by Jim Forest
Our world has changed since September 11. While in the U.S. from mid-October to mid-November, I experienced aspects of that change again and again each day.
Arriving in America, I had a view from the air of the wound the September attack left in New York. In the early evening, a month after the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, now a maimed landscape. It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a still-smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the intense artificial light, but couldn’t see them. Finally, beyond Battery Park, there was the glistening ebony water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her torch in the sky.
A few days later, I was in Manhattan for a meeting with Bishop Dimitrios at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on East 79th Street. Inevitably, we talked about September 11 and its aftermath. Bishop Dimitrios told me a statistic which brought home the hidden struggle going on in so many people’s lives: the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen by 40 percent since the World Trade Center was destroyed. (The sale of hand guns and gas masks had also shot up.)
While the date September 11 opens many themes for reflection, at the top of the list is the word “murder.”
One of the remarkable things about human beings is that no other species appears to be so deeply disturbed by death. Even though few events are so common and nothing so inevitable as death, we never regard it as ordinary. Why is that? Even when we reach the point when death is welcome — the passing of an elderly person who has been patiently awaiting death’s arrival, or the last breath of a person who has been suffering a grave, untreatable illness — there is still the shock of the abrupt absence of someone torn from the fabric of our lives. We experience death as an injury, a violation.
But murder is unnatural death and disturbs us in a special way. No other crime horrifies us so much as murder, even when the victim has few good qualities. It is no defense against the charge of murder that the world is better off without the person killed. In the negative hierarchy of criminals, it is the murderer who is regarded as worst and is punished most severely.
We are both shocked and fascinated by murder, reading murder mysteries, watching murder films and studying accounts of murder trials. We want to know not only who did it, but why. How does a human being become a killer? It gives us satisfaction to see a murderer caught, whether by a real policeman or a fictitious Miss Marple. Murder mystery novels sell by the millions, suggesting not only our fascination with murder but the importance of stories in our lives.
Life’s understructure — stories
If you have ever been to Amsterdam, perhaps you discovered that this attractive city of canals and gabled houses has a prosaic underside. It’s built on sand and mud. Those houses would have sunk long ago if it weren’t for the pilings they stand on — tree trunks driven deep into the sand and clay. Sadly, many an old Amsterdam house has been torn down because the pilings rotted away, while some of the survivors now lean at odd angles.
Basic stories are like the pilings that hold up the houses of Amsterdam. These are the stories at the foundation of our lives, reaching deep into the darkness and mystery beneath consciousness, shaping and arranging perceptions, revealing patterns and meaning.
Father Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who has spent much of his life in Africa, once told me that he had learned from African culture that the most important person in any society is the storyteller. Nothing protects a person or a nation as much as a true story — or threatens it more than a false story. In moments of crisis, it isn’t ideologies or theories that guide us but our primary stories. True stories help make us capable of love and sacrifice and light up the path to the kingdom of God. False stories condemn us to nothingness and disconnection. Much depends on our story-foundation. If the stories we live by are false, our foundations rot and we sink into the mud.
What worried Father Donders most about America is that our basic story isn’t the Gospel but the cowboy movie — always a tale about how good men with guns save the community from evil men with guns by killing them. Let’s call it the Gospel According to John Wayne, as no star in cowboy films was more convincing in the hero part. The classic scene is the gunfight on Main Street in a newly-settled town in the wild west, though the same story can be played out in the ancient world, a modern city or a far-away galaxy that exists only in our imaginations. No matter what the setting or period, what the stories have in common is the portrayal of killing as the ultimate solution to evil.
The Gospel According to John Wayne isn’t an ignoble story. There is true courage in it — the readiness of the hero to lay down his life to protect others. Thus to a certain extent it’s a Christian story — a modern retelling of the legend of Saint George and the dragon, except that in the profoundly Christian story of George, he only wounds the dragon. Afterward the dragon is cared for by the very people who formerly had sacrificed their children to it. The George legend is about the conversion, of self, of others, of evil enemies. The problem with the modern John Wayne version is that it hides from us the fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also no such thing as a completely good person, apart from Christ. As Solzhenitsyn, survivor of Russia’s prison camps, wrote in
The Gulag Archipelago:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
(vol. 2, “The Ascent.”)
Solzhenitsyn reminds us that we don’t need to go far to meet a murderer. We only need to look in the mirror. I don’t mean that each of us has literally taken someone’s life, but at the very least we have had occasion to fantasize about killing another person, or ourselves. Most of us have experienced times of rage when murderous thoughts flooded our minds, or times of depression when self-murder, suicide, was a real temptation.
The missing element in our culture’s dominant story is the mystery that dominates the Bible right from the Book of Genesis: We are made in the image and likeness of God. The “we” is all of us without exception, from Saint Francis of Assisi to Osama bin Laden, from Jack the Ripper to Mother Theresa. Even Stalin, even Hitler. The traditional Christian teaching is that the image of God exists in each person as something indestructible, still there no matter how well hidden, but that with the Fall of Adam and Eve, the likeness was lost and can only be recovered through ascetic effort and God’s grace.
The perception of the Divine image is something Thomas Merton recounts in one of his most striking journal entries, found in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. In Louisville on an errand, he describes standing at a busy downtown intersection waiting for the light to change when suddenly he is overwhelmed with love for all these strangers. He speaks of “waking from a dream of separateness.” Everyone was suddenly “shining like the sun.” Reflecting on this God-given epiphany, a mystical experience in the city, he goes on to say:
I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift. … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness or cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
More than anything else, reverence for life is a question of how well we see, how unblind we are, how unafraid we are. To see well is to be aware of the miraculous dimension of being, to sense the sacramental aspect of life, to be aware of God’s presence.
Think about the story of the man born blind in Saint John’s Gospel. Here’s a beggar in Jerusalem who has never seen anything but darkness his entire life. Yet the miracle ignites a controversy. John describes a kind of trial in which Pharisees twice interrogate the man himself and also his patents, to be sure that this is indeed their son and has been blind from birth. But the story John tells is less about the miracle than about people not believing what they have witnessed. It is a story of sighted people being blind and insisting on remaining blind. It is as if they were saying, “We see enough and know enough already. We don’t need any new prophets or street-corner messiahs. We have a lifetime supply of wisdom. Take your miracles and beggars and go away.”
We learn from John that it takes courage to see and, having seen, to take responsibility for what sight reveals to us. Wide-eyed seeing can rock the foundations of your life. It can change everything. It can get you into trouble.
With eyes that really see, you don’t need a geneticist to tell you that we are human beings not only from the cradle to the grave but during all those months before we reach the cradle. Such knowledge necessarily makes one a protector of the unborn. With eyes that really see, we cannot turn away from a pregnant woman who for lack of encouragement and support, trapped in panic and fear, may feel she has no alternative but abortion.
With eyes that really see, we can no longer speak of the death of innocent people in war as “collateral damage,” truly a phrase from hell. With eyes that really see, we cannot advocate anyone’s execution, however appalling the crime, not only because such an action makes us co-responsible for an act of bloodshed and vengeance, but because we destroy the possibility of the killer ever leading a repentant life. With eyes that see, we cannot live at peace with a world that abandons so many people. With eyes that really see, we will not dehumanize others or make ourselves into enemies of the environment. Eyes that really see can heal our lives.
The Root of War is Fear
The main impediment that brings us close to blindness is fear. It was an insight of Merton’s that “the root of war is fear.” He perceived that even deeper than the fear men have of each other is the fear we have of everything, our distrust even of ourselves:
It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves that is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.
[New Seeds of Contemplation, p 112]
The Greek theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, writes on similar lines:
The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.” … The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.
[The full text of Met. John’s essay is posted on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site]
If fear of the other is the essence of sin, what is sin? This is a three-letter word that has been carefully avoided by many people in recent years but which, after September 11, seems to be finding its way back into unembarrassed common usage.
The Greek word hamartia, like the Hebrew verb chata’, literally means straying off the path, getting lost, missing the mark. Sin — going off course — can be intentional or unintentional.
The Jewish approach to sin tends to be concrete. The author of the Book of Proverbs list seven things which God hates: “A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked deeds, feet that run swiftly to evil, a false witness that declares lies, and he that sows discord among the brethren.” [6:16-19]
Though murder is on the list, pride is given first place. “Pride goes before destruction, and a disdainful spirit before a fall” is another insight in the Book of Proverbs. [16:18] In Eden, Satan seeks to animate pride in his dialogue with Eve. Eat the forbidden fruit, he tells her, and “you will be like a god.”
Pride is regarding oneself as god-like. In one of the stories preserved from early desert monasticism, a young brother asks an elder, “What shall I do? I am tortured by pride.” The elder responds, “You are right to be proud. Was it not you who made heaven and earth?” These words cured the brother of his pride.
The craving to be ahead of others, more valued than others, to be able to keep others in a state of fear, the inability to admit mistakes or apologize — these are among the symptoms of pride. Because of pride, the way is opened for countless other sins: deceit, lies, theft, violence and all acts that destroy community with God and with those around us.
“We’re capable of doing some rotten things,” the Minnesota storyteller Garrison Keillor notes, “and not all of these things are the result of poor communication. Some are the result of rottenness. People do bad, horrible things. They lie and they cheat and they corrupt the government. They poison the world around us. And when they’re caught they don’t feel remorse — they just go into treatment. They had a nutritional problem or something. They explain what they did — they don’t feel bad about it. There’s no guilt. There’s just psychology.”
So eroded is our sense of sin that even in confession it often happens that we explain what we did rather than admit we did things that urgently need God’s forgiveness. “When I recently happened to confess about 50 people in a typical Orthodox parish in Pennsylvania,” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “not one admitted to having committed any sin whatsoever!”
There are two vivid signs of a serious sin — the hope that it may never become known, and a gnawing sense of guilt. At least this is so before the conscience becomes completely numb as patterns of sin become the structure of one’s life to the extent that hell, far from being a possible next-life experience, is where I find myself in this life.
It is a striking fact about our basic human architecture that we want certain actions to remain secret, not because of modesty but because there is an unarguable sense of having violated a law more basic than any law book — the “law written on our hearts” that St. Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans. It isn’t simply that we fear punishment. It is that we don’t want to be thought of by others as a person who commits such deeds. One of the main obstacles to confession is dismay that someone else will know what I want no one to know.
Self-justification or repentance
There are only two possible responses to sin: to justify it, or to admit a certain action was sinful and to repent. Between these two there is no middle ground.
Justification may be verbal but mainly it takes the form of repetition: I do again and again the same thing as a way of demonstrating to myself and others that it’s not really a sin but rather something normal or human or necessary or even good. “After the first blush of sin comes indifference,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” There is an even sharper Jewish proverb: “Commit a sin twice and it will not seem a crime.”
Repentance, on the other hand, is the recognition that I cannot live anymore as I have been living, because in living that way I wall myself apart from others and from God. Repentance is a change in direction. Repentance is the door of communion. It is also a sine qua non of forgiveness. In the words of Fr. Schmemann, “There can be no absolution where there is no repentance.”
One of the blessings that has come out of the tragedy of September 11 is that we are much less embarrassed speaking about God, more able to admit own capacity for evil, and find ourselves less reluctant to pray.
Life is not recognized as sacred unless we nourish a capacity to sense the sacred and understand that God exists. Our struggle to develop a deeper, more consistent reverence for life and to help others do likewise is essentially a religious pilgrimage and an evangelical task. Our life must have a missionary dimension. We must help our neighbor to see, and assist our neighbor in becoming less fearful. It takes so little to save a life — if only we would see and, from that seeing, respond.
Jim Forest’s next book,
Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, will be published by Orbis in February. He is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and co-editor of
In Communion. This is based on a talk sponsored by Harmony magazine and given at the St. Martin de Porres Catholic Worker house in San Francisco, November 3, 2001.