Faced with the enormity of suffering and evil that we have seen in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it is impossible to find words that are adequate to comprehend it. When we search for words to deal with this tragedy, we quickly find ourselves at a loss. In the face of such disaster, silence and prayer are probably the only adequate response.
Last week, we concluded our editorial with the words of Pope John Paul: “This was a dark day in the history of humanity. But even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say.”
The problem of evil has been examined since at least the time of Job, and no one has come up with an adequate answer. To say simplistically that such evil is “God’s will” insults God and those who are suffering. But if God is all-powerful and all-loving, how can God permit such tragedies to occur? Perhaps our mistake is in thinking that God is all-powerful. Perhaps creation limited God in ways we do not understand. Certainly the God portrayed by Jesus was not all-powerful—he was tortured and crucified. He hangs on the cross in solidarity with all those who have suffered unjustly. When our associate editor James Martin, S.J., celebrated Mass amid the rubble on the Sunday following the attack, someone wrote “Body of Christ” on a plywood board at the site where the Eucharist would be celebrated. Truly, the body of Christ, bleeding and broken, was at ground zero. The pile of rubble was a new Calvary with a cross of twisted steel.
But besides the problem of evil, there is also the mystery of love. In nature the struggle for life involves the survival of the fittest. The strong prey upon the weak. We are not surprised by violence in nature. Even in human society, we have been coarsened by repeated scenes of violence and evil, whether virtual or real. Here we are surprised by altruism and love when the strong sacrifice themselves for the weak. The believer is faced with the challenge of explaining the problem of evil; the unbeliever is faced with trying to explain the mystery of love.
On the Sunday after the terrorist attack, the Gospel portrayed God not as a vengeful God, not as a punishing God, but as a God who searches for the lost so that he can save them. In the first parable Jesus described a shepherd who searches for his lost sheep in the desert. When he finds it, he does not punish it for getting lost, but puts it on his shoulders and brings it home with great joy.
Likewise, Jesus portrayed God as a woman searching for her lost coin. She lights a lamp and sweeps the house. She probably spends more time and energy searching for her coin than the coin is worth.
If Jesus were with us today, he might tell another parable. He would tell us how God is like the nurse who comes all the way from Boston to spend her vacation time helping out at ground zero. God is like a firefighter who runs into a burning building, risking his life to save another. God is like the rescue workers who worked nonstop for hours trying to find victims who can be rescued from the rubble.
When catastrophes occur like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we are confronted with the enormity of evil and sin, but we are also surprised by grace. Grace is at work after the attack even more than sin was at work before the attack.
The second reading on that Sunday gives us another example of the mystery of grace. Paul was a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christians and a man of great arrogance. But the Lord grants him mercy in overflowing measure. Not only is he forgiven, he is transformed. He is made an Apostle, filled with faith and love in Christ Jesus.
A few years ago, a similar transformation occurred in an Italian prison, where former members of the Red Brigade, with the help of prison chaplains, repented of their crimes and became nonviolent. It is hard for us to believe, when faced with such evil today, that such conversion is possible.
As we as a nation prepare to respond to these terrorist crimes, we must seek justice, but not vengeance. We must not imitate our attackers, who demonize ethnic or religious groups. We must not kill civilians when trying to punish terrorists.
We are faced with a long and grim struggle ahead as we comfort the widows and orphans, rebuild our city and struggle to build a world of justice and peace. We join Jesus, the suffering servant, in seeking comfort from a loving God who searches through the rubble for his loved ones. We profess that “evil and death do not have the final say.”