Philip E. Wheaton
Three Prophetic Reflections
Towards Developing A New Prophetic Theology of Liberation In Light of September 11th
By Philip E. Wheaton
Prologue: Secular Wisdom and Prophetic Insights on a New America
An unexpected thing happened as a result of September 11th, especially for us religious types: we not only began to hear secular insights on the tragedy which sounded very much like prophecy but we saw how that event shook and silenced us as a people and, most surprizingly, our religious leaders, while sometimes pastorally helpful were seldom prophetic. My good friend, Scott Wright, in response to the Catholic bishops' pastoral Letter "Living with Faith and Hope after September 11," expressed his lament at this prophetic silence, writing, in November:
Where we are disappointed, however, is in the desire of the bishops to present "a balanced document," they have failed to present a prophetic one in such times as these that cry out for justice and for peace.
EPICA, Washington, DC, Nov. 21, 2001
Is this not because in seeking to protect the "Church" (as if the Body of Christ is here on earth to be protected) the good bishops became unwittingly "false prophets" in vainly trying to perpetuate the privileged status which the Church enjoys within our American empire? And they were not alone. Very few prophetic voices came forward after September 11th from the Protestant churches or from the Jewish synagogues, to say nothing of the "faithful" who followed lockstep, blind and dumb, after President Bush's totally unfaithful cry for us to take ides against the evil ones, saying: "Either you're for us or against them." His jigoism not only failed to lift our sights towards taking a "higher" moral stanced but led us back into the morass of the old Wild West ethic get them "dead or alive" and offering up war as the only solution, war against some of the poorerst and most desperate human beings on earth, the suffering peoples of Afghanistan. And most Americans, a majority of them religious, went right along without questioning or doubting. Was that not because the values of power and the norms of wealth have become so inculcated into the hearts and minds of most citizens, they couldn't even recognize how their pseudo-patriotism was a sell-out on the Prophet word and a compromise of the Gospel? But several secular voices did speak out, loud and clear, so we should give thanks that God has raised up "children of Abraham from these very stones..." Consider the following insights:
Notwithstanding the shock and horror associated with the terrorist attacks, the U.S. ruling class was quick to grasp this as an immediate opportunity for a new global military crusade of a scope approximating that of the Cold War; hence it lost no time in fanning the flames of war.
Monthly Review, "After the Attack...The War on Terrorism," Number 6, November, 2001, pp. 3-4.
Or this thought on our naivate as a democratic people.
How many people do you know who claim to be skeptical, who pride themselves on their distrust for authority, who like to pretend that they're wise to the ways of the world and then, every time there's a war, they swallow the lies of the government with all the gullibility of a three-year-old child in the lap of a department store Santa Claus?
John Lacny, "The Top Five Lies About the War"
Anti-War Committee of Students in Solidarity, Univ.of Pittsburgh
Or, again, this insight from one of our leading secular thinkers.
All four pillars of imperishable wisdom perished on the morning of September 11, reduced within an hour to the incoherence of the rubble in Liberty Street. By noon even the truest of true believers knew that they had been telling themselves a fairy tale. If not to big government, then where else did the friends of laissez-faire economics look for the rescue of their finances and the saving of their lives; if not the agencies of big government, who then brought the ambulances from as far away as Albany or sent firemen into the doomed buildings with no promise of a finder's fee?
Lewis H. Lapham, "Res publica," Harpers Magazine/December 2001, p.8.
So, those of us who claim to be students of the Prophets and/or faithful followers of the Messiah, have our work cut out for us. For God's truth is clear even if we fail or only feebly follow its admonitions. The problem is that most pastors merely wanted to console and nurture their flocks during hard times like these. While that was a needed pastoral ministry, it left the faithful empty for it was unaccompanied by any prophetic insight. For the events of September 11th are not just a political tragedy but an ideological manipulation wherein the disaster of Ground Zero at Wall Street represented a collapse of our vain dream that affluency and technology will solve all our problems; a collapse which most citizens still do not perceive and will not admit. This reveals the moral decline of America because our government continues to hide the truth behind the nation's hubris and the empire's "resolve." Some may be shaking their heads at how I would dare to talk about "Empire" at a time of suffering like this." But therein lies the blindness and denial of this Nation under God: our arrogance and hypocrisy as a society. If the prophet Jeremiah were here he would be saying exactly the same thing he did the day Jerusalem fell:
Israel, our Savior in times of trouble, why are you as a stranger to us,
as one passing through the land who is merely stopping for the night?
Are you also baffled? Are you helpless to save us? O Lord, you are right
here among us, and we carry your name; we are known as your people.
O Lord, don't desert us now!
But the Lord replies: You have loved to wander far from me and have not
now I will remember all the evil you have done, and punish your sins.
Jeremiah 14:8-10 (LB)
This is why, now, nearly a year after the horrors of September 11th, 2001, denunciation is rejected and annunciation seems unnecessary for we think we have weathered that storm. Many want to rush onward, forgetting the horror, returning to normalcy, getting on with their lives of getting and spending, not wanting to stop and reflect, refusing to be silent and listen, dismissing what God might be saying to us through this tragedy. For the other side of genuine prophecy is promise, the hope of building a New America. For, remember, it was that same pessamistic Jeremiah, filled with deep sadness and unrestrained rage who was also the voice, indeed the only voice, of hope in ancient Jerusalem. He was the only one, before and after its fall, who had faith in the return of the Jews to build a New Jerusalem.
Therein lies the rub today: most Americans don't want a "new"America, only the perpetuation of the old one, even though, paradoxically, the only alternative offered us in such a "rebuilding" the one presented to us by George W. Bush is taking that old one away from us! People can't see that in all the boasting and bombast of Washington, in all the condemnations and lies coming from the White House, what is being advocated is the imposition of a police state upon this country which will make any return to the "old" America impossible. This is why we must move forward to something better. While such a vision would truly be "good news," no such promise is forthcoming from our insightful secular critics, old leftist ideologues or the "new world order." Any truly prophetic word must be both denunciatory and annunciatory, which means looking full-face into the very bad of our old ways if we are to have any chance of taking advantage of the promise which September 11th offers us: the desire to search for a new vision.
The following political-poetic-theological reflection is my humble attempt to apply the Bible's prophetic theology of judgement and its gospel of hope to the crisis of September 11th. This is my way of honoring those who died in the Twin Towers and who, as they fell, hoped that something good might come of the disaster on that terrible day when America almost lost its soul.
1. Lamentation: a biblical metaphor on the "Fall of Jerusalem" & the "Fall of America"Judgement. We watched in horror as the most prominent symbols of the wealth and power of these United States, the Twin Trade Towers in New York City, our Great Babylon, constructed with oil money and dedicated to the Rockefellers, fell before our very eyes. Those majestic "Towers of Babel," symbols of the empire's technology and genius, which reached up to the heavens, were we assumed, indestructible and unshakeable. And yet here they were crumbling before our very eyes and in sight of the whole world. We watched transfixed, as if in a Hollywood extravaganza, as those symbols of America's power and permanence, structures of steel and concrete, imploded into dust and ash, disappearing forever in a few seconds.
And then, hardly recovered from that awesome spectacle of structural chaos, our hearts sunk in disbelief as we realized to our horror that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were being buried alive under tons of concrete. All those good people, all those ordinary folk, all those decent human beings being crushed, obliterated in one instantaneous, apocalyptic moment. At "ground zero" as those square blocks in Lower Manhattan are now called, where seven other buildings also burned and collapsed along with the WTC that whole glorious center of U.S. commerce became a war-zone, a crematorium, a cemetery all in one moment of time. Yet in the midst of that absolute tragedy, there were signs of redemption, the superhuman efforts made to rescue the victims, as firemen risked and sometimes lost their lives in an herculean effort that was largely in vain. They dugged and probed, they screamed and searched... but nothing, no bodies, no voices, no movement, only the silence of death. And, yet, their simple acts of love and courage, though unable to save or rectify anything, became a sign of hope for New York and for America as some of us began to contemplate a future of reduced power and less arrogance.
That day, September 11, 2001, that awesome moment in time, is a scene of such monumental proportions it has imprinted itself upon our memories forever, a reminder of the limitation of modern civilization and the fragility of the human body. In this land of excessive human self-confidence, we experienced Apocalypse Now, a chaos in which there was no transportation save that of terror and people's running feet; no communication save the sounds of helpless awe, as onlookers cried out: "My God, oh my God!" It was endtime for America, marking the death of our innocence and the questioning of our idealism. Ever since September 11th, the American people have been in mourning, quietly but deeply wailing, filled with almost uncontrolable anguish and rising rage before an event so tremendous in scope and of such political significance that it may well change this nation forever.
In stark contrast, the reaction of our imperial government was too quick and ferocious, too sure and vindictive while most of us stood silent in complete shock. The Bush administration responded not with lamentation or repentance but with the call for a crusade against "terrorisim." George W. Bush's words were threatening and ominous: "We will find the enemy and destroy him"; we want them "dead or alive." In effect: "We will revenge this crime even if whole governments and entire peoples have to submit." The government wasn't interested in causes, only consequences; Washington didn't want any analysis, only revenge. Yet its belligerant responses didn't compute with the stark reality we were facing; we felt we were living in a surrelistic contradiction, a horrific tragedy countered by empty bravado. We soon realized that answers would only come out of our loss and lamentation, not out of the government's bombast and bravado. And so it has been: out of quiet reflection, wisdom is gradually emerging.
"Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for my virgen daughter my people has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow."
"O Lord, we acknowledge our wickedness and the guilt of our fathers; we have indeed sinned against you. For the sake of your name do not despise us; do not dishonor your glorious throne. Remember your covenant with us and do not break it."
Parallel. While politicians and pundits declared that this act of inhuman terrorism had to be vindicated, most of us remained silent, asking ourselves: What is God saying to us? What does this vunerability as a nation mean? While our nation's leaders moved quickly towards militaristic triumphalism and the cowboy's ethic of revenge, many in the religious communities called for caution. While the government announced we would slay the dragon and the masses agreed that the person who had committed this horrible desecration supposedly Ozama bin Laden had to be hunted down; others of us sensed something symbolically defining was happening to us: that this was a sign, whether from God or by Destiny, warning us of a coming endtime.
Although September 11th may not be a definitive sign for these United States for the empire still stands, powerful and resolute the collapse of the WTC made palpable the biblical warning about the presumptuousness of power. Historically and metaphorically, the fall of the WTC in New York City was not unlike the fall of ancient Jerusalem when their "twin towers" fell King Solomon's palace and the Holy Temple burned to the ground by the Babylonians. These incongruous and seemingly dissimilar events July 586 BC and September 2001 AD involving very different societies and quite unique peoples, forced us both ancient Jews and modern Americans in a strickingly similar way that this was somehow an act of divine judgement which shook both societies to the core, because for each of us, the unthinkable had happened...
The battering rams of Nebuchadnezzar's armies thundered unceasingly against the northern wall until in July 586 BC, after a siege of a year and a half, a breach was made and the enemy poured in... At Nebuchadnezzar's order the Chaldean soldiers then stripped the city of everything of value, even breaking up the brass of the temple equipment.
They burned the royal palace, the temple, and many of the private houses; they broke down the walls so that they might never again harbor a revolt, and they carried into exile nearly the entire population of the city [of Jerusalem], nearly 25,000 people.
The Hebrew Commonwealth (Bailey & Kent), pp.247-248
The Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah, who had for years challenged the false prophets fawning before the Judean kings, warning the people of Israel about the threat of Babylon, was mocked as a lunatic. He prophesied that if they didn't repent and turn from their militaristic ways and political arrogance, from their affluence and exploitation of the poor, that Yahweh's judgement would surely fall upon them. But his words were such an affront to the Jews' proud nationalism and theological hyperbole of Judaism in perpetuity, they threw Jeremiah into a prison as a traitor, for everyone knew that God would never abandon Israel; that Jerusalem could never fall. Like the poltical yes-men around Bush and the religious pastors and priests at the National Cathedral fawning before the rhetoric of America the Powerful, defended the nation like an icon blind and dumb to the contradiction this represented to their common biblical heritage.
Despite Jeremiah's repeated warnings from prison that as long as the people and their leaders continue to worship the idols of power and wealth, the wrath of Babylon would soon come. And then the unthinkable happened: Nebuchadnezzar's armies attacked the City time and again and finally prevailed, smashing through the parapets, burning the Jews' symbols of divine invunerability, destroying its "inpenetrable" walls.
As Lewis Lapham wrote in Harpers "All four pillars of imperishable wisdom big government, global capitalism, corrupt politics and the mocking of history reduced within an hour to the incoherence of rubble..." Released from prison, Jeremiah refused the conquerors' offer of a good life alongside the rivers of Babylon. He would remain in destroyed Jerusalem with his broken people; he would write his Lamentations:
How solitary lies the city, once so full of people!
Once great among the nations, now become a widow;
once queen among the provinces, now put to forced labour!
Bitterly, she weeps in the night, tears run down her cheeks;
She has no one to bring her comfort among all that love her.
What darkness the Lord in his anger
has brought upon the daughter of Zion!
He hurled down from heaven to earth the glory of Israel,
and did not remember in the day of his anger that Zion was his footstool.
The Lord overwhelmed without pity all the dwellings of Jacob.
In his wrath he tore down the strongholds of the daughters of Judah;
he levelled with the ground and desecrated the kingdom and its rulers.
In his anger he hacked down the horn of Israel's pride,
he withdrew his helping hand when the enemy came on;
and he blazed in Jacob like flaming fire that rages far and wide...
Lamentations 1:1-2; 2:1-3 (NEB)
Captivity. The people of Israel couldn't believe it, because Yahweh had always promised to protect Jerusalem; they couldn't believe it because the certainty of God's divine guarantee was suddenly gone. "Had God abandoned them forever?" Dashed seemed the promises of Abraham and the victory of Moses, fallen the glory of David and Solomon. As the chosen people were carried away into captivity an inexorable realization came upon them: "My God, oh my God, Judaism is finished!" They couldn't believe it. With the Great Empire now ruling Palestine, how could God be worshipped anymore in that holy city; and how could they worshipYahweh here in a foreign land?" There, "beside the rivers of Babylon, they sat down and wept."
The American people couldn't believe it either: they couldn't believe this was happening to us. Neither the devastation in Oklahoma City nor the burning of Waco had really shaken us awake from our blindness, for certainly those disasters could never be repeated in the centers of power, not in New York City nor in Washington, DC! But this past September 11th, it felt as if all America had been mortally wounded and was totally abandoned. At first, it was just the impact of the physical destruction and those massive deaths, but then suddenly we were aware of the political earthquake following close upon its heels. President Bush's calling for a "war on terrorism" announcing he would destroy the evil perpetrators, even if many of our civil liberties had to be taken away, so that "terrorism" could be stamped out forever. In order to destroy this ubiquitous enemy they would have to limit many of our freedoms. It was the voice of authoritarianism and absolutism. What, we wondered, was happening to our beloved America? This wasn't just the end of our innocence but the unmasking of our long covert imperialism; America's democracy was being ripped away from us, revealing the hard face of arbitrary executive power. Like the ancient Jews, we were suddenly aware that we too were imperial captives; that we too were being led away into our unique Babylonian captivity.
What Americans still don't realize for it has been hidden from us for a long time is that live in a land where corporations call the shots and militarists make the decisions; that this fantastic land of freedom and plenty, was and is built upon exploitation and war; that our American Dream has always been based upon the Premise of Power. As Federalist Paper No.XI says: Let us "concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and new world." As William Appelman Williams said: "Truly, a manifesto of empire as a way of life." But, this empire would guarantee us the good life, democracy not despotism.
Very simply, Americans of the 20th century liked empire for the same reasons their ancestors had favored it in the 18th and 19th centuries. It provided them with renewable opportunities, wealth and other benefits and satisfactions including a psychological sense of well-being and power.
William A. Williams., Empire As a Way of Life, p.13
In the aftermath of September 11th, this new arbitrary power promised that it would continue to guarantee our blessings but at a terrible cost, at the cost of government by Big Brother. "You will still have your 'good life,' of course, but now under the guidance and control of the iron fist." What most Americans didn't realize is that the aftemath of September 11 would be more devastating than the disaster itself. For the parallel wasn't primarily between the fall of the "twin towers" in New York City and those in ancient Jerusalem, but that both of us, both peoples were being led away into imperial captivity. But whereas the Bush team set out America's Plan of Action: to destroy the enemy, to bomb and invade Afghanistan, literally to take control of the Middle East, it was almost impossible for us to hear the alternative strategy put foward by Jeremiah in his pastoral advice to the Jews in Babylon. For his council to the Jews in Babylon contained a paradoxical word of promise for the future, when he wrote:
Work for the good of the country to which I have exiled you; pray to Yahweh on [Babylon's] behalf, since on its welfare yours depends.
We in America are far from that point because we are the victors and to the victors belong the spoils. Yet we might well heed the words of Jeremiah for in them is contained the secret of peace in the Middle East and thus America's own Shalom: "Work for the good of the Muslims and Arabs there, pray to God for their well-being since upon their welfare your peace will ultimately depend." Let those who have ears to hear, listen to the Word of the Lord.
Promise. In those ancient days, hope was "hidden within that disaster" of the fall of Jerusalem, which meant that God's promise of hope and redemption would only come out of the Jews recognition that they themselves had brought about that fall. This is what the prophet Jeremiah realized and so from within his prison cell, he made plans for that future, he perceived God's promise as the building of a New Jerusalem. This is one of the greatest stories of historical hope found in Holy Scriptures. It dealt with the Jeremiah's purchase of a plot of land in the future "New Jerusalem," a future he would never live to see, but which future generations of Jews would benefit from. It goes by the name: "Buy my field at Anathoth in Benjamin."
...so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hananel and weighed out the price, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed and sealed the deed and had it witnessed; then I weighed out the money on the scales. I took my copies of the deed of purchase, both the sealed and unsealed copies, and gave them to Baruch...and gave him instructions: Take these copies... and deposit them in an earthenware jar so that they may be preserved for a long time. For these are the words of the Lord of Hosts the God of Israel: the time will come when houses, fields and vineyards will once again be bought and sold in this land.
Can we Americans perceive a similar message of hope following the disaster of September 11th? For the answer lies hidden within the disaster itself, not in terms of finding anyone alive, not in terms of rebuilding Lower Manhattan and certainly not in terms of taking vengeance upon those responsible for the fall, whether for the ancient Jews that meant the guilty Babylonians or for us the guilty Taliban! This is why Bush's solution of revenge and war will not prevail and holds no promise for the future. Time will prove that the invasion of Afghanistan will heal no wounds and bring about no peace, sayeth the Lord. No, the clue to our promise of hope will only be found "hidden within the disaster itself," "hidden within our imperial captivity."
This means discovering the "hidden" mystery behind September 11th, hidden within its historical context. It means studying and perceiving the role which the American empire has played in the Middle East over the past fifty years. A history which included smearing the good name of Mohammed Mossadegh [See: Time Magazine's cover of Jan 7, 1952, which said: "He oiled the wheels of chaos." No, Great Britain and the United States oiled the wheels of chaos.] After the CIA removed Mossadegh as the democratic leader of Iran, Washington placed into power, in each case, with disasatrous consequences: the Shah of Iran, the Ayatollah Komeini, Saddam Hussein and now Osama bin Laden and the Taliban! It means recognizing and exposing the role of the CIA and the Pentagon during more than fifty years of deceptive, destructive and alienating imperial policies. It means recognizing that we in our fanatical drive for oil, we created the conditions out of which the horrible event on September 11th came forth. We formented the Islamic fundamentalists, funded them to carry our policies in Afghanistan and then backed the Taliban. Each of those decisive steps is what produced the hatred which exploded in fury on September 11tn when the planes crashed into the Trade Towers on that beautiful morning when all our watches and clocks stopped and all our hearts and souls stood still.
Only when and if we rid ourselves of this imperial madness and Bush's vindictive need to take revenge will the promise of hope return to the earth, first there in the Middle East and hence here in America. What does this mean but that we must come to love all Muslims in the Middle East; must serve all the Arab peoples living in Iraq; must work on their behalf and pray to God for "their well-being," for, as Jeremiah said "upon their well-being ours depends." Are we open to such a change of heart? The Grand Jury is still out on America and its future" and for that reason, divine judgement here on earth is a complex jigsaw puzzle for one very obvious reason, my brothers and sisters: God is Good. This means that God's judgement is good. God didn't either inspire nor want September 11th, but God is already busy working, using September 11th to redeem America, but only if we repent and are open to change. Herein lies the great mystery of God's love, that kind of love we call call agape. My friend Scott Wright wrote:
If we want to eliminate terrorism in the world, we must address the root causes of violence in the world. "Terrorism will end when all nations great and small are accountable to international law. As long as the strong can lord it over the weak, terrorism will be the [only] choice of the disenfranchised."
Scott Wright, "A Lament For Our People," p.4
If America continues using war as its only modality, as the Bush Administration is now promulgating against Iraq, with revenge as our only feeling, with the determination to keep control over the oil in the Middle East as our only motive, then no peace shall come to the Middle East nor to our beloved America, no matter how high the walls we build, no matter how sophisticated our security systems. Then, we will have to ask God what Jeremiah asked Yahweh:
Have you rejected Judah completely? [Have you totally rejected America?] Do you despise Zion? Why have you afflicted us so that we cannot be healed? We hoped for peace but no good came, for a time of healing, but there is only terror.
(End of Part 1 of three reflections)
Towards Developing A New Theology Of Liberation
Based upon Biblical Revelation
In Light of the September 11
By Philip E. Wheaton
Based upon Biblical Revelation
In Light of the September 11
Part A. On Judgement & the Denunciation of Imperial AmericaContext: September 11 & Theological Reflections from Secular Sources
- Lamentation... on the Fall of America
Citation from Jeremiah
- Judgement: The Fall of the Twin Trade Towers & of America.
- Warning: Our Babylonian Captivity Is Already A Reality.
- Guilt: Who's Responsible for this Mess?
- Promise: The Paradox of Hope hidden within this Disaster.
- Alienation... of People Everywhere
Citation from 1st Corinthian
- Aggressive Expansion: Irony of the Two Unholy Jihads
- On Greed & Stealing other Nation's Resources
- On Chaos: Destroying the Good in Other Revolutions
- The Great Betrayal: Deceiving the American People
- 3. Ideology: On Demonization & A World of Evil & Good
Citation from the Book of Revelation
- The False Ideology of a World of the Evil & the Good
- Two Beasts of the Apocalypse: Avarice & War
- Behind America's New Version of Manichaenism
- On Hubris and Repentance: the Meaning of Metanoia
Conclusion: All Empires Fall: It's Just A Matter of Time
Therein Lies our Hope!