This is the second of a 2 part essay.
A lot of people found renewed religious faith in the wake of September 11th. I had the exact opposite experience. I ran away from religion screaming in horror. The religious motivation behind the attacks horrified me. I remember reading extensive translations from Mohammed Atta's admonitions to the attackers recovered from their effects. It was a chilling experience. I don’t know why that so affected me. I’ve always known that history is full of sectarian massacres, and this was one of them. I came to agree with the graffiti I saw all over town that said, “religion is the problem, not the answer.” I still agree with that graffiti a lot of the time, even after I’ve returned to an active religious life. I was deeply angry at religion. I’m still angry at religion.
I was not angry with God. I refused to blame God for a manmade calamity. I’ve never believed in God as the ultimate causality who controls everything and who makes happen everything that ever happens. God made us together with the world, but we are on our own to make as bloody a mess as we please. As WH Auden once wrote, ”The God of Love will never withdraw our right to grief and infamy.” I’ve never believed in God the Rescuer. Bad things happen to good people, not because we are bad or because God is bad, but because we are mortal. I learned that the hard way when my non-smoking father died of lung cancer in December 2000. Whatever belief I had in moral causality in the cosmos whether it’s karma or what most people call “original sin” died with him. God didn’t kill my father, the tumor did. He didn’t “deserve it” or “ask for it.” There was no reason for his death other than the fact that shit happens. We suffer because we are mortal and we are vulnerable. The people who died that morning on September 11th certainly didn’t “deserve it” either. However good or bad any of those people may have been, none of them ever did anything in the entire course of their lives to merit such a death sentence.
My father’s tumor was incapable of malice, but the men who did this bloody awful thing on September 11th did so out of great malice, and malice driven by a fanatic belief that reduced their neighbors to abstractions, to card board cut outs, which made them easier to kill. In the wake of the attacks, this quote from Blaise Pascal came to my mind:
“Men never do evil so willingly and so happily as when they do it for the sake of conscience.”
And later on, this quote from Montaigne came to mind:
“When they try to become angels, men become beasts.”
Those notorious comments by Falwell and Robertson in the immediate wake of the attacks that effectively endorsed them only confirmed my anger, and my conviction that the only real difference between our fanatics and theirs is a shave. The Phelps band from Topeka turned itself into Al Qaida’s most enthusiastic and notorious apologists in the USA, picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, declaring with Bin Laden that the attacks were God’s judgment upon a decadent liberal United States. There’s no depravity like pious depravity.
Those comments by Falwell and Robertson are a lesson; that we must be careful when we look at our enemies that we are not looking into a mirror. People who live by their fears and hatreds tend to turn into the very things that they fear and hate. We must always be vigilant, and be careful to live according to what we are for, and not what we are against.
In the end, I decided that I was unfair to religion, that messy and conflicted enterprise. People of great religious faith helped me out very generously during times of terrible hardship in my life. They were good people, and some even saintly in their selflessness. Lumping them together with Osama Bin Laden, with Phelps, Falwell and Robertson, with the hijackers, with all the suicide bombers and all the violent hateful fanatics in the world would be a gross injustice. And certainly the Object of all religion never deserved to be placed in such loathsome company, no matter how frequently or fervently or loudly they invoke Him. After a little more than a year, I rediscovered the happiness that comes with religious life, the happiness of feeling joined across time and space to my neighbors (living and dead), to the world, to nature, to time itself, to the spirit, and to God, a happiness that I had missed.
The real threat is not from any one religion or from religion or from no religion. The real threat is from our very worst addiction, not to booze, drugs, tobacco, sex, or sugar, but to certainty. We demand absolute certainty in a world that promises none. We frail mortals, always confined to one point in space and one moment in time, can only be more or less certain about anything. Our certainties always carry with them the possibility that we could be wrong. That is not irresolution. That’s humility. Nonetheless, we demand clear unequivocal answers where there are none to be had. We refuse to live with ambiguity. We have no patience for paradoxes or for nuances. If we can’t get answers, then we’ll make our own. To cut through the Gordian Knot of the tangled difficulties of life in the name of clarity and simplicity is to cut through life’s very fabric. To try to reshape life according to a preconceived doctrinal or ideological abstraction is to kill it by a thousand slices. That is the path of arrogance, dogma, ignorance, brutality, and finally to crime of the worst sort. Those men who hijacked the planes and flew them into the buildings did so in the name of certainty, of clarity, of simplicity, and purity. They believed that those people who worked in the towers forfeited their right to live by failing to live according to a divine template. They believed that those people deserved to die because they failed the tests of purity and holiness. The hijackers believed that the people they were going to kill lived in a corrupt and decadent society doomed by God. They believed themselves to be the instruments of God’s judgment.
The hijackers died trying to kill indiscriminately as many people as possible.
Hundreds of firefighters and rescue workers rushed into the burning towers and died trying to indiscriminately save the lives of as many people as possible, frustrating the designs of the hijackers. Those were the real saints that day.
In their honor, I remember Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, who was among the first responders to die, killed by falling debris. He was a beloved pastor to firefighters for many years, riding with them to fires, visiting the injured in hospitals, and the families of those who died in the line of duty. He was a tireless and fearless friend of those rejected and disposed of by society, including AIDS patients, immigrants legal and illegal, alcoholics, the mentally ill, and the homeless. He was an openly gay man not afraid to publicly challenge his church’s teachings and their treatment of LGBTs. He lived out St. Francis’ command that we should always preach the Gospel, sometimes with words.
Mychal Judge lived out the Gospel message that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends; and so did Mohammed Salman Hamdani, the 23 year old Muslim NYPD cadet who ran into the towers and died trying to rescue people. So did the almost 500 other firefighters, police, and rescue workers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others all together, who gave their lives that morning.