planet, but grass-roots religious and cultural and political communities that seek to control their own resources in ways that nurture the earth?

From the standpoint of Islam as a world community, what might Muslims do to encourage neither the restoration nor the "Modernization" of Islam but its renewal — drawing on the most life-giving aspects of Modernity while enriching such life-giving traditions of Islam as the holiness of prayer and festival times, sacred space, full social support for the poor, and the affirmation of the Unity of God?

How do Muslim societies make space for "fringes" on their social edges so that Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, animist, feminist, and ecological viewpoints and practices can enrich the fabric? How can the great 13th-century Andalusian tradition of open dialogue among all seekers be renewed today?

How can the traditional Islamic prohibition against giving or taking interest on loans be renewed — not abandoned — in such a way as to strengthen grass-roots lending for communal advancement? Can the strong Muslim insistence on the Oneness of God be drawn into recognition of the unity of all life, and the obligation to take steps on behalf of the planetary ecosystem?

Can the practice of nonviolence, once so effectively seen and used by Badshah Khan (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) and a nonviolent army of 80,000 Pashtuns as an authentically Muslim form of struggle during the campaign for India's independence from Britain, be relearned and renewed in the Muslim world? Can the American Muslim community, which has learned the religious benefits of living under a secular government that advances no particular religion, carry this aspect of religious renewal to the rest of the Muslim world?

Of course not every demand put forward by the poor, the desperate, and the disempowered becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. And not every desire of the powerful is corrupt, just because it comes from the seats of power. But both rich and poor, powerful and powerless, must open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the immense alienation that sparks either willful or institutional violence? Can we act to lighten that pain and connect our communities without increasing the over-all amount of pain in the world?

The choice we face is deeper than politics, broader than charity. It is whether we see the world chiefly as property to be controlled, defined by walls and fences that must be built ever higher, ever thicker, ever tougher; or made up chiefly of an open weave of compassion and connection, open sukkah next to open sukkah.

The choice is one of Spirit.

Instead of entering upon a "war of civilizations," we must pursue a planetary community. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.

To do so requires that we address the questions we have mentioned, and no doubt many others. These questions cannot be answered in an instant. They require reflection. But reflection is not what they got in the fall of 2001. How do we create the conditions for reflection? To this crucial question we will return, after we have examined some other dimensions of God's politics.

* This essay is a chapter from a forthcoming book by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Politics of God. Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Waskow. Copies may be made only for non-profit educational and religious use, and all such copies must bear this note. To explore how Judaism and spirituality seek to heal contemporary society, see Shalom Center Website